Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Mark Weber's Three Critical Testing Questions

This is not the first time I've piggy-backed on a post from Mark "Jersey Jazzman" Weber, but sometimes what he posts just sets a bright blazing lightbulb off in my head. Weber is a certified PhD-carrying academic of data crunching, and he is an absolute master of rendering complicated ideas comprehensible to civilians, and that's what he's done with his post  about why "We Don't Need Standardized Testing In A Pandemic."  

I encourage you very much to go read the whole post. But sometimes saying, "This! This! This!" isn't enough for me. So. What I'm going to center on is his three-question response to anyone who says that students must take a standardized test.

1) What are you going to do with the results?

This question is hugely powerful and by far the least answered. Here's Weber:

A core concept of assessment is that tests must be shown to be valid for the purposes in which they will be used. In other words: you should make a separate argument for every proposed use of a test. A test that may be valid to use for, say, determining whether there are enough overall resources in the education system isn't necessarily valid for the purpose of determining whether a student should pass to the next grade.

Psyshometricians often speak of making a validity argument in favor of the use of a test for a particular purpose. That argument should touch upon the relevancy of the outcomes to a specific use, the consequences of making decisions based on these outcomes, the opportunity to learn the content in the test, and other factors.

This is just so key. As Weber notes, one of the huge problems with the current Big Standardized Test system is that one test is supposed to serve a variety of purposes. Evaluate schools, evaluate teachers, assess curriculum, inform parents, plus serve as a go-to measure of whether Reform Program X is "effective" or not. Plus, now, figuring out how far "behind" students are. And most of the time nobody has made a validity argument for any of it.

The answer to the question also needs to be specific. The announcement that the administration won't waive the test leans on that old standard promise that test results will be used to "target resources and supports to the students with the greatest needs." That's great.


How do you plan to use the test results to do that targeting? Where is the bill or program proposal that shows how test scores will be linked to the targeting of resources?

Of course there is no such proposal. There never has been. What states have actually done is things like using low scores to target schools for charterization. 

When your doctor wants to perform a biopsy, there's a reason, and it's not "Just thought IK'd chop you open, dig around, see if I can figure out anything about your diet or your blood pressure or maybe check for cancer, and then we'll do, I don't know, something." Your doctor has a specific intent both for the operation and for hat's going to be done with the results.

When we get to specifics of these tests, we are forced to see how useless they are. Are they to help teachers find out how "behind" students are? How will that work-- months from now, when the teachers see the basic test scores (but not the questions that were answered)? What will this one test tell teachers (particularly those who don't teach math or reading) that they can't --and haven't-- already figure out on their own in their own classroom?

And on what planet will we find the parent (because the Biden administration throws them in the test-justification mix, too) saying this-- "I had no idea how my child was doing in school, but now that I can see some very general results on a test she took a few months ago, it's all clear to me." 

If you can't tell me exactly what you want to do with the results of a test, you have no business giving the test. 

2) What is the cost of administering the test?

Testing is, of course, a billion-dollar industry, supported with tax dollars. But as Weber points out, there are other costs. We've had the long-term costs of narrowing the curriculum, and the cost of telling children of poor families that they are academic failures.

But there is also opportunity costs. Time spent t=on test prep and test taking is time not spent on education. I guarantee you that among the first reactions among teachers to the Biden Testing Is On announcement, right after some fiery obscenity, was the thought, "Well, what I'm going to have to cut out now."

For most of my career, my year to year aspiration was to see what else I could add to my class. By becoming more efficient, more focused, and better at understanding where my students were, I could claim some space in the 180 days and fill it with something else. But towards the end, as my school became more "data driven," the question flipped, and year to year I found myself asking, "Now that I'm losing more time to testing, what can I stand to cut." 

This year, time is more valuable and rare than ever. That makes the cost of testing astronomical.

3) Is the cost of testing worth it?

