Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Product Placement

This is about honesty.

I went to a conference last week at Stanford. One of the panels was on equity. Hey! I just went to a whole conference on equity. There were five people on the panel. Three came from organizations that deal with policy and research. The two people who were actually educators were from Rocketship Education and a Los Altos school.

That seemed...odd.

Some background for people not living in the Silicon Valley.

Rocketship is well known locally for its blended learning model and for its very high API scores with a high poverty, high English learner population. It is also well known locally for its high dropout rate and for avoiding the local school districts and going directly to the county office for approval of expanding to 30 schools. It's also well funded and if I'm reading this financial report (pdf) correctly, it gets about 30% of its money from "contributions."

Los Altos is one of the wealthiest areas in the nation. Actually, according to this Yahoo Finance article, it is (or at least it was three years ago) the third wealthiest. The school being represented has a 978 API (out of 1000), 4% of its students are on free and reduced lunch (state average is 52%) and 4% of its students are English language learners (24% state average). This year, its educational foundation donated over $2 million dollars to its 9 schools.

Two extraordinarily wealthy schools, one through geography and the other through donations, were picked to talk about equity. Especially when, hypothetically of course, a primary argument that may or may not have been put forth is that money doesn't matter.

So why might these conference organizers choose two educators from schools that might not be the best representatives to talk about equity?

From the conference website:

I surfed over to the NewSchools Venture Fund website and clicked on Our Ventures to see where their money was going.

Oh look......

and sitting on the Rocketship Education Board....

But what about the Los Altos school? She was actually there to talk about Khan Academy. It turns out she's from a pilot school.

Three lines above the Rocketship sponsorship on the NewSchools funding page you get......
That panel makes a lot more sense now.

I have no idea if NewSchools (or SVEF who also partners with Khan) had an agenda. I doubt it. I think its likely these were just the first two groups that came to mind because they work so closely with them.

The credibility issue is killer though. I had a hard time listening to anything after this panel.

The sad thing is I would have been happy to have sat in on a presentation about Khan in the classroom and what Rocketship is doing with blended learning and their data monitoring system. I felt like the organizers were hiding something by sticking them into an equity panel.

Does every conference have to be sponsor-free like Creating Balance? Heck no. I enjoyed the ASCD conference immensely and it was like a NASCAR race. I expected Pearson to come out shooting a t-shirt cannon between sessions. I don't even want to know what went on in the Smart Board party bus.

I don't have a problem with that. I know conferences don't pay for themselves. I'm happy to ignore the vendor tables if it is going to bring my registration fees down.

Just be honest. If I'm going to sit in an hour-long advertisement, let me know ahead of time.

(Final note: I've been sitting on this post for a few days. I didn't want it to seem like I was specifically targeting the parties involved. I want it clear that I'm just using them as an example and the point is really about transparency. It could have been anyone.)


  1. Just so we're clear these are the people who fired me.

    1. OMG, the penny just dropped on this for me. This explains a great deal.

      - @cheesemonkeysf

  2. That's like saying rich philanthropists can't talk about easing/eliminating poverty. I don't get it.

  3. @abrandnewline - Totally forgot about that story. That's two strikes then. (Sorry general public who don't know this story but it's not mine to share.)

    @Anonymous - Sorry I think I don't make the point clear enough. This is why I sat on it for so long. I don't really care who the parties involved were. What bothered me is they didn't make their relationship clear up front.

  4. @Anonymous - Wait, maybe I misinterpreted your comment. I did think it was strange that two schools with a large amount of resources and who used blended learning were the only representatives for an equity panel. If you look at the links for the Los Altos school, the educational foundation (mainly parent donations and fundraising) gave 125,000 this year just to help implement Khan. I'm happy for Los Altos that they think they're on to something. I just don't know what the rest of us are supposed to take from this. By itself my alarm wouldn't have gone off. But then Rocketship is also a blended learning school that relies heavily on private donations and I start thinking someone has an agenda.

    1. Right. Agreed. Remember though that this is how it is in education or any field. A few individuals or groups exert a lot of influence. Sad indeed.

  5. Well done Jason. I am impressed by this. You've (I hope) inspired me to actually follow through on checking on these things when they are nagging at me in the future.

  6. Jason...This post resonates with me, specifically the part about why a panel on equity only includes schools which are inequitably funded. I DON'T mean to say that schools shouldn't be grant-funded. But I DO mean to say that I often wonder why great teacher who happen to teach at 'regular-old-schools' aren't included more often in these dialogues. If I could be so bold as to include myself (and many, many others) in this category...We have a lot of meaningful things to say on this topic as well. I often am left feeling that the only way to really be heard is to transfer to a more high-profile school like the ones represented on this panel. There's something inherently inequitable about that.

  7. Glad you're connecting the dots, Jason, and asking important questions. I think your conclusion is important as well - avoiding reading too much into it, but suggesting more disclosure would help.

  8. When you take school building funding into account, how different is Rocketship's budget from a typical high-poverty school? I've read a few times that they try to keep their funding levels as close to public school funding levels as possible, but school construction numbers rarely make it into the per-pupil funding reports, so maybe that's the discrepancy.

  9. Finally someone who background checks panellists. I too don't mind that someone HAS a background but that this is unknown or that companies 'attach' fancy names to 'experts'. What am I to think of general experts who teach a couple of hours a week but otherwise are involved in consultancy as Smart educator, Apple educator, Texas instruments seller, Flipping the Classroom expert? That's not to say they can't have good contributions, or know nothing, but I could equally see them as salesmen.

  10. @Allison - Check. I don't know the answer to that. How do we draw attention to teachers doing great work in regular old public schools?

    @David - Will do. I try not read too deeply into it. I had never heard of NewSchools before the conference, although I know SVEF has been known to be a little.....

    @Anonymous - Larry Cuban just blogged a three part series.

    You can see what he says.

    @Christian - Exactly. I would be happy to learn about Rocketship or Khan.