Personalized Learning Without People – An Education Scam from the 1980s Returns

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Sometimes it seems that education policy is nothing but a series of scams and frauds that becomes untenable in one generation only to pop up again 10 or 20 years later with a new name.

 

Take Personalized Learning, the latest digital product from the ed-tech industry to invade your local public school.

 

It’s cutting edge stuff.

 

Except that it isn’t.

 

It’s just the same old correspondence school nonsense of the 1980s thrown onto an iPad or a laptop.

 

It was crap back then, and it’s crap today.

 

But it sounds nice.

 

Personalized Learning.

 

I like that.

 

That’s exactly the kind of educational experience I want for my own daughter.

 

I’d like her schooling to be tailor-made for her. Teach her in a way she can best understand and that will best engage her mind and build upon her competencies.

 

However, that’s not what Personalized Learning means.

 

It’s a euphemism for Competency Based Education or Outcome Based Education.

 

It means plopping a child in front of a computer screen for hours on end while she takes standardized tests and standardized test look-alikes on-line.

 

Cartoon avatars lecture students how to answer multiple-choice questions in mind numbing detail before making them go through endless drill-and-kill practice. If kids don’t get a question right, they do it again-and-again until they do.

 

And somehow this is personalized?

 

I’ll give you a little tip. You can’t have personal learning without people.

 

This is personalized the same way Angry Birds and Candy Crush is personalized. Except it’s way less fun – and much higher stakes.

 

Imagine if all of your classes were taught at the end of an automated help line. That’s really what this is:

 

“If you don’t understand because you need me to define a word, press 1.

 

If you don’t understand because you need me to explain punctuation, press 2.

 

If you don’t understand because you need the question repeated…”

 

What if your question isn’t on the menu? You have no recourse other than to just keep pushing buttons until you hit the one that’s supposedly “correct”.

 

Forget for a moment how ineffective that is. Just imagine how boring it is for a growing child.

 

Nothing stifles a young person’s natural curiosity more than being forced to suffer through hours of tedium.

 

And what’s worse, we already know this.

 

We’ve tried this kind of garbage before with similar results.

 

Back in the 1980s, the Reagan administration deregulated everything it could get its hands on, especially education.

 

This opened the floodgates to for-profit corporations to offer mail order correspondence courses with little to no accountability but funded by the federal government.

For nearly a decade, student aide systems were systemically pillaged and looted by unscrupulous vendors offering correspondence schools as a trendy alternative for trade schools and credit recovery programs. They charged hefty tuition and fees for nothing more than sending students boilerplate instructional materials, multiple choice tests, and worthless diplomas in the mail.

 

The blatant fraud was documented by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in the hearings held by then-Chairman Sam Nunn of Georgia. This lead to eliminating correspondence schools from participation in federal aide programs.

 

Congress realized that sending students a book wasn’t the same as actually teaching them.

 

But by the late 1990s and early 2000s, things began to change. With the popularization of the Internet, the defunct business model could rebrand itself simply by offering similar materials on-line. And after significant lobbying efforts over the subsequent decades, Congress conveniently forgot its objections to almost the same kind of fraud.

 

However, this kind of malfeasance was at first mostly confined to credit recovery programs and on-line colleges. In K-12 this was primarily a way for students who had already failed a grade to pass the required core courses over the summer on-line. It was a way to boost graduation rates or even provide resources for students to get a G.E.D.

 

The poor quality of these programs has been demonstrated time and again.

 

But instead of limiting, fixing or eliminating them, we’re pushing them into the public school system.

 

This is seen as a way to save money by teaching without teachers. Sure, you still need a certified educator in the class room (for now) but you can stuff even more children into the seats when the teacher is only a proctor and not responsible for actually presenting the material.

 

The teacher becomes more of a policeman. It’s his job to make sure students are dutifully pressing buttons, paying attention and not falling asleep.

 

Moreover, this is sold as a way to boost test scores and meet the requirements of the Common Core. You can easily point to exactly which standards are being assessed on a given day and then extrapolate to how much that will increase struggling students’ scores on the federally mandated standardized test when they take it later in the year.

 

In fact, students’ answers on these programs are kept and recorded. They are, in effect, stealth assessments that can be used to judge and sort students into remediation classes or academic tracks.