Again, directly from Weber:

What, exactly, will statewide standardized test outcomes tell us that we didn't already know, or that we couldn't find out some other way? That students didn't gain as much learning as they would have without the pandemic? We already know this; and again, it's not like the tests will give educators data they couldn't get other ways that are much faster and more detailed.

Will we learn that students who are economically disadvantaged need more resources to equalize their educational opportunity? We already knew that before the pandemic. And does anyone really think that otherwise reluctant politicians will be persuaded to dole out more funds when they see this year's test scores? Really?

And on top of that, will there be any magical means of determining which part of the score is the result of student knowledge and which will be the result of students taking tests during a chaotic year under lousy circumstances under family stress? There is always reason to doubt that the tests measure what they purport to measure; this year that doubt can be multiplied a hundredfold.

It will be worth it to some folks. Test manufacturers will get their payday. And I'm betting that once test results are out, folks who like to declare that public schools are disastrous failures will have a field day pushing the critical corporate reforms that must be implemented to Save Students. The Big Standardized Test has always been a tool for those who want to break public education down and sell off the parts; these test results should be a disaster capitalist holiday, a national-scale Hurricane Katrina.

Weber's three questions are a useful response to testing in any year, yielding results that can be debated by reasonable people. But this year it's pretty clear that the cost will be high and the results will be mostly worthless. Remember these three questions for the years ahead, but this year, the Biden administration should reverse its bad decision.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Biden Administration Won't Waive Big Standardized Test. Dammit.

 The Biden administration has offered its first flat-out wrong decision in the education sphere. 

Today Acting Ed Secretary Ian Rosenblum sent a letter out to state education chiefs. The news was not good, outlining the bad reasons for its bad decision.

To be successful once schools have re-opened, we need to understand the impact COVID-19 has had on learning and identify what resources and supports students need. We must also specifically be prepared to address the educational inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, including by using student learning data to enable states, school districts, and schools to target resources and supports to the students with the greatest needs. In addition, parents need information on how their children are doing

Who is this "we"? That's not entirely clear. But, as I've said before, the "we need information so we can address needs" argument is baloney for at least two reasons.

First, if you need information, ask the teachers. Ask the teachers. Ask the teachers. Ask. The. Teachers. They have been doing steady, daily assessment, both formal and informal, every day since this mess started. They know far more than the Big Standardized Test will ever tell anyone, and they know it today, not months from now when BS Test results come back. Parents can certainly learn far more about their student's progress by asking the teacher than by looking at vague, non-specific test scores from months ago. 

Second, since we entered this Golden Age of BS Testing, test results have virtually never been used to actually direct resources and assistance to schools that needed it. I would also wager that no BS Test results have ever identified an actual educational inequity problem that was not already well known, though by focusing on a single mediocre measure of math and reading they may have labeled schools that didn't deserve it. Because--

State assessment and accountability systems play an important role in advancing educational equity

There's little evidence that this is true.

To further muddy the water, the department is offering some "flexibility."

States can ask for a waiver from reporting and identifying schools with low results, as well as getting a bye on ESEA's 95% participation rule. So schools will not face evaluation based on the test scores this year (if the state asks for the waiver).

However, says the department, "It remains vitally important that parents, educators, and the public have access to data on student learning and success." This is just bullpucky, not because those folks don't deserve or need to know what's going on, but because using BS Test results, particularly from this year under the stresses and circumstances that we've been experiencing, will be about as useful as reading the warts on a horny toad under a full moon. 

If local authorities have determined that it's not safe to go to school, students should not go to school just to take the test. This is clearly aimed at Florida, which will certainly ignore it. 

But the department also suggests that states might want to use a shortened version, give the test remotely, or give a wider testing window. Maybe leave it till next fall, which sort of negates the whole No Waiver argument. And maybe there is other flexibility your state will need. In other words, it's really vital that you give this super-important test, but it's okay if you just half-ass it.

