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Friday, August 28, 2015

Ghosts of NYC past return to haunt the news: the Rise and Fall of Amplify

Update 9/29/15: the Observer reports an estimated two thirds of the Amplify staff were just laid off.
Update 9/30/15: Today, the company was sold to a group of private investors including Joel Klein, and Klein has stepped down as CEO. 

Many ghosts from Tweed and NYC’s education past have re-appeared in the news the past few
credit; Lindamarie
weeks, some of them popping up in unusual places. 

Former NYC Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who succeeded Joel Klein and Cathy Black, was recently appointed the state monitor of E. Ramapo school board.  This board is controlled by Orthodox Jews who do not send their kids to the public schools and have been accused of raiding public funds to support their religious schools.

Our former Deputy Superintendent, Chris Cerf, who left the Department of Education in 2010 to become State Education Commissioner of NJ, followed by a brief detour at Joel Klein’s Amplify, was appointed the Superintendent of Newark public schools, replacing another former DOE educrat, Cami Anderson. 
While Walcott has little power and Cerf has quite a lot, they both will presumably take orders from the autocrats who appointed them – in the case of Walcott, Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, and in the case of Cerf, Gov. Christie.  

Walcott has to decide whether to recommend that members of E. Ramapo’s elected school board be removed for diverting public funds to private schools.  Cerf has to decide whether to give power back to Newark’s elected school board, which has been impotent for twenty years (!!) while watching state appointees run their schools and divert resources to charter schools.   

After a public meeting where Walcott was introduced to angry E. Ramapo public school parents, whose pleas to rescue their schools have been mostly ignored by the state, he noted that he is suited to the job, as “I have a lot of experience being yelled at.”  This is surely true given the three years he spent at the helm of NYC public schools, where charter co-locations, funding cuts and a whole lot of unpopular policies were foisted on our schools.  

Cami Anderson stopped attending Newark school board meetings in January 2014,  because she didn’t like all the angry words hurtled at her from parents furious about her “One Newark” plan that expanded charters, closed public schools, and eliminated any right for Newark kids to attend schools in their neighborhood. 

Chris Cerf, on the other hand, who was forced to sit through lots of loud and angry meetings of the Panel for Educational Policy, has promised to attend all Newark school board meetings in the future.  Here’s a video of Cerf’s presentation at the first Newark board meeting, where he claims to want to return the district to local control, but then gets angry yells when he says he will keep the One Newark plan despite widespread opposition, since his data purportedly shows that only 25% of Kindergarten parents selected their closest neighborhood school.

And then there’s Joel Klein himself,  the guy who appointed both Cerf and Anderson to high positions when he was Chancellor, who led the charge to privatize NYC public schools and endured lots of crazy-loud PEP meetings while gazing at his Blackberry.

Klein left DOE in 2010 to run Amplify, the Digital education division of News Corp.  Two weeks ago, it was announced that News Corp intends to sell Amplify, which has lost so much money– up to $371 million in the last year alone – with no profit in sight. 

Let’s recap some highlights (and low lights) of its history up to this point:

Nov. 9, 2010:  Joel Klein announces he is resigning as Chancellor to join Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and head up a new digital learning division.  His salary is reported as more than $4.5 million per year.  It’s unclear if his departure is voluntary or he has been pushed, though credible sources report the latter.  Some people around the country who mistakenly believed that Klein is progressive are surprised that he was going to work for the right-wing Murdoch.  Those of us who lived through eight years of his militant privatization regime are not surprised at all.  Cerf leaves the DOE shortly thereafter, during Cathy Black’s brief reign as Chancellor.  
Nov. 22, 2010: Murdoch buys Wireless Generation for $360 million in cash, which will form the center of his new division.  It doesn’t go unnoticed that Wireless Gen, an ed tech company, already has several large contracts with DOE, including building and maintaining the $80 million student information system called ARIS.  Wireless also is said to be a “partner” of School of One, the over-hyped online learning program that is being implemented in several NYC schools. Murdoch explains: “When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching.”   

June 8, 2011: Daily News breaks the story of a proposed $27M no-bid contract between Wireless Gen and the NYS Education Department to build their state student information system.  Protests follow, in part because of conflicts of interest but mostly because of privacy concerns, especially as the News Corp phone hacking scandal has erupted just a few weeks before.  We post a petition to the State Comptroller Di Napoli, urging him to cancel the contract. Later, NYSUT, the state's teacher union, expresses its opposition as well. 

July 2011:  Joel Klein is brought into lead a small team to advise Murdoch on the phone hacking scandal in the UK, and sits behind him while Murdoch testifies before a Parliamentary committee charged with investigating the allegations. His involvement in helping to manage the scandal goes on for nearly a year.

August 25, 2011: State Comptroller Di Napoli announces he will cancel the state’s Wireless Generation no-bid contract due to privacy concerns.  

