The Many Faces of Privatization

IPE/BC has released this occasional paper introducing and providing examples of ways privatization intrudes on public education.

The paper can be accessed HERE.

Public funding for private schools may be the most obvious way public education in British Columbia is being privatized, but there are other less obvious privatizing strategies at work. This is a working paper for an IPE/BC workshop that offers analysis of 1) the common narratives that legitimize and promote privatization thus drawing the public into a manufactured consent of privatization and 2) specific contexts in which this privatization in manifest, such as personalized learning (especially with technology), choice programs, school fees and fund raising, business principles of school administration, corporate sponsorships, fee paying international student enrollment, and publicly funded private schools.

Education Technology: The Trojan Horse of Privatization

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Education Technology: The Trojan Horse of Privatization

by Larry Kuehn

Technology entrepreneurs favorite words are “break,” “disruptive innovation” and “creative destruction.” Uber replaces taxis; Spotify breaks owning music collections; and, Amazon creatively destroys personal shopping for groceries, as it already has for everything from books to appliances to almost every commodity.

The Holy Grail of education technology entrepreneurs is to be the Uber of education… to become the platform that disrupts traditional face-to-face education and replaces it with technology dominated learning. Since this search for the singular platform is being carried out in capitalist economies, profit is the major end. It is not seeking solutions to inequalities exacerbated by the domination of monopoles in day-to-day, technology-driven living.

Education technology has developed in ways that reinforce individualization within a competitive environment, responding to and reinforcing neo-liberal patterns, creating the neo-liberal person. Widespread adoption of education built on this kind of individualization produces a form of privatization within the public education system, one that is based on preparing students for employment in a technological, corporate-dominated system, rather than preparing them for citizenship as a collective responsibility.

This presents challenges for critical educators who recognize that ignoring technology is not an option, but who want to find or create space for alternative approaches that support social justice and pursue pedagogy based on critical and social constructivist approaches.

Developing critical alternatives requires first an analysis of the approaches currently being taken by education technology entrepreneurs, then seeking spaces within these technologies that can be used to promote social goals, not just private, individual gain.  The current education technology landscape employs four dominant strategies: digital content, learning management systems, education apps, and universal platforms.

Digital content  

Historically, print technology has dominated in providing content in schools, but the challenge now is what will replace the physical, hard-copy textbook in this new digital era.

The textbook industry has been going through consolidation, leaving two major textbook publishers—the British transnational Pearson PLC and the American McGraw-Hill. Pearson has adopted a strategy of offering content digitally on a global basis as a way of surviving in the new context.  However, it has not been entirely successful. The corporation has been losing money to such an extent that it has sold off other forms of publishing–the Economist magazine, and its book publishing arm Penguin Random House, as well as software for English Language Learning sold to a Chinese company.

One potential challenge to the corporate publisher model is open publishing. Groups of authors join together to develop online resources for classroom use.  They may be offered at a small cost (teacherspayteachers.com) or made available under a Creative Commons license for anyone to use in teaching.  A major part of the cost of the print textbook is marketing and distribution. Digital distribution reduces costs and allows for cooperative forms of competition with the traditional textbook publishers. Open education resource distribution could disrupt the textbook market.

Learning Management Systems (LMS)

Learning Management Systems are online versions of the structure of face to face classroom. They have content; they have areas for discussion, both with a teacher and with other students; they include the ability to give tests to the student; and they provide the capacity to report student progress, both grades and other data.  LMS’s are used extensively in online learning, but also in face-to-face classrooms, particularly in “blended learning,” a combination of in person and online learning.

As in other areas of technology, many systems were developed, but only a few businesses survive as smaller ones are bought out and consolidated into fewer, near monopoly corporations. The major LMSs still standing are Blackboard and Canvas, as well as Desire2Learn, a Canadian LMS with a narrower market reach. One free to use open source system is Moodle, which has a large user-base.

Pearson sold its LMS, saying that they only work effectively on desktop or laptop computers, not on smart phones. The future market, they say, is in smartphones as billions of people have access, but many fewer have desktops or laptops. Pearson says, apps with a specific purpose will dominate.

Education Apps

Thousands of apps for education have already been created. Development costs are often covered by venture capitalists. They invest in app development with the hope that future profits will provide a return on investment when it captures a significant number of users. In many cases, the return is the sale of information about the teachers and students using the app. It is the users themselves who are the source of profits when their data is sold.

An example of one of these apps is FreshGrade, an e-portfolio system developed and widely used in British Columbia. The student and teacher upload work being done by the student, particularly photos, videos and audio. The parent has access to the e-portfolio of their child. The claim is these portfolio systems engage parents by giving more access to what their child is doing in school.

