February 12 — 3:27 pm, 2018

Commentary: Philadelphia’s children deserve human teachers, not algorithms and data-mining

440 district hq

On Thursday, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission will vote on two resolutions. One (B-12) allocates $10 million for virtual classes and adaptive learning systems, and the other (A-7) awards Pearson $9.5 million for cloud-based services that collect data and deliver educational content to students. Online curriculum is gradually replacing face-to-face instruction in schools, and it appears the SRC intends to cement this trend firmly in place before disbanding. For our underfunded district to devote these enormous sums to cyber education when so many other pressing needs remain unmet amounts to a hostile takeover.

Philadelphia has become a hub for educational technology development. Wharton School-affiliated venture capital, combined with research support from the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, and Temple fuel growth in this sector. Many ed-tech companies have positioned themselves as vehicles for social impact investments, which ImpactPHL promotes as a tactic to expand our regional “impact economy.” Digital education will greatly benefit telecommunications companies that build skyscrapers with tax abatements that undermine tax revenue for neighborhood schools. One such company recently sponsored a closed-door event where Chamber of Commerce members discussed the future of business in schools while public school parents, teachers, and community members protested outside.

Digital education is a business. Children are the mechanisms through which economic value is extracted. Eric Schmidt, former board chair of Google’s parent company Alphabet, said data is the new oil. These resolutions make it clear that the plan is to frack data from Philadelphia’s vulnerable public school students, the majority of whom are black and brown and live in poverty. It is a profit-taking enterprise that unites venture capital, higher education, and philanthropy.

If passed, these resolutions will push our schools toward automated education. No one consulted parents. We were not given the option to choose between teachers and online test-prep, because District officials knew we’d tell them that virtual courses and adaptive software are no substitute for face-to-face instruction. Data dashboards cannot replace the nuanced assessment that human teachers provide. Even as “artificial intelligence” (AI) learning assistants are breathlessly promoted, parents know it is teachers who change children’s lives, not computer code.

Achieve 3000, iReady, and Lexia Learning will not empower children. Instead, they restrict learning to limited pathways using data-mining. Learning online is learning that is constantly monitored and surveilled. With a learning management system, the algorithm is in charge, not the teacher. In an era of leaks and security breaches, nothing about our children that is uploaded to the cloud can ever truly be “secure.”

We know data is used to profile, algorithms are racially biased, and classroom devices collect vast amounts of personally identifiable information. Serious health concerns arise with increased screen time, especially for young children. These include vision impairment, concentration and behavioral problems, and Wi-Fi exposure. Plugged-in children can become isolated, disconnected, and destabilized. Digital products are harming children in their schools, places they should feel safe. When bridging the “digital divide” means hooking students up to corporate learning modules, it is a bridge too far.

Parents want money spent in schools to reduce class sizes and restore librarians. During the Eagles championship parade, I took a video camera to the streets to ask people what they would do with $20 million for the schools. We would make sure every child had access to school plays, choirs, foreign language instruction, sports, debate teams, and field trips before putting a dime into virtual classes. We want public funds spent bringing joy back to schools.

Parents don’t want data-driven education. We don’t want our children treated as human capital. Our schools are not profit centers for predatory social impact data-mining ventures. The interests of students, teachers, and parents must take precedence over for-profit interests as well as those of their non-profit partners. Local control of Philadelphia’s schools means nothing if corporations control classrooms through contracted ed-tech vendors. The voice of the people must come first.

The SRC will meet at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 15, at 440 N. Broad Street.

Allison McDowell is a parent of a Philadelphia public school student. She blogs about education issues at Wrench in the Gears.


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