It's a bad decision, the wrong decision, a decision that will yield zero useful results, but waste a bunch of time and money that states and teachers and students don't have to waste. It also, unfortunately, gets us right back to the same old notion that teachers and schools are untrustworthy and only by giving these God-forsaken tests can anyone in the halls of power possible hope to know what's Really Going On. 

Do we need to know how the pandemic affected learning? Sure. Teachers, mostly, already know. The amount of information to be gleaned from the BS Tests this spring will be somewhere between tiny and non-existent and certainly not worth the time that will be wasted. Nor does history suggest that it will key in unlocking actual assistance from the feds. 

It's a lousy move from the Biden administration, a bad start for the new ed department. I don't know that a non-teacher can really grasp how disappointing and discouraging this is, like having someone pop in and, on top of everything else that has come in the last twelve months, announce blithely that the school year will be shortened and they'll have less time that they thought to try to help their kids get on top of the year's material. This just sucks.

Big Brother Knows What's In Your Heart

Well, this is creepy.

Before the pandemic, Ka Tim Chu, teacher and vice principal of Hong Kong's True Light College, looked at his students' faces to gauge how they were responding to classwork. Now, with most of his lessons online, technology is helping Chu to read the room. An AI-powered learning platform monitors his students' emotions as they study at home.

The software is called 4 Little Trees, and the CNN article only scratches the surface of how creepy it is. So let's work our way down through the levels of creepiness.

4 Little Trees is a product of Find Solution AI, a company founded in 2016. This product appears to be the heart and soul of their company. Though their "about us" mission statement is "FSAI consistent vision is to solve the difficulties that the society has been encountered with technology." They might want to look at their placement of "with technology" in that sentence. Anyway, on to 4 Little Trees.

It uses the computer webcam to track the movement of muscles on the student face to "assess emotions." With magical AI, which means it's a good time for everyone to remember that AI is some version of a pattern-seeking algorithm. AI doesn't grok emotions any more than it actually thinks-- in this case it compares the points it spots on the student's face and compares it to a library of samples. And as with all AI libraries of samples, this one has issues--mainly, racial ones. 4 Little Trees has been "trained" with a library of Chinese faces. The company's founder, Viola Lam, is aware "that more ethnically-mixed communities could be a bigger challenge for the software." 

But aren't emotions complicated? The sample image shows the software gets to choose from varying amounts of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise and neutral. The company calls these "primary" emotions. More complex emotions "like irritation, enthusiasm, or anxiety" are tougher to read, though in a great case of techno-whataboutism, one commenter notes that "human beings are not good at reading facial expressions." So there.

Privacy concerns? Particularly in China, where Big Technobrother is already pioneering all sorts of crazy-creepy techno-surveillance? 4 Little Trees only stores the data points for the different muscle points on the face, not the face itself. Feel better yet? There are 83 schools in Hong Kong using it, anywhere from $10 to $49 per student. 

The applications touted in this article are simple enough. The software can perform emotional surveillance on your remote students, but the company suggests that it could also be useful in a large class, where it's hard for a teacher to catch the face of every student. Basically, just another handy support tool to help teachers better understand where their students are, right?

Well, no. That's the picture in the CNN profile, and that's pretty creepy. But if we go to the actual website for Find Solution Ai and 4 Little Trees-- okay, I can't actually read any of that one. But it turns out they've got an English language site as well

Turns out that emotion detection can be helpful for teachers, but it can also be helpful for eliminating the need for them, too, because Find Solution Ai is in the personalized learning biz.

Here, for instance, is their quick four-step plug for Adopting Motivation Model:

When learner deals with hard questions...

Our emotion detection technology notices the frustration

The AI technology will analyze the learner's progress and provide them the most suitable question, and give challenges when it is appropriate.

Compare with the traditional way of learning, learner will be self-motivated and learn more effectively!

