Corporations are now creeping into Australian public schools

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane announced their Industry, Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda on Tuesday, saying that the policy was designed to lower business costs and encourage entrepreneurship while boosting skills and infrastructure. Mr Abbott wants to explore a trial of a Pathways in Technology Early College High School, (P-TECH) type-school, after visiting one in New York (NY) this year.

P-TECH is a collaboration between NY public schools, the City University of NY, and IBM Global Business Services (IBM). The Brooklyn school takes students typically of lower socio economic background, in the ninth grade and aims to have them graduate six years later with both a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering, and a possible job at IBM. The students all have IBM mentors and it launched it’s program in September 2011, reflecting not only IBM but other technology company’s like Apple, Microsoft and Google’s concerted push into education reform.

The then NY mayor Michael Bloomberg explained the concept when he announced the partnership with IBM in 2010. “Together, we’ll create a school that runs from grades nine to grade 14 – yes, grade 14. All students will learn the traditional core subjects, but they’ll also receive an education in computer science and complete two years of college work. When they graduate from grade 14 with an associate’s degree and a qualified record, they will be ‘first in line’ for a job with IBM and a ticket to the middle class, or even beyond.”

Mr Bloomberg was the NY Mayor from 1st January 2002 – 31st December 31st 2013 and at the beginning of his first term his net worth was estimated as $5Bn. Near the end of his term in September 2013, Forbes reported Mr Bloomberg’s wealth as $33Bn and ranked him as the 13th richest person in the world. He wanted his legacy to be public education reform and within a few months, Mr Bloomberg brokered a deal with the State to gain control of the schools and ended Community school boards. The NY City Schools Chancellor is the leader of the NY City Department of Education (DOE), the agency that handles NY City’s public schools. Joel Klein was named as Chancellor in July 2002 by Mr Bloomberg, under the new school governance legislation, giving the Mayor control of New York City’s 1.1 million-student public school system.

Mr Klein was formerly an anti-trust lawyer with a multimillion dollar practise and he was the CEO of multinational mass media Bertelsmann, Inc. During a leave of absence from law school in 1969, Mr Klein studied at NY University’s School of Education and taught math to sixth-graders at a public school in Queens until he was called upon by the U.S. Army Reserves for basic training. NY State requires chancellors or school superintendents to have at least three years of teaching experience and graduate work in school administration, including an internship or similar experience. Since 1970, the State’s Education Commissioner has been allowed to waive the requirements for “exceptionally qualified persons” who have “training and experience” that are the “substantial equivalent” of the formal requirements. On August 1, Mr Klein received a waiver from the then State Education Commissioner Richard Mills to take the post.

Bloomberg praised Mr Klein, highlighting his management experience and leadership abilities. “Joel Klein embodies the exact qualities we need in a Schools Chancellor: integrity, dynamism, the ability to bring diverse constituencies together and an unwavering commitment to results,” Bloomberg said. “Running one of the Justice Department’s most successful divisions as well as a major media company has given him the extensive and wide-ranging management experience necessary to turn our schools around. He knows how to run a large organization, from picking the best people, to balancing large budgets, and making sure everyone is accountable.”

The Race to the Top (RTTT) was a $4.35Bn Department of Education contest created to spur innovation and reforms in state and local district Kindergarten – Year twelve or K-12 education. It was announced by President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on July 24, 2009. States were awarded points for satisfying certain educational policies and building data systems. State applications for funding were scored on selection criteria worth a total of 500 points. And the categories were  – Great Teachers and Leaders (138 total points); State Success Factors (125 total points); Standards and Assessments (70 total points); Turning Around the Lowest-Achieving Schools (50 total points) and Data Systems to Support Instruction (47 total points). In addition to the 485 possible points from this criteria, the prioritization of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education is worth another fifteen points for a possible total of 500.

Mr Bloomberg’s education reform included school’s scores only doing better than the last year to receive funding and because of this many successful schools were closed down for being unsuccessful in their scoring. Many unsuccessful schools as such got the bulk of funding for raising scores slightly. Chartered or Independent Schools were also encouraged in Mr Bloomberg’s reform Charters, are publicly financed but independently operated.

Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne wants public schools across Australia to follow the move of Western Australian schools, believing Independent public schools improves student outcomes. Mr Pyne also said: “All International evidence points to the fact that the more autonomous a school, the better the outcomes for students.” The Federal Government has promised to make 25 per cent of public schools ‘Independent’ by 2017. It’s offering $70 million in funding to make it happen. The Australian Broadcast Corparation (ABC) Fact Check found: There to be no measured improvement in student outcomes in WA Independent public schools. “All International evidence” does not point to the fact that the more autonomous a school, the better the outcomes for students. And that Mr Pyne’s claims are unsubstantiated.

News Corporation (News Corp) owned by Rupert Murdoch, bought Wireless Generation (Wireless Gen) at the end of 2010 for $360m, it focused on assessment and analytics for data-driven or online instruction. Just two weeks before Wireless Gen had been bought by News Corp, Mr Klein announced he would resign from DOE to work at the company, heading up its new “educational” online division and “overseeing investments in digital learning companies.” After Mr Klein resigned, News Corp officials told The New York Times that they planned to make “seed investments” into entrepreneurial education companies.

