Sunday, February 28, 2021

FL: College Is For Meat Widgets, Not That Learnin' Stuff

Oh, Florida.

GOP State Senator Dennis Baxley wants only some students to have Bright Futures. Under his bill SB 86, the scholarship program would be targeted only for those students who are pursuing majors that lead "directly to employment."

Baxley offers a folksy justification for this, saying his own sociology degree was very nice and all, but wouldn't buy him a cup of coffee, and not until he got that associate degree that he was able to make a buck opening his funeral parlor. As God is my witness, I am not making this up.

This "refocus" comes with an endorsement from Senate President Wilton Simpson, who points out that "All too often the debate surrounding higher education focuses on the cost to the student, in terms of tuition and fees, but never the cost to the taxpayer or the actual value to the student." 

More from Baxley:

We want all of our students to succeed in meaningful careers that provide for their families and serve our communities. As taxpayers we should all be concerned about subsidizing degrees that just lead to debt, instead of the jobs our students want and need. We encourage all students to pursue their passions, but when it comes to taxpayer subsidized education, there needs to be a link to our economy, and that is the goal of this legislation,

Yeah, pursuing your passion is swell and all, but the taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill unless you're going to be a useful meat widget. 

In other words, pursuing your passion is just for rich folks.

There are really two awful parts to this awful idea. Not just the "education is only to make you a useful meat widget" part, but the part where some government board is going to decide each year which majors are going to lead to employment and which are not. There are several things wrong with this. One is that it assumes that the Board of Governors and State Board of Education would actually have that information (via, one supposes, a crystal ball in Tallahassee). 

But the other is that this makes education planning for students a hugely uncertain crap shoot. Are you a high school junior who wants to pick her major and is hoping for a state scholarship? Well, you'd better just wait for the annual Florida Acceptable Majors report to come out. And I am wondering what exactly happens if, after steering a truckload of entering freshmen into a Widgetry major, the Boards decide two years later that the Widgetry major field is now clogged and therefor the major no longer leads "directly to employment."

You can bet that Florida high school students are talking about this:

“I felt personally attacked because my degree would most-likely not fall under that,” said [high school senior Jocelyn] Meyer.

Meyer said she wants to major in geography or international studies. Then continue on to graduate school.

“Potentially work for the Peace Corps. That would get me the experience to work for a non-governmental health organization like the World Health Organization or Centers for Disease Control,” said Meyer.

Meyer is afraid the track she planned for college won’t be paid for, even though she worked hard to meet all the criteria for a full-ride Bright Futures Scholarship. Funding she is depending on to get through college.

Florida's GOP apparently wants to cut back on spending, though the Bright Futures program is funded by the Florida lottery.

It's a strange choice for (at least) two reasons. I know we no longer pretend that the GOP actually believes in small government, but it's still odd to see the party of small government now deciding to tell students what they have to major in if they want to go to college. And the notion that they don't want taxpayers to have to spend a bunch of money sending students off to study at some private school if they hadn't set up an entire K-12 system to require taxpayers to spend a bunch of money to send students off to study at some private school. 

ICYMI: Unsurprised But Disappointed Edition (2/28)

 Well, it didn't take long for Biden to return to his corporate ed reform roots. Not a surprise, but even when hope is a very tiny thing with very small feathers, it's a bummer when a big cat chomps it up. Time to move on. Here's some reading from the week.

America prefers teachers who offer themselves as tribute. And that needs to stop.

Myriam Gurba at lulzcollective with a hardhitting piece looking at that damned hero teacher myth.

"When I'm gone..."

Accountabaloney looks at the issues of missing students, and the dominoes that are going to fall because of them.

