No matter your viewpoint on the coronavirus, for those who care about democratic public schools, our fears merge when it comes to worrying that technology will replace teachers and end those schools. Covid-19 is the perfect storm, and Prenda micro-schools are the prototype. These are schools that focus on commercial tech programs without real teachers. Students learn by screens. Getting rid of teachers is a massive goal of the privatization movement. It’s not a new goal, either.
In 1992, The Nation published a report, “A small circle of friends: Bush’s new American schools.” President H. W. Bush, then Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, and Fortune 500 C.E.O.s launched the New American Schools Development Corporation (NASDC).
The report says, It was the centerpiece of Bush’s education plan and was supposed to mark the emergence of corporate America as the savior of the nation’s schoolchildren.
The NASDC didn’t become the revolution they planned, but it’s easy to see their fingerprints on the corporate push for school privatization today, including the influence of technology.
Here are some excerpts of The Nation’s report.
Perhaps most chilling, many of the plans approved by NASDC use technology, along with low-cost, nonprofessional classroom assistants, as a way of radically reducing the authority and presence of teachers. In Bensenville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, teachers will be little more than part of the technological apparatus: “The teacher’s desk will be replaced by an Electronic Teaching Center” that will provide the main connection between teachers and students. Bolt Beranek and Newman, an engineering conglomerate and military contractor, will run two elementary schools in Massachusetts built around “pervasive use of the computer.”
All these high-tech plans implicitly disregard the power of teachers as professionals and students as thinkers. In these schemes, teachers are conduits and cops, carrying information and enforcing rules. Children are little more than receptacles, whose ability to contain the prescribed information can best be measured in an objective national knowledge test. Such plans ignore decades of recognition by social scientists and classroom teachers alike that a child’s consciousness is built not just through the ingestion of information but through the subtle day-to-day interactions among teachers, students and parents.
All the Presidents and many leaders after this time relied on corporate America instead of teachers for school reform. President Clinton focused on standardization, and President G.W. Bush promoted No Child Left Behind. Governor Jeb Bush is still stumping for online learning. And remember Jeb Bush’s Cyber Attack on Public Schools? President Obama’s Race to the Top did public education no favors. With President Trump, we’re watching the ultimate destruction of America’s democratic public education system, with a corporate shill running America’s schools!
Enter micro-schools like Prenda. As public school teachers struggle against odds to reach out remotely to help children through this challenging time, while districts ponder signing on to commercialized tech programs like those Prenda embraces, we wonder whether the pandemic will be the final end to public education.
Will K12 Inc., Connections Academy, Khan Academy, and the Clayton Christiansen Institute, Knowledge Works, Digital Promise, and the many groups and commercialized tech programs that seek to remake democratic public education become the new norm?
Does society recognize the danger?
When tax dollars fund public schools, we get reports on how those schools are functioning. We may not like those reports, but through local school boards, Americans should have the power to do something about improving schools which they are supposed to own.
No one knows what students will learn in Prenda schools. There’s no accountability to the taxpaying public. No teachers. Tech programs are beholden to no one. The State of Arizona cannot even determine how to regulate whether Prenda is a school but still funds them like a charter or private school. Who’s checking to see if the students are learning anything in any of these schools? Prenda has grown from 80 to 341 micro-schools since Covid-19. That’s 341 small groups of children learning by screen without real teachers to guide them.
Despite this focus on technology, there’s no independent, peer-reviewed research to indicate that this is a better way for children to learn. There’s also no discussion about this issue on the campaign trail.
Schools like Prenda give parents and teachers reason to fear. While the school hasn’t yet turned a profit, that’s their focus.
The push for screens to replace teachers began a long time ago. The question now is whether this is technology’s moment to replace schools and teachers altogether and to ultimately place schools into the marketplace? Does profit over children rule?
Or will teachers rise to more excellent professionalism democratically, with technology as a tool that they control? Will America demand outstanding democratic public education, or will they sell themselves and their democratic school ownership to the highest bidders?
Will democratic public education rebound when it is time to safely remove the masks?
If America gives up on its democratic public schools, their schools, and Prenda-like schools reliant on unproven technology are all students have to learn, what will America look like in the future? That’s the question we should be asking.
Spilane, M. & Shapiro, B. (1992). A Small Circle of Friends. Bush’s New American Schools. The Nation, 25(8) September 21, 1992.
Bush, J. (2020, May 3). It’s time to embrace distance learning — and not just because of the coronavirus. The Washington Post, Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/03/jeb-bush-its-time-embrace-distance-learning-not-just-because-coronavirus/