When pondering the best way to transform and improve America’s K-12 public schools, do the ideas that first come to mind include: ditching locally elected school boards? Placing grade-school kids in overcrowded computer labs for hours at a time with unproven software and inexperienced teachers? Telling children from poor homes that test scores are the only results that matter? Or putting high-tech entrepreneurs who have financial stakes in the digital tools being road-tested on students on the private boards running those schools?
These are all cornerstones of the charter school movement that has grown out of Silicon Valley, supported by Microsoft’s Bill Gates, who has spent more than $400 million to promote technology-driven charter schools. And they’re being championed by Netflix founder-CEO Reed Hastings, who just launched a $100 million foundation where he is likely to become one of America’s highest-profile figures pushing this anti-democratic, tech-centric, corporate-inspired vision to recast America’s public schools.
“The underlying mentality that Hastings shares with Gates is that computers revolutionized commerce, revolutionized business, revolutionized manufacturing, so now why can’t computers revolutionize education,” said Anthony Cody, a retired high school teacher from Oakland, Calif. and critic of billionaire-led charter schools and their high-tech takeover of the learning process. “In their minds, it is inevitable that it will. The only question is what will be the delivery method.”
The charter school movement emerged in the 1990s as a way to innovate in individual public schools. But over the last decade the movement has evolved into a franchise-dominated industry, where a tight circle of interrelated for-profit and non-profit players are doing everything they can to privatize public education. Across the country, super wealthy foundations—including the Walmart-backed Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—have put more than $1 billion into creating 6,700 charter schools. Besides Gates, there may be no figure more widely identified with the computers-will-fix-everything mindset than Northern California’s Hastings.
Hastings, 55, has been pushing charters for two decades. Last winter, he made national news when he gave the keynote address to the California Charter Schools Association’s (CCSA) convention and said locally elected school boards were hurting schools and should be replaced by privately run boards, like those at charters. Hastings, an ex-president of the California State Board of Education appointed by a Democratic governor, noted that the public might not buy this anti-democratic conclusion, but encouraged his movement players to look beyond the fact that “school boards have been an iconic part of America for 200 years.”
“The most important thing is that they [charters] constantly get better every year… because they have stable governance—they don’t have an elected school board,” said Hastings—even though that narrative of stability and steady improvement has not proven itself out at charters he’s helped found. Nevertheless, Hastings hammered home a note that’s echoed across both his business career and his life as a charter advocate: that rapid growth is the solution. “What we have to do is to work with school districts to grow steadily,” Hastings said. “The work ahead is really hard because we’re at 8 percent of students in California, whereas in New Orleans they’re at 90 percent, so we have a lot of catchup to do… We have to continue to grow and grow.”
Hastings’ remarks were hardly the first salvo between charter proponents and elected school boards. But coming from one of Silicon Valley’s best-known entrepreneurs, they quickly drew negative reactions, especially because Hastings has aligned himself with one of the most hubris-filled sectors of the charter movement: technology executives who believe the only thing stopping Silicon Valley from saving America’s public schools are clunky school boards, needless government regulation and skeptical lifelong educators.
Hastings’ comments were cynically greeted by the Washington Post’seducation blog, where he was labeled part of the billionaire boy’s club of “Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Mark Zuckerberg, various Waltons… some of the prodigiously wealthy who have decided that they know how public education can be ‘fixed’ and have plowed big money into it,” as the Post's Valerie Strauss wrote. Yet “after billions of their dollars have been spent for pet projects, the real problems facing public schools remain.”
Strauss’ last point is crucial. Hastings’ slap at elected boards, while offensive, wasn’t unique. Gates said the same thing when he extolled “mayoral control” of urban schools. “Instead of having a committee of people, you have that one person,” Gates said, “where we’ve seen the willingness to take on some of the older practices and try new things.” The problem, as Strauss noted, is that many of these “pet projects” have yet to deliver on their hype as a pathway out of poverty for poor kids. The darker reality is that these schools are in fact doubling as product development centers for the fabulously rich and their well-connected associates.
High-Tech Experiments Flounder
Hastings’ track record is a prime example of this pattern in action. He helped launch Rocketship Education, a chain of computer-learning centered schools whose grandiose business plan envisioned educating 1 million students in 50 cities, as many as are educated in New York City, the nation’s largest school district. But as EdWeek.org and the San Jose Mercury News have extensively reported, Rocketship’s ambitious plans badly failed to keep the network's foremost promise: to continue raising student test scores.
The notion that higher test scores are the best way to track student accomplishment is controversial in itself. Many educators argue that there’s far more to learning. Nonetheless, Rocketship believes the best way to educate poor kids is to put 150 young students in front of computers for hours at a time, in large lab classes where there are more technicians than experienced teachers. The curriculum’s emphasis is on correctly answering questions, which, asEducation Weekly and the Mercury News reported, created so much pressure on students that many became sick. As Cody notes, this approach minimizes what traditional teachers believe is necessary—the transmission of developmentally appropriate interpretation, communication and social skills, as well as paying personal attention to students whose home lives may be filled with factors complicating their ability to learn.