Learn To Earn

At Have You Heard, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire talk to Cristina Groeger about a topic that is often on my mind--why the whole "educate the poors and they will become not-poors" doesn't, and can't, work

Teachers Unions aren't the obstacle to reopening schools  

At the New Yorker, Sarah Jones takes a more balanced look at what thee real problems are (hint: years of infrastructure neglect aren't helpful)

US Ed Department Promotes Putting Student Records on Blockchain

Cointelegraph caught this grant from the department of creepy developments.

We Don't Need Standardized Testing in a Pandemic

I wrote about this Jersey Jazzman piece this week, and if you still haven't read it, here I am telling you again to go read it.

The Most Important "Skill" In A Post-Covid World

Joshua Hatala blogs about schools, the pandemic, and the new post-modern demand that students "figure it out" as they contemplate life and the world.

Education Development Center and Urban Collaborative

Thomas Ultican takes another deep dive into another group of education disruptors.

A History of Technological Hype

At the Kappan, Victoria Cain and Adam Laats take a look at the long, sad history of technological baloney. A good swift overview.

Standardized Testing during the Pandemic is Corporate Welfare Not Student Equity

Steven Singer lays it out.

Teachers, Testing and Why We Might Just Chill

Nancy Flanagan on why we could maybe just take a breath about the whole testing thing. 

Why Aren't There More Black Teachers?

Rann Miller at The Progressive addresses what should be one of our major concerns in education these days.

Philly-based group launches $3.12 million initiative to develop Black teachers

In the Philadelphia Inquirer, a look at a group that has a plan  for expanding the Black teaching force. Their allies aren't necessarily friends of public education, but this is work that needs to be done.

My Complete, Unedited Review of Doug Harris's Book, Charter School City

It's been a long journey, but here te indispensable Mercedes Schneider finally publishes her full review of Harris's book about New Orleans and its charter conversion. In the process, she provides some useful on-the-ground insights into the gutting of public education in NOLA

Who's assessing the assessment?

At the Kappan, a detailed look at just how very bad edTPA really is, and how Pearson fights back, again, against any criticism.

Instead of surveillance, try an ethic of care

John Warner at Inside Higher Ed looks at student surveillance and sees a better way, including radical notions like "an easy way to judge whether or not something violates an ethic of care for students is whether or not I would agree to be subjected to the same requirement as a condition of doing my work."

Schools face a substitute teacher crisis

NBC news picked up this piece from Hechinger Report which is somehow mystified that terrible pay and conditions have exacerbated the long-stewing sub crisis. A little infuriating, but still worth the read.

England's catch-up tutors ae being short-changed by private employers

Somebody's making a bunch of money from the covid make-up tutoring business in England, but it's not the teachers who are doing the actual work.

New Morehouse College Program Encourages Black men to complete unfinished degrees

From NPR, a good idea being developed.

Representative Jamaal Bowman educating an uninformed mom on BLM won late night

It has been pretty damn cool to see teacher Bowman make his mark in DC, and this week he also appeared on Stephen Colbert's show, winning the attention of the folks at Vulture. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

Big Standardized Test Test

Supporters of testing, testocrats, and all other folks insisting that the Biden administration made the right call because the 2021 (including all these reformy groups that sent a thank you note)-- can we take a moment to assess your own test-related ideas?

For the "Parents Need To Know How Their Kids Are Doing" folks: 

Create a short video in which you display a real individual student result printout and describe, in detail, the information that a parent can glean from it. Offer specific advice--exactly what should the student be tutored in. And by specific, I don't mean "Pat needs to strengthen reading comprehension of non-fiction writing." Which particular reading strategies is Pat weak in? Which sorts of specific questions does Pat tend to flub? 

Be sure to factor in how Pat has spent the months since the test was taken. And be certain to highlight all of the specific information that Pat's adults could not have acquired by calling Pat's teacher.

For the "Locating Schools That Had Trouble During the Pandemic So We Can Target Resources" crowd:

Present any and all of the bills that have been crafted to distribute additional school support and resources based on test results. Be sure to include the formula that is going to be used, as well as the specific dollar amounts that will be distributed and the methods that will be proposed for funding, Note: no version of "public-private partnerships will be explored to fund and administer this initiative" will be considered an acceptable answer.

