The Washington Post

$1.1 million-plus Gates grants: ‘Galvanic’ bracelets that measure student engagement

Please see update to this post by clicking here .

In the ‘you-can’t-make-up-this-stuff’ category, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is spending about $1.1 million to develop a way to physiologically measure how engaged students are by their teachers’ lessons. This involves “galvanic skin response” bracelets that kids would wear so their engagement levels could be measured.

If this tells us anything, it is that the obsession with measurement and data in school reform has reached new nutty heights.
Here’s the description of the $498,055 grant to Clemson University that was awarded in November (but that just recently became widely known by Susan Ohanian and Diane Ravitch):

Purpose: to work with members of the Measuring Effective Teachers (MET) team to measure engagement physiologically with Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) bracelets which will determine the feasibility and utility of using such devices regularly in schools with students and teachers.

And here’s the description of the $621,265 grant given at the same time to the National Center on Time and Learning:

Purpose: to measure engagement physiologically with Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Galvanic Skin Response to determine correlations between each measure and develop a scale that differentiates different degrees or levels of engagement.

That’s more than $1.1 million that could have been spent on things that schools actually need, such as books, teachers, librarians, etc.

The foundation gave the awards as part of its Measuring Effective Teachers project , which is experimenting with teacher evaluation systems in seven school districts nationwide. Millions of dollars have gone into these evaluation experiments, which, among other things, have involved the use of standardized test scores to assess teacher effectiveness (a bad idea), as well as the questionable videotaping of teachers. And now, bracelets.

Ohanian notes here that the kind of technology needed to develop galvanic bracelets is part of the “emerging field of neuromarketing,” which “relies on biometric technologies to determine a participant’s emotional and cognitive response to certain stimuli.”

How, Ravitch asks, would the bracelet tell if a student is responding to a teacher and not to something his friend whispers in his ear?

That’s just one of the questions that come to mind about this enterprise, including this one: Why would anybody spent money on this when some school systems can’t afford to pay their electric bills?

And: Is there not something a bit creepy about making kids wear something so their reactions to learning about the War of 1812 can be measured?

I have an idea: How about simply asking students what they thought about their teacher’s lesson on the Pythagorean theorem?

In this era of data-driven education, that just won’t do.

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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.


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