Fables of School Reform

Ed-tech investors keep chasing their own tales

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Over the past five years, more than $13 billion in venture capital has been sunk into education technology startups. But in spite of all the money and political capital pouring into the sprawling ed-tech sector, there’s precious little evidence suggesting that its trademark innovations have done anything to improve teaching and learning.

Perhaps, though, that’s never really been the point. Rather, it may be that all the interest in education technology has been an extension of a long-running campaign to make over American schools into the image of corporate endeavor—to transform education into a marketplace for buzzword-friendly apps and instruction plans, while steadily privatizing public institutions of learning for the sake of enhancing the bottom lines of the business interests promoting investment-friendly school “reforms.”

Viewed in this light, the boom in ed tech has ideological roots that stretch back to the first wave of modern school reform in the Progressive Era. Even pre-internet efforts to upgrade the technological prowess of American schools came swathed in the quasi-millennial promise of complete school transformation. The vision of more efficient classrooms and more “personalized learning” thanks to various kinds of teaching machines appeared in virtual lockstep with the Taylorite quest to impose a new gospel of efficiency on American factory floors. But as a matter of policy, the tech-based overhaul of our schools became firmly enshrined as reformist orthodoxy in the wake of the Reagan-era publication of A Nation at Risk. The report, issued with great fanfare by the ominously named National Commission on Excellence in Education, argued that American schools were failing and, as a result, the prospects for the country’s future economic growth were dire.

To drive this point home, A Nation at Risk seized on a recent decline in SAT scores. But as is often the case with alarmist factoids, this one was wrenched out of historical context: since the 1960s, more students were taking the exam than ever before—and what’s more, SAT performance had actually increased among all subgroups. But these mere empirical concerns were no match for an alarmist media narrative. What mattered was the story, not the research: the system was broken, and business should fix it. The rhetoric of A Nation at Risk helped justify a number of education reform policies that followed—namely more “accountability,” more testing, more school choice.

Machine Unlearning

The publication of A Nation at Risk also coincided with some of the earliest efforts to place personal computers in classrooms. As the culturally venerated symbols of knowledge-based success, computers have consistently served as the all-purpose poster gadget for the ed-tech agenda. Outfitting struggling schools with computers was a self-evident bid to render the public education system more efficient and effective—and the entirely foreseeable fallout from that blitz has been the recent push toward vocational training that prepares students for a technological future: “everyone should learn to code.”

As the culturally venerated symbols of knowledge-based success, computers have consistently served as the all-purpose poster gadget for the ed-tech agenda.

The tech-mogul variant of that directive is “everyone should learn to privatize.” One of the most important figures in funding the interlocking crusades of ed tech and school privatization has been, to the surprise of no one, Microsoft founder Bill Gates. (Gates alone has accounted for roughly one-sixth of the enormous outlay of capital for ed-tech initiatives over the past five years—some $2.2 billion. But his influence extends well beyond mere dollars, since the Gates Foundation effectively sets the agenda that most of the financial leaders of the movement uncritically endorse and pursue.) Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs—that other key player in the rise of personal computing—is also deeply involved in education reform. She’s a global ambassador for Teach for All, an international organization modeled on Teach for America. She’s also the founder of the venture capital firm the Emerson Collective, which makes many education technology investments and now boasts Obama’s former Secretary of Education—and stalwart charter-school propagandist—Arne Duncan as one of its partners.

Indeed, the more one examines the interlocking directorates of the ed-tech movement and Silicon Valley, the breathless boosterism of this or that disruptive software pitch recedes, and a striking behind-the-scenes business narrative emerges: many of those involved in education reform in the years following A Nation at Risk—those arguing for vouchers and charter schools and testing, for example—are still heavily involved in ed-tech investing today. The financialization of education, that is to say, is not particularly new nor is it coming from a particularly innovative crowd—just a decidedly persistent one.

Pedagogy of the Oppressors

In April of 2018, some seventeen thousand scholars gathered in New York City for the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association—an event often touted as the largest gathering of education researchers. And at the same time, on the opposite side of the country, some 4,500 education investors and entrepreneurs flocked to San Diego for the ASU + GSV Annual Summit, a business of education conference fondly known as “Davos in the Desert.” The New York confab offered five days of panel presentations on the latest in education research and policy; the more market-driven San Diego gathering featured pitches, not peer-reviewed papers, along with the latest education reform narratives touted by celebrities like Matthew McConaughey and politicians like former Mexican President Vicente Fox and former U.S. President George W. Bush.

