According to a recent story in the New York Times, some Silicon Valley technologists are going through an existential crisis about the consequences of the technology they’ve created. The wealth they’ve amassed from that technology gives them the luxury to head down to the newly renovated Esalen resort in Big Sur to contemplate the meaning of their lives and where they go from here.
The new executive director of Esalen, a former Google product manager and founder of a real-time celebrity geo-stalking service called Just Spotted, told the New York Times that it was during a vacation in Big Sur shortly after Google hired him and his team in 2011 that he realized his work was causing harm.
“‘I realized I was addicting people to their phones,’ Mr. Tauber said. ‘It’s a crisis that everyone’s in the culture of killing it, and inside they’re dying.’”
As a young adult novelist, I’ve spent the last seven years writing and researching books that examine the intersection of technology and the lives of young people. Doing freelance journalist work during that time, I’ve investigated the cost to states of unfunded technology mandates of an education reform movement funded, in part, by tech billionaires from Silicon Valley. So I was astounded to read about Tauber’s vacation introspection. After all, this is a guy who founded a geo-stalking service.
That same New York Times article also provided an explanation for the narrow scope of his new self-awareness: “Mr. Tauber has stacked Esalen’s calendar with sessions by Silicon Valley leaders.”
In other words, even when evaluating the consequences of their life’s work, the masters of the Silicon Valley universe look within their own uniform ranks for the answers, rather than seeking a broad range of views from those who are impacted by its technology.
Elitist groupthink isn’t just a Silicon Valley thing. The education reform movement, a veritable industry of organizations devoted to “fixing” the nation’s schools, shares the tech moguls’ fondness for a self-reinforcing culture of ideas. In fact, given the cross-fertilization of funding, ideas and technology between Silicon Valley and the education reform world, the similarities of between the two are striking.
Follow the Yellow Brick Road
A study published earlier this year by researchers Tina Trujillo, Janelle Scott and Marialena Rivera in the American Journal of Education measured what they described as an “echo chamber effect” in the education reform movement, analyzing data from 164 interviews of current and former Teach For America corps members.
The authors found that TFA offered its corps members a very restricted narrative of the major causes of educational inequality, blaming the failures of individual teachers and school leaders, rather than structural issues, such as lack of public investment, intergenerational poverty, racism, inequality, or segregation.
Their interviewees, aside from a few minority viewpoints, “shared notions of equity that usually emphasized within-school factors – better teachers or stronger leaders. They were attuned primarily to questions of management, choice, and accountability, as opposed to resource distribution or systemic inequities.”
The alignment of views isn’t surprising, because like their Silicon Valley counterparts, TFA corps members tend to follow what Trujillo, Scott and Rivera termed the "Yellow Brick Road” all the way to their careers in charter schools or in a private entrepreneurial organization either started or seeded by TFA alumni.
As the study’s author’s point out, “Most corps members rarely left the Teach For America education reform and advocacy organizational network. Far fewer pursued opportunities that would expose them to non-TFA ideas and evidence or encourage them to consider alternative frames.“
Groupthink comes to Connecticut
In Connecticut, the issues highlighted in the Yellow Brick Road study were on vivid display several years ago when a group of education reform organizations tried to replace a democratically elected school board in Bridgeport, the largest city in the state, with one controlled by the mayor.
Jorge Cabrera, a community organizer in the city, worked for an organization called Excel Bridgeport that was pushing for the change, which required changing Bridgeport’s city charter. As Cabrera wrote in an op-ed, the self-reinforcing group think on display among education reform organization bordered on cult-like.
I noticed a plethora of Ivy league educated "consultants" and "transformational leaders" that littered the often loose coalition of funders, new organizations and executive directors. From the beginning, it was clear that many of these new "leaders" that were emerging were well credentialed. They had graduated from prestigious universities and, it was presumed ...that alone qualified them to lead. ...They often exhibited a cultish commitment to "the movement."
In a recent interview on the Have You Heard podcast, Megan Tompkins-Stange, author of Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence, argued that the bubble of groupthink is difficult to penetrate—by design.”The ed[ucation] reform movement is really a self-reinforcing network of folks who are generally connected to the same sort of support organizations, including foundations...it’s a rhetoric that’s cultivated and communicated in a reinforcing way.”
Connecticut journalists who went looking for the source of Excel Bridgeport’s funding, for example, had little luck. What they found instead was a Yellow Brick Road of connections, in which a handful of individuals, organizations and the foundations that fund them, pop up again and again. Take the Zoom Foundation, funded by Stephen and Susan Mandel of Lone Pine Capital. Mandel is Chairman of the Board of Directors of Teach For America, while Meghan Lowney, the founding executive director of Zoom, and Nate Snow, Director of TFA Connecticut, were on Excel Bridgeport's board. (Lowney and Snow pop up with astonishing frequency when one searches the various “grassroots” reform advocacy groups formed in Connecticut, most notably, the Public Square Partnership, whose registered address is â„… the Zoom Foundation.)
In 2014, the Connecticut Journal Inquirer published an expose revealing that Mandel’s Zoom Foundation essentially purchased a pipeline of policy ‘fellows” in Governor Dannel Malloy’s administration. The Yellow Brick Road is also paved with big campaign contributions.
Laws are for little people
Then there is the view that ethics laws are for little people. When I interviewed Cabrera, he recounted being asked to engage in political activity that was off limits to an employee of a 501(c)(3) organization.Other educational reform organizations, such as Families for Excellent Schools, both in Connecticut and Massachusetts, have demonstrated a similar disdain for ethics laws.
This idea that laws are merely guidelines which can be blithely ignored for the “greater good” of “disruption” is one which education reformers have co-opted from their friends and funding sources in Silicon Valley. Take Uber, a company that built its business model on unethical behavior and lawbreaking, under the “supervision” of an enabling board. Or Theranos, which lied to investors and customers about the efficacy of its proprietary blood testing technology. Or Zenefits, the human resources startup, whose employees cheated on mandatory compliance training. The Silicon Valley exhortation to moving fast and break things apparently includes “the law” under things in all too many cases.
At a time when the United States has reached Gilded Age levels of inequality, and anti-intellectualism is being promoted at the highest levels of government, do we really want to let foundation-funded echo chambers operating with scant respect for ethics and little or no public accountability, shape our public education system?