Living in Dialogue: Silicon Valley Philanthropy Opens Classrooms to De-Personalized Learning

David Callahan’s The Givers begins with the first politicized think tanks of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the American Enterprise Institute. At least these rightwing organizations were open about their desire to maximize profits. But as Callahan shows, they led the way to neo-liberal donors, who seemed to be sincere about scaling up market-driven approaches to improve education and other sectors of the society.

About the only debate about the outcomes produced by the resulting corporate school reform era is whether it was a big fiasco, or was it merely a huge disappointment. I see its test-driven, competition-driven reforms as one of the worse social policy disasters of modern American political history. Callahan explains, “Making a bundle in software or short trading doesn’t mean you’ll know the first thing about, say, K-12 education, and it’s easy for misguided philanthropists to do a lot of damage.”  He concludes, It’s hard to think of many social entrepreneurs who’ve succeeded in bringing about changes on a truly large scale.”

Whether we are talking about the scaling up of charter schools or funding public relations campaigns and dubious lawsuits like Vergara v California, big donors have produced minimal improvements in schools, created unintended negative outcomes for children, and sown discord among the education profession and the Democratic Party. Callahan notes, “The only thing that’s really clear is that, compared to the systematic revolution that charter funders were hoping for, the results have been disappointing.” Moreover, “The new givers have made a lot of noise on K-12, the Vergara lawsuit in California being a good example, but it’s not clear they’ve actually done much to improve outcomes for the vast majority of U.S. students.”

The Givers concludes with sensible and seemingly doable suggestions for regulating big philanthropy. But the key to providing oversight is raising consciousness among social service providers, office holders, and voters. An investigative series by the New York Times’ Natasha Singer is very valuable in spreading awareness about the danger of the new philanthropy. Implicit in her analysis, however, is the question of whether economic elites would obey the rules.

Singer’s first article about the Silicon Valley education campaign to win “the lucrative market projected to reach $21 billion by 2020,” is shocking. She describes the rise of Google’s presence in public education as, “One of the broadest philanthropic initiatives [which] directly benefits the tech industry.” The Times reporter shows how “schools may be giving Google more than they are getting: generations of future customers.” According to Singer, “Google’s education marketing playbook” is to “woo school officials with easy-to-use, money-saving services. Then enlist schools to market to other schools, holding up early adopters as forward thinkers among their peers.”

In Chicago and Fairfax County, Virginia, for instance, Google insinuated itself into classroom while ignoring education law and/or district rules. In addition to “habituating students to its offerings at a young age,” Google can gain access to their parents’ computers. In a brazen example of Google’s intrusions, a high school “sent out a notice urging seniors to ‘make sure’ they convert their school account ‘to a personal Gmail account.’”

But it’s not just corporations that are placing students at risk in their pursuit of profits. Big philanthropy “is influencing the subjects that schools teach, the classroom tools that teachers choose and fundamental approaches to learning.” The “wealthiest and most influential titans of the 21st century” are conducting “a singular experiment in education, with millions of students serving as de facto beta testers for their ideas.” And “philanthropic efforts are taking hold so rapidly that there has been little public scrutiny.”

Singer cites Megan Tompkins-Stange, who protests the lack of checks on the elites’ power, concluding that “it does subvert the democratic process.” Professor Emeritus Larry Cuban, who has looked deeply into the first generation of digital pedagogies funded by reformers, refers to the process as an “almost monopolistic approach to education reform.”

Cuban has visited several Summit charter classrooms that have adopted the technology-driven lessons pushed by big philanthropists. While noting that he has not conducted an exhaustive study of the entire Summit chain, Cuban has reported on the promising approaches he has witnessed. Even so, he is “confident that building and sustaining an improved high school for minority and poor youth is a long-term affair, lacking algorithms, that needs smart and patient leaders, and years to accomplish.”

There seems to be little reason to be confident that technocrats, who have an “engineering mind-set” and “business acumen,” but no other qualifications as education reformers, and who have a record of rushing foolish policies into schools, will shift gears and develop the patience to learn from inevitable mistakes.

For instance, Singer listened to four anonymous former Summit teachers (who feared repercussions if they gave their names) who found the system “problematic.” They taught cognitive skills while students supposedly taught themselves the subject matter. But, “some students raced through lessons without actually understanding basic facts.” Another school “introduced the platform for its sixth graders. But students, accustomed to having a teacher’s guidance, did not know how to pace themselves.” The school’s principal says, “Kids were self-pacing to failure.”

I have no doubt that the good lessons witnessed by Larry Cuban in a handful of Summit charters will be replicated in some classrooms. But what will be the costs of hurried experiments, as opposed to the benefits?

Some computer-assisted learning systems will live up to their name, “personalized learning.” Given the incentives to take shortcuts, however, how many will produce what Diane Ravitch calls “de-personalized learning?” As Ravitch says, “There may be times when it (computer-based instruction) is useful. But computers can never replace human interaction, a kind look, a stern look, a loving word, a caring and committed person with a heart, a brain, and a soul.”

With or without for-profit and nonprofit intrusions by Silicon Valley, technology is bound to transform many aspects of teaching and learning. Even if the corporate reformers’ hubris and impatience had not created two decades of unforced errors, mistakes would have been made when incorporating digital technology into the classroom. The first problem with the venture philanthropists’ approach is the cavalier way in which the risks to children have been ignored.

Neither can we overlook the ways that many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have subordinated society’s welfare in their quest for profits. In fact, it’s hard to imagine who would be more temperamentally unfit to redesign the classroom than the driven risk takers who anointed themselves as the social engineers of a radically new education system. If you like the way Facebook contributed to the 2016 presidential election, you’ll love what entrepreneurs have planned for our children.

And let’s not forget why the door is so open to the risky experiments of venture capitalists. The contemporary school reform movement not only ignored the professional judgments of teachers. It was too arrogant to even consider the education history, social science, and cognitive research which explained why its data-driven system of rewards and punishment was doomed.

Okay, these elites know a lot about the cognitive science findings that help them maximize profits; they just have little or no understanding of how to use that knowledge for humane purposes.

Regardless, traditional schools have been weakened by a two-decade assault on our democracy’s professionalism and education values, leaving them more likely to open the gates to the Silicon Valley Trojan Horse.

What do you think?  Will the investigations by David Callahan and Natasha Singer change the conversation about edu-philanthropy? Will parents demand regulations for big philanthropy? If so, will the rules and laws be obeyed?

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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighborhood. He blogs at thisweekineducation.com and is writing a book on 18 years of idealistic politics in the classroom and realistic politics outside. A former oilfield roughneck and...