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The Stories We Were Told about Education Technology (2017)

A Hack Education Project

Education Technology, Betsy DeVos, and the Innovation Gospel

This is part two of my annual look at the year’s “top ed-tech stories

I confess: most of my social media networks are focused on education. I’m friends with educators. I follow educators and education journalists. I pay incredibly close attention to education news, and as such I expect my news feed to be full of education stories. But I’ve never seen anything quite like this year when it comes to the public’s interest in – and horror at – education politics.

We have Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to thank for that.

Betsy DeVos is the most unpopular cabinet member in the Trump Administration, with a September poll finding that 40% of voters view her unfavorably and one in March finding that 52% disapprove or strongly disapprove of her.

What’s striking about this isn’t simply that the Secretary of Education is unpopular. It’s not just that the Secretary of Education has become a part of popular culture, mocked on Saturday Night Live – although that’s something, for sure. It’s that Americans even know who the Secretary of Education is; that she’s known well enough to become a punchline, .

When President Trump nominated the billionaire for the position in late November, DeVos was not a name known much outside of education reform efforts in her home state of Michigan, where she had funded the expansion of charter schools and donated extensively to the GOP and various conservative and religious groups. Her nomination, while supported by the likes of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush who called her an “outstanding pick,” was denounced teachers unions and Democrats – that’s no surprise. More surprising: that she was immediately so controversial to so many members of the public who reportedly jammed Senate phone lines voicing their opposition.

DeVos’s nomination hearing proved to be high drama – even that she had a confirmation hearing at all felt rather scandalous in some circles, after not completing all her ethics paperwork, failing to disclose political donations, and not paying off election-related fines. (Fascinating how "accountability" applies to only some in education.)

One of the “highlights” of her hearing: her insistence that schools need guns to protect against grizzly bears. And that’s just one example of how incredibly ill-prepared DeVos seemed for the questions she received from Senators, appearing to not grasp some of the basics of education policy – the difference between “proficiency” and “growth,” for example – misstating graduation rates for online charter schools (something she’s long advocated, a key piece of her policy efforts as Secretary, and a separate article in this series), and seeming to not know there were federal rules surrounding disability rights and education.

Nevertheless, she was confirmed on 7 February as the Secretary of Education. The vote was split 50–50, with all Democrats and two Republicans – Susan Collins (ME) and Lisa Murkowski (AK) voting in opposition and Vice President Mike Pence stepping in to cast the deciding “yes.” (The Senate had scheduled Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions’ confirmation vote for the position of US Attorney General after DeVos’s so he could support her in this one.) It was the first time that a Vice President had to break a tie in the Senate to approve a Cabinet member.

Arguably, her tenure as Secretary of Education has been as rocky as her confirmation hearing.

Some of the problems have come from statements she’s made (and where she’s made them – speaking, for example, at a multitude of corporate and education reform events but declining an invitation to speak to education journalists, a traditional venue for the Secretary to appear.) DeVos has found herself in hot water by stating that Historically Black Colleges and Universities – schools founded because Black students were barred from attending white institutions – were the “real pioneers” of “school choice.” (Not a good look, especially as racial segregation in schools has been exacerbated in recent years, in part through the kinds of policies – “school choice” – DeVos advocates.) In response, no doubt, students at the HBCU Bethune-Cookman booed and turned their backs on her in May when she spoke at their commencement. DeVos earned the ire of educators when she told Town Hall in a February interview that she’d visited a school where the teachers were in “a ‘receive mode.’ They’re waiting to be told what they have to do.” She irritated politicians when, during testimony on Capitol Hill, she repeated 14 times that “schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law” when she was asked about discrimination and her plans for a federal voucher program. She decried an Obama era policy forgive the loans of students defrauded by for-profit schools: “all one had to do,” she told a group of Republicans in September, “was raise his or her hands to be entitled to so-called free money.” DeVos also raised eyebrows by issuing a statement of support following Trump’s announcement that he was withdrawing the US from the Paris Climate Accord – all while remaining silent on other issues more directly related to her department, such as the revocation of DACA protections.

