How business is taking over our schools

Education technology companies are benefitting financially from developing standards and data infrastructure in schools, according to the Commercialisation in Public Schooling study, launched on day three of Federation Annual Conference.

Teachers and school leaders are concerned about this increasing ‘creep’ of commercialism into public schooling, a university survey conducted as part of CIPS shows.

“Significant amounts of commercial activity” are already taking place in public schools in Australia, conference was told by Dr Greg Thompson, who is Associate Professor of Education Research at the Queensland University of Technology and one of the co-authors of the report. The survey involved 2,193 teachers and school leaders across Australia, with 51 per cent located in NSW.

Around 74 per cent of those surveyed saw the ethics of having student data in commercial hands as a major concern and 72 per cent were also highly concerned at the way public schools are being run as a business.

For nearly half of those surveyed (45 per cent) the most significant concern was business dictating education policy, and 36 per cent were also highly concerned at teacher activities being outsourced. Fifty-seven per cent were also highly concerned about the lack of departmental support. School principals are also particularly concerned about having to pay for services that were traditionally supplied by the Department of Education, Dr Thompson says. While some respondents saw some benefits to public-private partnerships: “There’s a really strong sense that commercialisation has no place in public schools,” he said. “There’s also a real concern I think among participants that Australia seems to be learning the wrong lessons from the UK and the US and bringing those into our schools. As well, one of the really significant things is that people are concerned that public schools will go the way of TAFE.”

Commercial activity is already advanced and currently, Australian schooling now has the most developed national data infrastructure in the world, due to standardisation rollout, the study says. The development of open standards has helped an alliance of corporate interests to grow the value of the overall data “pie” in order to grow the value of their market segment.

Overseas, in 2014, the value of the US Education Technology (EdTech) market was estimated to be worth over $8.38 billion by the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA). This was 5.1 per cent higher than in 2013.

“Testing and assessment was the most valuable market category in 2014, worth $US2.5 billion, after growing by 57% over the previous two years,” the study, commissioned by Federation, found. These categories were followed by English language arts and reading content, maths content and online courses.

“Both testing and assessment and data analysis and integration are identified as key growth areas for the industry in the coming years.”

A case study presented to conference confirms that commercialism is entering schools through the standardisation of software and data set products under the National Schools Interoperability Program (NSIP), where some policy standards are being developed by the private education technology sector. NSIP is a joint initiative of State, Territory and Federal Ministers for Education.

Queensland academic Professor Bob Lingard, of the School of Education at the University of Queensland, told conference there are big questions to deal with in this area such as how this trend may change work practices for teachers and learning for children. “There’s a lot to think about here and there’s a lot going on under the radar which is escaping scrutiny.” NSIP is “quite unknown in the teaching profession and we need to think about it a lot more”.

“The forums that have been established to advance the agenda of standardisation enable commercial actors to shape the demands of users, which in this case are often governments and may further contribute to growing demand for generic products,” the study warns.

Launched by Federation President Maurie Mulheron and Project Director of Education International Angelo Gavrielatos, the study found that in February this year, 13 commercial vendors were already operating education projects in Australia that comply with standards set by the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF).

These include assessment and reporting software, cloud-based student identity management, learning apps, learning platforms and others. There were also now 16 company members of SIF AU in February this year. SIF was launched in Australia in 2009, following an earlier launch in the United States by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

However, further education involvement in the US from Mr Gates met with resistance. Opposition from activist groups shut down a program in the US called inBloom, run by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which sought to establish a standard infrastructure to manage school data across schools, districts and states. Concerns over data privacy and technology companies profiting from personal data led to the closure of the program in 2013.

In the United States, privacy concerns have provoked “outrage” from parents, students and educators, Professor Lingard says. He conducted research and interviews for another case study on the parent activist Opt-Out movement, where 26 per cent of parents in New York and 50 per cent on Long Island last year opted their children out of standard testing from Years 3-8 to boycott tests in the schooling system. The Trump Budget cuts of $9 billion to public education are also likely to strengthen the resolve of those opposed to the corporate reform agenda, Professor Lingard says.

In the wake of these developments, the EdTech industry is now employing strategies such as partnerships between philanthropies and think-tanks to push for regulatory changes to allow the joining up of datasets and freer access to student data, the report finds.

The study raises two key issues of importance for teachers’ unions in Australia. Firstly, concerns about data privacy have been successfully mobilised by opponents to commercial involvement in public education in order to block major initiatives such as inBloom in the United States and these concerns have now been identified by the EdTech industry as a major obstacle.

“Privacy regulations will be an important terrain upon which to evaluate and where necessary challenge commercial activity that involves improper private usage of data generated in and by public education systems,” the report finds.

Secondly, the operation of data infrastructure in education provides commercial actors with “hidden and technically complex means to subtly orchestrate activities in schools and school systems”, the report says. As a result, it will be important to monitor any changes to the work practices of educators and the effect on students and learning that may result from new data and software applications.

In future, the needs and capacities of public schools will be subtly shaped by the provision of software, the study says. In the next three to five years, the chief information officers of all education players will see a significant shift in their role in the market.

“This shift will be for education jurisdictions to act as information hubs, exposing students, staff and school data to trusted third party developers…” according to NSIP.

Mr Gavrielatos concluded the Commercialisation in Public Schooling session at conference by issuing a call to action to support the global response movement against big corporates in education such as Pearson.

“We are organising and mobilising around the world to build a global response,” he told conference. He called on Federation members to demonstrate solidarity, saying the issue of commercialisation in public schooling is “bigger than one union”.

“It’s all so scary,” he said.