 

In effect, the year-end high stakes test can be entirely forgotten. Students are given a standardized test every day. Even those whose parents opt them out of the federal assessment have no escape because the tests have become the curriculum, itself.

 

And all the while tech companies are raking in the cash.

 

Education policy is not concerned with how best to teach children. It is about how best to open the trough of tax dollars to education corporations – book publishers, test manufacturers and now tech companies.

 

Meanwhile, the public has almost no idea what’s going on.

 

Educators are sounding the alarm, but well-paid corporate shills are trying to silence them as being anti-progress.

 

Calling out bad educational practices conducted on a computer is not Ludditism. Certainly there are better ways to use the technology to help students learn than THIS.

 

Moreover, there are plenty of things from the ‘80s that deserve being revisited – new wave music, romantic comedies, even the old Rubik’s cube.

 

But putting crappy correspondence colleges on-line!?

 

No, thank you.

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The Child Predator We Invite into Our Schools

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There is a good chance a predator is in the classroom with your child right now.

He is reading her homework assignments, quizzes and emails. He is timing how long it takes her to answer questions, noting her right and wrong answers. He’s even watching her body language to determine if she’s engaged in the lesson.

He has given her a full battery of psychological assessments, and she doesn’t even notice. He knows her academic strengths and weaknesses, when she’ll give up, when she’ll preserver, how she thinks.

And he’s not a teacher, counselor or even another student. In fact, your child can’t even see him – he’s on her computer or hand-held device.

It’s called data mining, and it’s one of the major revenue sources of ed-tech companies. These are for-profit business ventures that produce education software: programs to organize student information and help them learn. They make databases and classroom management tools as well as educational video games and test prep software.

As schools have relied more heavily on technology to enhance lessons, they’ve invited big business into a space that is supposed to be private.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects student privacy, but it also gives school districts the right to share students’ personal information with private companies for educational reasons.

Companies are supposed to keep test scores, disciplinary history and other official records confidential. They’re not supposed to use them for their own ends. But the law was written in 1974 before the Internet went mainstream or many of these technologies were even conceived.

It’s unclear exactly who owns this data or whether FERPA protects it.

For every child utilizing these programs, there’s a good chance their data has been put into a portfolio with their name on it. That portfolio could be sold to advertisers and other business interests so they can better market their products to young consumers. With this information, these companies are turning children into guinea pigs so they can improve the profitability of their products.

Let me be clear. It’s not that technology is essentially evil. There are many ways in which it can be used to enhance student learning when provided under the supervision of a trained educator. But the current laws offer little protection for children and parents from rampant abuse by the ed-tech industry.

In most cases no one explicitly gives permission for student data to be shared. No one knew it was even happening.

This is an area that is almost completely unregulated. Hardly anyone is investigating it. After all, why should they? It’s just harmless big business. It’s just corporations we invited to the party; we may even have paid them to be there.

Individual school districts could write privacy protections into their contracts with ed-tech corporations, but few do.

According to a nationwide study by the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham University, just 7 percent of the contracts between districts and ed-tech corporations barred the companies from selling student data for profit.

Few contracts require companies to delete sensitive data when they are done with it. And just a quarter of companies clearly explain why they need personal student information in the first place, according to the same study.

To make matters worse, the publicly stated privacy policies of these corporations can be extremely dense and full of provisos. You may need a lawyer specializing in this field to truly understand what they’re promising to keep private and what might fall under a loophole.

For instance, even if a company promises not to share student information for nonacademic reasons, it can farm out some of its services to third party companies that have no such compunction about student privacy. These third party vendors or even the primary ed-tech company can put cookies on your child’s computer or device that continue to gather data on her and report back on it indefinitely. Moreover, even if the ed-tech company is diligent about protecting student privacy, that policy can change without notice and without parents being notified. For instance, many of these ed-tech companies are rag tag start-ups that are just hoping to be purchased by a bigger organization. In that case the privacy policy will almost certainly alter, possibly without notice.

Data mining isn’t exclusive to education software applications. If you’ve ever passed up a product on-line and then immediately saw an advertisement for that product on a different Website – congratulations – You’ve been data mined. Many of the applications adults use every day in their virtual lives practice this to some extent – Facebook, Google, Netflix, etc. However, there’s a difference between an adult user who enters into virtual relationships with eyes wide open and a child just completing the classwork her teacher assigned in school.

