How Data is Destroying Our Schools

A few weeks into my first year as a teacher, my colleagues and I met for our first “data team” meeting of the year.

Our principal had printed results from the previous year’s standardized tests and given a copy to each of us.

“Take a few minutes to look at the data, and then we’ll decide what inferences we can make from it,” he instructed.

He had a book with him – something with “data coaches” in the title – and was following a protocol laid out within.

I looked at the graphs, then – smiling – at my principal.

Surely he was joking.

At that point in the year, I had only five students – four third graders and one fifth grader – in a self-contained special ed classroom for kids with severe emotional disturbances.  They were children who had experienced extreme trauma and abuse, and who struggled to get through a day at school without an attack of panic, rage, or violence.

All five had gotten one’s – the lowest possible score – on the previous year’s math and reading tests.

“Ms. Kennedy,” our principal said flatly, “what inferences can you make from this data? This is how we will be planning our instruction for the year.”

It was my first time experiencing the absurdity of data-driven education, but far from my last.

Several years later, I made the terrible mistake of taking a position at a newly formed charter school in Brooklyn that modeled itself on the “no excuses” design of Success Academy and Achievement First.

The school was eerily silent – the kids stiff and expressionless – and this was because according to the data, there was no time for the “scholars” to talk.

We had only a few short months to get them to score 3’s and 4’s on the state test – our goal was 90%, because that’s what other charters were doing, and anything less would be excuse-making – and so we shut them up while showing them tricks to getting the problems right on the test – snapping at times to get responses and demonstrate their obedience when our superiors walked by, and “rewarding” them with chants when they were especially compliant.

The fact that there are people exposing the abuse that takes place in these schools gives me some comfort, but I still have nightmares.

A few years later, I found myself, at the school I now work at in Maine, swimming in assessment data about my students, and was so tired of looking at crude, commercial graphs from Pearson and McGraw Hill that never told me anything I didn’t already know about my students, that I decided to take the data and enter it into a statistical software program that I’d acquired during my short time as a research analyst.

I was – somehow – still under the impression that all of this data was actually meant for me.

And so I played with it for hours, searching for some kind of worthwhile insight that might actually help me in my classroom.

And – for a moment – I thought I’d found one.

There was, I discovered, an unmistakably strong correlation between my students’ performance on one of the “math probes” we gave them periodically with how they performed on the “NWEA” exam.

I showed one of my self-made graphs to a colleague and joked that I could use it to place bets on which kids would meet their “target” on the NWEA and which wouldn’t.

Maybe, I thought, I should spend more time prepping for those probes. We had a grant for merit-pay that year, and more kids meeting their NWEA target would translate into a bigger bonus for me.

The idea, of course, was foolish – a stupid and selfish way to use data that made my blood go cold with memories from my time at the charter school.

Eventually I put the statistical software away.

A few years later, after hours upon hours spent searching for answers, I know that the data was never really meant for me.

That brief aha moment, where I discovered the correlation between two assessments, is precisely the type of “insight” that our Wall Street overlords are searching for: the programs and assessments that are most likely to generate the “outcomes” that will get them paid for their investments.

Their blood doesn’t run cold at the thought of placing bets on kids, or rigging the game to generate profitable outcomes.

For whatever reason – maybe because they are too far away from actual children – investors and their policy-makers don’t seem to see the wickedness of reducing a human child in all his wonder and complexity to a matrix of skills, each rated 1, 2, 3 or 4.

And so now, we must not only be teachers, but pretend that we are trained psychologists as well – collecting not only academic data, but data on students thoughts, feelings, emotions, beliefs.

“Social-emotional” data is rapidly becoming the new holy grail – worth millions? Maybe billions?

There are teachers who will read this and think I am wrong.  They have heard the drum-beat of data-driven education since they first decided to become teachers, and they – like me, a few years back – still believe that the data is meant for them.

It isn’t.

Data is destroying education, and we need to stop it before it is too late.










A House of Cards, Built on Kids

In 2006, in a presentation to ReadyNation marked “Strictly Private and Confidential,” Paul Sheldon of Citigroup proposed a new way to finance preschool: early childhood student loans.

Non-profit organizations could borrow from banks or student loan companies, said Sheldon, and then offer loans to government organizations or individuals. Then, the loans could be pooled and turned into asset-backed securities, and – voila! – an early childhood education market would be created, worth as much as 10 billion dollars.

The idea of preschoolers saddled with debt, however, was clearly going to be too controversial. 

Over time, Citigroup’s model was reworked into the more palatable “social impact bond,” which are now proliferating across the country.

These bonds, which are really private loans made to government or non-profit agencies with repayment contingent upon pre-determined “outcomes,” are sold under the premise that they can help tax-payers save money in the long-run by preventing the need for remedial services.