There's also some noise here about how their model raises "learning efficiency" to 12%. How did they measure that? Lord only knows, but they do mark "tradition learning" as 0% efficient. There is also a promise of Big Data Analytics which among other things will "forecast students' learning performance from the data collected, enhance further training to the students on their weaker areas." There appears to be a bunch of earn-a-badge gamification as well.

Basically, Find Solution Ai has augmented algorithm-driven education with some Ai that is supposed to read your heart. As always, there are many, many, many questionable links in the chain. Is the education programming itself valid and effective? How deep is the software's ability to adapt to students (when it's time to present the next exercise, are there dozens, hundreds or thousands of possibilities)? Is there any basis for believing the software can really read human emotions? And how will humans behave when they realize that software is trying to read their hearts by the expressions on their faces? 

How do you feel about this? Lean in a little closer to your screen, so that Big Brother can better read your heart.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

ICYMI: Neither Cat Nor In Cancun Edition (2/21)

This week seemed.... long, somehow. It's a big list this week. Remember to share, and take a minute to hug someone you love, too.

Stop calling this generation 'lost.'

Selena Carrion has written a really great piece about students and remote learning and the rhetoric surrounding our current flap. I wrote about this and shared it, but if you still somehow haven't seen it, now's your chance.

The Fiscal Impact of Charter Schools on School Districts

A long but important read, in which Jersey Jazzman discovers that the effects are not what many of us expect, but also require some more careful consideration  as well. Mark Weber is awfully good at making data comprehensible to ordinary mortals, and this data is worth chewing over. 

With all that robust progress monitoring, who needs a test

Accountabaloney asks the question--if Florida already has all that data on student progress, why can't they ask for a waiver for the Big Standardized Test, already. Oh, Florida. 

NH Bumps Voucher Bill Till Next Year

When you're nifty new voucher bill is so unpopular that thousands of people show up to testify against it, what do you do? Let it sit on the shelf for a year and hope people have a short attention span.

Reopening must be done safely

Leave it to Jan Resseger to take a reasoned, well-researched approach to the question of opening school buildings. A good explainer for where we are right now.

Parents are getting the kind of instruction they want

There are soooo many pols right now, but Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat has the results of one that finally asked the right question--are parents getting the kind of schooling they want? Mostly, yes.

Tens of thousands of community college students still taking unnecessary remedial classes

In 2017, a California law aimed to phase out unnecessary (but lucrative) remedial classes for some college students. How's that going? Wellll.......

Bill lavishes more money on favored private schools

In Indiana, the Journal Gazette editorial pushes back against the state's proposed voucher expansion.

Hoosiers all lose

Three former Indiana superintendents of public instruction speak out against GOP proposals.

Call for summer of play to help English pupils recover from Covid-19 stress

Sally Weale in the Guardian argues against any sort of academics-intensive catch-up summer. Let the children play. Different continent, but the point still applies.

Post-pandemic child care options will be scarce

At Hechinger Report, Lillian Mongeau lays out the bad news--one of the pandemic casualties is likely to be child care businesses.

Want to fix the chronic absentee problem in Detroit schools? Start with transportation.

Lori Higgins at Chalkbeat looks at one of the underlying issues behind Detroit's attendance problem (both public and charter). I'm betting they aren't the only ones.

If teachers think standardized tests stink, maybe we should listen

A Michigan state rep points out that there's good reason to think that the Big Standardized Test is a waste of time this year.

Black teachers improve education outcomes for Black students

In Pennsylvania, more support for what we already know. Plus an appearance by Erie, which always makes me happy. 

Building a community for Black male teachers

At EdWeek, a profile of Baron R. Davis, a superintendent in South Carolina looking to build support for Black men in the classroom.

The Weird Plot To Privatize Education in Minnesota

Sarah Lahm at the Progressive peeling back the layers on Minnesota's push to privatize public ed, courtesy of a guy from California.

Postmate drivers have become easy prey for scammers.

Nothing at all to do with education, but a look at one of the ways that gig workers are vulnerable to scams. One more thing to add to the list of reasons that gig work is not a welcome model for education.

