“Most biased choices in the media arise from the preselection of right-thinking people, internalized preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints of ownership, organization, market, and political power. Censorship is largely self-censorship, by reporters and commentators who adjust to the realities of source and media organizational requirements, and by people at higher levels within media organizations who are chosen to implement, and have usually internalized, the constraints imposed by proprietary and other market and governmental centers of power.” Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman 

“Education policy, education reform are no longer simply a battleground of ideas, they are a financial sector, increasingly infused by and driven by the logic of profit. As practitioners, researchers, activists we need to understand and engage with that logic and its mechanisms. We need to read the business pages, company reports and public service contracts. We need to understand the stock market, business strategy and company accounts – we need to follow the money.” Stephen Ball 

I have long thought of writing a book that would take off with Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent and focus on how different media outlets and educelebrities talk about education. Chomsky and Herman conduct a structural analysis that reveals how the media, government, and corporations end up constructing very narrow narratives that serve elite interests. Some issues are barely ever covered (the public support for single payer healthcare in the US), and when issues are covered, the range of acceptable opinions is artificially restricted and often skewed to the conservative right (US wars can be ‘strategic blunders’, but not immoral or illegal).

With the caution that it would take a book-length piece of writing and years of research to do this topic justice, I want to sketch what might be one anecdote in such a volume. Alongside the mainstream media that reports on education, a parallel media funded by venture philanthropists has emerged to push the agenda of ‘personalised learning’ (PL) as a solution to what’s broken in the US and global education systems. While we would all like our learning to be personally tailored to us, PL signifies something quite narrow: the use of digital technologies and platforms to monitor and track student progress through prescribed curriculum content, and then the displaying student data on a dashboard for teachers, administrators, and parents.

Among the media funded by venture philanthropists, the74million.org and Edsurge stand out for their influence. This past week, the74 published an article by Beth Rabbitt that aims to cut through the the bullshit about PL by striking a middle ground between the skeptics who proceed with “great zeal”, and the “true believers.” Rabbitt claims there are “facts, often overlooked, that could form the basis for a more balanced and rigorous conversation.”

I quickly dug into the74, the outlet that published the article, and found that it shares The Gates Foundation as funding source with The Learning Accelerator (TLA), the company of which Rabbitt is CEO. Additionally, the74 is funded by the Walton Family and Betsy DeVos, while TLA receives funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. According to one analysis, TLA “serves as a pass through, handing out smaller grants to organisations that support its mission via research and product development as well as to charter management organisations and alternative teacher training programs that have been set up to carry out this data-driven dashboard form of ‘education.’”

Given these funding structures, what would we expect CEOs and media outlets to say about personalised learning? Chomsky and Herman describe how five filters – media ownership, revenue through advertising, reliance on official sources, flak, and anticommunist ideology – shape not only the opinions expressed in the media, but the selection of what is newsworthy in the first place. Here, I slightly modify their filters to examine how the venture philanthropy media frames personalised learning. 

Filter 1 – Funding: Venture philanthropy funds news outlets, reform movements, and charter schools. At the same time, the venture philanthropists run the companies that sell technology and extract our data.1(Here are Chomsky and Herman’s first two filters: Here, I collapse the first two filters: “1)the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and ...continue

The74 and EdSurge both position themselves as honest and neutral brokers, “reporting stories without fear or favour about what is working well for students and families, and to expose and hold accountable the systems that are failing them.” “We do not adjust editorial content according to the wishes – or the wallets – of sponsors, partners or investors. We don’t shy from covering subjects that might be sensitive issues for these organisations.”

Yet, Chomsky and Herman’s point is that the media does not work like the violent totalitarianism in Orwell’s 1984. Sources of revenue need not exert heavy-handed editorial control in the newsroom because they select the ‘right thinking’ people in the first place, whom venture philanthropists encourage to internalise the right ideals and messages.

Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor who founded the74, calls Betsy DeVos “a friend”, and says that “it’s a pity that Betsy DeVos has been so misleadingly caricatured.” Brown views DeVos as sitting above ideology and profit: “The suggestion that Betsy’s work with children is ideologically or financially driven would be disputed, I’d guess, by just about everyone who has spent time alongside her during the past 30 years as she founded, helped run and advised education groups and initiatives that have helped improve education across the country — including thousands of teachers and poor families.”2”Part of the difference between the politician’s and practitioner’s view of her efforts stems from the fact that she understands what things ...continue

The venture philanthropists seek to profit from Personalised Learning in two ways. First, the move towards education reform based on PL opens more markets for software and solutions. Zuckerberg doesn’t need the organisations he funds to sell his products, but to sell the ideas that make his business model seem inevitable. 

Second, where markets already exists, PL ensures that massive amounts of student data are collected in the process of learning. In her criticism of the movement to turn Rhode Island into a PL lab, Renee Hobbs writes “…I don’t believe that data-intensive learning management tools need to be a key ingredient of school technology programs. There are far better and cheaper ways to harness the power of digital media and technology to promote learning.”3Hobbs: “Personalized learning is all about tracking student behavior: it is the engine that enables personalization to occur. Those who are ...continue Thus, the alternatives to PL, such as teaching students how to critically search for and use resources on the internet, are left out of the solutions that venture philanthropists market because critical media literacy would actually mount a challenge to their business practices. 

Filter 2 – Expertise: “the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and ‘experts’ funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power.”

In the debates about PL, who counts as a reliable source of information? Chomsky and Herman write about the “normative order of authorised knowers in the society.” Bill Gates is ranked the most influential individual in education. Aside from the other tech giants like Mark Zuckerberg, Thomas Friedman holds outsized influence as an expert, largely because he interviews CEOs and transcribes what they tell him. In the media, newspeople then “recognise an official’s claim to knowledge not merely as a claim, but as a credible, competent piece of knowledge. This amounts to a moral division of labor: officials have and give the facts; reporters merely get them.”

The74’s interview with Richard Culatta, CEO of ISTE and CIO of Rhode Island, positions PL as “the Key to Narrowing a School’s Equity Gap.” The article barely mentions equity, except in relation to raising grades and helping students who are ‘lagging behind’ catch up. 4Culatta says, ”The thing with personalized learning is, it is a long game. It’s not something you do one Thursday and then all of a sudden ...continue By positioning Culatta as an expert not only on PL, but also equity, the interview constructs a rather narrow definition of the equity issues the US education system faces: grades and lagging students. 

Culatta tells us the “the key with personalized learning” lies in “monitoring progress in real time, or near-real time.” Almost by definition, you need a digital platform for PL if the bar is real time monitoring, because “that gets really hard to do on paper.” Thus, experts not only identify solutions, but also serve a critical role in formulating the problems that the system faces: real-time knowledge of what students are doing. At once those problems are set, the bounds of the discussion are artificially narrowed, so that PL seems to be the only and inevitable solution. 

Filter 3 – Ideology: The Silicon Valley, neoliberal ideology acts “as a national religion and control mechanism.”5Chomsky and Herman identify anticommunism as the dominant ideology.

More than anyone, Audrey Watters has carried the mantle of Noam Chomsky’s work on interrogating the relationship between media, capital, and messaging in the field of education. The dominant ideology in education that seemingly challenges the neoconservative standardised testing and ‘no excuses’ movement argues for:

  • A highly individualistic conception of success in school and life
  • A vision of the world as meritocratic, where creators with the right character (grit, and not privilege) rise to the top
  • Becoming a user of platforms
  • A valuation of education in terms of economic productivity (both on the national and individual level)

Every teacher faces “great pressure to demonstrate their … credentials” by praising the aims of personalised learning: creativity and empowerment, closing ‘achievement gaps’, and preparation for employment. The PL movement hitches onto the ideals of inclusiveness and allowing students to move at their own pace, while caricaturing education as stuck in some factory model past. Only a traditional, conservative educator stuck in the past could oppose the aims of PL to set students free. 

