Sunday, March 12, 2017

Frontline: Your Large Brotherly Data Service

I recently covered the launching of The Line, a new website helmed by Disgraced LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy and dedicated to the proposition that Chiefs for Change should have an avenue to keep pumping out warmed-over education reform baloney.

As soon as I started digging, I realized I already knew about Frontline, the company behind the website. That familiar logo had started popping up on our screens at school this year because Frontline just bought out Aesop, the software service that has been managing our teacher absences.

Like many districts, a few years ago we shifted our substitute system from the traditional Harried Secretary On The Phone from 5 AM until Two Minutes Before School Starts System to an on-line service that lets teachers enter absences and substitutes pick them up, all on line, like a scholastic It's a vastly superior system to the Frantic Phone Call system. But, boy-- if one company was doing that for many school districts, wouldn't they collect a ton of data.

Well, yes. Yes they would.

Part of Frontline's pitch is just having all sorts of data at your fingertips to run your school efficiently-- their promotional video shows an administrator walking through the halls of a school carrying a table and looking at numbers on a display that must mean something helpful because data! Their main platform promises that you can manage people without paper, handle recruiting and hiring, watch over absences, do great professional development, and work on your special ed stuff (some of this represents an expansion of Frontline's work-- Aesop is not the only company they've acquired recently-- since January of 2016, Frontline has acquired at least four companies, including some that work tracking special ed data).

Frontline likes a lot of trendy things. Their picture of professional development includes personalized targeted development, which sounds a lot like badges and micro-competencies (log on and do a fifteen minute video-plus-test about Wait Time and voila! you're now better!)

All of this means running everything through the computers, and everything that is run through the computers can be strained for data.

Meet Frontline Learning and Research Institute!

FLRI is headed up by Elizabeth Combs, previously the chief of My Learning Plan. Frontline notes that she "brings a passion for leveraging technology to support educator growth" and, yes, leveraging technology is a great source of passion for so many of us. Other backgrounds represented in the advisory board include human resources, consulting, human capital, consulting, consulting-- oh, and one Teach for America alumnus. FLRI has also entered into a collaboration with Johns Hopkins, a university leading in the field of Renting Out a Respected Name in Academia To Make Your Business Look More Legit.

FLRI offers reports like its end-of-the-year teacher absence and substitute busyness report. Frontline has crunched numbers from 2.7 million employees at 4,900 "educational organizations." The report is not exactly filled with shocking reveals (teacher absences are harder to fill on Fridays and with less lead time; the most common reason for absence is illness). But I find it just a little bit sobering to realize that every time I miss a day, I'm participating in a giant research project that is collecting my data.

There's also a two-part report about professional development, predicated on the idea that the Every Student Succeeds Act gives the "most prescriptive federal definition" of quality PD ever. FLRI determines that the definition centers on PD that is "sustained, intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven and classroom-focused." Based on that definition, it turns out that most PD currently sucks, a finding that is even less surprising than the discovery that it's harder to get subs on a Friday in May. This is even with FLRI's sort-of-silly definitions of these terms-- "sustained" means "meets at least three times" and "intensive" means "takes at least 4.5 hours." The good news is that only 8% of PD activities were "data-driven," which is probably 8% too many until such time as we can come up with some kind of data that deserves to drive anything more important than a miniature clown car (spoiler alert: Big Standardized Tests and their sad siblings like MAP will not provide that data).

So Frontline aspires to be a multi-tasking major player, offering "research" that proves how much you need their products, and the products that you so desperately need. All of it cleverly resting on a giant foundation built on the data-mining performed on the services you're already buying from them. It's a forward-thinking business model in keeping with many tech giants, except that Facebook and Google data-mine you and treat you as the product without getting you to pay for the privilege. 


  1. Aesop recently came to my school district and I thought we weren't cutting edge. Is the Frontline corporate slogan "Data Mining Good - Data Mining Make us Rich?"

  2. A biggie at the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, is Steven Ross, Evaluation Director. Right before inBloom collapsed, Ross was quoted in the Wall St Journal saying that at data-sharing was the only way to improve schools, as “using data to help tailor education to individuals will drive learning in the future. ‘Most of us in research and education policy think that for today's and tomorrow's generation of kids, it's probably the only way.’”

    Unreported was that Ross’s Center had recently received a large grant from the Gates Foundation “to promote specific improvements in the purchasing practices of K-12 school district buyers as they seek to implement innovative digital technology products and services.” For more on this see