Edgenuity's software wasn't meant for a pandemic. That didn't stop some school districts.

NBC news catches on the mess that is Edgenuity school-in-a-box software.

Told Ya This Would Happen

Tennessee Education Report has an update on another dark money PAC hiding behind students.

You're gonna miss us when we're gone

Steven Singer imagines a bleak version of the post-covid ed techified world

Reflections on Apocalypse Teaching

NYC Educator takes a look at where we are, and what might stand in the way of where we want to be.

Karen Lewis Taught Me

Jose Luis Vilson offers some personal reflection on Chicago's amazing teacher and labor leader

Give Me A Poke

Nancy Flanagan on maintaining during the vaccine rollout. Just a damn fine piece of writing.

As a superhero teacher, I can't wait to sacrifice my unvaccinated life for your child.

Sommer Koester at McSweeney's.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Report: Global Ed Privatization Under Covid-19

 Education International released a report last summer. Written by Ben Williamson (University of Edinburgh, U.K.) and Anna Hogan (University of Queensland, Australia), "Commercialisation and privatisation in/of education in the context of Covid-19" is sixty-some pages of thorough research and depressing news for fans of public education. The attempt to "map the powerful network of commercial edtech players and coalitions" who are trying to shape the world's edu-response to the pandemic via disaster capitalism (a term the report uses) is not uplifting reading.

I've read this, but I'm not going to attempt my usual speedy explainer because there are several large, critical points made in the report and I don't want them to get lost in the explaining and dot connecting. For those who spend a lot of time down the education rabbit hole, there are bits of this that reach out and knock you right between the eyes. I'll probably return to some of this at greater length in the future, but I want to lay out the highlights now.

Ed Tech Solutionism

"A 'global education industry' of private has played a significant role in education provision during the Covid-19 crisis, working at local, national and international scales to insert ed tech into educational systems and practices. It has often set the agenda, offered technical solutions for government departments of education to follow, and is actively pursuing long-term reforms whereby private technology companies would be embedded in public education systems during the recovery from the Covid-19 crisis and beyond it in new models of hybrid teaching and learning."

So what they see (and this is internationally) is ed tech using the pandemic as its Hurricane Katrina--a disruptive crisis that allows them to step up and offer solutions  that also give them the opportunity for a long term takeover of public ed.

Also, a lot of folks are pushing this, including big players like the World Bank, UNESCO, and OECD.

The favored model

It is now clear that the dominant education policy preoccupation globally is how to deliver schooling without schools and degrees without campuses.

The report points to the rise of virtual schooling, and they offer Pearson (yes, those guys again, currently the second-largest cyber school provider in the US) as an example of a big corporation that is strategizing around a move away from books, buildings and teachers. And while Covid figures into this move--

these are not changes that Pearson and its competitors are simply offering up, opportunistically, in response to sudden coronavirus measures. Instead, they are part of a concerted long-term strategy by the edtech industry to actively reorganise public education as a market for its products, platforms and services.

Data collection and ownership

Still scary, still a problem. Edtech is posited on gathering this stuff by the truckload, without particularly dealing with the privacy issues involved. 

Who's driving this bus?

The report also looks at the different kind of organizations and networks behind all of this. There are seven different categories they get into:

International organizations and coalitions

This includes big players like the World Bank and its Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund which is aimed at seeing how much ed tech can "accelerate" education. There are financed networks, like one funded by UK investment firm Emerge Education. UNESCO has a Global Education Coalition. The OECD. All of these outfits gather together the usual assortment of non-profits like Khan Academy, ed tech companies like Canvas, and big corporate players like Amazon and Google.

Government-commercial partnerships

What we call public-private. This is much of what the previous groups help facilitate. 

