Get sick, get well
Hang around a ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell
If anything is goin' to sell
-- Bob Dylan

Saturday, May 3, 2014

'Tech vultures' LEAP towards profitability in Chicago

Millions of dollars intended to support innovations in resourced-starved public schools has long been funneled to privately-run charter schools. One of the chief funnelers in Chicago is non-educator Phyllis Lockett, a former leader of the Civic Consulting Alliance and New Schools for Chicago, a venture philanthropy organization that invests in the growth of privately-operated charter schools. She previously held marketing, sales and business development roles with Fortune 500 companies, including IBM, Kraft Foods and General Mills.

NSFC was originally established as The Renaissance Schools Fund by Chicago’s business and civic leadership (remember the debacle that was Arne Duncan's so-called Renaissance 2010?)  RSF raised $50 million, to create 13 charter networks and tripled the number of charter schools in Chicago. The Civic Consulting Alliance (CCA), is a consulting firm for government agencies.

Lockett was one of those people who made wild claims about charters, even touting them at one point as a cure for Chicago gun violence. Even while in the employ of Chicago Public Schools, she's mainly been a pitch woman for ed-tech companies.

But now Lockett is on the move. With a big investment from well-heeled corporate reformers, she's launched a new "education focused" non-profit, called LEAP Innovations, with $4.2 million in funding. Lockett said in a Wednesday interview that her goal is to raise $8 million to cover LEAP's first three years of operating expenses. Half the money is coming from the Broad Foundation and the Gates Foundation, which have historically backed privately run charter schools.

Chicago has the epicenter of tech company marketing to school systems and according to tech hustler and former Gates ed guy Tom VanderArk: 
Phyllis Lockett’s move from schools to tools is symbolic of the EdTech explosion in Chicago which rivals New York and may be second to the Bay Area in EdTech startups and funders. Lockett will help connect teachers to the tech sector while advancing short cycle trials and iterative development. Keep an eye on Chicagoland.
But except for buying some new furniture and window dressing, most of these millions will never really make it into classrooms and classroom teachers will have no say in how the money is spent. Rather, the money will go directly or indirectly the purchase of untested technology and required training of teachers.

As best I can tell, LEAP will be a conduit for tech companies competing for public school business. Lockett, who has no background or training in education, will then be in charge of evaluating whether these technologies "are working." Another component of the nonprofit, called The Collaboratory, will be a teacher training center. After all, these tech companies need more than a sales division. They also need public school districts to pay for training in the use of their products. The third focus will be working with schools to "overhaul" their teaching methods.

Among the seven Breakthrough Schools receiving the first round of Lockett's LEAP money, are some charter schools that don't even exist yet -- a middle school operated by KIPP and a school operated by Great Lakes Academy.

Reporter Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah wrote in Tuesday's Tribune about the nonprofit's first effort in that vein: Grants to seven Chicago schools to explore how gadgets, such as the iPad, can be used to tailor lesson plans to individual students.
"What happens is, you see all of these incubators and funds that have cropped up all over the country that are dedicated to education tech, but there's zero efficacy or validation as to what is actually working," Lockett said. "And educators are so overwhelmed with the budget pressures, with the accountability pressures, and they have no time to understand what's out there and what's good and what's not good. There are a lot of vultures out there."
Among the new technologies Lockett is selling are facial expression cameras, posture analysis seats, pressure computer mice, eye tracking devices, and computer programs to track a student’s mood be used in schools. The Tribune's Melissa Harris writes:
The first products LEAP will be testing through its pilot program focus on improving literacy among children in pre-K through eighth grade. Lockett expects reading instruction in the future to be far more individualized.For example, your computer's camera would follow your eyes as you read text online. Then, based on that eye scan, the software would be able to identify the words, phrases or even concepts that tripped you up and explain them in greater detail for you.
Yes, there's a lot of vultures out there.

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