For the "We Have To Know How Far Students Are Behind" crowd:

Outline the testing benchmarks that you believe students should be reaching at this point in their education. Provide the research and evidence that establishes the validity of these benchmarks, showing how the selected test scores predict better life outcomes for the students who reach those scores on schedule (and the worse life outcomes for the students who don't). 

Additionally, provide an evidence-based program for how learning can be accelerated in order to get students to achieve those benchmarks.

For the "Teachers Need This Information To Better Address Student Needs" crowd:

You would think that test results given to teachers might, for instance, show how students performed on each of the common core college and career ready state standards being tested, but in many states you'd be wrong. Explain how ELA teachers can strengthen their teaching based on results that report scores only for fiction reading, non-fiction reading, and open ended questions. Describe also how history, phys ed, music, science, art, and theater teachers can use test results to better meet student needs. 

I look forward to your answers to any or all of these questions. 

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.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

What Is The Secret Teacher Plot?

It's its own genre now. Generally runs something like this:

I think teachers are mighty swell and I respect the hard work they do, but as you can see from these studies that I have carefully cherry-picked selected, the science says that school buildings should be fully open right now, and teachers and their unions have no damn excuse not to get the hell back in their and do their frickin' job, for which I respect them very much (though I may have to stop respecting them soon if they don't get the hell back in there). 

You can find the latest widely shared example over at Vox:

And if educators and their unions don’t embrace the established science, they risk continuing to widen gaps in educational attainment — and losing the support of their many long-time allies, like me.


There are many, many twists and turns to the debate about red-opening buildings (schools, I want to be clear, have not ceased operation). CDC advice has varied over time, and continues to include guidance like the hilarious advice in the new guidelines that districts should recruit and train a whole bunch of substitutes to cover the many staff absences they're about to have, and that sounds reasonable, unless you've been around the education system in the last ten years in which case you know that the CDC might as well suggest that the new army of subs be trained to ride unicorns that poop lesson plans because subs were hard to come by in the best of times, and right now is surely not the best of times. 

Some of the folks pushing hard for open buildings (or, at any rate, slamming teachers and unions for not wanting to open buildings) are not sincere in their position This Students First coalition in Los Angeles is actually a coalition of private religious schools, and they're holding a rally demand that school buildings be re-opened; that rally will be held in cars, with explicit instructions that everyone is to stay masked and in their cars because "nothing is more important than your and other participants' safety." But get those buildings open for face to face. And closed buildings have become a conservative talking point for pushing every version of school choice, plus the kitchen sink. And people who never before cared about educational inequity or student mental health--at least not enough to put their money where their mouth is--suddenly care about these things very much.  In many cases of open building support, I strongly suspect that there are agendas in play that have nothing to do with students or education.

That said, I'm also certain that some people are quite sincere in their concern. Managing children and education and work from home is a huge challenge, and not everyone has the kind of support system needed to pull it off. And it's hard--really hard--to manage the education of young humans (in the future, a whole generation of teachers will be biting their tongues when on the receiving end of criticism about how they do their jobs, clamping their teeth shut to avoid saying, "This job? My job? You mean the one that you once had to do for a year and it pretty much broke you? That job?") Despite the outliers on both sides of the screen who are actually enjoying this, most everyone else agrees that distance learning under these conditions is sub-optimal, and it's not unfair to get frustrated with the whole situation and plead, beg, argue, agitate and otherwise push for all the powers of the universe to open school buildings again. 

But in all the arguments that teachers and their unions are blocking the re-opening of school buildings, there is on critical missing element.


Why, exactly, are teachers refusing to go back? 

Bad explanations of other peoples' behavior tend to fall into two categories-- evil, and stupid.