This ideology “helps mobilize the populace against an enemy [factory model, standardised testing], and because the [factory model] concept is fuzzy it can be used against anybody.” Moreover, the ideology “helps fragment the left and labor movements”: while the neoconservative ‘no excuses’ movement functions as the overarching enemy, the left becomes split between PL as a Silicon Valley solution that serves capital, and all of the other opposition movements from critical pedagogy to unschooling. And since those movements lack corporate backers and well-funded news outlets, PL emerges as the dominant challenger to the back-to-basics movement. 

Filter 4 – Flak: “‘a means of disciplining the media”

What happens to people who challenge the dominant Silicon Valley ideology, and in particular the PL ideology? Consider the harassment that Audrey Watters experienced when she simply wanted people to not annotate her site. 

In an article published by NPR about Rocketship Education’s PL practices, Anya Kamenetz exposed our worst fears, and then some: “hours of enforced silence,” “having students retake standardised tests to increase scores,” and “inadequate supervision, bathroom accidents and even infections due to denial of restroom visits.” 

I don’t know what direct flak Kamenetz received, but EdSurge responded with an article that tries to normalise NPR’s “harsh picture” of Rocketship by both appealing to common wisdom -“every educator knows” – and common problems: “these issues are not unique to Rocketship. They are questions that many schools across the country, both public and charter, struggle with.” In several instances, EdSurge asks for outright sympathy with Rocketship and paints their struggles as universal:

“If we respond to this article about Rocketship by villainizing the organization, we fail to learn.”

“Again this is not a Rocketship problem. All schools in the 21st century will wrestle with the balance of tech and teacher time as they integrate new technologies into teaching and learning practices.”

“Exactly how students and teachers spend their time in school is at the core of our schools. We must ask these questions–not just of Rocketship but of every school we encounter.”


Navigating the Financial Sector 

So what do we do? Educate ourselves. Follow critical educators on Twitter, read books that expose corporate interests, and support the work of people like Audrey Watters who act as independent journalists.

Mobilize. Noam Chomsky often points out how it’s really difficult to do the work of critical media analysis on your own unless you are totally obsessive (like Chomsky is), and so creating Slack groups and Twitter DM groups to share and amplify critical perspectives can help us gain more voice. 

And educate. Venture philanthropists wouldn’t be mobilising to fund new media outlets if they weren’t afraid of us. Teachers still teach, right? 

Image credit

correction: Dec 18 – my apologies for misspelling Beth Rabbitt’s last name


References   [ + ]

1. (Here are Chomsky and Herman’s first two filters: Here, I collapse the first two filters: “1)the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms; (2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media;
2. ”Part of the difference between the politician’s and practitioner’s view of her efforts stems from the fact that she understands what things are supposed to look like at the school level and has been single-minded in improving opportunities there for children.”
3. Hobbs: “Personalized learning is all about tracking student behavior: it is the engine that enables personalization to occur. Those who are concerned about the amount of class time that is devoted to testing must realize that, with personalized learning, testing will become an even more integral part of instructional time than it already is.”
4. Culatta says, ”The thing with personalized learning is, it is a long game. It’s not something you do one Thursday and then all of a sudden everybody has better grades the following Monday. These are systemic, cultural changes, and so it takes a while. And it takes a while to get the model right. Over time, what I hope to see — I think the students will see in Rhode Island and other places where this is implemented — is narrowing the equity gap. I think one of the reasons we have so many gaps is because we don’t have a learning model that’s tailored to individual student needs. So if some student is struggling or stuck for whatever reason because they’re lagging behind … they just get farther and farther behind. The good thing with personalized learning is, you can actually go back and catch some of that stuff and correct it.
5. Chomsky and Herman identify anticommunism as the dominant ideology.
I footnotes