Commentary: 'Advanced technology for data-driven schools' | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: 'Advanced technology for data-driven schools'

Jun 18, 2012

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 18, 2012 - Raise your hand if you can tell me how many K-12 schools are using Accelerated Reader ™, a reading and assessment software package produced by Renaissance Learning™, a company owned since 2011 by Permira Funds, a U.K.-based global private equity management firm with about $20 billion in assets.

Anyone?

The answer is 70,000, nearly half of all U.S. schools. Here in Missouri, thousands of schools, and by extension the millions of taxpayers who support our schools, as well as the families of independent schools who have bought the Accelerated Reading package, are paying customers of Renaissance Learning.

At this very moment, thanks to an animated widget, I know that today alone, children using Accelerated Reader have read 29,260 books made up of 367,084,165 words. These numbers increase (and are monitored) by the second. In the time it takes my fingers to type them, they have changed.

Actually, according to a helpful and solititous Renaissance Learning person I spoke with recently, these numbers reflect the numbers of books (and words) based on which children have passed quizzes with a score of 80 percent or higher. Needless to say, as Renaissance Learning avers on its website (renlearn.com), this is a company that sells "advanced technology for data-driven schools."

What happens is that the company assigns points to the 150,000 books among their quizzable collection, lower numbers for picture books and higher numbers for texts of higher linguistic (if not multimodal) complexity. The company has developed an Advanced TASA Open Standard for Readability (ATOS), which they use to inform an "ATOS readability analyzer," a tool they say helps teachers, who may wonder about the "level" of a classroom text. Renaissance Learning says that its ATOS readability analyzer "makes it easy to get the answers fast."

So children select books that have been determined to be at the appropriate level. Their reading is "managed" and monitored through the software. Quizzes are provided and graded and made available to classroom teachers immediately, with widgets tracking these numbers at each school. Children are encouraged to earn lots of points, even if it means selecting books they are less interested in, because points translate into stickers, treats, and what I have heard kids call "AR parties."

If this all sounds behaviorist, Pavlovian, and dystopian, more like “A Clockwork Orange” than like, say, reading books, that is because it is. Although my sense is that certain well-meaning believers in and employees of Renaissance Learning think they really are serving the needs of children, I also believe that a great many other people -- those who rely on techno-jargon, psychometrical mania and transnational capitalism -- have identified and made profitable use of an ever-growing and available, ever-needy crop of vulnerable and available customers: other people's children and their teachers.

Don't believe me? Here's copy off Renaissance Learning's parent company's website (permira.com):

"More than 1.5 million tests are taken every school day on a Renaissance product. … With strong market positioning, high recurring revenues and significant growth and transformational potential, the Permira funds will draw upon the expertise of Permira’s long-established TMT sector to back an exciting growth strategy opportunity that capitalises on long-term secular trends in education technology."

You may not know what a "TMT sector" is or what a TMT sector has to do with a third grader reading “James and the Giant Peach” in Potosi. I didn't either. The companies purchased by Permira are divided into sectors: Consumer, Industrials, Healthcare, Financial Services and TMT. Renaissance Learning falls under TMT, which stands for "Technology, Media, and Telecommunications.” One of the biggest motivators for Permira to initiate negotiations to buy Renaissance Learnin in the first place was the profit the Wisconsin-based company has sustained since its 1985 founding, this in spite of the ever-shrinking state, federal, and local budgets allocated to education.

Financially pinched and politically frightened, school leaders and education policymakers turn to the non-messy business of squeezing numbers out of kids; in doing so, global private equity firms squeeze dollars out of classrooms and public treasuries. For some people, sorting, managing, monitoring and testing children is very, very profitable.

Renita Schmidt, a former fourth grade teacher, has analyzed in the journal Language Arts the actual effects and outcomes of Accelerated Reader. Back in 2008, Schmidt wrote,

"According to the website, schools that already own a “desktop version of AR” are charged one flat fee for access ($599 in 2007; schools that own a “Renaissance version” are charged no additional fee, but all schools are charged “an annual student fee of $1,000 for 250 students or $4 a student” to access “Accelerated Reader Software,” (more than 100,000 AR quizzes), “9 hours of Web-based Professional Development,” and other support materials listed as professional development or technical support systems." No doubt these numbers have gone up, and I will leave it to others to do the math, but I can tell you that Permira paid close to half a billion dollars (328 million euros, or $413,148,709) to add the company to its TMT roster.

Linking its program to Common Core Standards, to Missouri's own MAP test, and to various other standards, rubrics and benchmarks around the country, Renaissance Learning keeps itself an essential part of the current reformers' unquenchable thirst for measurements and statistics. Not to mention an essential factor in the dehumanization of children and deprofessionalization of the classroom teacher.

Peering through the glass darkly, the kids are the ones generating all these data, the kids who are providing a service to Permira's investers. Maybe they should be the ones charging a fee to Renaissance Learning and all the other education monetizers and commodifiers for the right to collect all these millions and millions of quizzes. People who have to sit for dumbed-down quizzes and high-stakes tests (and their families) should be paid for doing so, since it's always someone else who profits in the kind of data-driven world that "makes it easy to get the answers fast."

Inda Schaenen is a teacher and writer in St. Louis.