The Evil Explanation here is that teachers somehow went into teaching precisely because they don't want to teach and they hate kids. The unions, another twitter theory goes, are using the pandemic as a chance to shake down Uncle Joe for more money. 

The Stupid Explanation is that teachers just don't understand The Science, and so they--well, the AStupid Explanation is kind of incomplete. Teachers don't understand that they won't actually die, and so that Don't Want To Die thing gets in the way? Possibly they're just wimps who need to "suck it up."

So many of these narratives have a subtext that Teachers Are Up To Something. Up to what, exactly?

I can offer some other possible explanations. Like a lack of actual mitigation steps, resulting in this conversation:

Usual: Schoo buildings can be re-opened if we do X, Y and Z. So what are teachers waiting for.

Teachers: We are waiting for X, Y and Z to actually happen.

Usuals: Why do you reject the science?!

This doesn't seem like a hard thing to understand. In fact, a recent Huffington Post poll suggests that parents actually understand it pretty well and despite attempts to gin up some outrage against teachers and their unions, the public remains largely supportive. A new Politico poll finds the same result.

Nobody wants to get back into the building more than teachers do, but they also want to do it safely, and what that means, exactly, is not entirely clear these days. It really is that simple. No secret plan is required for an explanation.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

What An Education Uber Actually Looks Like

Betsy DeVos is among the many education disruptors fond of imagining a world in which education is handled Uber-style; but we don't have to imagine what a gig-economy education system would look like. It already exists.

Outschool was founded in 2015 by Amir Nathoo (he cutely lists his title as "learner" in his LInkedIn profile), and while he looks like he's about twelve, he's been at work for a while. He got a Master's Degree from the University of Cambridge in 2002, worked in software development for IBM, founded a couple of companies, invested in a few other, and then launched Outschool. The company is based in San Francisco.

Nathoo was interviewed by Rick Hess back in 2019 in an interview that Education Next just dusted off because, as you might imagine, Nathoo's distance learning micro-credential marketplace is having a strong pandemic moment. In it, Nathoo describes Outschool this way:

Outschool offers live online education experiences that connect teachers with learners in small-group settings to explore everything from Minecraft, Pokemon, and cooking to chemistry, algebra, and literature.

Nathoo also talks a lot about fun and passion, and his story always mentions how he got a computer when he was five and that sparked an interest in games and programming and his technology career, leading him to create this marketplace for "fun and social learning experiences." Others have characterized it with less sparkle, like the Techcrunch article that characterized it as "a platform for homeschooled students to bolster their extracurricular activities." But a super-profitable one-- from August 2019 to August 2020, Outschool sales jumped from $6.5 million to $54million. And venture capitalists have been taking notice.

Some writers call Outschool the Netflix of education, and that makes sense from a customer standpoint--log on and select from 100,000 live-taught virtual classes from 10,000 different instructors. But from the other side, this looks much more like Uber, because all 10,000 of those "instructors" are gig workers. As Nathoo explains, "All teachers on Outschool are independent and set their own class prices and schedules." They have to come from the US, Canada, U.K., Australia or New Zealand, and Nathoo says they and their classes are vetted, though I didn't find anything about what the vetting checks for. One waggish headline writer blurbed them as "Spanish with Taylor Swift, Potions with Harry Potter." is sponsored by the Edward Charles Foundation, a Beverly Hills organization that acts as a fiscal sponsor for organizations. is where the education stuff happens. The library lets you sort by date, day/time, age, format, length, topics,  and subject area. If you want to teach, Outschool offers you online listing for your class, access to the "community of learners," secure online payment, an integrated video chat platform, and "responsive" support. No teaching credentials are required, but you do have to pass a criminal background check.

