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Nancy Bailey's Education Website: How Corporate School Reforms and Ed-Tech Cause Dangerous Distrust About Covid-19

Last year, when Covid-19 drove teachers to switch to remote learning, the antennae of those following corporate school reforms over the years shot up. Many had worried about the push for ed-tech to replace teachers and school buildings. Suddenly a strange disease accelerated that agenda. For some, this has led to a dangerous distrust about Covid-19.

Teachers and parents who’d argued against tech-dominated classrooms, fighting online charter schools like Rocketship and Summit, who detested anytime-anywhere instruction, were suddenly forced to rely on, even fight for, students to work from home safely on devices, the same machines that collect student data and cause privacy concerns. And the same devices which could ultimately replace teachers.

Now, those who don’t take these viruses seriously believe those who do are being played, an accusation I’ve received, usually from parents who have been friends and fighters for schools. They have various beliefs about the virus and see it as being used to make grave changes to the world and schools, how children are treated.

Even those who take Covid-19 and the Delta variant seriously, advocating Covid-19 safety protocols, vaccinations, and masks for children, worry. Crises, as we know from the past, never go unwasted when it comes to public schools.

New Orleans is a great example. Their public schools were changed to charters after Hurricane Katrina. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that it was the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans. Many would argue it wasn’t.

Blame some of this Covid skepticism on what big business has done to schools. Through NCLB, Race to the Top, and the Every Child Succeeds Act, privatizing public education has been a nonpartisan effort throughout the years. Charter schools, vouchers, social impact bonds, nonprofit and for-profit programs, high-stakes standards, Common Core, and data-mining student information are just a few of the ways public schools have been monetized while replacing local control.

Even during the pandemic, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Walton Family Foundation are tinkering with public education, pouring $200 million in assessments and math, through a new group called the Advanced Education Research & Development Fund (AERDF). The New School Venture Fund, Teach for America, Leap Innovations, and other education reformers show moving away from real teachers and classroom teaching.

Even though the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s education projects are known to fail, they, and the others, have never been held accountable. They continue to impose their school initiatives as philanthropy and have consistently moved the needle from teacher-led classrooms to screens with so-called personalized learning.

So, it doesn’t help the Covid-19 naysayers to see the same Mr. Gates interviewed by Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta on CNN as a virus expert. It’s hard to take him seriously, even though he may know more about the virus than he does about remaking schools.

Remember when New York’s soon-to-be ex-Governor Cuomo interrupted covering the dismal Covid deaths in New York City last year to discuss schools?

So, it’s not about just reopening schools, he said, showcasing a chart highlighting technology.

Bill Gates is a visionary in many ways, and his ideas and thoughts on technology and education he’s spoken about for years. Still, I think we now have a moment in history where we can actually incorporate and advance those ideas.

The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms. Why, with all the technology you have?

Cuomo obviously hadn’t read the reports surrounding Gates’s past school reform failures.

Then there’s former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Since leaving the Obama administration, Duncan has worked with Laurene Powell Jobs’s Emerson Collective as managing partner of the XQ Institute. They’re working to change high schools with technology.

Duncan used the crisis to highlight tech in schools.

We need to reimagine what education looks like and equal access to educational opportunity, the back end of this. We have to close the digital divide once and for all.  

The Obama administration, with Duncan, presided over Race to the Top. At that time, the U.S. Department of Education appointed individuals from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In a written statement, the Gates Foundation said: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation believes it is an honor to serve in the public sector, and we congratulate those former employees that have taken positions with the new administration.” The organization declined further comment.

Jim Shelton was hired as an assistant deputy secretary at the Education Department, and also led the agency’s Office of Innovation and Improvement. He’s currently Chief Investment and Impact Partner of the Blue Meridian Partners and on the Board of Directors of AERDF noted above.

Race to the Top pushed the controversial Common Core State Standards backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that dominate most online tech programs children face on screens today. The programs continue despite little research to determine their effectiveness.

During this pandemic, despite the growing dislike of online learning, the messages promoting it run rampant.

Former Governor Jeb Bush, in a Washington Post opinion piece It’s time to embrace distance learning — and not just because of the coronavirus, stated:

It’s time to learn the lessons from these heroic efforts and plan for a future in which public education can continue without access to classrooms — not just because of a pandemic but because that’s the future of learning.

Learning is no longer modeled on the traditional classroom but has become digital, individualized and delivered on smartphones or laptops.

Given the scale of this crisis, and the likelihood it will continue, these dollars should be prioritized on distance learning, virtual classrooms and closing the digital divide. The money is there. What’s missing is the will to make it happen.

This is difficult to read as the nation faces a drastic shortage of teachers, not because teachers dislike teaching, but because they have been disparaged so badly throughout the years, driven out of the classroom. Who’s fighting to bring them back? Who’s involving them in the discussions about the future of education? The answer is no one. The reason is that without real teachers schools will have to increasingly rely on technology.

It makes a statement to see funding prioritized for more screen usage as teachers scrounge around to purchase the barest of necessities in their rundown school buildings that may still not have good ventilation.

Don’t forget former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who risked putting children and teachers in danger to create a fictional argument that private schools, especially religious private schools, handled the pandemic better, her contribution to the never-ending hatred towards public education to promote school choice.

Yet, while we recognize the heavy-handed ways corporate school reforms have been used to remake public education into a private enterprise and ed-tech, there should be no taking these viruses lightly.

Like Hurricane Katrina where many lost their lives, these viruses are real, and distrusting the ramifications puts adults and the lives of children in danger.

Covid-19, the Delta variant or new variants threaten us and children and schools. Americans need to take every precaution possible to stay well and fight this virus and keep children and themselves safe, so we can all get back to reasonable normal.

We must also recognize that no matter where the virus takes us now, whether schools stay open or temporarily close, the teacher-student connection matters greatly and must be fostered. There is no adequate research to indicate that technology alone will make a better student.

Hopefully, our public school buildings will eventually safely reopen and qualified teachers will return, and we all will share a renewed belief in their meaning to our democracy.

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Nancy Bailey

Nancy Bailey was a teacher in the area of special education for many years, and has a PhD in educational leadership from Florida State University. She has au...