“When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching,” said Mr Murdoch.

In May 2011 the NY State Education Department sent a letter to the State Comptroller Thomas P. Di Napoli, asking him to approve a $27 million no-bid contract with Wireless Gen, to build the state’s student and teacher data system, as required for funding under the RTTT. Controversy followed, primarily as a result of conflict of interest concerns with Mr Klein’s new position with Mr Murdoch. Then a month later News Corp was engulfed in the infamous phone hacking scandal in July 2011, with which Mr Klein also assisted with. Several advocacy groups, posted online petitions that garnered thousands of signatures, urging Mr Di Napoli to veto the Wireless Gen contract. Several NY state legislators also wrote letters to the State Comptroller in opposition to the awarding of the contract.

A replacement was needed for Mr Klein and Mr Bloomberg’s proposed appointment as his successor was Cathleen P. Black, an executive from the publishing world, and the Chairman of Hearst magazines, a multinational mass media group. Much controversy swirled because of her lack of education experience and a waiver was required once again from the State’s Education Commissioner. Much support was needed and emails that were finally released after a thirty month legal fight last year, showed a mad scramble by Ms Black, who was still the chairwoman at Hearst magazines, and people in City Hall to line up powerful women to support her for the role as chancellor. An endorsement from Oprah Winfrey (Hearst magazines takes care of O, The Oprah Magazine) was brokered, and backing was sought from public figures such as Diane von Furstenberg, Donna Karan, Evelyn Lauder and Whoopi Goldberg. Ms Black got her waiver but in April 2011 just ninety-five days later, she had to resign after Mr Bloomberg told her in a blunt meeting that her troubled appointment could not be salvaged. Ms Black struggled in most aspects of her role including the massive budget, woeful public appearances littered with bad jokes and ill thought comments and above and beyond all a lack of leadership with hundreds of thousands of staff to oversee.

Ms Black was quickly replaced by Dennis M. Walcott a seasoned and likeable Deputy Mayor with much education experience. He still required a waiver because of a lack of administration experience but his other qualifications were ample enough and he finished his role with Mr Bloomberg.

On August 3, 2011 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation via their blog ‘The Impatient Optimists’ announced it’s involvement in the Shared Learning Collaborative, describing it as an App store for teachers to share learning tools. They also announced: “The foundation took an important first step a few weeks ago and selected a vendor to build the open software that will allow states to access a shared, performance-driven marketplace of free and premium tools and content. That vendor, Wireless Generation, will create the software, but it will be owned by an independent nonprofit, so that any school, school district, curriculum developer, or tool builder can contribute to the collaborative.”

On August 25, 2011 Mr DiNapoli wrote a letter to DOE, informing them that he was rejecting their contract with Wireless Gen to develop their internal state database: “In light of the significant ongoing investigations and continuing revelations with respect to News Corporation, we are returning the contract with Wireless Generation unapproved.

By December 2011, the Board of Regents, an Independent Governing body that oversees the States Colleges and Universities, approved DOE’s plan to share student and teacher data with a new Limited Liability Company (LLC), to be funded by the Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation and others called the Shared Learning Collaborative. The Gates Foundation awarded $76.5 million to be spent over seven months, with $44 million of this funding going to Wireless Gen, to design and operate the system, though according to one Regent, they were not told of the involvement of Wireless Gen before their vote.

In July 2012 News Corp changed the name of it’s education arm to Amplify. Amplify is built on the foundation of Wireless Gen and focuses on a tablet-based learning platform for students and teachers. News Corp has spent at least $180 million, according to Bloomberg, on top of the $360 million it spent to acquire the technology. Amplify spokesperson Justin Hamilton, claims its tablets are not just affordable but more affordable than textbooks. The tablet costs $299 plus another annual $99 subscription fee. For a fancier AT&T 4G model, it’s $349 plus $179 per year. The tablet is a customized Android tablet with a 10-inch, Gorilla Glass screen and is powered by a lithium-polymer battery that can last up to 8.5 hours. Mr Hamilton expects tablet computers to be as common place as text books: “We want the money we’re currently spending on print to [be spent on] digital,” Hamilton says.

Roger Kay, a technology commentator and founder of Endpoint Technologies Associates, Inc, theorised in an Op-ed for Forbes that Mr Murdoch sees the education market as a Trojan horse for spreading his political ideology. Every school that purchases News Corp’s curriculum will be teaching classes, somewhat dictated by the corporation. Amplify makes it clear its curriculum will be completely based on Common Core, but as the Common Core website states: The Common Core is not a curriculum. It is a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help our students succeed. Local teachers, principals, superintendents, and others will decide how the standards are to be met. Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms. It addresses privacy concerns of a national student data base of information with this: There are no data collection requirements for states adopting the standards. Standards define expectations for what students should know and be able to do by the end of each grade. Implementing the Common Core State Standards does not require data collection. The means of assessing students and the use of the data that result from those assessments are up to the discretion of each state and are separate and unique from the Common Core.