Outschool takes a 30% cut; you decide what to charge for the course and how many students to allow. Also, you can sign up to teach as an organization. Classes and teachers come with Amazon-style reviews. And while class costs "start" at $10, I found plenty in the $100-$200 range. There are English, math and history classes, but anime and blogging are also covered. There are also such things as classes that meet only once, which are considerably less expensive. I suspect there are all sorts of tricks to marketing yourself as a teacher in this environment. The site says that those who teach online earn an average of $50 USD per hour of teaching. That comes of course with no benefits or extras--good basic gig economy stuff.

Outschool currently claims a half-million students in over 200 countries--that's up from 80,000 pre-Covid. It may have helped that they offered chances to sign up for free last spring to those whose buildings had closed. Nathoo has been writing articles as well about how to avoid homeschooling problems and "why trying to re-create school at home isn't working." (Spoiler alert: because you need an on-line resource that gives you access to many topics in a variety of modes.) You can read about one family's trial of Outschool-- lessons include all manner of caveat emptor, including due diligence on instructors because "anyone can teach in Outschool." 

Another mainly positive review of Outschool by a writer who has used the platform as a teacher and a parent underlines how much caveating the emptor has to do because of the ease of getting yourself on the platform:

However, the process to apply is very easy. You just write a brief application and make an introductory video. Many people are approved within a couple hours of submitting the application. Some get rejected two or three times, but just make slight adjustments to their application and are approved – it is unclear to those who have gone through the process whether there was rigorous evaluation of the applications, or more the whim of the reviewer. There’s no interview… no mock teaching sessions before being hired. Just the application.

Teachers also create a LOT of new classes very quickly – many get inspired by an idea and knock out a class description and send it in. The first class you submit can take a week to get approved. But after that, you can receive an approval for a new class minutes after submitting the application, which makes me wonder how much attention is given to it. But, then again, classes can also be rejected for seemingly small reasons, then easily accepted when re-submitted. So, as I said, not a lot of oversight – there’s simply too many teachers and classes for there to be the sort of thorough evaluations that you as a parent might hope for.

Also, Outschool appears to have some serious copyright issues with many classes tied to pop culture topics and materials. Nor is it clear how the usual fair use rules apply in a situation that is not really a school. But Nathoo has some crazypants aspirations, as per this quote:

We’re now working to directly measure love of learning and have a research grant to study it further and establish a metric as an alternative to test scores.

I can't begin to imagine how that's going to work, and I'm dying to know who funded that grant, but if he can crack this code, there are bigger things ahead than running a platform for gigging educators.

I can't imagine trying to make a living on Outschool, and it will be interesting to see what happens to those 10,000 teachers when regular school buildings open up again. But the model is simple enough. Parents have to look out for their own interests, teachers have to look out for their own interests, nobody is really providing any oversight, and Outschool makes a bundle of money operating a platform. There's your educational Uber. 

Monday, February 15, 2021

Donors Choose Monday: Making Music

Continuing my plan to try to help a bit in the real classrooms of the nation. Not excusing the local districts that ought to be funding these projects, but I prefer to light and candle and curse the darkness at the same time. Multitasking, you know. 

This week I'm looking at some music asks, because music generally gets the short end of the too-small stick to begin with, and it's near and dear to my heart. As always, I invite you to donate to one of these , or to comb through the site for something near and dear to your heart, or to just reach out to a local teacher who can use something for her classroom.

Mr. Lewis is at the Ramon C Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts in Los Angeles (known unofficially as Grand Arts High School) and he would like to "take" his students to a virtual choir festival. The pandemic has been hard on performing groups everywhere, so this seems like a nice chance for his group.

Mr. Rodrigues at Homestead Senior High School in Homestead, Florida, would like a flugelhorn. If you're unfamiliar, a flugel is a mellower sibling of the trumpet (Chuck Mangione is the only guy I know of to ever popularize it), and very few high school musicians have one of their own--heck, not that many school programs have one. But it provides a little more richness and variety to the sound, and while I'd be just as happy if everyone had a trombone choir program, this is a worthy addition to any band program. 