But even beyond the philosophical difference is the extent to which our children are being data mined. No where is it more pervasive than in our schools.

A really efficient ed-tech firm can collect as much as 10 million unique data points on each child, every day. That’s exponentially more than Facebook, Google or Netflix collect on their users.

Moreover, the ed-tech industry hungers for even more data on our children.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded a $1.4 million research project to provide middle-school students with biometric sensors designed to detect how kids responded on a subconscious level to each minute of each lesson. Like Common Core State Standards – Gates’ attempt to force uniform academic standards on the nation’s public schools – data mining is all about turning real children into information. Intelligence and knowledge are reduced to numbers. Biological functions, heat indexes, even eye movements are tabulated as a function of a salable commodity – your child.

In the not too distant future, ed-tech companies could sell information about which prospective job applicants or college students have the proper aptitude to be successful. In some ways, this is just an extension of the ways standardized tests like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) are used to unfairly label students worthy or not of a post-secondary education. However, those tests are taken by high school juniors and seniors. The coming data mining boom would judge children based on their performance all the way back to kindergarten or even pre-kindergarten.

As usual the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is already planning for this dystopian nightmare. The conservative lobbying organization has drafted a model bill to make this a reality.  If picked up and offered in any state legislature, the bill would set up a central database for student records and allow colleges or businesses to browse them in search of potential recruits.

In addition, these student portfolios could allow corporate vultures to prey on customers vulnerable to particular sales pitches. For instance, young adults who had struggled at math in high school would make dandy targets for high-priced payday loans.

In the meantime, hedge fund managers and other investors are pouring money into the ed-tech market. More than $650 million flowed into technology firms serving K-12 and higher education each year for the past three years. That’s nearly double the $331 million invested in these markets in 2009. The national market for education software and digital content is nearly $8 billion, according to the Software & Information Industry Association.

Yet there is little evidence these applications are truly helpful in educating children. Even the technology-loving Gates Foundation, found in a national survey that only 54 percent of teachers thought the digital tools used most frequently by their students were effective.

Let’s get something straight: the reason most of these firms exist is not education. It is spying on children. It is stealing their valuable data for corporations’ own ends.

The ed-tech market is intimately entwined with the latest fad in education policy – Competency Based Education (CBE).

This has come to mean teaching and assessment conducted online, where students’ learning is continuously monitored, measured, and analyzed.

However, the goal seems to be replacing big end of the year standardized tests with daily stealth assessments. In this way, it would be more difficult for parents to refuse testing for their children. It would hide the ways in which a standardized curriculum narrowed student learning to the very basics. It would hide how children’s every tiniest action is being used to judge and evaluate their schools and teachers. And this information of dubious validity could be used to close public schools and replace them with shoddy but more profitable charter schools.

Education historian Diane Ravitch talks about a meeting in August of 2015 with The State Commissioner of Education in New York, Mary Ellen Elia, and several board members of New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), a highly successful state opt out organization.

She says:

 

“At one point, Commissioner Elia said that the annual tests would eventually be phased out and replaced by embedded assessment. When asked to explain, she said that students would do their school work online, and they would be continuously assessed. The computer could tell teachers what the students were able to do, minute by minute.”

The plan has been laid bare. Our students privacy has been compromised and is being used against them. If big business has its say, our children will be forever pawns in a system that reduces them to data and profit.

That’s not what public school should be about.

It should be a place centered on learning not earning.

It should be a place that values the student and not her data.

It should be a place of creativity, imagination and wonder.

But as long as we allow ed-tech companies to run unregulated in the shadows, it will always be susceptible to these dangers.

The only one who can stop these predators in your child’s classroom is you.

Standardized Tests Every Day: the Competency Based Education Scam

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IN THE NOT TOO DISTANT FUTURE:

Welcome to class, children.

Please put your hands down, and sit at your assigned seat in the computer lab.

Yes, your cubicle partitions should be firmly in place. You will be penalized if your eyes wander into your neighbors testing… I mean learning area.

Now log on to your Pearson Competency Based Education (CBE) platform.

Johnny, are you reading a book? Put that away!

Are we all logged on? Good.

Now complete your latest learning module. Some of you are on module three, others on module ten. Yes, Dara, I know you’re still on module one. You’ll all be happy to know each module is fully aligned with Common Core State Standards. In fact, each module is named after a specific standard. Once you’ve mastered say Module One “Citing Textual Evidence to Determine Analysis” you will move on to the next module, say “Determining Theme or Central Idea for Analysis.”

