Ark flips the script: accountability, privatisation and 'ed tech'
Roger’s latest piece is another closely-reasoned critique of the ‘culture of training’ which is taking hold in English schools. The piece is clearly based on years of experience as a teacher, and years of reflection on that experience, informed by a whole tradition of thought and writing on education. The difficulty is that the ideas he is criticising – all that ‘neo-traditionalist’ talk about direct instruction, facts vs. skills, ‘high quality practice’, etc. – have nothing to do with education. This is not to say that we should not challenge them on educational grounds. But in the world of the big academy chains, as Roger knows, educational aims and principles have been totally displaced – by marketing and PR.
These chain schools are pseudo-schools, staffed by pseudo-teachers, with their own pseudo-theory of education. This pseudo-theory is a mishmash of words and phrases which may once have had some link to behaviourist theories of learning, but which have been drained of all real meaning. It is really just a sales pitch. Specifically, it is a way of selling a harsh culture of test and exam training that takes no account of students’ real needs, and serves no educational purpose. This culture is deeply entrenched in MATs, and is not likely to change any time soon. It’s integral to their business model, because it allows them to get the test and exam results that they need for marketing purposes, while cutting wage costs.
However, something is changing. We are hearing a new type of ‘strategic messaging’, as the PR firms call it. And it is coming from the centre, from the DfE and Ofsted. It started with the DfE working groups on workload and assessment – which, as Tamasin Cave has noted, were basically a Trojan Horse. And now things have gone a step further. The new HMCI, Amanda Spielman, is rushing to point out the damaging effects of the current accountability system: the narrowing of the curriculum, the teaching to the test, the training of pupils ‘to jump through a series of accountability hoops’. As she told ASCL in March, ‘there is more to a good education than league tables’.
What is going on?
The most important thing about Spielman, whose background is in finance and ‘strategy consulting’, is her closeness to Ark Schools. She was a key architect of their ‘data-driven culture’. (Michael Wilshaw was also close to Ark, having been their Director of Education; but his extreme arrogance made him a bit of a loose cannon.) Ark Schools has been the main channel by which the ‘no excuses’ model developed by KIPP and other US charter school chains entered the English education system. As Paul Marshall told the Evening Standard back in 2011: ‘We model ourselves on the American KIPP schools’. When, in 2007, Ron Beller and Jennifer Moses founded Ark’s King Solomon Academy – the ‘best comprehensive school in England’ – they created a near-perfect replica of a KIPP charter school.
In other words, Spielman helped to create the chain which has done most to transfer ‘no excuses’ methods – the brutal culture of training that Roger describes – from the USA to England. Why is she now wringing her hands over teaching to the test? Why is she talking about the need for a ‘broad, rich and deep’ curriculum that promotes critical thinking (while being very clear that she doesn’t wish to ‘get into the space’ of defining that curriculum)? Why do she, Daisy Christodoulou, and the rest of the Ark gang seem to be turning their backs on a model which has served them so well?
‘No excuses’ schooling is inseparable from what we have all learned to call ‘accountability’. It has a symbiotic relationship with the test-driven accountability systems developed both here and in the USA since the 1990s. These were national accountability systems, based on national standardised tests and exams, taken by all students at the same point in their school careers.
These systems made possible the marketisation and partial privatisation of state-funded education. They also led to the degradation and perversion of educational aims and values that Roger has analysed so well. But, as developments in the USA are making increasingly clear, this form of accountability has outlived its usefulness for the privatisers. It has become a barrier to the next step: the full-scale privatisation of public education systems, with schools run and serviced by profit-making businesses.
Technology will play a critical role in this next stage. Computer-based, online instruction – marketed as ‘blended’ or ‘personalised’ learning – is already a reality in the USA, where it is rapidly being adopted by charter school networks. Ark and other academy chains are seeking to bring it to England (see here). From a commercial point of view, it has huge advantages: it allows drastic reductions in labour and plant costs – what Ark calls 'staffing and school design efficiencies' – and the opening of new markets in products and services created by the growing ‘ed tech’ industry. As Rupert Murdoch announced – a bit prematurely – in 2011, the automation of teaching will finally make possible the exploitation of a $500bn market by profit-making companies.
The current accountability system – which involves measuring the performance of all students using the same tests, taken at the same time – is now an obstacle to that goal. The next wave of edu-businesses will have their own proprietary curricula, and their own proprietary testing systems. The curricula will be digital, delivered by computer. So will the tests, which will be ‘embedded’ in the online ‘instructional content’. Personalised learning is based on the real-time tracking of students’ performance in online tests; it is essentially a system of continuous testing, which produces vast amounts of data. (Ark are busy developing a new cloud-based service, Assembly, which will collect data from school ‘management information systems’, for the use of ed tech companies.)
This data, as US campaigners like Emily Talmage and Alison McDowell argue, could form the basis of a whole new investment market, based on social impact bonds. This is a new type of investment vehicle developed and tested here in the UK, with help from ex-Ark employees like Toby Eccles, the founder of Social Finance UK. It has been enthusiastically picked up by Goldman Sachs, who used social impact bonds to make a solid return on pre-school programmes in Utah and Chicago (see here). Some key Ark people – Ron Beller, Jennifer Moses, Anthony Williams – are former Goldman partners.
This is the reason why Amanda Spielman is seeking to convince us that ‘there is more to a good education than league tables’. It’s also the reason why Trump’s education secretary Betsy deVos, in her Senate confirmation hearing, sidestepped the question of whether all state-funded schools – both public and charter – should be held to the same standards of accountability ('I support accountability').
We are likely to hear more of this kind of thing – that the current accountability regime needs to find a place for ‘innovative assessment systems’, more ‘intelligent’ ways of measuring students’ learning. (In other words, continuous automatic assessment built into proprietary systems of online instruction.) There will be daring criticism of the notion that all students should take the same national tests and exams at the same points in their school careers. There will be a lot about the outdated ‘factory model’ of mass education, with its ‘batch processing’ of children, from which computers and the internet will finally allow us to break free.
We may even be told that teachers need to be able to foster ‘critical thinking’ and ‘learning in depth’ in their students – and that the best way to do this is for students to be interacting, collaborating, solving problems together (‘project-based learning’). For the source of this particular vein of happy talk, see the marketing techniques of Summit Public Schools, a California-based chain of blended learning charter schools which is currently attracting a lot of attention. At the chain’s flagship school, Summit Denali, students spend 16 hours per week engaged in online instruction. According to a recent profile, they also ‘spend 100 hours per subject each school year engaged in projects that range from science experiments to history presentations to interdisciplinary projects’. In a school with no library, no science labs, no art or music rooms, no workshops, and no sports facilities – students are apparently sent to a nearby public park to exercise – it is not at all clear how and where this ‘project-based learning’ takes place.
Summit’s board of directors includes a venture capitalist, two investment fund managers, the CEO of various ‘high technology companies’, the CEO of a healthcare firm (‘Proteus Digital Health’), and a former CEO of eBay.
The ‘messaging’ changes, but the aim remains the same: to push on from marketisation to full-scale privatisation, with information technology as the key to a viable business model.