(And then there were the typos. So very many misspellings and grammatical errors.)

But it’s likely the actions and the threat of actions – of the Department of Education and the Trump Administration more broadly – and not just the words and status updates that have made DeVos so incredibly unpopular. The rollback of Obama-era guidance on Title IX and sexual assault. The reversal of Obama-era guidance on transgender policies. The rescinding of documents outlining the rights of students with disabilities. The reversal of Obama-era policies designed to protect students from predatory for-profits, particularly with a series of decisions about student loans – enough that this warrants its own article in this series.

(And I suppose I’d be remiss if I didn’t note somewhere that, while DeVos is attempting to shrink the size of the Department of Education workforce by offering buyouts to staffers, taxpayers aren’t seeing much of a financial break when it comes to the Secretary herself: “Federal marshals are protecting Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at a cost to her agency of nearly $8 million over nearly eight months, according to the U.S. Marshals Service,” The Washington Post reported in April. The previous four Secretaries have not used the Marshals, but rather the Department of Education’s own security service.)

The Business of Betsy DeVos

As with many departments and agencies in the Trump Administration, many positions in DeVos’s Department of Education – particularly those requiring Senate confirmation – remain unfilled. Many of the jobs that have been filled underscore the deep ties that this Presidency has with industry: Taylor Hansen, a former lobbyist for the for-profit higher ed group Career Education Colleges and Universities, was hired (and subsequently quit) as part of the administration’s “beachhead” team; Julian Schmoke, a former DeVry University administrator, was tapped to lead the Education Department’s Student Aid Enforcement Unit; A. Wayne Johnson, the head of a student loan refinancing company, was chosen to run the department’s student loan division; Robert Eitel, a former executive at the for-profit Bridgepoint Education, was pegged as senior counselor to the secretary; and Stanley Buchesky, a venture capitalist with The EdTechFund, was selected as the department’s interim CFO, for example. (And has also occurred repeatedly in this administration, several of the Department of Education hires have had to step down or remove their names for consideration because of their penchant for making offensive comments online.)

DeVos’s own ties to industry are noteworthy as well, as detailed in the disclosure forms that she had to file as part of her nomination. “For A Glimpse At The Billionaire Class,” as Buzzfeed’s Molly Hensley-Clancy put it in February, “Check Out Betsy DeVos’s Finances.”

To be honest, Betsy DeVos and her family have so many investments, her finances need much more than a glimpse. The Center for American Progress also took a look “Inside the Financial Holdings of Billionaire Betsy DeVos,” and the list of education- and tech-related investments is long: KinderCare Education, the childcare company. MCF CLO IV LLC, a private equity firm with investments in – among other things – Caldwell & Gregory LLC, a company that makes laundry machines for university dorms. Theranos, the troubled blood-testing company. Discovery Communications, maker of education curriculum. The for-profit college company Sextant Education. Performant Financial Corp, a student loan debt collection agency that’s done business with the Department of Education. Avery Point VII CLO, which loaned money to for-profit college company Laureate Education. Apollo Investment Corp, whose subsidiary Apollo Global Management recently acquired the University of Phoenix. SoFi, the student loan company. n2y, a company that makes educational software for people with disabilities. Media Source, a company with several library-related products, including the publication School Library Journal. Neurocore, a “brain training” company under investigation for making misleading claims. (“Brain training” and related neuro-bollocks have become so pervasive this year that I’ll write about that in its own, separate article.) DeVos has divested from some, but not all of these. (Not Neurocore, for example.)

There are other family connections too, least of all DeVos’ brother Erik Prince, founder of the private military company Blackwater who’s been trying to convince Trump to privatize the war in Afghanistan. (DeVos has also made investments in military contractors since being in office, incidentally.) DeVos’s son Rick DeVos sits on the board of The College Fix, a right-wing college publication that, among other things, has helped stir up controversy about “free speech” on campus. DeVos’s husband Dick DeVos was appointed by Trump to a civilian FAA panel. (His political contributions to two Michigan political action committees this fall run afoul of DeVos’s promise that she and her husband would not make campaign donations during her stint in the Trump Administration.)