Johnny, didn’t I tell you to put away that book? There is no reading in school. You’re to read the passages provided by the good people at Pearson. No, you won’t get a whole story. Most of the passages are non-fiction. But I think there is a fun passage about a pineapple coming up in your module today. Isn’t that nice?

Laquan, you haven’t put on your headphones and started your module yet? You’ve been on module three for the past week. How can you learn at your own rate if you never progress beyond module three?

What’s that? Your mother wrote me a note? Let me see that.

Huh. So she wants to know how come you never get beyond module three. You should be able to answer that question for her, yourself, Laquan. (At least you could get that one right.)

Laquan, tell your mother that you haven’t passed the proficiency standard yet. You’ve taken all the remediation available on the computer program, haven’t you? Yes, that fun game where you answered multiple choice questions and when you got one correct the spaceship blasts an asteroid. And then you took the daily assessment but you just haven’t received a passing score yet. But don’t worry. I’m sure if you continue to do the same thing again today… eventually… you’ll get it right. It’s how the state and federal government determine whether you’ve learned anything on a daily basis.

In ancient times, teachers like me used to make up our own assignments. We’d give you books to read… Johnny, have you started yet? …whole books, novels, literature. And then we’d hold class discussions, class projects, act out scenes, draw posters, relate the books to your lives, write essays. But now all that silliness is gone.

Thanks to the good people at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Gates Foundation, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, The state and federal government have mandated a much more efficient way of determining student learning. Back in the day, they forced schools to give one big standardized test in Reading and Math every year. Teachers would have to scramble with test prep material to make sure all learners could pass the test, because if students didn’t get passing marks, the teacher was out on her butt.

We’ve done away with such silliness now. Thankfully the government got rid of yearly high stakes standardized testing. What we do now is called Competency Based Education. That’s what this program is called. It’s kind of like high stakes standardized testing every day. So much more efficient, so much more data to use to prove you know this set of basic skills written by the testing companies with hardly any input from non-experts like classroom teachers.

That’s how the district became composed of 100% charter schools. No more inefficient school boards made up of community members. Today our schools are run by corporate CEOs who are experts at finding ways to cut corners and increase profits for their shareholders. And, ugh, make you learn good.

Hm. I seem to be talking too much. No one’s paying me to impart any information. I’m just supposed to make sure you’re all hooked up to the program and making satisfactory daily progress. Otherwise, I’ll be out of a job again.

You laugh, but it’s hard to get minimum wage work like this. Since the U.S. Supreme Court made labor unions all but illegal and public schools instituted CBE programs, teachers like me could no longer demand such exorbitant salaries. Now I make an honest living. Speaking of which, I may have to get out of here a few minutes early today to make it to my shift at WalMart. I’m greeter today!

And if you work hard, someday you can be, too!


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association Blog and quoted extensively on Diane Ravitch’s blog.

 

No Pineapple left Behind – the Consolation of Satire and Video Games

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Q: What’s the difference between a pineapple and a human child?

A: Pineapples are more profitable.

Let’s face it – kids have.. yuck … needs! Maslow even came up with a hierarchy of needs that must be met before you can get the little tykes to do anything. Physical well-being, safety, emotional… Argh! It’s just so much work!

Pineapples, however, are money-makers from the get go.

Chop them up, and you’ve got a tropical fruit salad.

Juice them, and you can make about a hundred different premium cocktails.

Heck! Just plop one in a hat and you’ve got an island-themed mascot!

But kids!? You can’t even get them to take a lucrative standardized test without… bleugh … educating them first.

Imagine if you could make pineapples take tests and get grades instead. Schooling would be like a gardening contest. Who has the best recipe for success? There would be no intangibles like the effects of poverty, home-life, special needs. It would all be neat, measurable and objective.

Yes, sir. Pineapples would be great for business – especially if your business is education.

That’s the premise of Subaltern Games current project No Pineapple Left Behind.

The satirical fantasy video game is the brainchild of former teacher, Seth Alter.

Alter taught at a Boston middle school before giving up the classroom for the programmer’s chair. According to his blog, he “became fed up with the callous administration” and decided he could teach more effectively through video games.