Commercial Coalitions

Companies partner up, too, especially in the area of creating websites and organizations that are meant to look like third-party observers. Peel back the masks and you find the Gates Foundation, Chan-Zuckerberg, and corporate backers. They may try to look like they're educator-forward (e.g. Oak National Academy in England) but their boards are filled with folks borrowed from the sponsoring organizations. They are about "increased commercial penetration into state schooling."


Remember when New York State was going to "partner" with the Gates Foundation to reimagine education? Well, here's a sentence:

Venture philanthropy is exemplified by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has advanced corporate interest in education reform through funding awarded to advocacy groups, nonprofit reform organisations, think tanks, and research centres.

Foundations, think tanks, and "impact" specialists are helping push the agenda by looking like disinterested third parties. They aren't.

Edtech market-makers

Public education "has become a key site of venture capital and private equity investment" in the last decade. That has also given rise to a whole industry of edtech market intelligence and financial advisory agencies to help spot the next sweet investment opening. Big players like Pearson have their own in-house departments. And for those of you who have followed the whole social impact bond biz, here's an alarming little factoid:

In June 2020 [Pearson announced] a new 350 million GB pound, ten-year social bond with the net proceeds to be used exclusively to support the provision of online learning services.

Impact investment is about creating ways to make money off a market that didn't already exist. And the report notes that these market-makers are not just looking for VC to invest in products, but new ways to organize the market and infrastructure.

Big tech companies enrolling schools

While companies like Microsoft, Google and Amazon are busy playing investment games and exerting influence at the policy level, they're also worming their way directly into schools. You already know plenty about this, though you may not have known that TikTok is trying to position itself as a provider of "micro-learning" videos.

The edu-business sector

The sheer scale of what is happening on the edu-business level is harder to capture and trace.

Pearson figures the virtual schooling market is worth about $1.5 billion, which is enough honey to attract a large number of flies. The report touches on many individual businesses in this market, and it is just a spoonful of water tossed into the Grand Canyon.

Key Issues

The "global education industry" has, during the pandemic, "amplified its influence and the scale of its penetration into education systems." And they are not viewing this time as a short-term chance to help out, but "as a long term opening for expanding their business interests, generating revenue, gathering data, shaping teaching practices, and influencing policy agendas into the future."

So not just cashing in, but changing the face of infrastructure and the public-private governance of education. And more of it privatized. The report says that under covid, private sector business and global tech companies have "consolidated the market share" for digital infrastructure. This goes hand in hand with pushing the idea that education is and should be a "sector for investment and profit making and management by private organizations." So "pay for results," social impact bonds, exam proctoring, AI-based tutoring--entire news ways to make a buck are coming forward.

And, the report notes, much of the products out there are currently free or bargain-priced, but that's because the industry is "banking on future profitability." 

The digital and data risks remain great, in part because one of the ed tech industry's defining characteristics is constant over-promising on tech that cannot do what it claims it can do. AI is front and center for this, but data protection and privacy are also issues that the ed tech sector hasn't really addressed or solved.

Ownership is also an issue. Ownership of data, for certain. But also curriculum control. 

Organisations as varied as Google, Pearson, Oak National Academy, ISTE and Yuanfudao have in many ways established control over what gets taught during school closures.

Maybe your virtual school curriculum isn't simply being designed by a software designer (or maybe it is--do you even know), but these are private organizations with, as the report puts it, their own "idiosyncratic visions of education and...their institutional values." 

The report ends with a list of research that needs to be done. 

If you're still reading

God bless you. There's just one other thing I want to remind you of--this report was issued last July, so we've had a few months to watch it play out. Regardless of what the next few months bring for Covid, I don't expect the situations outlined in this report to get any better.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Disaster Capitalism And The Abuse Of Youth

In the rush to raise alarm over Terrible Educational Emergencies, folks need to pay closer attention to exactly who they're hurting.

I'm not talking about teachers right now. Yes, teachers get blamed for anything and everything, and it stinks, and we're paying a regular price for it in the increasing difficulty in recruiting people to do the work. 