There are other powerful relationships too – as I’m investigating as part of my Spencer Education Fellowship, education technology’s political and financial networks are vast. Kevin Chavous, for example, a co-founder and board member of the American Federation for Children – a conservative “school choice” group co-founded chaired by DeVos until her nomination – joined the board of K12 Inc, the online virtual charter school company. (K12 Inc’s stock rallied after DeVos’s confirmation – notable considering how far it had fallen in recent years with repeated news about its academic failures.) But much of the billions that the DeVos family funnels into its networks is “dark money,” and as such is more challenging to track than the billions that, say, venture capital funnels into ed-tech.

From the outset, the ed-tech industry has been bullish on Betsy DeVos (even though the Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology still does not have an official nominee to head it.) Edsurge, which described her as a “mainstream outsider,” reassured its readers that DeVos “believes that technology has a role to play in the classroom.” “Her articulated commitment to trying different approaches to teaching and learning may bode well for the field of edtech,” Penn GSE’s Barbara Kurshan said in Forbes. “DeVos could be an ed tech champion as education secretary,” the trade publication Education Dive suggested hopefully. Venture capitalist Ryan Craig wrote in Techcrunch following her confirmation that that “By supporting charter schools and changing student financing for college, Secretary DeVos will usher in a new era of technology innovation in education.”

What exactly do ed-tech’s proponents mean when they gush excitedly about Betsy DeVos and “innovation”? And what exactly might DeVos herself mean by “innovation”?

The Cult of Innovation

Many journalists have pointed to one core element of DeVos’s faith in “innovation,” and that’s the powerful alliance she represents among education reformers, education businesses, and conservative Christians: “The Privatization Prophets,” Jennifer Berkshire called them in an article in Jacobin, describing them as “Holy Warriors Against the Welfare State” in an article in The Baffler. “Betsy DeVos’ Holy War” was how Janet Reitman described the Secretary’s policies in Rolling Stone. “Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America’s Schools to Build ‘God’s Kingdom,’” Mother Jones’s Kristina Rizga argued.

That goal – building “God’s Kingdom” – appeared in a 2001 interview that DeVos and her husband gave with a Christian philanthropic interview in which she argued “Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.” Her husband added that it is “certainly our hope that more and more churches will get more and more active and engaged in education.” Other organizations that DeVos has led or funded share similar agenda – reshaping curricula and softening the divide between Church and State.

Of course, there are many obstacles to public funding for religious schools in the US, least of which being the Constitution – although the US Supreme Court did rule this year that a Christian school in Missouri could use taxpayer money to upgrade its playground, a move that was cheered by DeVos and one that some observers say could open up the possibility that vouchers be used to pay tuition at parochial schools.

It’s an expansion of the meaning of “school choice,” perhaps, which has typically been used to describe efforts to expand charter schools and increasingly to allow taxpayer money to follow students to private schools via vouchers. It’s now part of a larger effort, some contend, to weaken “government schools,” to strengthen “Judeo-Christian values,” and to refute the public education system’s liberal and secular biases.

“Choice” has been described by some, including historian Diane Ravitch, for some time now as part of an effort to privatize the public school system. DeVos’s commitment seems to go farther: “the merger of free-market ideology and the religious right.”

But, as I’ve noted for years now, there’s long been an eschatological bent to the calls for “disruptive innovation.” Perhaps DeVos is closer to the mainstream investor class after all

An Uber for Education

There have been some murmurs this year of a fracturing of the “charter school coalition” in light of the Trump Administration’s policies and statements; but it seems as though education technology’s support for Betsy DeVos has remained strong. She spoke at the annual ASU-GSV investor event in May to a friendly audience, where she told the venture capitalists and entrepreneurs in attendance she was committed to “get the federal government out of the way so you can do your job.” She also likened the ed-tech industry to a thousand flowers blooming, but I’m guessing she didn’t really mean to give a nod to Mao.