His first game, Neocolonialism, was inspired by world history and economics. The goal is to extract as much wealth as possible from the world through any means necessary. While many video games invite the player to engage in senseless violence, Neocolonialism inevitably forces players to consider the consequences of their actions. In fact, the game’s tagline is “Ruin Everything.”

The project was completed through a $10K Kickstarter campaign in January 2013 and released in November of the same year.

Now Alter and his 4-person team are writing No Pineapple Left Behind (NPLB) – a game he calls his “response to his old teaching job.”

While still in the early stages, the company has provided some video of what the game may look like when completed:

A Kickstarter campaign is anticipated to help the company finish this ambitious project.

Even in its early stages, NPLB confronts us with a host of essential questions about education:

1) WHO ARE PUBLIC SCHOOLS DESIGNED FOR – CHILDREN OR WIDGETS?

2) WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF OUR SCHOOLS – EDUCATING KIDS OR MAKING MONEY?

Examine the state and federal education policies of the last dozen years and you’ll be forgiven for thinking we’re servicing widgets.

Federal programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top increase high-stakes standardized testing to absurd lengths. Public schools are repeatedly defunded at the state and federal level, forcing them to rely on local taxes to survive. This is fine for affluent districts that can just raise property taxes, but it is unsustainable for the 99%.

To make up the difference, poorer schools are forced to compete for the remaining funds by enacting reforms that don’t benefit children but enrich the special interests that lobbied for them. Test companies like Pearson rake in the cash creating and scoring the tests on the one hand, and then earn even more profit providing the inevitable remedial test prep materials districts are forced to buy on the other.

Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates poses as a disinterested philanthropist funding Common Core, but then increases his company’s market share by providing the computers and technology necessary to take the standardized tests required by Common Core.

Moreover, for-profit companies entice away students to charter schools in order to garnish their per student funding. Then just before it comes time to take their standardized tests and thus be judged as effective or not based on these scores, charters boot the lowest achievers back to the public schools. The money, however, they keep. And they get to boast of how well they teach kids since the only ones left are the cream of the crop!

Children then become little more than a means to school funding. Schools are forced to use children to earn money for the district to remain open.

But schools are supposed to be places where funding is used to educate kids – not places where kids are used to earn funding.

3) IS COMPETITION THE BEST MOTIVE FOR A PUBLIC SERVICE?

No. Emphatically not. When you have competition, you by necessity have winners and losers. The goal of public schooling is to educate EVERYONE. Didn’t we call this nonsense No Child Left Behind? How can it be about doing that, if the goal is to see who wins the Race to the Top? In a race, the objective is to leave everyone else behind!

4) WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE CLASSROOM TEACHER – GUIDE OR SORCERER?

In the early draft of NPLB, teachers will cast spells on their pineapple classes to get them to learn. This works well, apparently, for fruit. However, if classes are left unattended, the pineapples will turn back into children who are much harder to educate in this manner.

Go to any school of education in any university in the country and you’ll learn this simple fact: Education is not something someone does to you. No one can put a finger to your head and make you learn. There are no mystical words to engender wholesale epiphanies. Learning is a complex process that requires a relationship between the teacher and student. It happens gradually over time. There is no magic here.

However, our national education policy acts as if all children go to Hogwarts. Teachers are evaluated on how much their students learn. That’s only looking at one part of this complex relationship. What about the children? Aren’t they part of this equation, too?

Moreover, the metric administrators are being forced to use to determine if this learning has actually taken place is… standardized test scores! These are tests graded by temps who may or may not have an education degree working for corporations that make more money if more kids fail the tests! That’s a classic case of conflict of interests.

So we have a faulty evaluation method that is using faulty data to come up with faulty conclusions that will determine whether a teacher gets to keep his job or not. The ONLY way that works is through magic!

And so we’re left with the consolation of satire and video games. Will No Pineapple Left Behind be a big hit on the market? It’s still to early to tell.

However, the concept shows tremendous promise.

Perhaps players will recognize their own schools in the game.

Perhaps policy-makers will become embarrassed and discredited as the objects of virtual ridicule.

Perhaps encountering such everyday absurdism in video game form will serve as a wakeup call to the slumbering masses.

Otherwise, it may be game over for American Education.

UPDATE: No Pineapple Left Behind is now on Kickstarter looking to raise $35,000 to finish the project. New pictures, promos and information is available on the site.