Hack Education: Inequality, 'Brand Ambassadors,' and the Business of Selling (to) Classrooms

The Evergreen School District in Washington has told its teachers to stop using Donors Choose to raise money for classroom supplies and projects. According to KATU2, “The Washington State Auditor’s Office advised the district that a policy needs to be put in place to ensure that the money is properly handled, and that the items are designated as district property and put in the district inventory.”

Peter Greene argues that this new policy is about control – who gets to decide what is purchased for a classroom or school. One might pick up on an unspoken message in the decree too: teachers can’t be fully trusted to make procurement decisions. The district already has a system in place to do buy things, one that supposedly checks to make sure that purchases are necessary or “appropriate,” that (tax) dollars are spent wisely, and that no ethical or legal issues arise.

But does the district procurement process work? (Not just in this district. Anywhere.) For whom does it work? For whom does it not?

Of course, crowdfunding sites like Donors Choose (which boasts it’s helped raise some $571 million for school projects) are just one way that educators stock their classrooms with items that district budgets don’t (or won’t or can’t) pay for. Teachers spend a fair amount of money out their own pockets to this end as well – about $470 on average, often for basic office and classroom supplies. And this occurs alongside the burden of buying classroom supplies that falls on families too – there are reports this fall that the price tag for many back-to-school lists runs from $650 (for an elementary school student) to $1500 (for a high school student). That’s a lot of money for anyone, but particularly for the over half of US public school students who are eligible for the federal free and reduced lunch program, a proxy for living in poverty.

School supplies, whether paid for by taxpayers, teachers, or parents, are an equity issue. And adding technology to the shopping list might just make things worse – and not simply because these products can be expensive.

This weekend, New York Times reporter Natasha Singer published the latest article in her series on “Education Disrupted”: “Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues.” The story follows two teachers – Nicholas Provenzano from Gross Pointe South High School in Michigan and Kayla Delzer from Mapleton Elementary School in North Dakota – who have leveraged their social media followings to become high profile “influencers” in education technology, receiving new products for their classroom (for “free” and outside the district procurement process) in exchange for promoting them to other teachers in turn. 

None of this is entirely new – some teachers have always sought to bring supplemental materials into the classroom at their own initiative and risk, particularly when it comes to technology (computing and otherwise). But this latest version of the “entrepreneurial teacher” as described in The New York Times is deeply intertwined with Silicon Valley’s version of “the hustle”; it’s one that demands that teachers take on a second shift (a 24–7 shift even) on technology platforms in order to build their own brands; and it’s one that reinforces the notion that it should be the responsibility of individual teachers to identify, buy, and promote technology, often justified by insisting they’re “doing the best they can” for their students. (Success in raising money on Donors Choose, for example, can depend to a great extent on a teacher’s ability to leverage her or his social media presence to spread word of the crowdfunding campaign.) This acclamation of the individual education “innovator” or entrepreneur and dismissal of a collective responsibility dovetails with talk of the failure of public institutions, as well as with another popular corporate narrative: “the procurement system is broken,” as ed-tech startups are won’t to say. But again, broken how and broken for whom?

"I am in this profession for kids," these celebrity educators insist, not for money or fame. But altruism is not the same as justice.

“My kids have access to awesome things that, as a district, we could never afford,” teacher Nick Provenzano tells The NYT in justifying his relationship with a 3D printer company. The article takes that assertion at face value; many readers probably did too. Again, we all know that school budgets are tight. But “tight” is relative; budgets are relative. And Provenzano’s school is quite affluent. Just 7% of the students at Provenzano’s school qualify for the free and reduced lunch program – the state-wide average in Michigan is 38%, and 74% of students in the neighboring Detroit Public Schools qualify. Provenzano worries his English lit students won’t have a 3D printer; teachers (and parents) just 8 miles away in Detroit still have to worry about the lead in the city’s drinking water.

Inequality is rampant throughout public education in the United States (and yes, throughout the United States itself), and inequality affects not just how much money is allocated per student – funding is typically tied to property taxes – or how much teachers and families can afford and expect to spend in order to supplement that. These inequalities affect what sorts of education technology appears in the classroom and how these products are used. Some students get 3D printers; some students get digital drill-and-kill. Some students get colorful beanbags to sit in; some students have to walk through metal detectors. 

Educational inequalities are historical and they are structural and they are dependent on class and race and geography. 86% of the students at Provenzano’s school are white; 80% of those at Kayla Delzer’s, the other teacher in The NYT story, are white (which is, in fairness, a reflection of the overwhelmingly whiteness of North Dakota). This stands in stark contrast to the percentage of students enrolled in public schools across the entire US who are white: less than 50%. The student-teacher ratio at Delzer’s schools is 8 to 1; it’s significantly higher – no surprise – in classrooms in Detroit, which makes it difficult to imagine how a teacher could adopt the “flexible seating” options that Delzer promotes with her social media profile. 

Neither Delzer nor Provenzano’s classrooms are representative of K–12 public schools; and yet these educators have been granted a sort of “celebrity” and speak widely – with corporate backing, as The New York Times underscores – about the future of education technology. But if their students aren’t representative of the make-up of the US student body, these two teachers both are quite representative of the K–12 teaching population: 82% of those who teach in public schools are white. Almost without exception, “ed-tech celebrities” are too. Furthermore, these high-profile tech-using educators teach (or once taught) in affluent schools where their students are predominantly white. 

As such, we should ask what it means when these people are selected by ed-tech companies to be “brand ambassadors”? What does it reveal about how these companies imagine teaching and learning. teachers and students? What does it say about how these companies view “influence” and decision-making power in public schools? (Indeed, several startups and organizations have identified the procurement process itself as a business opportunity, selling consulting services to schools and districts and recommending which technology products they should buy. Who will control this process?) How are our imaginations about the future of education and education technology shaped by the narratives we see promoted by these companies and by the ambassadors they’ve chosen to speak for them? What ends up on back-to-school lists and Donors Choose lists and district procurement lists because of these narratives?

Much of the response to The NYT article has focused on ethics: should teachers be profiting from the leveraging of their profiles and positions in the classroom? Is there sufficient transparency? What rights do students have in these settings where their teachers are “brand ambassadors”? It’s students’ experiences and their data and their images, after all, that are being utilized for marketing and product development. These are crucial issues to address, particularly as ed-tech demands schools model themselves on the values of corporations and consumerism.

But the questions the article raises go well beyond the ethics of marketing and pay-for-play. Education technology and its influencers must be viewed through the lens of social justice – and in the loud protestations I’ve seen on Twitter defending the practices in the story, that certainly is not happening – otherwise we will continue to ignore how ed-tech serves to exacerbate inequality and re-inscribe whiteness, affluence, and the conspicuous consumption of gadgetry as signs of “innovation.”

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Audrey Watters

Audrey Watters is a journalist specializing in education technology news and analysis. She has worked in the education field for the past 15 years: as a graduate student, college instructor, program manager for an ed-tech non-profit.