More than 45 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards for student learning. News Corp via Mr Hamilton calls the moment exciting, a chance to “let a thousand flowers bloom.” Amplify’s tablet-based curriculum is available with or without a tablet and can run on any tablet computer. Pricing is scant to be found as their website denies access to Australian Internet Service Provider’s, to access their shop. Mr Kay, is also concerned about the oversight of the curriculum. He says it wouldn’t be difficult to make small changes based on political opinion. “You want a good academic controlling education,” he says, not a Corporation.

As of February 5, 2013, the Shared Learning Collaborative was renamed inBloom Inc. A non-profit organisation that was a data warehouse platform. inBloom’s mission was to inform the student and the teacher with data and tools designed to personalise learning. The idea being to compile enough information so teachers and or software could tailor assignments to each student’s needs. inBloom had contracts to do the same for millions of public school kids across nine states, tracking their work to draw conclusions about their academic performance. The information included student’s names, addresses, grades, test scores, economic status, race, special education status and disciplinary status and was to be stored on a data cloud run by Amazon and with an operating system by Amplify. For many parents, the privacy issues with data were of concern, although there weren’t any documented cases of InBloom misusing the information, parents and privacy advocates around the country argued that digital records on kids as young as five could easily be sold to marketers or stolen by hackers. Six of InBloom’s nine client states had pulled out over privacy concerns by the time the company decided to close. “The risk far outweighs any benefits,” Karen Sprowal, a mother of a fifth grader, that testified before a NY State Senate committee last November. “Just know that there’s a lot of parents like me that’s out there that say, ‘Hell, no.’ ” The company not allowing parents to opt out was also an issue.

So far this year, laws limiting or banning the sharing of student data with marketing firms or other third parties have passed in eight states in the US, including NY, Virginia, and Kentucky; and dozens more have similar legislation pending, with Big Data starting to feel the backlash. “We’ve never seen anything like this,” says Aimee Rogstad Guidera, Executive Director of Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit that advocates for the use of data in education.

InBloom Chief Executive Officer Iwan Streichenberger says the public just didn’t understand what the company was trying to do. “We tend to be too defensive about privacy and not proactive and positive enough about the benefits of data,” he said at an industry conference the day he announced his company’s closing. “We believe in personalised learning, or the use of data to drive instruction, I do. But I think what we’ve realized is it’s still a very unknown concept for a lot of people. So they don’t understand why they should go down this path.”

Other companies are pursuing the personalised learning market more cautiously than InBloom did. “Our approach is to softly introduce tools and resources over time,” says Mr Hamilton for News Corp and the subsidiary of  Amplify, whose new software handling both data analysis and student instruction enters American schools in their Autumn.

It’s of note that in June 2013, The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in the US, awarded Apple a $30 million contract. For $678 apiece, every student will have an iPad. And Florida is rushing to meet a new statewide standard requiring half of all classroom instruction to use digital materials, by fall 2015.

Back to P-TECH, The Principal Rashid F. Davis was picked by IBM despite earlier controversy about grade tampering at Bronx John F. Kennedy High School in 2005. He and other officials were accused of exceeding their authority by raising grades. He was cleared after a five year investigation, other colleagues weren’t so lucky. Sam Palmisano, former IBM chairman, likened it to an apprenticeship. The thought came to him while chatting with then, NY Chancellor Joel Klein during a rain delay at the US Open. As they talked about the skills gap, Mr Palmisano said: “we’re not graduating kids with the qualifications to fill those jobs.” What was needed, he realized, was a program that gave kids those skills. “Everybody talks about the issues, but nobody does anything. We thought this will work.”

The first real test of any P-TECH success won’t happen until 2017, when its first class graduates. I fail to see how emulating a model without any proof of success is good government policy. The government is offering $500,000 to pilot the scheme modelled on NY’s P-TECH, and will spend $188m over four years to create industry growth centres in five specific areas: Food and Agribusiness; Mining equipment, Technology and services; Oil, gas and energy reserves; Medical technologies and Pharmaceuticals; and Advanced manufacturing.

It’s a dangerous precedent to allow Business Corporations into Australian education. It’s hard to tell yet exactly what Mr Pyne’s curriculum overhaul involves but it’s clear he and the government favours many of Mr Bloomberg’s reforms without valid proof of success. With the government calling for more power to access Australian citizen’s metadata at any time without a warrant, one wonders if something else isn’t at play? Once liberties such as privacy are taken away you very rarely get them back. And while I’m not saying that the plan is to introduce a program such as Amplify in Australia, the case is compelling.

The incentive programs on offer are also familiar and I’m not sure that they promote competitiveness when as a State you are starved for funding and will do whatever it takes to get that. The teaching profession is still a noble one, that does need reform but not with Corporates controlling via tablets; even under the guise of business philanthropy, ideology will seep in. At the very least checks and safe guards need to be put in place that are checked by an Independent Body not affiliated with the Corporations or government.

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