This week, a new, high-profile ed-tech initiative made its bow: The Aspen Task Force on Learning and the Internet. Billed as “a national conversation” on how to “optimize the web to improve learning,”
it’s supported by the MacArthur Foundation (with which I’m currently involved in a small, unrelated project.). It features several folks whom I know and whose work I respect greatly, especially in the world of the open Web.
The task force, which plans to report its findings early next year, is notable for its strong Latino representation in particular, as well as its focus on safety. In too many public schools and libraries, the Internet is filtered or restricted altogether and students are stopped from using cell phones because of concerns about security, predation, theft or cyberbullying, so supporting safety and digital citizenship is key to getting a wider range of students access to the benefits of learning with technology. “We are looking at the learning process both inside and outside the school classroom,” says Charlie Firestone, executive director of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program. “Our hope is to understand the tension between the need for openness and a trusted environment to learn and innovate in the future.”
All of this notwithstanding, what’s most eye-catching to me is the honorary co-chair of the task force: Jeb Bush, brother of the former President and former governor of Florida. I think this is more than a case of strange bedfellows. Bush’s innovation agenda is fundamentally, inextricably hostile to public education and friendly to corporations. His statements over many years make clear that he sees technology as a means to an end, which is privatization of the school system.
While he was governor of Florida, Jeb Bush expanded the Florida Virtual School, a profitmaking online school that today is the state’s fastest-growing “school district” but operates with little of the oversight of brick-and-mortar schools. His interest in digital education has only been growing since he left office. In 2008, he founded the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which promotes digital learning as part of a reform agenda that includes school choice and high-stakes testing. In 2010, he founded Digital Learning Now! , a “national campaign to advance policies that will create a high quality digital learning environment to better prepare students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in college and careers.” Corporate members of his Digital Learning Council, and former supporters of the Foundation, include K12 Inc, a controversial operator of online for-profit schools, and Pearson Education. In a 2011 profile, Mother Jones called Bush “one of the nation’s most prominent boosters of virtual schools, touring the country to promote technology as an instrument of creative destruction of the public school system.”
In April 2011, he described his vision to the libertarian Reason Magazine:
Reason: What is at the very top of your education reform list?
Jeb Bush: Applying digital learning as a transformative tool to disrupt the public education system, to make it more child-centered, more customized, more robust, more diverse, and more exciting.
I suspect this is a vision that many readers of this blog might agree with. But when you get down to the brass tacks of exactly what ‘disruption’ means, it’s a different story.
In that same interview, Bush went on to describe the dismantling of public school budgets to be spent on different providers, public and private, on a per-student basis.
“If you’re a high school and you get $7,000 per student, you have six credits. Divide 7,000 by 6, you would get $1,300. $1,300 for that geometry class split between the providers of the content, the classroom teacher, and the administration around that teacher could easily be handled. It would create higher-quality, huge-scale opportunities where you could lower costs. “
If this sounds an awful lot like a voucher system, that’s not a coincidence. Most, if not all, of the old conservative proponents of vouchers have moved on from that controversial policy idea, toward promoting charter schools and now online schools, virtual schools, and for-profit providers of digital learning devices and software.
The common thread among these policies isn’t a love for the web. It is weakening and undermining public schools, and especially their unions, while strengthening private companies with “huge-scale opportunities” to capture taxpayer money currently being spent on public education. As Bush told a friendly audience just a couple of weeks ago, “We can’t just outsource public education to bureaucracies and public education unions and hope for the best.” The use of the word “outsource” here is an amazing example of conservative Alice-in-Wonderland verbal perversion. To most people “outsourcing” means giving a task or job to an outside, private company, not having it done directly by the employees of an organization–in this case, public employees accountable to the public.
After this post was published, Firestone responded to my inquiry: “The Aspen Institute is a non-partisan non-profit, so the bipartisan nature of the Task Force was intentional. We want to involve people across the political spectrum on this vital topic. We want public involvement in the project as well, and will have more details and opportunities for that in the coming weeks. In the meantime, people can sign up for updates and involvement at http://aspentaskforce.org.”
I will certainly be watching. This initiative is an occasion for an important debate.
Is it possible to support real technological innovation in learning without supporting the privatization of schools? Can learning be personalized without destroying the public mission of education? Do advocates of web-enabled learning necessarily stand in opposition to teachers’ unions? What is the proper role of corporations in teaching children?
What does disruption mean, anyway?