Yet Rocketship and the software firms plying this “blended learning” experiment has been one of Hastings' priorites. Last winter, he donated $2 million to start a $17 million fundraising drive for the chain. Reality, however, took hold last spring as the chain's student test scores “plummeted,” as the Mercury News put it. There was also teacher burn-out, fear among non-unionized faculty of criticizing the curriculum, and raised eyebrows after the chain’s founder left to create a software firm that sold its wares back to Rocketship—an organization supported by taxpayers and philanthropy. Rocketship postponed expansion plans in Texas, and even Hastings spoke about taking a pause to figure out what was wrong and how to keep growing.
“Rocketship sort of assumed they could work with existing hardware and software,” Cody explained, referring to the learning tools and answer-oriented agenda put before students. “At Rocketship, kids are three hours a day in a computer lab with 150 students in a room, two to three lab techs, and one 'teacher' that supervises the whole thing… They describe what they do as personalizing the learning experience.”
It’s not surprising that the founder of Netflix would find putting kids in front of digital devices that track what they are doing and relying on software formulas to tell them what they need to do next, an attractive educational strategy. It many respects, device-centered tracking and user analysis is what Silicon Valley has developed to trace consumer-buying patterns. In the public school world, tracking test scores—Bill Gates’ emphasis—has become the coin of the realm, largely because it is faster and can be done more easily on a large scale than assessing other indices of learning that are not metric-centered, but track other ways children gain intellectual and life skills.
Rocketship is not the only example of a Hastings project that exposes the problematic nature of tech-centric learning. Many studies—including a trio released last fall and funded by the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation—have found that most of the kids in cyber-centered learning environments fall drastically behind their brick-and-mortar peers. Khan Academy, which has been backed by Hastings, produces online videos on math problems. Even though it has been a viral sensation, experienced teachers have called it sloppy and imprecise.
These initiatives are emblematic of the corner of the charter school world that Hastings inhabits. Like Gates’ support of test-centered curriculum, there are Silicon Valley biases and imperatives driving them. One is that digital data can replace the judgments and knowledge of experienced teachers. The other is that reducing the ratio of teachers to students, which cuts personnel costs (and feeds the mindset that there’s big money to be made in privatizing public education), is of no consequence to student learning. It’s hardly news that entrepreneurs see profits in developing online tools, even if it may be yearsbefore their effectiveness can be assessed—such as by seeing how cyber-schooled kids fare once they enroll in colleges and universities.
Outsider, Entrepreneur, Democrat
Hastings didn’t begin his career as an education reformer by trashing school boards and pushing tech-centric solutions that can scale. But tracing his involvement in California’s education reform movement for the past two decades reveals what brought him there.
People who know him describe him as a quasi-liberal, an ex-Peace Corp volunteer who taught in Africa and then came back and made several fortunes as a math whiz, computer programmer and tech entrepreneur. They see him as an idealist who has given millions to bankroll state ballot measures and candidates who share his vision—particularly with charter schools. But his business experience and successes have shaped him over the years and led to a growing hubris that’s all too common among high-tech executives—the belief the world be a better place if only it could be more like them.
Hastings, who lives in the counterculture-embracing coastal town of Santa Cruz, has always played by his own rules. Today, he comes across as a mild-mannered, graying, goateed man in his mid-50s who prides himself on trusting his intuition and following up with hard work. Decades ago, Fortune magazine said “he was as hard-headed as they come. So much so that he earned the nickname ‘animal.’”
He grew up in suburban Boston, went to liberal arts college in Maine where he majored in math and ran the outdoors club, and after a bad experience in a Marine Corps officer-training program, joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Swaziland to teach math. He then went to Stanford University, where he earned a computer science degree. Afterward, he created a company that made software tools for Unix developers called Pure, which was bought for $750 million in 1997—his first fortune. He soon left and enrolled in another masters program at Stanford, in education, and got involved in California politics.
In 1998, he teamed up with education experts he met at Stanford to write a state ballot measure to repeal a cap on the number of charter schools that could open across California in one year. The state’s charter law, passed in 1992, allowed 100 schools to open annually and not more than 10 per school district. After paid circulators got the signatures needed to get the measure on the ballot, the legislature stepped in and passed a bill lifting the cap. The same year, Hastings became the CEO of TechNet, a new Silicon Valley lobbying group whose members were all CEOs who also backed federal candidates from both parties. Here, he again saw how money, power and influence converge and could bring about political results.