I was supposed to be on a panel at AERA. Instead, I went to ASU+GSV. I sat in the front row for McConaughey’s talk where the man who played the spiritual godfather to Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street briskly explained that there is no “g” in his “just keep livin” foundation because “life is a verb.” So much, in other words, for education research.

But neither research nor grammatical expression was the order of the day in the moneyed networking preserves of San Diego. Here’s how the sponsor of the ASU+GSV Summit, the venture capital firm Global Silicon Valley, described the event: “The Summit continues to bring together the most impactful [sic] people from diverse constituencies—entrepreneurs, business leaders, educators, policymakers, philanthropists, and university and district leaders—to create partnerships, explore solutions, and shape the future of learning.”

In addition to the conspicuous absence of education researchers from the “constituencies” served at Davos in the Desert, there was no mention of either students or parents. Indeed, every year (this year’s was its ninth), the ASU+GSV Summit seems to nearly coincide with AERA, an organization that’s been around since the early 1910s. It’s hardly an insignificant scheduling gaffe. If nothing else, the dueling conference schedules tap into a powerful cultural trope, one that’s particularly resonant among Silicon Valley and education reform types: that education experts and expertise aren’t to be trusted, that research is less important than politics, that the “peer review” that matters isn’t the academic version, but rather the sort that drives a typical VC roadshow. Any sort of “review” in the ASU+GSV framework would be a kind of networking or power brokering—it’s who you know, not what you know; it’s not how you wield the findings of your own research (or learn from that of others) as much as it’s how you wield your relationships.

The now-conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley is that venture capitalists don’t invest in ideas; they invest in people. But that bit of pseudo-folk wisdom is profoundly misleading. Clearly, ideas do matter. Ideology matters. Metaphors matter. The way in which one talks about public education matters—the notion that it’s “broken,” for example, and that it needs to be fixed through market-based mechanisms. Ideas shape the products that entrepreneurs build and the policies that self-styled reformers promote. Investors might select certain people as entrepreneurs or back certain officials as reformers, but that’s because they do share ideas. More important, they share networks.

The New Old Thing

The networks that create a lucrative round robin of education technology entrepreneurs, investors, education reformers, and education philanthropists are clearly the driving force of ASU+GSV. The ASU that is paired up with Global Silicon Valley is Arizona State University. Under the leadership of president Michael Crow, ASU has undertaken an ambitious rebranding campaign, seeking to conjure a fairly by-the-wayside state college formerly known as one of the country’s top “party schools,” into “the New American University.” The chief managerial ingredient in this transformation has been Crow’s full-throated commitment to running the school like—yes—a business: eschewing traditional job protections for faculty, reorganizing academic departments, and cutting a series of high-profile deals with corporations, private donors, and conservative foundations.

Matthew McConaughey briskly explained that there is no “g” in his “just keep livin” foundation because “life is a verb.”

Before joining ASU in 2002, Crow worked as Columbia University’s executive vice provost. There he helped launch Fathom, an online learning portal that opened in 2000 and that closed three years later after failing to attract students (or make money) despite the $30 million or so the school put into the initiative. Undeterred by Fathom’s failure, Crow has continued to expand ASU’s online offerings—partnering with the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) provider edX, for example, to offer the Global Freshman Academy where students can take online courses but not pay for the credits until after they’ve achieved a passing grade. As is the case in so many other fields, the grand promise of system-wide disruption in ed tech is increasingly a polite euphemism for payola by other means.

Despite the singularly wan track record of ed-tech products and curricula, the ardent backers of MOOCs and other such ed-tech disruptions like to say that “this time it’s different”—that technologies have now advanced so far and access to them has expanded so much that the time is ripe for the long-promised re-engineering of the public-education landscape. That’s highly debatable. Still, what hasn’t changed, it seems, are many of the figures involved in funding these ideas—together with the ideas themselves, which have remained stalwartly gadget-obsessed and market-centered for the past thirty-odd years, despite all the talk about innovation.

“Our name—like our passion for visionary entrepreneurs and companies,” reads the Global Silicon Valley website, “is inspired by this place with the power to transform. We’re proud that the heart of global innovation is also our home. And much like Silicon Valley has redefined business, GSV aims to redefine growth investing.”