Ms. Blizzard is at Dearing Elementary School in Dearing, Georgia, (a rural town with no traffic light) and she would like a bass xylophone for their Orff ensemble (she is Orff trained), which is a great percussiony way to get students involved in music. So basically, this would take something cool and make it cooler.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Another Biz-Friendly Edu-octopus

We live in an era in which companies grow primarily through acquisition, and what looks like a world of options is just many limbs of the same animal. Here's one more display of what the sausage family looks like.

This journey starts with a simple question-- here at the Institute, the CMO (chief marital officer) pulled out one of her programs from school and asked, "Who are these guys, anyway? I was trying to follow up on them and ended up on some other site entirely," knowing that I'm always interested in these sorts of questions. So stay with me here:

Learning A-Z

These guys are the creators and publishers of Vocabulary A-Z, a program from the Learning A-Z family of education-flavored products focused on lots of ed techy solutions. They are "an education technology company dedicated to expanding literacy through thoughtfully designed resources," which is good, because wow do I hate those other thoughtlessly designed resources. They focus on the PreK-6 market; the product family includes Reading A-Z, Science A-Z, Writing A-Z, Vocabulary A-Z, Raz-Kids, Raz-Plus, Headsprout and some big collections of materials.

Learning A-Z was founded in 2000 by Robert Holl, who was president of the company for a couple of decades. Holl taught for ten years, then left to get into the publishing biz, working for Addison-Wesley, Scott Foresman Publishing, and the Wright Group. And if Headsprout seems out of place on the list of products, that because they were acquired in 2013 by Learning A-Z; Headsprout itself had been acquired by Mimio, which was purchased by Skyview Capital LLC earlier in that same year. Mimio is still out there, now best known as the Boxlight people and are busy in the interactive whiteboard field. 

Meanwhile, in 2004, Learning A-Z was acquired by ProQuest, who also acquired ExploreLearning and Voyager Expanded Learning. But then they sold off most of their content to Cambridge Information Group and changed their name to Voyager Learning Company.

Lazel Inc

Up a level, we find that the Learning A-Z family of products is actually owned by Lazel Inc. When we start looking at these guys, it gets a bit more complicated because...well, they are based in Tucson, AZ, Robert Holl's home town. But for business purposes they are also based in Dallas (we'll explain why in a moment) and are incorporated in, of course, Delaware (if you wonder why that's common, here's an explainer. Short answer--taxes and very, very friendly court system).

Lazel's treasurer is Barbara Benson, which makes perfect sense because she is the CFO for the next level up.

Cambium Learning Group

Founded in 2003 as Cambium Learning Technologies, it has been a gobbling monster. We'll get back to the list in a bit, but remember Voyager Expanded Learning? They merged with Cambium in 2009, spawning Cambium Learning Group. 

Cambium's CEO is John Campbell. A Wharton School graduate, He worked for Commodore (the computer company--oh, C-64, how sweet you were back in the day), tech director for Tribune Media in Chicago back in the late 90s working on the tech strategy for the education publishing subsidiaries, McGraw-Hill (Breakthrough to Literacy was apparently his baby), and then in 2004, became senior VP of ProQuest. From there it was on to COO of Voyager Expanded Learning and then leadership at Cambium. His "about" on LinkedIn tells you where he sees his priorities:

Experienced CEO having increased the value of the company by 14.5x in 5 1/2 years. Managed the company from a being a public company to a private company owned by private equity.
Experienced in M&A, having led many successful acquisitions, including Learning A-Z, ExploreLearning, and Time4Learning.

The leadership team is about what you'd expect, with a Chief Marketing Officer, Chief Technology Officer, Chief Legal Officer, and, charmingly enough, a Chief People Officer. And the corporate argle bargle flows freely. The current president of Learning A-Z, whose background is in edu-biz marketing, starts her bio like this:

As an ardent change agent and leader serving the education market for over 20 years, Lisa O’Masta brings her passion for education and commitment to effective student outcomes to every organization she serves. As President for Learning A-Z, Lisa works to energize and evolve the market-leading, digital-first organization in service of K-6 students.

