Tech Venture Philanthropies and Public Education: Q&A With USC Professor Patricia Burch

By Benjamin Herold — April 06, 2019 5 min read
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Patricia Burch has long been skeptical of the technology industry’s role in public education, writing for years about its connections to privatization and other market-oriented attempts to overhaul schooling.

Now, though, she sees something both larger and more subtle at work. Today at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, being held here, Burch, an associate education professor at the University of Southern California, gave a talk on “technopolicy in school reform.” It was part of a panel on the shifting role of business in K-12.

Burch’s work is still exploratory, she said. But her goal is to better understand how venture-philanthropy organizations that are founded with tech money (and remain closely tied to tech companies) are working to change the way we think about the governance of public-school systems--while at the same time making those systems more dependent on technology products and services.

“That’s where I think these data systems are moving, to this level of public governance, not just for use in the classroom,” she said.

Burch’s AERA talk focused on a preliminary review of the websites, social media feeds, policy briefs, press releases, blog posts, and other public documents produced by two leading venture-philanthropy groups tied to the tech industry. One, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, is based in the United States, in Texas. The other, the Central Square Foundation, is based in Delhi, India.

In a post-session interview, Burch declined to talk specifically about what she’s seen at MSDF, saying she’s still collecting data and can’t yet draw firm conclusions about any individual group’s work. But she did speak at length about the high-level trends she sees in the field.

Following is a transcript of our conversation, edited lightly for length and clarity.

What do you mean by “managerial reform” and a “technocratic” orientation to education?

The managerial reform model, the way it’s framed now, holds that the problems of public schooling can be solved through a model of better data, better systems, better processes. Technology comes in to that because it’s a way to access and disseminate that data at scale.

Who do you see as the groups promoting those ideas?

Neither of those ideas are specific to education. But the knitting of the managerial approach with this kind of technocentrist approach is really being promoted by venture-capital philanthropies with tech associations, like the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and the Chan Zuckeberg Initiative, among others.

Do you see the aim of these groups being to sell technology products and services, or to change how we think about public education?

I honestly think we don’t know. If you’re a VC philanthropy, on the face of it, your goal is the public interest and social impact. But the way they have devised to try to attain that goal is by selling their products and services. So I think it’s both. I think at the end of the day, they see their commercial interests as somehow promoting the public good.

What are the ways these groups try to shape public dialogue?

Social media. For example, Google just gave $2.5 million to one of these VC philanthropies I looked at for work in India. And as part of that gift, they gave them an in-kind donation of technical assistance around YouTube for their messaging. So, obviously, social media is a really critical way in which they’re trying to get their message across.

Do you see that data-oriented approach in education, and using technology for continuous improvement cycles, as an inherently bad approach?

Not at all. I think we need data to make good decisions. We can’t see achievement and opportunity gaps without data. So there is absolutely a productive role for technology.

The problem is that it’s framed that technology alone is key to better public-education governance. I just think it’s a simplistic argument. I’m absolutely not arguing against the importance of data.

In your talk, you said technology is often sold to schools as a silver bullet. I actually hear the opposite, with a lot of groups saying it’s more about technology augmenting teachers. What should we make of that shift?

I think you’re right on that. There’s a lot of talk about the role of the teacher. I think at this point, though, it’s at the level of rhetoric. The reality is that a lot of the product and services on the market, particularly for poor kids, are imagined to stand alone.

Teachers and administrators often say they want better, easier-to-access data about their students. What should we make of that demand from the field?

I think the demand is real. And there are things we absolutely need to outsource, because we can’t do [them] in-house. These groups have the infrastructure to sometimes create these systems that states or districts can’t. The caution or concern is when the data systems go further than just collecting data, when they’re actually defining what is success, what is a democratic process, what does it mean to have communities engaged. That’s where I think these data systems are moving, to this level of public governance, not just for use in the classroom.

Can you explain your idea of digital education governance?

It’s essentially the idea that the main mechanism for improving public schools is through systems change, and the main tool for systems change is more technology. And technology not just for collecting data, but for managing and evaluating people, for designing and developing policy and programs. All those processes are not inherently good, but they are part of our democratic structure.

What are the downsides of technology companies potentially playing that kind of role in governing public education?

There are two things we need to ask.

One, there’s lots of public money being spent on these systems, at a time when we’re also seeing large class sizes and reductions in core services for kids. So the question becomes is this is a good use of public money?

Second, we have to think about what’s been happening with ed tech in classrooms. A lot of teachers are very fearful that ed tech will be replacing them.

K-12 teachers, administrators, and policymakers are all very busy. Why should they take time away from the immediate challenges they face to think about these big-picture issues?

These aren’t big-picture ideas. The systems these groups are pushing are becoming the everyday work of district administrators, school boards, and teachers. I don’t see these as macro issues. I see them as having very immediate impacts on people’s work lives.

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.