Binge and Surge

One of the investors at GSV is Deborah Quazzo. The co-founder of the ASU+GSV Summit, she is one of the most active investors in the ed-tech sector. Quazzo was appointed to the Chicago Public Schools board by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2013 where she served until reports in the Chicago Sun Times found that the district had tripled its spending on companies in her investment portfolio over the course of her tenure. Although Quazzo insisted there was no wrongdoing, she stepped down from the board. The investments in question were a Mad Libs-style grab-bag of ed-tech buzzphrases: Academic Approach, Dreambox Learning, MasteryConnect, Think Through Learning, and ThinkCERCA, among others. But one of the most valuable investments in Quazzo’s overlapping civic-personal portfolio (although not apparently included in the Chicago funding spree) was EdSurge. This flagship ed-tech company netted a “Return on Education” innovation award from ASU+GSV in 2013, and serves as the movement’s premier online clearing house for education reform narratives about the future of schools. EdSurge’s other investors include almost all the major venture capitalists in education technology. “Return on education” indeed.

Quazzo worked at Merrill Lynch’s Global Growth Group from 1987 to 2001, a stint that overlapped that of her co-founder at GSV, Michael Moe. While at Merrill Lynch, Moe was a vocal proponent of the school management company Edison Schools’ initial public offering in 1999. At the ASU+GSV Summit this spring, he introduced the founder of Edison, Chris Whittle—a legendarily profit-minded pioneer of school-reform entrepreneurship who was eagerly pitching his latest education venture edgily named Whittle School & Studios—as “one of the all-time great entrepreneurs in the education space.”

The market-driven model of public education was curiously immune to adverse market outcomes.

The cover story for the March 1990 issue of Vanity Fair offered a different interpretation. “Is Chris Whittle the devil?” it asked. Whittle was, at the time, the founder of Whittle Communications, a Tennessee-based media company that, among other outlets, ran Channel One, an advertising-filled cable news channel transmitted to middle and high school classrooms. Whittle unveiled his “Edison Project” in 1991, his vision for a for-profit chain of schools—a vision that drew heavily on Milton Friedman’s ideas about school choice. In promoting the Edison Project, Whittle was betting that President George H. W. Bush was poised to institute Friedman’s pet school-reform proposal: a voucher system that would enable students to use public dollars to attend private schools—an act that would surely be a boon to a company like Edison. President Bush’s Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander, was a proponent of vouchers too. And like Quazzo, the Tennessee Republican was feathering his own portfolio with the gains won at the vanguard of the school privatization movement: he’d been a shareholder in Whittle Communications and sat on the advisory board for Channel One.

Bush’s voucher plan never materialized, as he lost his bid for re-election. Edison was refashioned as a sub-contractor, taking over and managing schools. But interest—and investment—in school privatization proceeded apace. Whittle picked as his chief educational officer John Chubb, who’d co-authored the influential book Politics, Markets, and America’s Choice with Terry Moe in 1990—a book that argued that schools must be given autonomy from democratic control. In 1999, Michael Moe and Merrill Lynch published The Book of Knowledge, a report on “investing in the growing education and training industry.” In it, Moe predicted that “10 percent of the publicly funded K-12 school market will be privately managed ten years from now, implying a market of over $30 billion in today’s dollars.” The prediction was wrong. Edison lost hundreds of millions of dollars. But the market-driven model of public education was curiously immune to adverse market outcomes—which is why Edison alumnae continue to lord over the new millennial push for privatized school reform.

One of the more influential such figures is Jim Shelton, who served as president of Edison’s LearnNow division. From there, Shelton worked as a program director at the Gates Foundation from 2003 to 2010, then as assistant deputy secretary and later deputy secretary of education from 2009 to 2015. Following his stint in the Obama administration, Shelton went to work at 2U, an online education program management company co-founded by John Katzman, founder of the test prep company Princeton Review. Shelton recently stepped down as the head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s education program.

For his part, John Katzman was awarded the lifetime achievement award at this year’s ASU+GSV Summit. Katzman is also one of the most active investors in education technology, including—yes—an investor in EdSurge. (The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, founded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, also funds EdSurge, conveniently enough.) On stage at ASU+GSV, Jonathan Grayer, formerly the CEO of the test prep company Kaplan and now the head of Weld North, quipped about Katzman that at one point “half the people [at the conference] worked for us or were related to us.”

Personalized for What?

In the world beyond the conference lectern, the joke isn’t quite so funny. The connections to Kaplan, to Edison, and to Princeton Review run throughout the expanding, overlapping circles of ed tech and education reform. Meanwhile, for-profit education, tutoring, and test prep remain some of the most popular—and lucrative—areas for education investing.

