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Secretary DeVos, Neurocore, and Competency-Based Workforce Education: A Continuation of Outcomes-Based Behaviorism

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Vice President Mike Pence's tie-breaking vote to confirm US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, marks the first time in history that a VP has issued the deciding vote to officiate a presidential cabinet appointment. The contentious opposition votes have expressed that among their concerns are conflicts of interest between Secretary DeVos's federal powers and her multimillion-dollar investments in a biofeedback corporation known as Neurocore, which provides neuroscience treatments for retraining cognitive habits through stimulus-response conditioning.

In a letter to Chairman Lamar Alexander of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), ten Democrat members of HELP, including Bernie Sanders, formalized the following request for extended investigation of DeVos's corporate investments: "We believe it is important to ask her questions around companies she will continue to own that are directly impacted by the Department of Education and this administration's education agenda."

Although DeVos announced her resignation from Neurocore's board of directors upon her confirmation to the office of US Secretary of Education, she has refused to sell her shares in the company. By refusing to divest her financial interests in Neurocore, DeVos has incited concerns that she may use her federal influence to advance Neurocore's controversial biofeedback therapies as government-approved interventions for students who suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other cognitive-learning disabilities.

Former White House ethics adviser, Richard W. Painter, who served under the George W. Bush administration, has criticized DeVos's conflicts of interest: "[t]his is not an appropriate investment for the secretary of education ... How schools respond to attention issues is a vitally important policy question and ties right into achievement. In my view, there should be support, including financial support, for alternatives to ADHD drug treatments that are covered by health insurance whereas alternatives often are not covered.... The secretary would be barred from participating in that important policy decision if she or her husband owned an interest in this company."

Nevertheless, touted as the cutting edge of operant-conditioning psychotherapy, Neurocore's biofeedback treatments could be readily advocated in the halls of academia by behaviorist pedagogues and Skinnerian educational philosophers if given the nudge from a DeVos Department of Education. At the same time, Neurocore's hi-tech occupational biofeedback therapies may be eagerly promoted by corporatists at the new White House Office of American Innovation (OAI) who are seeking to capitalize on DeVos's "competency-based" workforce education initiatives under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Finally, as an alternative medical procedure, Neurocore stimulus-response conditioning could potentially be institutionalized as a publicly subsidized treatment for cognitive-learning disabilities classified under ESSA Sections 2103 and 4108, which will be amplified by state-level P-20 fusion of education and healthcare through fascistic public-private partnerships.

In sum, as President Trump's OAI drives hi-tech workforce-training initiatives that capitalize on ESSA/P-20 medicalization of privatized workforce education, DeVos's Neurocore Corporation could exploit a windfall of burgeoning biofeedback niches for hi-tech innovations in education, healthcare, and corporate business. The prospects of such quid-pro-quo cronyism will be exacerbated by the fact that Neurocore CEO, Mark Murrison, has announced that the Michigan-based corporation is branching out into "national expansion," beginning with the opening of two new Brain Performance Centers in Florida last year.

If you think that a DeVos-financed healthcare corporation would never be charged with exploiting federal programs for profit, it should be noted that Billionaire Betsy has earned capital gains dividends through investments in Universal Health Services (UHS) [1], which is a nationwide chain of psychiatric hospitals that is currently under federal investigation for Medicare and Medicaid fraud.

The School as Psychological Laboratory from Behaviorism to Operant Conditioning:

Although some critics dismiss Neurocore's brain-training treatments as "quack[ery]," biofeedback therapies are rooted in the behaviorist methodology of stimulus-response psychological conditioning. According to licensed biofeedback psychologist Dr. Christopher Fisher, biofeedback is actually a form of B. F. Skinner's operant-conditioning behaviorism. In fact, the Neurocore website states that it uses the operant-conditioning techniques of "positive reinforcement and repetition" to retrain brainwave frequencies to conduce better attention and memory spans.

As such, Neurocore's Skinnerian conditioning therapies are grounded in the very same stimulus-response psychological methodology that has been the scientific basis of American education pedagogy for over a century. Throughout the early 1900s, the proto-behaviorist laboratory method of schooling was bankrolled across the nation by Secretary Abraham Flexner of the General Education Board (GEB) of the Rockefeller Foundation philanthropies, which funded teaching labs across America, including labs at the premier Columbia University Teachers College (Lionni 72-81). It is worth noting that the Rockefeller Foundation was also funding the biofeedback research of Norbert Weiner as early as the 1920s.

In The Leipzig Connection, Paolo Lionni documents how Rockefeller's GEB propagated stimulus-response pedagogies through financing the research of such academic figureheads as James McKeen Cattell, James Earl Russell and Edward Lee Thorndike at Columbia University Teachers College where Thorndike adapted his stimulus-response experiments on animal behaviors and applied them to human youths (Lionni 30-41, 64-65).

Based on these proto-behaviorist animal-training experiments at Columbia Teachers College, E. L. Thorndike systematized teaching as "the art of giving and withholding stimuli with the result of producing or preventing certain responses. In this definition of the term stimulus is used widely for any event which influences a person,--for a word spoken to him, a look, a sentence which he reads, the air he breathes, etc., etc. The term response is used for any reaction made by him,--a new thought, a feeling of interest, a bodily act, a mental or bodily condition resulting from the stimulus. The aim of the teacher is to produce desirable and prevent undesirable changes in human beings by producing and preventing certain responses" (qtd. in Lionni 32-33).

Compare Thorndike's methodology here to Neurocore's biofeedback brain-training procedures: Neurocore reprograms ADHD by utilizing quantitative electroencephalography to monitor brainwave responses to video stimuli; whenever the ADHD patient exhibits an undesirable brainwave response that indicates distraction, the video stimuli is halted or altered until the patient exhibits a focused brainwave response that indicates concentrated attention. Hence, the only difference between Neurocore's biofeedback science and Thorndike's "art of giving and withholding stimuli" is that the former aims to condition the autonomous nervous system while the latter targets more of the voluntary nervous system.

Fast-forward to as recently as 2007, and Columbia Teachers College is still practicing this art of stimulus-response conditioning through Comprehensive Applied Behavior Analysis in Schools, a new behaviorist instructional methodology that was developed by Skinner's prote'ge', Doug Greer, who is Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia.

Buttressed by this hundred-year institutional tradition of stimulus-response educational psychology, Neurocore's behaviorist therapies for learning disabilities are primed to be legitimized by the intelligentsia of US academia if incentivized by a DeVos Department of Ed.

At the same time, biofeedback conditioning is being advocated through numerous scholarly journal publications authored by contemporary educational psychologists such as the Chair of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Kansas, Steven Wayne Lee, and the Director of the Doctoral Program in Counseling Psychology at the Boston University School of Education, Steven N. Broder. With such support from current leaders of university education departments, the biofeedback neuropsychology underlying Neurocore's cognitive-behavioral therapies is already being advocated in the disciplines of educational methodology and pedagogy.

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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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