According to ReadyNation founder, Robert Dugger, however, evidence that such programs actually result in cost savings need not meet the burden of scientific proof. As long as the evidence is “strong enough to provide funders with reasonable assurance that they will get their money back,” the program can be considered a go.

One of the first social impact bonds in the U.S. was financed in 2012 by J.B. Pritzker and Goldman Sachs for a pre-K program in Utah, with investors claiming it would prevent children from requiring costly special education services down the road.

“We were able to make the sell to the Salt Lake County based on a benefit-cost analysis that we did with their staff,” explained Janis Dubno, an investment banker at Sorenson Impact, in a conference call with the “Human Capital and Economic Opportunity Working Group.”

But thus far, there has been no indication that the program has resulted in an cost savings for Salt Lake, or that the program has been beneficial for children involved.

Goldman and Pritzker, however, have gotten the full pay-out from their investments.

With the prospect of near-guaranteed return on investment and a derivatives market waiting in the wings, it should come as no shock that the same bankers that played fast and loose with subprime mortgages (Pritzker and Goldman included) are now eyeing not only early childhood education, but also K-12 programs as a chance to further line their wallets with these bonds.

And with little public scrutiny, the effort to get them off the ground has been quiet but massive, with the country’s largest and most well-endowed foundations working alongside investors to seed the market nationwide, and education policy shifting to serve up the data necessary for such investments.

In addition to wreaking havoc on teaching profession, violating children’s privacy, and drying up local school budgets, one has to wonder if the move toward social impact bonds may be setting us up for another market crash.

“Big asset bubbles,” explains Gerald Epstein of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, “such as we saw in the housing market in 2004-2007…can be very dangerous because they are usually fed by massive increases in debt… which leads to dangerous interconnections and the building of a financial house of cards.”

If Epstein is right, how long until the cards topple?

And at what cost?
























Dear FBI: It’s Not Just the Dolls You Should Be Worried About.

On Monday, the FBI published a public service announcement alerting parents that “smart toys” and entertainment devices for kids may be collecting vast amounts of data about their children.

“The collection of a child’s personal information combined with a toy’s ability to connect to the internet or other devices raises concerns for privacy and physical safety,” the notice warns.

Major news outlets across the country are now sounding the alarm, encouraging parents to research privacy agreements and to find out who has access to their children’s data.

Despite the sudden and urgent concern for children’s privacy, however, the reports have thus far ignored the biggest elephant in the room…


the fact that massive data collection is happening in our schools every single day.

As school districts across the country implement one-to-one digital device initiatives, school testing policies shift to include ongoing “formative” assessments, and data collection expands beyond academics to include highly sensitive psycho-social information, data collection in schools is at an all time high.

Thus far, however, news outlets like NBC and CBS have given a free pass to CEO’s like Jose Ferreira of Knewton, who boasts that his company is able to “collect thousands of data points on each student each day,” and Steve Midgley of the Federal Learning Registry, who advocates putting sensors and cameras in Smartboards to collect data on classroom performance.

To my knowledge, they haven’t once questioned the United Way of Salt Lake, who recently developed a video encouraging parents to waive their Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) rights so that organizations across the city can share sensitive student information with one another, nor have they warned the public about the extent of information being stored about children in State Longitudinal Databases.

Have you seen any reports on NBC News about the effort to include “social-emotional” data about children in school report cards, or plans from the World Economic Forum to use technology to teach these skills by embedding data collection into “innovative new technologies – such as wearable devices, virtual reality and apps – [that] enable students to master important social and emotional skills” ?

Meanwhile – though the FBI is right to point out the threat of child identity fraud and the potential  risk of exploitation – there was nothing in the PSA warning about the biggest hucksters of them all: Wall Street bankers who are determined to use data to restructure the way we pay for social services in order to create a trillion dollar derivatives market.

FBI?  It’s not just the dolls you should be warning us about.




Wall Street Zombies: Coming Soon to a Pre-K Near You

In July of 2013, beneath the veneer of Dr. Seuss, some of the nation’s wealthiest and most influential power players met to discuss one of Wall Street’s latest profit-making schemes: reaping big financial rewards off early childhood education programs.

The event – titled, ever so quaintly, “Oh the Places We’ll Go! The Benefits of Investing in Early Childhood Education” – was hosted by the Center for American Progress and America’s Promise Alliance spin-off, ReadyNation, each of whom are among the country’s leading proponents of social impact bonds (SIB’s) and eyeing pre-K expansion as an opportunity to prove just how profitable the financing model can be.

“The goal is to facilitate creation of “invest-in-kid bonds,” explains a report prepared by ReadyNation and The Kauffman Foundation, “that can be underwritten individually or aggregated into asset-backed securities, which can be invested in by individuals and institutions worldwide.”

