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Mark Zuckerberg says he’s learned from his school reform mistakes. Has he really?

Facebook chief executive and founder Mark Zuckerberg speaks during a ‘town-hall’ meeting at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in New Delhi on October 28, 2015. Speaking to about 900 students at New Delhi’s Indian Institute of Technology, Zuckerberg said broadening Internet access was vital to economic development in a country where a billion people are still not online. ( SHARMAMONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, recently announced to the world, on the occasion of the birth of their daughter Max, that would, over time, donate 99 percent of their Facebook stock they own — worth many billions of dollars — to “advance human potential and promote equality for all children. Education will play a big role in their philanthropy, they said, sparking concerns among some school activists about how they plan to invest. Here’s a piece raising these issues, from Leonie Haimson, a leader in national efforts among advocates to protect student data as well as founder of the group Class Size Matters.

By Leonie Haimson

It’s been a startling time for parents concerned about children’s data privacy and the outsourcing of instruction to education technology companies. First was the recent news that the V-tech breach had exposed the personal data of more than 6.3 million children – rather than the 200,000 that was first described. The Hill reported:

The information exposed for children includes names, gender and birthdates. Security experts who have reviewed the data say that it is possible to link children’s information with their parents’ data, thereby revealing the kids’ full addresses and other information.
Stolen data for the parents includes mailing and email addresses, security questions used for password resets, IP addresses, passwords and download histories…Chat logs between parents and children were also inappropriately accessed, as well as photos of children.

Then the Electronic Frontier Federation filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against Google for violating the student privacy pledge the company signed the year before. The complaint alleges that Google is collecting and data-mining the information of students while logged into their Google Apps for Education accounts at school:

While Google does not use student data for targeted advertising within a subset of Google sites, EFF found that Google’s “Sync” feature for the Chrome browser is enabled by default on Chromebooks sold to schools. This allows Google to track, store on its servers, and data mine for non-advertising purposes, records of every Internet site students visit, every search term they use, the results they click on, videos they look for and watch on YouTube, and their saved passwords.

Google, it is alleged, is using children’s browsing history to improve their products, and not for any educational purposes, as the privacy pledge specifies. A day later EFF added:

Google has promised not to build profiles on students or serve them ads only within Google Apps for Education services. When a student goes to a different Google service, however, and they’re still logged in under their educational account, Google associates their activity on that service with their educational account, and then serves them ads on at least some of those non-GAFE services based on that activity.

Finally, came the news that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan would invest 99 percent of their stock in Facebook – worth potentially as much as $45 billion — in a new LLC to be spent on “personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people and building strong communities.”

Zuckerberg made it clear that he chose not to put his money into something as old-fashioned as a foundation, because that would be too restrictive. As he wrote in his open letter to his newborn daughter Max:

“We must participate in policy and advocacy to shape debates. Many institutions are unwilling to do this, but progress must be supported by movements to be sustainable.”

Has the Gates Foundation really been constrained from yielding a huge influence over education policy over the last eight years?

In the open letter on (where else) Facebook, Zuckerberg and his wife explained that their version of “personalized learning” is really instruction through computers and pre-packaged software:

“We’re starting to build this technology now, and the results are already promising. Not only do students perform better on tests, but they gain the skills and confidence to learn anything they want. And this journey is just beginning. The technology and teaching will rapidly improve every year you’re in school.”

To explore a little further what this means, witness Zuckerberg’s current investments, including in a $100 million fund to create a for-profit chain of private schools called the Alt Schools, located in the Bay Area and New York City. Here is a description of the Brooklyn school:

Every pupil gets their own tablet or Chromebook; wall-mounted video cameras called “superpowers” record children’s learning moments and kiddie confessionals for teachers to review…kids sign in via an app on an iPad at the entry. It’s connected to an online platform called My.AltSchool that tracks everything from a child’s Personalized Learning Plan to allergies.
The schedule changes daily, but midmorning on a recent Wednesday, some 6- to 8-year-olds studied Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” on their Chromebooks in one corner, while others engaged in writing lessons. … AltSchool, which costs $27,500 a year, operates on the traditional school calendar, but parents are encouraged to take family vacations when it’s convenient for them — perfect for a jaunt to Kyota[sic], Japan, in time for cherry-blossom season or a family trip to Austin for South by Southwest.

Yet schools that operate through online or virtual learning have a very controversial track record. The Alt School model most closely resembles the technology-focused Kunskapsskolan charter school, later renamed Innovate Manhattan, that was established with much fanfare in New York City in the fall 2011, by a Swedish for-profit chain. Rupert Murdoch was so enthralled by this model of education that he featured it in a speech to the G8 in May 2011, while rhapsodizing on its profit potential:

“In Sweden, I visited an innovative school known as the “IKEA school.” Learning is supported by a “knowledge portal” that contains the entire syllabus. In this school, learning fits the individual student’s pace and interests – and the teachers give students plenty of individual attention. This school is possible because of a system that encourages competition by letting parents use public money to choose what schools they think work best for their children. That includes schools that are privately-run and for-profit.”

There was so much positive buzz about this school that Joel Klein, then chancellor of the New York City public school system who later went to work for Murdoch, offered it space in the city’s Department of Education headquarters so his staff could “learn” from it. By September of 2012 Innovate Manhattan had relocated to Delancey Street on the Lower East Side. By March 2015, a decision had been made to close the school, because of mediocre results, financial problems and difficulty recruiting students.