Special purpose apps have been a hot item in the education technology area, with education app venture capital investments of more than $4 billion in 2015.

Universal platforms: Google Suite, Microsoft Office 365 Education and Facebook

The behemoths of technology don’t require any venture capital because they have huge research budgets to spend on projects without announcing them to anyone until they are ready.

“Universal platforms” are a base on which many different elements can built. They do not intend to develop content, expecting others will do that. The platform brings both creators and users of content together into the same environment. Companies prosper when their platform is the go-to place for any online activity. Education is attractive because it’s a mass of folks, more than 30 million teachers and hundreds of millions of students globally, and Google, Microsoft and Facebook all have global reach.

This description of Google’s G Suite makes clear the comprehensive make up of the platform that is on offer:

G Suite is a package of cloud-based services that can provide your company or school with a whole new way to work together online—not just using email and chat, but over video conferences, social media, real-time document collaborations, and more….You and your team can begin using Gmail, Calendar, Drive, and other core G Suite services, as well as additional services like Google+, Hangouts, Blogger and more.

Google’s strategy for attracting teachers is to use a friend and collaborator approach. It offers training to selected teachers who then encourage colleagues and their districts to adopt G Suite. These teachers offer (often free) workshops for teachers, encouraging the expanded use of G Suite. Google offers the same tools to businesses, making a link for students to use the Google tools when they enter employment.

Google presented itself as an education platform before Microsoft moved in to compete. Microsoft’s focus on cloud-based services is part of its strategy for competing to be the platform for education services. Microsoft has announced that teachers and students can use “Office 365 Education” for free. It offers a free online course introducing teachers to Microsoft education services. Preparing students as workers is made clear when its sales pitch to teachers says, it “allows students to create products as if they were already in the workforce.”

Understanding corporate influence on education through education technology

A New York Times report captured the nature of the edtech Trojan Horse of public education:

The involvement by some of the wealthiest and most influential titans of the 21st century amounts to a singular experiment in education, with millions of students serving as de facto beta testers for their ideas. Some tech leaders believe that applying an engineering mind-set can improve just about any system, and that their business acumen qualifies them to rethink American education.   (“The Silicon Valley Billionaires Remaking America’s Schools by Natasha Singer,” NYT, June 6, 2017)

Historically, the state has had the primary role in defining the purpose and content of education. Edtech corporations are now pushing the state aside, bringing corporate purposes directly into the classroom, an often invisible shift in power. The aim of these technological forms of privatization is not to create private schools. Rather, they seek profits by integrating into public education. Those seeking to create dominant platforms take the longer view on profits and hope to train students to continue to use their platform when they move into life and work after school.

Much of the attention to technology in schools is about the tools. It is essential to pay attention to who really benefits from the use of the tools, not just how to use them.

Note: An earlier version of this blog post appeared in Intercambio magazine.

Larry Kuehn is an IPE/BC Fellow, IPE/BC director and Director of Research & Technology for the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. 

How GERM is Infecting BC Public Education

IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education. Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows to share their ideas in short, accessible essays.

How GERM is Infecting BC Public Education

By E. Wayne Ross

The Institute for Public Education BC is committed to public education for the good of all children, families and communities and this is reflected in its tag line, “public education is a public interest.”

This proposition may seem obviously true, but it’s not.

Public education in British Columbia, across Canada, and globally faces serious challenges when it comes to serving the common good. Over the last half century, the dominant world view has privileged the individual over the well-being of the general public.

This view and the policies that flow from it are referred to as “neoliberalism.” Governments across the political spectrum, both the politically conservative and liberal, share belief in the major tenets of neoliberalism, including fiscal austerity, privatization of public goods and services, government deregulation, and free trade.

In education, neoliberalism is manifest in what Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg has dubbed the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), which:

  • prioritizes and imposes a business model on public education;
  • increases competition among students, teachers and schools (test-based accountability; performance-related rewards; league-tables; attacks on teacher unions);
  • supports an audit and accountability culture that takes education out the hands of teachers, students, and the public;
  • commodifies education via “school choice,” which positions students and parents as consumers in an education marketplace;
  • promotes the privatization and marketization of public schools (education becomes a service sector open to trade and investors; off-shore schools; and selling seats in schools and universities on the international market);
  • sees public education as an opportunity to maximize human capital (i.e., a narrowly educated workforce) as opposed to maximizing the common good and social cohesion.