Not unlike the features on new Mac tablets and iPhone platforms, these stubborn fixtures of our privatizing education scene rarely change in any meaningful way, but they do occasionally get renamed and re-labeled for the sake of strategic marketing. The popular phrase to describe computer-based test prep and tutoring is now “personalized learning,” and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative says it will spend billions of dollars over the lifetime of its founders on education, including personalized learning projects. (The Zuckerbergs have apparently failed to meet the basic personalized learning challenge of heeding one’s disastrous past mistakes, since they’re embarking on ever more ambitious schemes for school privatization in the wake of the spectacular bust of the Zuckerberg-sponsored $100 million bid to remake the underperforming Newark, New Jersey, schools in the market’s preferred image.)

It’s not clear that research supports personalized learning—indeed, it’s often not clear what reformers, politicians, entrepreneurs, or investors mean when they invoke the phrase. “Personalized learning” can sometimes mean that students “move at their own pace” through lessons and assignments, unlike those classrooms where everyone is expected to move through material together. Or “personalized learning” can mean that students have a say in what they learn—the topics they study and the activities they undertake. Another definition holds that it’s driven by students’ own interests and inquiry rather than by the demands or standards imposed by the instructor, the school, or the state. And still another school of thought contends that it’s an instruction method driven by students’ varied abilities or needs; it’s a way of navigating the requirements of school bureaucracies and requesting appropriate accommodations—“individualized education plans” and the like. But whatever else it may prove to be in practice, you can rest assured that “personalized learning” is the latest and greatest technological development, unlocked through data collection, automated assessment, and through the programmatic presentation of new or next materials to study.

So, for example, Chris Whittle boasted at the ASU+GSV Summit that his new business—the private-school chain Whittle School & Studios—will be the “world’s most personalized school.” He later added that the chain, will comply with the Chinese national curriculum when it opens its first schools there in 2019; personalized learning clearly doesn’t rule out the massive conquest of foreign markets.

For its part, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has also hired Bror Saxberg, formerly an executive at Kaplan (owned by Graham Holdings, once the owner of the Washington Post and, again, an investor in EdSurge) as its (no, I’m not making this up) chief learning officer. It also hired Katrina Stevens, who worked at the Department of Education in the Obama administration and who worked at EdSurge, as its director of learning science.

Blood Will Tell

To gain some clarity amid all this unhinged marketing-speak, it’s perhaps useful to recur to a recent fiasco from the wider tech world—the collapse of the blood-testing startup Theranos. As John Warner has written, “One of the striking parts of the Theranos story is that people with actual knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering knew that the Theranos device was a fantasy requiring not just an improvement on existing technology, but some kind of fundamental upheaval of all that was previously known about the highly developed subfields of serology and microfluidics.” Warner suggests that there are some instructive parallels between Theranos and education technology—another field in which those without experience or expertise are nonetheless funded on a lavish scale.

Indeed, among the roster of investors who lost millions in the Theranos scam were a number of powerful education reformers: the family of the U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, for example; the Walton Family, the heirs to the Walmart fortune and deep-pocketed backers of the charter school movement; the Mexican telecommunications mogul Carlos Slim, who has given millions of dollars to Khan Academy; and Rupert Murdoch, whose education investments included Amplify, once the education wing of his company News Corp.

It’s perhaps no great surprise that a group of wealthy, right-wing families shared an interest in Theranos and were granted elite status among the firm’s financial backers; after all, it’s just one more example of powerful investor networks at work. At one point, Theranos boasted that its board of directors included several other prominent conservative figures, such as former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger and General James Mattis, the current secretary of defense. As John Carreyrou writes in his exposé on the company, Bad Blood, many of these investors were introduced to Theranos through Shultz’s connections at the Hoover Institution, the conservative think tank housed at Stanford University where many of the other board members were also fellows.

But what was the appeal of Theranos to a group more commonly associated with education policy and education technology investments? Perhaps it was simply that Theranos promised the same kind of miraculous technological fix that continues to dominate the reveries of ed-tech investors. It is, after all, much the same story that startups usually peddle: incumbent players in an industry—be it health care or education—have little interest in disrupting status-quo arrangements. No, only a bold, outside innovator can see beyond the constraints that expertise typically places on those working within a field.

I listened to the stories and pondered just how it is that educators—particularly administrators—gradually acquire and echo the argot, social habits, and general mindset of on-the-make financiers.