And it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing that can be tough to spot.

In the lead-up to the 2016 election, investors hoping for their piece of the pie pushed politicians to make early childhood education a key part of their platforms, knowing the value that many parents and educators see in these programs.

Groups like Save the Children – run by one of the nation’s biggest cheerleaders for SIB’s, Mark Shriver – ran television ads and put up billboards urging voters to “tell our next president to make early childhood education a priority!” In February, the Brookings Institute ran an article urging newly minted education secretary, Betsy Devos, to “embrace early childhood education.”

Even the notorious American Legislative Exchange Council appears to have made early childhood education a priority in its annual state report cards.

But… what are we really being sold?

Lenders – no surprise – say their programs are all but working miracles. Goldman Sachs, for example, recently claimed its investment in a Utah pre-K program had helped almost 99 percent of the children it was tracking avoid special education in kindergarten.

Researchers, however, were quick to point out the faulty statistics involved in their claims of success.

“Even well-funded preschool programs — and the Utah program was not well funded — have been found to reduce the number of students needing special education by, at most, 50 percent. Most programs yield a reduction of closer to 10 or 20 percent,” Nathaniel Popper wrote in the New York Times.

Other researchers have expressed concerns about the quality of the programs they are implementing. The goal for investors is to bring these programs “to scale,” which means cutting costs and finding short-cuts to achieve metrics that generate pay-outs.  With elite organizations like the World Economic Forum calling for the development of digital apps to teach “social emotional” skills, and the rapid advancement of digital learning programs for young children, it’s likely that investments will go toward putting more i-pads in the hands of young children.

Parents concerned about their children’s privacy should also take note: data collection is the fuel on which social impact bonds run.

“It’s the key ingredient to this,” said Bill Crim, senior vice-president at United Way Salt Lake, whose organization is facilitating the pre-K experiment in Utah and recently went so far as to create a video encouraging parents to waive their Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) rights.

“That’s the price of entry,” he said of the data being gathered.


Please don’t get me wrong: high quality early childhood education can be a truly wonderful thing.

But this?

This is a scam.

wall street zombies










The Real Reason Your Child is Being Psychologically Profiled at School

In an article from May in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Aida Cerundolo warned parents that public schools may be psychologically assessing their children without consent.

“The mental-health information teachers are now obtaining, storing and tracking…is equally as sensitive as that which is collected in a pediatrician’s office,” Cerundolo says.

And she’s right.

Tests like the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment, which ask teachers to rate students on how often a child “carr[ies] himself with confidence” or  “cope[s] well with insults and mean comments” are being used with increasing frequency in public schools across the country, without parental consent or adequate privacy protections.

But where did this sudden interest in assessing children’s “social and emotional” skills come from?  Is it really nothing more than a “noble” endeavor, meant to identify students in need of intervention, as Cerundolo claims?

Or is there more to it?

As with most education fads that sweep the nation, there is much more to the story – and be forewarned: it gets ugly.

When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – now called ESSA – was reauthorized in 2015, a provision was included encouraging states to include non-academic performance measures in their accountability plans.

“[The] law calls for … a shifting away from the narrow focus on academics,” explained Ulrich Boser, author of “Learning Mindsets and Skills: An Opportunity for Growth with the Every Student Succeeds Act,” in an article in NEA Today.

As a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP), Boser is fully aware of the value of this non-academic data.

CAP is one of the nation’s leading drivers of Social Impact Bonds (also called “Pay for Success”) – a system in which private lenders provide upfront capital for social or educational programs, in return for payment with interest when programs reach agreed-upon “outcomes.”

These bonds, while still in the early stages nationwide, are already generating big payments for banks like Goldman Sachs – and investment groups are preparing to launch a derivatives market on top of the bonds.  It’s a market that experts predict will reach into the trillions of dollars over the next few years.

And investors are already turning their attention to the “value” social-emotional (SEL) data can play in making these bets.

Using dubious statistical analysis to claim that big financial rewards are possible from social emotional programs, groups like the “Social Emotional Learning Alliance for Massachusetts” are now lobbying aggressively for the advancement of social impact bonds.

Nationwide, the drive to promote and standardized “social and emotional learning” outcomes is being driven by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).  Led by Timothy Shriver of the Aspen Institute (another organization heavily promoting social impact bonds), CASEL recently made headlines when a high-profile academic, Angela Duckworth, pulled out of its multi-district experiment in promoting “social emotional” learning.

Duckworth – famous for her research on “grit” – wrote in the New York Times that she had “contributed, inadvertently, to an idea [she] vigorously opposes: high-stakes character assessment.”

But the SEL experiments and data collection continue to ramp up, with ed-tech investors and developers seeking their piece of the pie by developing games and apps meant to assess social-emotional skills.

