Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Connect the dots: Stephenson & Adams want to give away public ed. money to connected companies…and enable a national database of Utah students to be mined for profit??

                                      (UPDATE AT BOTTOM OF POST 3-9-13)
I’ve got a lot to say about custom RFP’s (Referrals to Friends of stePhenson) this session and in the past (Imagine Learning, iSchool, Waterford, etc.), but I’ll have to limit my focus tonight. Senator Stuart Adams had become PCE’s admitted newest waterboy over the last couple of sessions, and I’m fairly certain they coordinate and spread around which of their legislator friends will carry certain bills.

1. Senator Howard Stephenson wants to make sure all legal obstacles to accessing and publishing teacher data—student scores grouped by teacher—are removed with his SB 133. He claims the public will benefit from teachers being ranked and compared by standardized test scores. All questions of population and demographics, and the inevitable screwing over of special ed., ELL, and other poor students, are waved off: “There will be plenty of context.” (The simple fiscal note also took a month to be returned, resulting in this bill being slightly hurried in the second half of the session.)

As a separate caveat that will be important further down, remember that all of this supposed “teacher data” is more accurately a bunch of individual student test scores. The scores of actual Utah students attached to records containing names, grades, and social security numbers.

(The whole concept is wrong because of important technical and practical considerations, as well as questionably moral. Here is a one link to the posts on VAM (Value-Added Measurement) by an educational statistician at Rutgers, with a large focus on New York where this has already happened and been demonstrated inaccurate and harmful to teachers AND thus students. )

2. Senator Jerry Stevenson is now running SB 82, Student Achievement Backpack.  This bill’s original non-public drafting was requested by Howard Stephenson, and the numbered bill was listed under his name until a few days ago. Somehow the bill got switched to another senator; I suspect this was in order to diffuse the concentration of educational software bills being promoted by Stephenson. (This bill was not revealed to the public until late February and then was held in committee for two more weeks, ensuring that it will not have to go through the House Education Committee and face more testimony from the public. It will instead be rushed right to the House Floor Calendar if it passes the Senate. The public may not comment on the floor, unless they have the legislators’ personal cell numbers to text like the lobbyists do.)

I believe every school district in Utah has an online portal where parents can access their student’s records, seeing their current grades and past test performance. I could be wrong about some rural district, but I doubt it. All parents have to do is log in. In keeping with local control and budget priorities, the contracts for providing these online services are handled by the individual districts. When students switch schools, the records with grades and test scores are sent on with the student, with a slight delay while the new school requests the record from the old one.

So the bill really is pointless. Half a million dollars this year and $110K a year to duplicate what already exists, but centralized and controlled by the state. However Stephenson was vehement in his support for the concept and criticism of the educators who were explaining this to the Senate Education committee. All of the concerns about duplication and wasting scarce education fund money were only “excuses for not wanting parents to receive this information.”  It’s all about the children you selfish teachers! (Notice that the sponsor has chosen not to make the fiscal note public. Does it contain any concerns that the claimed costs are too low?) PCE’s spokesperson perpetuated the misconception that having access to your student’s records was some new innovation.

3. Stephenson certainly has a specific company, who may or may not be one of the Utah Taxpayers Association’s secret clients, in mind to design and administer this database. He has demonstrated in the past that he has no qualms about tailoring RFP’s (Requests For Proposals) in order to ensure that a favored contractor wins the government contract.

4. There’s a larger playing field of educational philosophy these bills are being positioned on. Both bills are based on and tacitly strengthen the assumption that teachers are the only variable that matters in education, and that their interests are opposed to students. There are many horrible teachers lazing around, and if we only pressure them more by centralizing this newly available data on teachers and students, we’ll quickly and innovatively find magic silver bullets to educate poor students that are cheap AND effective! (One of those assumptions is actually true, and leads to substantial profits for those involved…)

Both also lay the ground for a largely privatized system of “backpack” funding, the euphemistic term for vouchers, where students are constantly switching schools or “voting with their feet” in a competitive arena of variously priced schools. Of course, continually jumping back and forth between schools and losing most neighborhood schools, except those still educating the very poorest and most disabled students, won’t harm the students academically or socially.

4. Having all Utah students’ data in one expensive, redundant database at the state would I guess allow for slightly easier transfers in such a scenario. Charters often struggle a little bit more sending information in a timely fashion as they don’t always have the same staff and experience with the paperwork as the districts, but it still seems a bit weird to be pushing this so hard.

5. So now look at Senator Adam’s other seemingly unconnected bill which was the most out-of-the-blue bolt of technological wonder in a session full of software that will save education, SB 257, Personalized Education Evaluation Technology.  (This bill wasn’t revealed to the public until the last day of February. It too will skip public comment in the House Education Committee.)

Wow. What a concept! We’ll push the total dismantling of district economies of scale and teacher contracts with SB 110, mandating a huge increase in principals’ budgeting and HR responsibilities, but then pilot a way to have a computer program replace their evaluations of teachers. Maybe it makes a strange kind of sense. If you plan on making the principal do what a staff of accountants and HR people previously handled at the district level, he or she will not have time for the unimportant work of observing and mentoring teachers. It’s a great way to spend $70,000 this year before expanding the program next year and claiming that this isn’t taking away local control. “21st Century local control” means you get to turn the computer on yourself.

I don’t for a second believe Senator Adams (or even Senator Stephenson) came up with this chestnut alone. Who in the world is pushing this solution searching desperately for a problem?