Theranos marks just one of the DeVos family’s financial ventures in a company promoting dubious cure-all technologies based on dubious scientific and medical claims. Betsy DeVos and her husband have backed Neurocore, for example—a company that runs “brain performance” centers and has drawn scrutiny from the National Advertising Review Board for the claims it makes about its treatment offerings for ADHD, depression, stress, anxiety, and memory loss. Scientific evidence simply does not support the outcomes Neurocore promises from its neurofeedback technology.

But the gulf between research and marketing doesn’t appear to deter the stampede of investment in the ed-tech sphere. Indeed, education technology apparently thrives on more than standard-issue networks of capital and social power—it has become inextricably bound up in networks of influence that mainly peddle misinformation. At gatherings like ASU+GV, it’s increasingly clear that ed-tech entrepreneurs are looking to downplay the absence of reliable scientific evidence demonstrating the tangible benefits of certain technologies—and to compensate for that gap with ever more fanciful storytelling, and powerfully ramifying political connections.

Story Time

This, in any event, is the de facto mission of ASU+GSV. You go either as an entrepreneur to pitch investors—or as an investor to be pitched by ed-tech disruptors. And you go to have your own sense of mission bolstered by the anecdotal feel-good stories on the conference stage.

To be sure, a certain class of VC backer doesn’t bother with the formal proceedings at all. “Investors don’t go to sessions,” was a de facto refrain at this year’s gathering. “All the buzz is outside,” I overheard one entrepreneur say to another. “In seven years coming here, I’ve never attended a session.” And the sessions that did draw the interest of VC angels tended to be exceptions that proved the rule—Chris Whittle’s pitch for his new school, for example.

In my own capacity as a non-participant observer, I listened to the stories told from the various stages and pondered just how it is that educators in attendance—particularly administrators—gradually acquire and echo the argot, social habits, and general mindset of on-the-make financiers and executives.

This happens all the time, of course, and not just at “business of education” conferences. (Remember, if you will, the insistence from the innovation-minded members of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors that the school was missing the coming “MOOC tsunami” based on columns they’d read in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.) Stories about the future of education—particularly a market-friendly, tech-directed future—are ubiquitous, repeated in all sorts of prominent venues, by influential storytellers.

These stories, like most of the campfire tales confected to be savored among the donor class, are often full of inaccuracies and misinformation. At ASU+GSV, I heard plenty of enthusiastic talk about the challenges of educating “digital natives” and customizing curricula and instruction methods to their “learning styles.” Amid this flurry of nonsignifying jargon, reassuring banalities would be barked from the speaker’s podium: “Society is evolving at a faster and faster rate” and “Technology is moving faster than it’s ever moved before” were common refrains. There was all the usual talk from the various stages and panels of job-stealing robots and the “jobs that don’t exist yet.”

Lest you think the crowd just made up statistics on the fly, I suppose it’s worth noting that University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth did point out in her keynote that the “10,000-hour rule”—popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s own wildly popular theory of skills acquisition—was not quite true. But by and large, the sorts of pithy claims you find in the popular, nonfiction books they sell at airports—Gladwell’s books—seem to be accepted whole cloth.

I heard someone say, for example, that kids learn everything from YouTube these days so they don’t need much of what’s taught to them in school. I heard someone from Facebook relay the story about the company being “founded in a Harvard dorm room”—a tale that Zuckerberg repeated during his congressional testimony on the site’s sinister role in political discourse earlier this year—and then contend that “education is at our core. It’s at the true foundation of what the platform was invented for.”

I also heard an Australian entrepreneur tell a packed room that “up ‘til two years ago, Australia didn’t do anything related to ed tech.” I wanted to ask him if he’s ever heard of the Methodist Ladies’ College. The Melbourne school was the site, more than twenty-five years ago, of the first-ever adoption of a one-to-one laptop program. I wanted to ask him, as well, if he knew which country the founder of the most popular learning management system in the world was from. (That would be Moodle, whose founder, Martin Dougiamas, is, yes, Australian.)

But you know the old aphorism: those who don’t learn from history are condemned to network their way into well-connected luxury and clout. Besides, why dally with the notion of history at all when everything is moving so very fast along such clearly delineated pathways to personal success? There’ll be an app for making the past entirely irrelevant soon enough—peddled as new and “disruptive” by the same diligent entrepreneurs who’ve been vying to privatize every last public school over the last three decades. And with any luck, it’ll be the toast of next year’s ASU+GSV.

Audrey Watters is a writer and independent scholar who focuses on education technology---its politics and its pedagogical implications. She is a recipient of the Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship at Columbia University for the 2017-2018 academic year.

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