A more common analogy in DeVos’s repertoire is likening “school choice” and school reform to Uber. She told the Brookings Institution in March that “Just like the traditional taxi service revolted against ride-sharing, so too does the education establishment feel threatened by the rise of school choice.”

Nobody mandates that you take an Uber over a taxi, nor should they. But if you think ridesharing is the best option for you, the government shouldn’t get in your way.

The truth is that in practice, people like having more options. They like being able to choose between Uber Pool, Uber X, Lyft Line, Lyft Plus, and many others. Or when it comes to taking a family trip, many like options such as Airbnb.

We celebrate the benefits of choices in transportation and lodging. But doesn’t that pale in comparison to the importance of educating the future of our country? Why do we not allow parents to exercise that same right to choice in the education of their child?

Of course, Uber and Lyft are for the wealthy. Just 15% of Americans have ever used one. And Ubers and even taxis are private transportation businesses; education, on the other hand, is a public good.

But it’s a bad analogy for plenty of other reasons, not merely because it underscores how little DeVos understands the public school system.

DeVos, to be fair, probably does understand “the gig economy” fairly well – her billions come, in part, from her family’s business, Amway, and the similarities between Amway and Uber’s business model are notable. We just don’t call Uber a pyramid scheme, I guess, because it has venture capital funding and a nice app. Uber is infamous for its terrible labor practices, relying on freelance drivers who must shoulder the cost of providing and maintaining their vehicles. Uber – and the gig economy more generally – is marketed as a path towards financial liberation, but really it’s simply a tool of survival in an increasingly precarious world. Uber has also found itself in hot water this year for a corporate culture rife with sexual harassment. And in March, The New York Times broke a story that showed how Uber had used a tool called “Greyball” to circumvent regulators trying to crack down on the ride-sharing service. (I’ll have more to say about this in the forthcoming article on “personalization” – because yes, that’s precisely what “greyballing” is.) In April, The NYT wrote about the company again, this time documenting “How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push Its Drivers’ Buttons.” (And yeah, there’s an ed-tech angle to that story too.) Founder Travis Kalanick stepped down from his position as CEO in June (although he remains on the board). But that hasn’t stopped the controversies. In November, Bloomberg reported that hackers had stolen the personal information of some 57 million Uber customers and drivers. The company had kept the breach secret for over a year, paying the hackers $100,000 to delete the stolen data.

At this stage, if you think “Uber for education” is a good idea, you’re either not paying attention or you’re some sort of cartoon villain. (Or both.)

Running Your School Like a (Silicon Valley) Business

Despite all the evidence that it’s a bad idea, the argument that schools should be run more like a business remains a pervasive one in American culture – and it has been for over a century.

This agenda takes many forms: it includes efforts to dismantle unions; it prioritizes talk (and measurements) of “efficiency”; it praises “unbundling” and outsourcing; it privileges “entrepreneurship” as a core value; it fetishizes technology as a vehicle for change.

And so you get a lot of headlines like this: “Your Guide to Running a School Like Disney World.” “Bridging the School-to-Business Gap: What Public Schools Can Learn From Industry.” “How Boundaries Between Colleges and Companies Will Continue to Blur.” What higher education can learn from American Express. “Tesla’s Ride-Sharing Network and Our Higher Ed Futures.” “What Christian Slater’s HP Videos Tell Us About the Future of Higher Ed Communications.” “Supercuts and the Future of (Too Many) Jobs.” “‘Grocery’, the Amazon-Whole Foods Deal and Higher Ed.” “If teachers think like managers, they could make happier classrooms.” “Schools Take a Page From Silicon Valley With ‘Scrum’ Approach.” “The Decline of the Laundromat and the Future of Higher Education.” “Is Your Edtech Product a Refrigerator or Washing Machine?” and so on.

