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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 2/19/17

Billionaire Betsy DeVos, Big Data, and the Public-Private Planned Economy

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If cutting-edge educational technologies can scientifically maximize student learning, then why do so many Silicon Valley bigwigs at Google, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and Yahoo! send their children to the Waldorf School of the Peninsula , a school which bans computer technology from its classrooms? If high-tech computerization were such a fundamental enhancement to cognitive development, then why did Steve Jobs withhold iPads and other "screen-time" technologies from his children? Why would these tech gurus not practice for their own sons and daughters what they preach (and bankroll) for the public education system? These incongruences signal red flags that the real objective behind the accelerating push for personalized computer learning is not to boost academic outcomes, but to data-mine students for the purposes of corporate-fascist political-economic planning.

Enter US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, a billionaire who has played both sides of the public-private fence as a supporter of federal Common Core data-mining as well as corporate charter schooling and privatized voucher programs. As President Trump's Education Secretary, we can expect DeVos to transfer the government data-mining policies of Common Core into a deregulated system of public-private "school choice" partnerships, which will open loopholes for private data-mining corporations to coopt public student data for the purposes of for-profit behavioral advertising and corporate-fascist workforce planning.

By capitalizing on loosened Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act(FERPA) restrictions while blurring the regulatory lines between public education institutions and their privately contracted vendors, a DeVos federal policy of high-tech data-mining throughout a privatized national schooling system could open backdoors for treasure-troves of public student data to be shared with educational technology companies, and even noneducational corporations, for fascistic market manipulation and workforce planning.

Less Privacy, More Privatization:

DeVos has a decorated track record of school privatization activism as a member of numerous "school-choice" advocacy organizations such as the Alliance for School Choice, Advocates for School Choice, Choices for Children, The Education Freedom Fund, the American Education Reform Council, the American Federation for Children, Children First America, the Great Lakes Education Project, and Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education. She has also funded EdChoice, formerly known as the Milton Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. (As I demonstrate in my article "The Corporatization of Education,""school choice" is just a euphemism, coined by Friedman himself, for charter school privatization).

Furthermore, DeVos has been instrumental in funding charter school privatization throughout Michigan where she poured $5 million into lobbying efforts for pro-voucher legislation. Additionally, she pumped $1.45 million into political efforts to stop the Michigan State Legislature from passing regulations that would have set up a local commission to oversee the state's 80% for-profit charter school system .

With Trump's pledge to commit $20 billion in federal funding to school-choice reform, don't expect Secretary DeVos to skip a beat as a crusader for education privatization that will eradicate locally elected schoolboards.

Greenlighted with presidential backing, DeVos deregulation will be ripe to capitalize on the revised federal regulations under FERPA laws which have been reinterpreted since 2011 to now permit third-party corporations to data-mine American students. Through these (de)regulatory loopholes, a DeVos Department of Education could incentivize accelerated digitalization of student FERPA data to be aggregated by educational data-cumulating corporations, such as the now-defunct inBloom, which share databases with third-party corporations that could expropriate student data sets for potentially noneducational research and development.

To be sure, such third-party corporations must be deemed to have "legitimate educational interests" in order to be granted legal access to FERPA-protected data. However, as demonstrated in my article titled "National Charter School Fascism," the institutional lines between traditional classroom education and "cradle-to-career" community-oriented learning are being blurred by the burgeoning privatization mergers of public education, public health and human services, and "community policing" agencies guided by workforce training pedagogies under public-private P-16/20 council governance.

With these public institutions privatized together through business partnerships managed under interlocking P-16/20 governance, DeVos policy may broaden the terms and conditions of what constitutes a "legitimate educational interest" to encompass any service that contributes to the improvement of the labor force or any of the healthcare, welfare, or criminal justice systems as integral subcomponents of America's new P-20/cradle-to-career schooling system. By incorporating social services and criminal justice agencies as ostensible branches of the US education system, public-private P-20 mergers will set the stage for the DeVos Department of Education to justify corporate data-mining of students for R&D by any contingent business that could enhance a student's psychosocial development from cradle to career [1].

No Child Data Left Un-Mined:

DeVos is also the chair of the Philanthropy Roundtable, which published Blended Learning: A Wise Giver's Guide to Bolstering Tech-Assisted Teaching , an April 2013 guidebook advocating for educational reform through deregulated charter and voucher privatization which implements individualized online computer-learning modules that streamline Common Core testing by data-mining students in real time.

The guidebook, which hypes Common Core as "an exciting idea" (30), endorses corporate charter schools such as KIPP Empower Academy LA, KIPP Chicago, KIPP Ascend Primary School, KIPP Ascend Middle School, KIPP Create College Prep Middle School, KIPP NYC, and KIPP Washington Heights Middle School as case-study success stories of the "blended-learning" methodology: "the artful combination of computerized instruction (personalized for each student . . . ) with small-group teaching that is closer to tutoring than to traditional mass lectures" (8). In fact, at some of these KIPP charter schools, the entire curriculum is "taught," or facilitated, through a 100% blended-learning methodology.

For implementing such computerized instruction, the guidebook promotes adaptive learning software such as Knewton and Dreambox, which data-mine students with cognitive learning algorithms that mimic the behavioral advertising algorithms used by so many web-based corporations: "[m]uch as Netflix or Amazon or Pandora are able to learn from each user's actions to predict what that person will next need or desire, so adaptive educational software can pick up how a given student learns, and what he or she is missing. . . . The lessons presented to students begin to differ, and teachers get suggestions on which resources they might try to get through problems with that pupil, based on his particular learning history" (68) [2].

This Philanthropy Roundtable blueprint for federal Common Core testing managed by private adaptive-learning/data-mining corporations will likely serve as something of a handbook for DeVos's policies as Secretary of Education under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Indeed, ESSA stipulates provisions for school districts to implement an "'innovative assessment system' . . . that may include--(1) competency-based assessments . . . or performance-based assessments that combine into an annual summative determination for a student, which may be administered through computer adaptive assessments; and (2) assessments that validate when students are ready to demonstrate mastery or proficiency and allow for differentiated student support based on individual learning needs."

The language here in the ESSA law reads as if it were tailored to facilitate the corporate adaptive-learning/data-mining endorsed by DeVos's Philanthropy Roundtable. Under ESSA, public-private "'innovative assessment system[s]" of individualized adaptive-learning/data-mining software such as Knewton and Dreambox can be contracted to proctor "computer adaptive assessments" for calculating student workforce "competenc[e]" and "performance" outcomes in accordance with ESSA's "career readiness" clauses.

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John Klyczek has an MA in English and has taught college rhetoric and research argumentation for over eight years. His literary scholarship concentrates on the history of global eugenics and Aldous Huxley's dystopic novel, Brave New World. He (more...)

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