6. While my head was spinning from the ridiculousness of this newest way to claim technology can replace teachers and principals (ridiculousness that passed the Senate Education Committee on a 5-1 vote earlier today), I saw a bunch of tweets from some national education people I follow about the Gates Foundation’s national student database. I continue to be very “meh” on the Common Core, but have largely dismissed the conspiracy theorists claiming the national takeover. It was hard for me to swallow their hypocritical denunciations of the Gates Foundation funding and backing, when they accepted their money and theories, as well as other out-of-state millions from Walmart channeled through Parents for Choice in Education, when they backed their pet proposals for merit pay or vouchers.

But this new information about what the Gates foundation is doing along with Fox New’s educational software company, Amplify, and others, is something that may unite varied groups in Utah against national student databases. It’s not the government gathering student data into one place to exploit our children; it’s educational software companies...

A few excerpts from a Reuters article from the SXSWedu technology conference going on right now in Texas:

But the most influential new product may be the least flashy: a $100 million database built to chart the academic paths of public school students from kindergarten through high school.

In operation just three months, the database already holds files on millions of children identified by name, address and sometimes social security number. Learning disabilities are documented, test scores recorded, attendance noted. In some cases, the database tracks student hobbies, career goals, attitudes toward school - even homework completion.

Local education officials retain legal control over their students' information. But federal law allows them to share files in their portion of the database with private companies selling educational products and services.

Entrepreneurs can't wait.

The database is a joint project of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which provided most of the funding, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and school officials from several states. Amplify Education, a division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, built the infrastructure over the past 18 months. When it was ready, the Gates Foundation turned the database over to a newly created nonprofit, inBloom Inc, which will run it.

Schools do not need parental consent to share student records with any "school official" who has a "legitimate educational interest," according to the Department of Education. The department defines "school official" to include private companies hired by the school, so long as they use the data only for the purposes spelled out in their contracts. 

The article interviews several software executives who will use this database to “personalize” programs for students as they sell them. Then it interestingly moves on to professional development for teachers.

Companies with access to the database will also be able to identify struggling teachers and pinpoint which concepts their students are failing to master. One startup that could benefit: BloomBoard, which sells schools professional development plans customized to each teacher.

The new database "is a godsend for us," said Jason Lange, the chief executive of BloomBoard. "It allows us to collect more data faster, quicker and cheaper." 

What a fortunate coincidence! Read the “open” RFP for software in SB 257 lines 55-76.  This program must contain “personalized professional development plans” with a “reporting dashboard,” a “free observation tool,” and a “free online library of professional development. ” Now go to Bloomboard’s website and see what three features are offered on the front page:

• Free observation & evaluation tools for districts

• Individualized learning plans & personalized support recommendations for teachers

• An open marketplace of workshops and resources for professional development

Next, scroll down one page to watch the handy video, remembering that lines 64-66 of the bill require the program to tell you the most effective resources according to “data on the implementation of professional development activities.” Another lucky break! This program happens to claim that exact function. (1:13-1:26 in video.)

Very convincing.  Evaluations are hard!

One page below, the sample dashboard with three tabs is even more convincing. The very non-generic evaluation and goals under the “Coach” tab are powerful, and the “Connect” tab shows an “online library of professional development” complete with articles and videos of classroom games, all apparently categorized on Levels 1 to 4. You just plug in a teacher’s test scores and a video, and this program, based on a proprietary collection of data that is 100% trustworthy, will give us personalized weblinks to other peoples’ educational training that we never could have googled ourselves. The program will pay for itself because now we can stop paying teachers to meet together for professional development. They will just go home and on their own time read a few links of “online resources” that are “more personalized” than face-to-face training. It’s brilliant!

7. And the key to making this marvelous miracle of 21st Century education work…a database with all of the students’ scores, identified by teacher and class, gathered to one central location.

This would normally seem an insurmountable obstacle in a state devoted to protecting its children.  However, in *another* fortunate coincidence, SB 133 allows the necessary data to be made available, and SB 82 unnecessarily gathers it into one central database. SB 257’s coincidental match with Bloomboard’s specifications will then not be in vain, and BOTH school choice AND school profits will be enabled. And all for the children.

Life is just full of surprises.

UPDATE:  Well, I found some smoking guns of a sort.  There is no more need to only infer what is happening from the non-coincidental program links.  I have quotes from those organizing the massive database, inBloom or Ed-Fi. The dots have been connected.  They make a cute picture of a dollar sign: $ :which is now hanging on Bill Gates' refrigerator. 


Anonymous said...

Two known accomplices this session are freshmen Representatives Anderegg and Lifferth.

J Michael said...

Thanks for this great post. LOL on your definition of RFP. So true.

To your observation that "It’s not the government gathering student data into one place to exploit our children; it’s educational software companies..." --it's both. Student data is the new gold rush and both the Feds and private corporations want it, and are working together to get it. It's not a conspiracy, both the Feds and the corps are very open about their goals to replace local, teacher-driven education with data-driven, centrally-managed, screen-based education.

And yes, this is not a partisan issue. It's parents/teachers vs BigGov/BigEd. Most (not all) Dem/Rep politicians are in the tank for BigGov/BigEd.

At the state (Utah) level, Stephenson opposes central planning unless it is education--then he's all for it. I think in his mind taking control of education away from parents and teachers is a small price to pay for the (perceived, not real) efficiencies in educating a "workforce." The great irony is that the more education is focused on "workforce," (think Industrial Revolution), the less our children will be prepared for solving problems in a rapidly-changing work landscape.

Google Classical Education. This is what we need in the 21st century.