Indeed, many tech-focused schools initially promoted as having found the “secret sauce” to revolutionize education, have been followed by disappointment. First, the Rocketship charter schools using the Dreambox Learning system were immensely praised, before the software and learning lab model were exposed as ineffective. Amplify tablets were publicized aggressively by Joel Klein and Rupert Murdoch until they turned out to be a failure; in September, Murdoch sold the company to a group of private investors, at a huge loss. Summit charters were highly regarded by Bill Gates and portrayed as transformational; only now these schools are introducing a whole new suite of software products designed with the help of Facebook engineers, because as it turns out, the previous “blended” technology did not work so well. Not to mention the iPAD disaster in Los Angeles, that led to Superintendent John Deasy’s downfall last year.

More and more teachers are saying, as this one has, “I gave my students iPads — then wished I could take them back.” As Virginia educator Launa Hall points out,

“teachers of young children know that the chatter in a typical elementary classroom is what makes it a good place to learn. …. They need time to learn communication skills — how to hold your own and how to get along with others. They need to talk and listen and talk some more at school, both with peers and with adults who can model conversation skills. The iPads subtly undermined that important work. My lively little kids stopped talking and adopted the bent-neck, plugged-in posture of tap, tap, swipe.”

And the need to converse and discuss is not true merely of young students. Even the U.S. Department of Education, a vigorous supporter of online learning, had to conclude this in its meta-analysis:  “Few rigorous research studies of the effectiveness of online learning for K-12 12 students have been published.” A study released in September by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development concluded, “Students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.”

The truth is there are NO good studies that show that online or blended instruction helps kids learn, and the whole notion of “personalized” learning is a misnomer, as what it usually signifies is depersonalized machine-based learning. All software can do is ask series of multiple choice questions and then wait for the right or the wrong answer. It cannot read an essay or give feedback on how to improve an argument, or help extricate a child from a knotty math problem. It cannot encourage students to confront all the various angles in a controversy, as happens through debate and discussion with teachers and classmates. In fact, learning through computers reduces contextualization and conceptualization to stale pre-determined ideas, the opposite of the creative and critical thinking that we are supposed to be aiming for in the 21st century.

Moreover, Zuckerberg makes assorted unsubstantiated claims related to equity: “Of course it will take more than technology to give everyone a fair start in life, but personalized learning can be one scalable way to give all children a better education and more equal opportunity,” he writes. Note the echoing flattery expressed on the Facebook page of Summit charter schools: “Max has been born into a moment of opportunity. In large part, because of Mark and Priscilla’s vision and generosity, she and children around the world will have personalized learning experiences in re-imagined schools. Max’s generation will create a more just and equitable society. “

Contrary to these statements, a growing number of studies suggest that a shift to more online learning will likely widen rather narrow the achievement gap – and those children without strong support or direction at home or fairly advanced skills will fall further behind. As the class size research shows, while all kids benefit from lots of feedback from their teachers, disadvantaged students most need this support and interaction to thrive.

So far, Zuckerberg appears to have learned little from his disastrous $100 million involvement in Newark schools. Though he recently wrote he realizes that it is ” very important to understand the desires of a community, to listen and learn from families, teachers, elected officials and other experts,” he added, “We now better understand why it can take years to build the support to durably cement the changes needed to provide every student with a high quality education.”

Listen and learn from the community, or build support so that community members fall in line behind his vision of what is best for children? His conclusion suggests the latter:

“In our ongoing focus on personalized learning, our goal is to work with everyone — district schools, charters, private schools, teachers, parents, unions and other philanthropists. Everyone benefits from personalized learning and we’ll serve students best if everyone is behind the effort.”

This doesn’t sound like a man who has humbly learned from his mistakes. In his letter on Tuesday, he comments, reassuringly that “it will take engaging with communities,” but it is not clear which community he means. Is he referring to public school parents, who are understandably apprehensive about having their children spend more time in front of screens, and averse to ceding control of their most personal information to data-mining companies? Or does he mean the community of other venture philanthropists and technology mavens with whom he usually socializes — and who see the public education market as a huge opportunity, and public school parents as a mere annoyance, a potential interference to their grandiose plans?

Zuckerberg ended his earlier letter this way:

“Change in education takes time and requires a long term focus. We are committed to working to improve public education for many years to come, and to improving our approach as we go. Priscilla and I have been fortunate to have great educations and supportive families and communities. We want to help make a real difference for all children, and we’ll keep sharing more about what’s ahead.”

Zuckerberg attended high school at Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite boarding school in New Hampshire, where class sizes are eight to twelve students per class to ensure they can all fit around a special oval table called the “Harkness table.” Harkness was a philanthropist who gave generously to Exeter in the 1930’s to establish small classes, so that that each individual student had ample opportunity to participate in dialogue, discussion and debate. As the school still puts it, “The Harkness table places students at the center of the learning process and encourages them to learn from one another.”

This is opposite to the computerized instruction that Zuckerberg now proselytizes for and intends to disseminate. He apparently did not take the right lessons from his Exeter education about what enlarging human potential through philanthropy and “personalized” learning really requires.