But the other part of chicken littling about education is the constant declaration that Kids These Days suck. They can't read or write. They aren't ready to hold down a job. And like many other negative trends in education, this has only gotten worse during the pandemic. Now it's not just that Kids These Days can't read and write and math--numerous companies are telling anyone who will listen about the terrible threat of learning loss, and how all of America's children are slowly backsliding, the "days of learning" dribbling out of their ears like meltwater sluicing off a snow-covered roof. They're getting stupider and stupider by the day. They are a lost generation.

Some of the worst moments in my teaching career came in parent-school conferences, sitting in a room with other staff, the student, and the parental units, watching the parents express in not-at-al-subtle ways their low opinion of their child. It is gut-wrenching to see a parent tell their own child everything just short of (and in a couple of memorable instances, not just short of) "I don't know what to do with you. You're lazy and dumb and just a bad person." Those students didn't need pedagogical or instructional interventions nearly as much as they needed to have an adult who actually believed in them. 

In the rush to indict the public school system, the teachers, the unions, some people have turned students into collateral damage, forcing them to live in a world of adults who are constantly broadcasting that Kids These Days are awful failures. And right now, as always, they are directing the worst of it at the students who already get the worst of it--Black, brown, poor. 

Today Chalkbeat is carrying a piece by teacher Selena Carrion that everyone should read-- "Stop calling this generation 'lost.' It's hurtful--and it's wrong." Carrion's experience allows her to remember how to keep her eye on the ball:

All this reminds me not to allow a deficit-oriented “lost generation” narrative to deny them their success. As educators, let’s think about their triumphs and how they are still finding joy and wonder amid chaos.

What would happen, I wonder, if the consultants from NWEA and McKinsey, rather than releasing white papers and "research" and talking to other folks in the education biz had to go stand in front of the actual young human beings and explain to those students that they are falling behind and getting dumber by the minute and are generally failing. What if they had to look into those students' eyes while saying, in effect, "We do not believe in you." 

Here is where market-based philosophy clashes with actual education. You market products by creating a compelling case for a desperate need. "Terrible things are happening," a campaign screams, "and you need to hire us and buy our product if you want to survive, because without us you are not enough." But you teach students by first believing in them, by assuring them that they are enough. You can't have disaster capitalism without a disaster. You can't teach students by telling them that they are a disaster.

These are tough times for schools, and there's no pretending that we are (mostly) accomplishing less than we could have in normal times (though we are also learning about ways that are not worse--just different). But ramping up the alarm and calling our children "lost" just so that someone can sell more testing or market some edu-biz model is wrong, and it's damaging to our children to keep telling them they are lost and losing learning and collapsing mentally and failing to cope. Right now, more than ever, our students need truth and support and people who believe in them. If you're not doing that, take a seat.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Khan Academy Makes Its Next Big Move

The Khan Academy (aka that library of instructional videos that come in varying degrees of accuracy) is finally ready to take its next step and morph into an on-line-ish micro-credential competency-based school-ish thing. What does that even mean? Let me try to explain the vision behind this, the people behind this, and--well, then we can just reflect on how many kinds of bad ideas we're looking at here.

The Unbundled Micro-Credentialed Future

An idea beloved by one sector of the education privatizing world in micro-credentials. You've encountered this stuff if there's a newer-generation video game console in your home on which games offer a variety of badges to show your various accomplishments. In the ed world, they're called micro-credentials, and all the big guns are playing with them.

A few years ago I came across a fully realized portrait of the vision called The Ledger. It brings together Competency Based Education, data mining, personalized learning, the cradle to career pipeline, the gig economy, and the transformation into a master and servant class society. In this world, you wouldn't need "schools" or "teachers" (Knowledgeworks once made a whole big list of new jobs for them, all servile and dumb). You would get your education in bits and bites--a work experience here, a few sessions with a wise tutor there, each one earning you a  new micro-credential, which in turn qualifies you to act as somebody else's wise tutor. It would all be recorded in a blockchain-type digital identity (yes, there are already people working on those, too) along with all pertinent data about you. The unbundling of education also means that there's money to be made as a sort of broker between various people trying to make a buck gigging as trainers for earning the credentials (that is also already up and running, with Outschool leading the pack). 