By adopting its technology products – and more importantly, by adopting Silicon Valley’s culture and its obsession with “innovation” – schools have found themselves embracing values that run afoul of schools’ civic and social mission (whether they’re public institutions or not); values that posit students merely as objects of experimentation; that ignore research in order to further a political agenda (and that in turn tend to further inequality); that co-opt history, to borrow from John Patrick Leary, to suit the industry’s autocratic ends; that privilege a largely invented story about “the Great White Innovator”; that tout the slogan “move fast and break things” without thinking about the implications on the lives five- to twelve-year-olds, without thinking about the implications for civil society, .

Because of his embrace of that practice – “move fast and break things” – The New York Times declared in March that Trump was the first Silicon Valley President. Thanks, Silicon Valley. Thanks a lot.

Innovation and “New U”

Arguably, the university most closely associated with the Trump administration this year is Liberty University, a religious college in Lynchburg, Virginia founded by evangelist Jerry Falwell and now headed by his son Jerry Falwell Jr.

Falwell Jr. was an early proponent of Donald Trump and has stuck by him after his repeated racist and sexist statements. Trump apparently promised Falwell Jr a position on a new higher education task force, but as of yet, no task force has materialized.

Liberty University’s online offerings have helped the school to expand dramatically – it boasts some 94,000 students online and is now the largest Christian university in the world. According to a profile of Falwell Jr in Inside Higher Ed this fall,

Liberty’s net assets, measured in the tens of millions of dollars a dozen years ago, exceeded $1.8 billion in 2016. Next year it will move to the top division in college football, realizing a key vision of Jerry Falwell Sr. by becoming the evangelical equivalent of the University of Notre Dame or Brigham Young University – a nationally recognized religious institution of higher learning that uses its football program to capture hearts and minds on national television.


For several years now, Arizona State University has been one of the most high profile schools to embrace the ideology of “innovation,” describing itself in a book penned by its president Michael Crow as “The New American University.” In September, the school issued a press release – as one does when one is an innovator – boasting that, for the third year in a row, it had been named as the most innovative school in the US by US News & World Report.

How does one become the most innovative school in the country? According to the US News & World Report’s own methodology, “College presidents, provosts and admissions deans were asked to nominate up to 10 colleges or universities in their U.S. News Best Colleges ranking category that are making the most innovative improvements in terms of curriculum, faculty, students, campus life, technology or facilities.” You become the most innovative school by innovating. Duh.

“We now know that because of our innovation platform and our innovation culture, we’re just getting started,” President Crow said in the university’s press release. “Our pace of innovation is not just continuing, it’s accelerating.” And that, dear readers, is nonsense. It’s silly talk. “Innovation” – or the work that particular word does in those particular sentences, at least – is meaningless.

The implications of “innovation,” of course, come from looking more closely at the kinds of policies and programs that ASU has adopted: using software to teach freshman math courses, for example, and hosting the annual ASU-GSV Summit (where all the innovative “thought leaders” apparently gather). It partnered this year with Draper University – not a real university – to offer students credits for spending a semester working for Silicon Valley companies.

Related – a story from Politico this fall: “How U.S. News college rankings promote economic inequality on campus.”

While initiatives like its Global Freshman Academy and its partnership with Starbucks have had ASU and its president in the news in previous years, in 2017 it was a different public university and a different university president that perhaps tried to capture the innovation flag. That’s Mitch Daniels, former Republican Governor of Indiana and now the President of Purdue University.

Daniels – as governor and as university president – has pushed for a number of education policies that probably count as “innovation” on some score-cards: income-sharing agreements, for example, and competency-based degrees.

In April, he orchestrated something else altogether. Purdue, Indiana’s most prestigious public university, announced it was buying the for-profit college company Kaplan University, one part of the larger Kaplan brand (which runs tutoring and test prep services and has invested as itself or under its owner Graham Holdings in many education technology ventures) and one of the many for-profit universities who has found itself in hot water in recent years for misleading students with deceptive recruiting practices (and in Kaplan’s case specifically, hiring unqualified instructors).

