The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rupert Murdoch’s leap into education technology business ends badly

In this Aug. 14, 2012, photo, Rupert Murdoch speaks during a forum on The Economics and Politics of Immigration, in Boston.  (Josh Reynolds/AP)

It was only a few years ago when there were big headlines that Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City schools, was going to head up Amplify, the education division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. with the intention of making it a leader in education technology.

With a News Corp. investment of $1 billion and a partnership with AT&T, Amplify was set to sell 4G tablets to school districts and provide digital curriculum and instruction learning products to schools. With its website boldly saying, “Amplify is reimagining the way teachers teach and students learn,” it promised to make big waves in the education technology world, and some well-known figures jumped on board.

Justin Hamilton, once Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s press secretary, became the communications chief. Chris Cerf, the former New Jersey education chief who was recently named as Newark schools superintendent by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, also came on board to head the assessment division. Walter Isaacson,a respected writer and biographer who is president and chief executive officer of the Aspen Institute, and a former managing editor of Time magazine, wrote a unit about the Declaration of Independence as part of Amplify’s digital English-language curriculum. Peter Gorman, superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., became executive vice president. And the co-founders of Wireless Generation, a nonprofit digital education outfit that News Corp. purchased for $360 million, joined the executive team too.

Q. So what could possibly go wrong?

A. What didn’t?

The headline on a Education Week’s recent story about Amplify says it all: “Big Hype, Hard for News Corp.’s $1 billion ed-tech venture.” News Corp. is selling Amplify, and when the news was made public, the stock price rose to its highest level in more than a year.

Amplify’s tablets turned out to be a bust, with those in its largest shipment (to the school district in Greensboro, N.C.) troubled by technical problems. Customers were not terribly interested in Amplify’s equipment or curriculum. Last month, News Corp. reported that it was writing off $371 million in Amplify losses, and, a release said”

Additionally, the Company is reviewing strategic alternatives with respect to Amplify’s remaining digital education businesses. This change in Amplify’s strategy and related outlook resulted in a reduction in expected future cash flows for the business. As a result, the Company determined that the fair value of Amplify declined below its carrying value and recorded an impairment charge.

It is worth looking back at the views Amplify’s leaders had about public education and how it should be improved when the business started, especially those of Klein, whose controversial eight-year tenure in New York as chancellor ended in 2010 after it became clear that student standardized test scores were rising because the exams were being made easier to pass. In a 2013 New York Times Magazine article titled “No Child Left Untableted,” by Carlo Rotella, Klein made some statements that were analyzed by Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute in Washington, and a former national education writer for the Times.

Here’s what Rothstein wrote in this 2013 blog post:

I have no opinion about the merits of tablet-based instruction, but I’m writing here because Mr. Klein’s justification for his product is based on gross misrepresentations of the state of public education in America. We should always be skeptical of treatments based on faulty diagnoses of the problems they are designed to solve. The treatments may work, entirely by accident, but this is unlikely.
Here is how Joel Klein, in his interviews for the magazine article, described why it is necessary to revolutionize American education with tablet-based instruction:
K-12 isn’t working …and we have to change the way we do it… Between 1970 and 2010 we doubled the amount of money we spent on education and the number of adults in the schools, but the results are just not there. Any system that poured in as much money as we did and made as little progress has a real problem. We keep trying to fix it by doing the same thing, only a little different and better. This [tablet-based instruction] is about a lot different and better… We’ve spent so much on things that haven’t worked,” [he said, making a list that included underused computers as well as obsolete textbooks, useless layers of bureaucracy and smaller class sizes].
Unfortunately, Mr. Rotella did not press Joel Klein for the basis of these assertions, so central to a belief that public education needs to be transformed by the technology he is selling.
In truth, the assertions are based on little fact, and turn out only to be the recitation of modern myth. This is what research actually shows:
*It is true that money spent on education has doubled since 1970, but only about half of this increase has been devoted to improving the academic education of regular students. The other half has mostly gone to special education for children with disabilities who were not entitled to a free public education in 1970. We now spend a lot of money on a lot of adults—special education teachers with very low pupil-teacher ratios—who are dealing not only with learning disabilities but with children who have severe emotional, cognitive, and behavioral problems. It is foolish, as Mr. Klein in effect does, to claim that because we are now spending so much money on children with disabilities, schools must be failing because the spending has not caused the achievement of regular students to improve.
*Yet the achievement has improved, and dramatically. Nobody knows why it has improved—perhaps the other half of the spending growth devoted to regular education has played some role. Our only sources of information about trends in academic achievement are two sampled tests sponsored by the federal government, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. One, a multiple-choice test of more basic skills, shows that academic achievement for black children has improved so much that black fourth graders nationwide now have average basic skills proficiency in math that is greater than that of white fourth graders in 1970. The other, a test requiring original computations and written answers, shows the average academic achievement of black fourth graders to be greater than that of white fourth graders in 1990. Improvements have also been substantial in reading, and for eighth graders. White students have improved as well, so the black-white test score gap has not changed very much, narrowing only to the extent that black achievement has been rising faster than white achievement.
*Because the assumption that schools are failing is so frequently repeated and accepted, without evidence to support it, there has been almost no effort by scholars to understand the causes of the dramatic improvements that have, in fact, occurred. For example, Mr. Klein asserts that smaller class sizes for regular students haven’t worked. This, too, is only the incantation of conventional wisdom, but is not what the research shows. The only scientifically credible study of class size reduction, an experiment conducted in Tennessee 20 years ago, found that smaller classes were of particular benefit to disadvantaged children in the early grades, but without similar benefits for middle class children.
The assertion by school reformers—that their treatments are necessary because the patient is dying—echoes in the proclamations of many others, not Joel Klein alone. Influential education policymakers tell this to each other so often that they apparently never wonder if it is well-founded….
Of course, like any institution, public education should be improved. We should be able to do much better. But some, perhaps many of the things American schools have been doing have turned out to be quite successful. By making a blanket charge of failure and proposing to overturn the entire enterprise, whether in favor of tablet-based instruction, charter schools, short-term teachers, or private school vouchers, the reformers may well be destroying much of what has worked in favor of untested fads.