In 2000, Hastings took aim at another statewide reform—lowering the vote needed, from two-thirds to 55 percent, to pass school bonds. Hastings gave $1 million to Proposition 39, which passed, delighting the state’s teachers unions. That year, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis appointed Hastings to the state Board of Education, where he became president in 2001. Among their issues was how to test students’ progress. In 2004, he was nominated for another term by then-Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Democrats blocked him in response to his support for teaching 2.5 hours a day of English in bilingual kindergartens (previously 90 percent of the instruction was in Spanish). “I lacked political deftness,” he told a pro-charter website last year.
Hastings shifted his focus to a new business, Netflix, the idea for which came after being charged a late fee at a video store. But he was a steady and reliable donor to state and federal candidates, usually Democrats, and to education-based campaigns in California. Many of his candidates did not win, reporterstracking the state’s biggest donors found. By 2005, Hastings was not just a dedicated supporter of charters, but was saying that public education’s future depended on schools being run like private corporations.
“If public schools don’t adopt the same principles of competition and accountability as exist in the private and nonprofit sectors, they will continue to deteriorate,” he said in 2005, explaining his philosophy on the New School Venture Fund website, a Silicon Valley grant-making hub he helped to create that has invested in charters and education software. “More and more parents with means will send their children to private schools, and the institution will become like Medicare, an alternative for only the most disadvantaged.” (Medicare is the federal government’s popular health plan for people 65 and older; in early 2016 it had 49.5 million recipients.)
Hastings also complained that even though his world was “littered” with business people who wanted to help the situation, he saw no overarching plan to improve K-12 schools, apart from supporting new charters. “One way to permanently impact the system would be to have 10 to 20 percent of California schoolchildren enrolled in charter schools,” he said in 2005, foreshadowing his own advocacy. “That would be critical mass, and enough of a force to induce a competitive dynamic in the system.”
The Million-Dollar Check Writer
It wasn’t unusual for Hastings to write quarter-million dollar checks, or more, to campaigns and causes. In 2014, he gave $247,000 to a successful state ballot measure that rolled back sentences for non-violent crimes. In 2012, he gave $1 million to support a successful ballot measure drafted by Gov. Jerry Brown to raise taxes on the wealthiest Californians. That year he also gave $250,000 to a failed measure to end the state’s death penalty. But his top priority has primarily been charter schools and computer-centered learning.
In 2014, Hastings gave $1.5 million to the California Charter Schools Association Advocates, which, as the Los Angeles Times wrote, “transferred much of the money to an affiliated political action committee that supported candidates in the 2015 Los Angeles Board of Education elections,” where there was a big fight brewing over how quickly charter schools could expand in L.A., the nation’s second largest school district. Another billionaire, Eli Broad, had floated a plan to turn half of the city’s schools into charters in eight years; just last month, the L.A. school board soundly rejected that proposal.
More recently, Hastings has increased his support for educational software developers. As the pro-charter EducationNext.org explained in a profile last winter, “Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has given millions of dollars to start charter schools. He’s put millions more into developing education software to personalize learning.... And he is not a fan of school boards.” The article continues, showing the small and entwined world of charter operators and elite high-tech businesses:
“Hastings provided start-up funding for the Aspire Public Schools charter network and helped start and fund EdVoice, a lobbying group, and the NewSchools Venture Fund, which supports education entrepreneurs. He’s given money to Sal Khan of Khan Academy to develop teaching videos—and a dashboard to track student progress—used in the U.S. and around the world. Hastings also supports Rocketship Education, which blends adaptive learning on computers with teacher-led instruction. He’s on the board of the California Charter Schools Association; the KIPP Foundation; DreamBox Learning, an education technology company; and the Pahara Institute, which provides fellowships to education leaders.”
Hastings' announcement in January that he was creating a $100 million foundation to focus on education suggests he will not only keep doing what he has been doing—as exemplified by his support of Rocketship and software firms putting largely untested ideas in charter schools—but also step up the pace. Last winter, he told a pro-charter website that one takeaway from the Rocketship turmoil of falling test scores was that software was best for teaching “subjects with correct answers,” but “it will take 5 to 10 years of hard work to figure out” how to use it to teach an interpretive subject like history or literature.
It’s worth pondering that comment. Rocketship has plans to keep on expanding into new states and opening more schools in low-income communities. Hastings’ $100 million donation undoubtedly will allow this and related experiments to continue and grow, whether or not device-centered classrooms in charter schools will prove to help or hurt students. Last fall, Hastings affirmed his long game philosophy: because he’s a billionaire, he can impose pet projects on public schools.
“The key in management is you have to have your long-term, stable, successful picture. And motivate people—employees, suppliers, investors toward that picture,” Hastings told CNBC. “There will be uneven amounts of execution toward it, potentially doubts at times if it’s achievable. But you can’t get concerned.”