All the various technologies and vendors needed to push this change in the whole philosophy of education already exist. Now many of these folks are chomping at the bit, thinking that the pandemic is their Hurricane Katrina and they should not let a crisis go to waste.

Sal Khan's New-ish Idea

So with all that in mind, it's time to meet

Their "who we are" statement is pretty simple-- "We're a nonprofit that facilitates free tutoring over Zoom." That's not quite the whole picture, because the business is also about extending the reach of the Khan Academy brand. Tutoring sessions are "focused around a single Khan Academy unit." Currently they're more specifically focused on high school math and SAT prep. Tutoring sessions are live, with a small number of students, a tutor, and (in the demo) a big Khan Academy video in the middle.

At the moment the site only lists about 100 tutors, but that will certainly change because anybody can be a tutor. To become a certified tutor, you pick a Khan Academy unit, get at least a 90% on the unit test yourself (including a video of yourself explaining your reasoning), and then peer review two videos from other students who are also trying to become certified on that unit. Before you can start running sessions, you have to pass a quiz about safety protocols, and your first session will be observed by an experienced tutor. That's it for vetting, apparently. Not even a background check.

So you get free help as a learner, earn certificates as you go, volunteer to become a tutor, and build a transcript to showcase what you know. All within a closed, self-perpetuating circle. Not quite like the worm Ouroborus, who is always eating his own tail; we need a new symbol in which the worm is eternally pooping itself out. 

A Red Flag Festival

Sal Khan is the co-founder of this; the guy who somehow convinced people that canned instruction that will never clarify itself, take questions, or do anything except repeat, is  revolutionary. Sigh. If you stood in your classroom and just repeated a lecture or demo, and every time a student asked a question you just said the exact same thing you just said, you'd be spending time in the principal's office. But do the same thing on Youtube and now you're a visionary.

Khan's co-visionary is Shishir Mehrota. Like Khan, he's a tech guy with no actual education background. He was a director of program management for Microsoft, and then spent six years working at Youtube handling monetization and "product." Then in 2014 he launched Coda, a company that handles collaborative documents Google Doc style. 

Note that is new enough that neither one of these guys lists it on his LinkedIn profile.

There is only one other person on the board of directors for, and it is.....drum roll, please.... Arne Duncan. 

Supporters of this new endeavor include Coda, The O'Sullivan Foundation (early backers of Khan Academy), Mayfield (global venture capitalists), and  the Charles Koch Institute. 

And if you want further reason to be leery, check out the USA Today op-ed that Khan penned with Brian Hooks. It includes the McKinsey baloney-packed study claiming that students will lose many many days of learning (aka points on a Big Standardized Test score), then touts the joys of individualized education (because what is more individualized than having all students look at the same video clip) and the idea that "education can happen anywhere, anytime" (i.e. schools and certified personnel and oversight that interferes with vendors trying to make a buck are all unnecessary). Hooks is the CEO of Stand Together, aka The Koch Network; he also co-authored Koch's latest book about Believing in People, a book that came with some maybe  contrition while pushing the same old idea of eliminating government.

In short, Sal Khan is hanging out with a crowd that doesn't exactly have a stellar history of promoting and protecting public education.

There is nothing good going on here. Just a little bit of pandemic opportunism, part of the big burgeoning trend-of-the-moment in trying to bust the education market wide open. You can argue that Khan Academy and are free; I'm going to argue that they are simply part of a long game that ploughs the earth and prepares it for the kind of market these folks envision for the future. You don't have to make a profit burning down the schoolhouse if you are all prepped and ready to profit from building the new structure that's going up on the resultant empty lot.