So who belongs to the family of "educational essentials"?

The Cambium Family

Voyager Sopris Learning is now run by Robert Holl, and it is its own web of various programs and companies dealing with literacy, math and professional development. Lexia Rapid Assessment is one of theirs, because Lexia Learning is also part of the Cambium family. The "sopris" and "voyager" names both have a tangled corporate history.

Kurzweil Education is the oldest member of the family, tracing its history back to Raymond Kurzweil and his machine that could do text to speech back in the 1970s (Cambium brags that Stevie Wonder was Kurzweil's first customer in 1997). Cambium bought them in 2005.

Time4Learning provides online homeschooling curriculum. Cambium picked that company up by also buying VKidz; the two were started by John Edelson in his own home in 2004. Vkidz "partnered" with private equity group VSS in 2016, then was glommed up by Cambium in 2018. Vkidz no longer exists as its own brand under Cambium, but Edelson is still the president of Time4Learning out of Ft. Lauderdale. 

ExploreLearning is a math-and-science-focused business. Computerized simulations called gizmos are their claim to fame. David Shuster got a BA and  PhD in applied mathematics from the University of Virginia, and went on to found this company 22 years ago. ProQuest grabbed them in 2005, and so they were part of the Voyager deal later on.

Lexia Learning came to Cambium as part of the package when Cambium bought Rosetta Stone (the language learning folks) in 2020; Rosetta Stone had acquired Lexia in 2013. In fact, it appears that Cambium bought Rosetta Stone only to get its hands on Lexia, it just announced its intention to sell off the language learning portion of Rosetta Stone. 

Finally, Cambium also operates Cambium Assessment, which used to be the assessment division of American Institute for Research before Cambium bought them in 2019. You'll remember AIR as the folks who brought us lots and lots of awesome Common Core testing, first with the Smarter Balanced Assessment and later with varied other state-specific products (e.g. Ohio and Florida). And if you hated them when they were doing all that, you'll really hate their newest hot idea-- using AI to tag students as "at risk" based on testing responses. No way that could end badly, and their track record is super.

Update: h/t Bill Fitzgerald. I had missed that the Cambium Assessment "test delivery system" is used by the College Board for their digital testing. Cambium Assessment claims they "served" 38% of students in the U.S. Which means on top of everything else, between Cambium and the College Board, there's a heck of a data base in play here. 

So while Cambium is no Pearson (not quite, not yet), chances are you've crossed paths with them at some point. But if you've been reading carefully so far, you'll have noticed we have one more level to climb. The leash on the octopus, as it were.

Veritas Capital

In 2018, looking to plant some investment in the ed tech space, Veritas Capital bought Cambium

Veritas is a private equity company that's two whole decades old. Says their website, "We invest in companies that provide critical products and services, primarily technology or technology-enabled solutions, to government and commercial customers worldwide." But perhaps the scarier part, if you're a small tentacle they've decided to partner with, is this:

We seek to create value by strategically transforming the companies we acquire. Our sector focus and deep expertise are our competitive discriminators and allow us to identify and execute on multiple strategic levers that drive the performance of our investments.

They "employ an active approach to ownership and value creation," which has a pretty ominous Bond villainy sound to it. The world of acquisitions and mergers is a crazy world. You can play this who acquired whom game all day and never find a place that seems solid and stable. 

Bottom line is this. If you're using any of this vast array of products, you're tapped into a network that involves layers and layers of management that is for the most part far more business oriented than education oriented--certainly not layers and layers of people who are thinking in terms of what a classroom teacher wants or needs or experiences. And the higher in the corporate layers you go, the more you find people who think the company's purpose is to create value and provide ROI to equity managers. Education flavored products are just a means to that end.