These reforms are backed by many governments as well as The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Despite rhetoric linking GERM to benefits for all within the vast constituency of public education, the fact is that those who regulate both knowledge and the economy work for their own political and economic agendas, acting as though the public extended no farther than their privately secured office buildings and comfortably gated communities.

GERM in British Columbia

GERM has infected public education in British Columbia and the symptoms are obvious.

  • School closures – In the past 15 years, over 200 public schools have been closed in BC.
  • Government destruction of agreed upon guidelines on class size and composition, which have had deleterious effects on learning and teaching conditions.
  • Reduction in the number of teachers, teacher-librarians, and classroom aides. Educators in BC are responsible for more children on average, than educators in the rest of Canada, a gap that is widening.
  • Selling school and universities seats on international market has become a major source of income growth for schools and universities in BC.
  • Off-shore schools – BC public school districts have been encouraged to create private business companies that are owned by school boards and operate to sell education overseas.
  • An estimated $5 billion in deferred maintenance for school buildings.
  • School rankings that oversimplify the characteristics of good schools; commodify education; and rely primarily on standardized test scores, which advantage schools with students from wealthy families.
  • Commercialization – Corporate incursion into schools that encourages competition; injects corporate advertising, exploiting underfunded schools.
  • Expansion of private tutoring companies, many of which are owned by international corporations.
  • British Columbia now spends $1000 less per student than the Canadian national average.
  • Reduction in government spending on public education. In 2001, the BC government put 20% of its total spending into education, now it spends just 11.8% of its budget on education.
  • Reliance on parent fund-raising via Parent Advisory Committees; it is estimated that parents now spend $132 million yearly in subsidies to public education.

Examining BC education funding trends, we can see how neoliberal education policies shift social costs on to individuals. These same trends can be found in other public services such as the health care and transportation.

At the same time, the BC government gives public money to subsidize private schools, many of which serve the rich and charge thousands of dollars in tuition.

Public Funding of Private Education is Undemocratic

Public funding for private schools is at odds with creating a more equitable, just, and democratic society.

It is a policy that almost always privileges families with more disposable income over the less wealthy and poor, and often privileges religious education over secular education. Moreover, public funding of private schools supports a two-tiered system of education that allows some schools to cherry-pick who attends, and undermines the concepts of the public good and community in favour of individual gain.

Public-school budget cuts result in closed libraries, reduced special-education services and increased class size, while private schools are publicly subsidized to provide the advantaged with more benefits. These advantages include smaller class sizes allowing teachers to be more responsive to student needs, to customize learning activities, and to provide private-school students with enriched curricula in art, sports and music programs.

For the first hundred years of British Columbia history there was no public funding of private or religious schools. The Social Credit government introduced public funding of private education in 1977 and only then did private school enrolment begin to increase, taking a larger share of the provincial education budget.

Under the BC Liberals, British Columbians have been subjected to a steady stream of ideologically driven public-policy decisions that shift responsibility for providing and financing public services from the public to the private domain. As with other public assets, their aim is to privatize the commonwealth of the province.

Public funding of private schools is a form of privatization consistent with fundamental ideological positions of the BC Liberals in particular and neoliberalism in general. Privatizing public enterprises, goods and services is usually done in the name of increased efficiency, but mainly has the effect of concentrating wealth in fewer hands (the gap between the wealthiest and the majority of BC families has grown dramatically over the past 30 years) and making the public pay more for its needs (see, for example, BC Ferries).

Not unlike academy schools in England or charter schools in the US, public funding of private schools in BC is privatization through the back door.

Elite private schools are subsidized by the public, while public schools are told to look to the market — recruiting tuition-paying international students, setting up school-district business companies, or opening their doors to corporate programs — or to parent-fundraising, to solve a budget crisis imposed by government’s distorted priorities.

The fundamental idea of public funding for private schools is based on the false premise that private schools do a better job. In reality, public-school students outperform private school students. A 2012 study of first-year physics students at the University of BC found that those who had graduated from public schools in Metro Vancouver outperformed their private-school peers. This finding is reiterated in a study just published by the University of Chicago Press, which concludes public schools achieve mathematics results the same as or better than private schools with demographically similar students. In 2006, the Educational Testing Service reached similar conclusions, finding that US public-school students outpaced private-school students in both reading and math.

Private-school enrolment is soaring because it is encouraged by public policies that divert public money to support private interests and by ideologies that promote individualism and private gain over community and shared interests.

It is time for education policy in BC that recognizes public education is a public interest.

E. Wayne Ross is a Professor of education at the University of British Columbia and an IPE/BC Board Member and Fellow.