A report from the World Economic Forum called “New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning through Technology” calls on developers to “creatively embedding SEL features into products that support foundational academic skills,” and to use “innovative new technologies – such as wearable devices, virtual reality and apps – [that] enable students to master important social and emotional skills.”

(You didn’t really think “social emotional learning” meant investing in things like lower teacher-student ratios or school counselors, did you?)

And what of the social-emotional skills themselves?  Who or what organization decides what types of skills to embed in digital apps?

Industry leaders have taken the reigns on that too, calling for a workforce with skills like “grit,” and “self-discipline.” Skills that generate financial return are the ones get included, the rest are tossed aside.

Even long-time reformers like Chester Finn are questioning the social-emotional skills now being promoted in schools:

“Dig into social-emotional learning’s five core competencies, as laid out by CASEL,” Finn wrote in a recent article in Edweek, “and you’ll spot—among 25 skills students are supposed to learn—just one feeble mention of ethics and none whatsoever of morality. You won’t even find such old-fashioned virtues as integrity, courage, or honesty, and certainly nothing as edgy as patriotism.”


If all of this —  investors using kids’ psychological profiles to gamble on the results of social programs, while using technology to generate a compliant, productive workforce — sounds like a dystopian nightmare to you, know that you are not alone.

But here’s the thing: they can’t do it without the data… so opt your child out of this type of profiling today.



Is Wall Street About to Take Over Public Education Once and for All?

Across the country, teachers are being asked to collect, record, and slog through mountains of data that “experts” insist is meant to improve their practice.

There are pre-assessments and post-assessments, habits of work rubrics, writing prompts, social and emotional screeners, standards-based grading systems, RTI data, student learning objectives, professional growth goals, student surveys, self evaluations, administrator evaluations, office discipline referrals, results from progress monitoring programs  …the data demands go on and on, and all of it must be entered and stored in learning management systems.

Recently, a few brave teachers have begun to publicly state the obvious: that we don’t need all of this data to do our jobs well.

Unfortunately, no one seems to be listening, as there is a far more powerful entity that does need all this data:

Wall Street.

As Pay for Success schemes – also known as Social Impact Bonds – sweep the country, data collection in schools is reaching new heights.

“[It’s] an approach that has come of age,” Andy Sieg, Managing Director and Head of Global Wealth and Retirement Solutions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch said of Pay for Success contracts. “We see the confluence of investor demand, government innovation and access to data leading to the dawn of this new market.”

Here’s how they work: private investors provide upfront capital to start a program (a pre-K, for example). If the program meets a set of agreed-upon metrics of “success” (reducing the number of children receiving special education services, for example), investors get repaid with interest.

Despite ethical concerns and doubts about the actual public benefit of these contracts, they are rapidly advancing nationwide due to promises of big payouts for lenders. Goldman Sachs, for example, put up $16.6 million to fund an early childhood education program in Chicago, yet it is getting more than $30 million from the city.  According to The Rockefeller Foundation and Merrill Lynch, the impact investing market will reach between $400 billion to $1 trillion by 2020.

And they don’t intend for the profits to stop there. Investors also have plans to package these bonds up and turn them into a derivatives market. Using performance-based data to inform risk, investors will be able to gamble on these bond-backed securities just as they did with mortgages.

And so, unbeknownst to most of the public, our schools – and the teaching profession – are being remade in order to facilitate this market.

Organizations like the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN),  formed to advance impact investing, are developing banks of metrics on social services like education to help inform investors as they build their portfolios, while nonprofits like Strivetogether are building public-private data sharing networks across cities.

In addition to directing federal dollars to incentivize Pay for Success schemes, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2016 is jam-packed with grant money to shift schools to competency-based, blended, and/or personalized learning models – all conduits for data collection.

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley titans have grasped hands with investors to develop products and services that deliver data-based learning.  Most of their products rely on behaviorist-based approaches – a controversial method of stimulation and reward to produce target behaviors that can be easily tracked and measured.

Nationwide, private foundations are seeding the investment market by funding lobbying, “will-building,” and “building public demand” campaigns to remake education into one that facilitates a tradable market.  (See here for one example from education blogger, WrenchintheGears, of the networks that have been built between private foundations, research organizations, and investment firms.)


Teachers, who are being asked to navigate a profession that no longer makes sense, are now leaving in droves.

Fortunately, at least some organizations are beginning to take a stand against the Wall Street takeover of public education.  The Massachusetts Teacher Association, for example, recently announced  its opposition to a public-private partnership between the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and LearnLaunch. The partnership, known best by its acronym, MAPLE, was established with seed money from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation – the primary driver of data-based education reform in New England.

The question now stands: will other organizations follow suit?

Will more teachers get the courage to stand up and say enough is enough?


Or will Wall Street takeover public education once and for all?