The move was unprecedented – the first time a public university would acquire a for-profit college (a for-profit college whose classes are mostly conducted online) – and to many industry lookers, a total surprise. “Innovation,” right? The Chronicle of Higher Education described it as “a sign of the times.” A “bold move,” said Inside Higher Ed. “It’s kind of a head-spinner,” Edsurge admitted, bless its heart. “In the long-term Purdue risks inheriting all the problems of for-profit higher education and architects of the deal demonstrate little awareness of what that means for public higher education,” sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote with the most astute observations about the legitimacy and quality of the brand – what’s been dubbed “New U.”

Mitch Daniels described the acquisition as “so much in the public interest,” arguing that it would expand access to higher education – a core part of a public university’s mission. The sale price: just $1. The fine print: Kaplan’s current owner, Graham Holdings, would continue to take some of the revenue from the school as it would serve as an OPM, of sorts (an online program management company), with a contract lasting 30 years.

While Purdue’s trustees approved the deal, faculty at the university, who said they were not informed of the deal until one hour before it was publicly announced, passed a resolution rebuking the acquisition. There were many questions about the faculty of Kaplan too – would they become employees of the state of Indiana? Would they have access to the same sorts of tenure protections? And while Mitch Daniels pronounced Kaplan a public university, legislation passed in Indiana shielded Kaplan from certain open meetings and public records laws.

In August, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education okayed the deal. In September, the Department of Education signed off on the acquisition. In October, there was “a hiccup,” as The Washington Post put it: “The U.S. Education Department wants Purdue University to absorb the debts and liabilities of Kaplan University as a condition for approving the state school’s controversial purchase of the for-profit college, a request that critics say could place Indiana taxpayers at risk.” There’s still one more hoop too: the school’s accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, still must approve the deal. A decision is expected in February or March.

Can faculty stop Mitch Daniels? (There’s a petition.)

Remember, of course, any criticism will inevitably be framed as opposing “innovation.” That’s how this narrative always plays out.

Innovation and the End-Times

It’s never so much that educators or others are against “innovation” per se. Please, schools are not as moribund as their critics (or ed-tech salespeople) would have you believe. It’s that “innovation” has come to mean a specific set of practices – political practices, financial practices, and ecclesiastical ones. (Yes, Betsy.)

Wayne State University professor wrote about “innovation” in his “Keywords for the Austerity” series back in 2014. (I get to include it in this year’s series because he just announced he’s secured a book deal for the project.) “Innovation,” Leary chronicles, is not only intertwined with “Yankee ingenuity” – although that’s certainly part of the reason why the Silicon Valley story plays so well in the US, no doubt. And “innovation” has become a fundamental mantra for the twenty-first century, whereby genius entrepreneurs are suddenly struck with ideas that will help them gadgetize and productize something miraculous. “Innovation” is opportunity; “innovation” is speculation. But there is a religious element to all of this too.

“The verb ”to innovate“ has… seen a resurgence in recent years,” Leary writes.

The verb’s intransitive meaning is “To bring in or introduce novelties; to make changes in something established; to introduce innovations.” Its earlier transitive meaning, “To change (a thing) into something new; to alter; to renew” is considered obsolete by the OED, but this meaning has seen something of a revival. “Who’s the Best at Innovating Innovation?” asks the Harvard Business Review; the same publication sponsors a lucrative prize called the “Innovating Innovation Challenge.” The transitive construction “innovating innovation” thus uses the word in a form that was last common in the 18th century. Then, the word referred to a process of transformation or renewal that often carried religious implications: the salvation promised through Christ, but importantly also that offered though deceit by false prophets. (emphasis mine)

“Innovation” as salvation. Or “innovation” as deception by false prophets. It’s “innovation” either way. Whether or not it’s just or fair or good is a very, very different moral question.

This post first appeared on Hack Education on 4 December 2017. Financial data on the major corporations and investors involved in this and all the trends I cover in this series can be found on funding.hackeducation.com.