December 2011: The NY Board of Regents approves NYSED’s plan to share personal student and teacher data with the Shared Learning Collaborative LLC, with $44 million slated to be paid to Wireless Generation, the major subcontractor on this $100 million project of the Gates Foundation.  NYSUT says it will not oppose the agreement because Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, its parent union, is an adviser. Nevertheless, we begin to raise the alarm about this project, which claims there are nine states participating, because the Gates Foundation refuses to guarantee the privacy or the security of highly sensitive student data. 

March 20, 2012:  A report is released from a Council of Foreign Relations task force chaired by Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice.  The report says that the low quality of education represents a national security crisis, and recommends the “solutions” of expanding the Common Core State Standards to include subjects beyond math and ELA; instituting more charter schools and vouchers; and requiring an annual “national security readiness audit” that would examine how schools are addressing the country’s needs through increased foreign language, technology and more.

July 23, 2012:  Klein announces a partnership with ATT to create learning devices in the form of tablets, and that the company will be renamed Amplify.

October 14, 2012: Class Size Matters, along with attorney Norman Siegel, holds our first  press conference about the state’s plan to share data with the Shared Learning Collaborative, releasing a letter to NYSED demanding that it release its contract with the SLC, , hold public hearings, and require parental consent before disclosing any student’s personally identifiable information going forward.  This begins a year and a half of our campaign to stop this data-sharing project in its tracks.

December 5, 2012:  Klein gives a presentation at the annual UBS Global Media conference.  He calls the United States K-12 system a $673 billion market “ripe for disruption," and that Amplify will capture a major share through its educational software, assessments, tablets and the Common Core standards.  He says that this is “a national security issue” and that if education doesn’t adopt technology, “the country won’t go forward.”   His power point has the following phrase: “Amplify is a balanced investment opportunity in the disruptive innovation in education.”

Klein adds that due to costs of developing its products,  Amplify has spent about $180 million, which he calls a “disciplined investment” and is expected to generate about $100 million in revenue that year—because technology is “saving money,” and that “school systems want this.” He praises the Race to the Top program which offers grants to implement the solutions offered by his company, and shows the slide above.   (The power point is no longer on the News Corp website, but is archived on the Wayback Machine.)
Feb. 11, 2013:  Chris Cerf, once Deputy Chancellor to Klein, unexpectedly resigns as New Jersey’s Education Commissioner, and joins his old buddy at Amplify.  Cerf is appointed chief executive of Amplify Insight, which is described as marketing “digital products to diagnose students’ weaknesses in reading and math and prescribe interventions tailored to each child.”  Cerf is one of many high-profile and high-priced hires made by Klein, along with Peter Gorman, former Superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, and Justin Hamilton, former press secretary to Arne Duncan.   Shortly thereafter it is revealed that Cami Anderson, who Cerf appointed to head Newark schools, has awarded three contracts worth $2.3 million to Amplify. 

March 5, 2013Amplify unveils their new tablet to great fanfare at SXSW conference in Austin, Texas.  Stephen Smyth, president of Amplify’s Access division, says “This is more than just a tablet. It's a complete learning solution organized around the school day. “Much hype follows; among those who express skepticism are Diane Ravitch and I, as in this interview on NPR. At the same event, inBloom formally debuts – the corporate spin off of the Gates Foundation project formerly called the Shared Learning Collaborative. The initial day of the conference, Stephanie Simon writes about inBloom in Reuters, and for the first time, the mainstream media reveals all the troubling details I had been concerned about in terms of its huge risk to student privacy.  Simon also points out in a separate Reuters article that Amplify projects an operating loss of about $80 million for the fiscal year.

March 14, 2013:  Amplify obtains a contract for $12.5 million through the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, funded by the federal government to create Common Core exams.  Amplify will develop a digital library of formative assessment professional learning tools for educators.”  Their first SBAC contract was in 2012, when Wireless Generation, in partnership with ETS, was hired to develop software to report and analyze assessment results.

April 18, 2013: Amplify announces it is purchasing the 20 year rights to Core Knowledge curriculum for grades K-3.  In a press release, the company says, “The company is creating exciting new approaches to teaching and learning that are as immersive as the best films; as compelling as the best video games; as social as the best networking applications; as personal as the best tutors; and as analytically sophisticated as the best search engines.”
May 19, 2013 – I engage in a twitter exchange with Rupert Murdoch, after he tweets that Facebook is losing page views: “Look out Facebook! Hours spent participating per member dropping seriously.1st bad sign seen by MySpace yrs ago,” he writes.
I immediately reply, “@rupertmurdoch speaking of your failure with MySpace I hear @amplify is losing boatloads of money too.” 
To my amazement, Murdoch responds: “@leoniehaimson @amplify not losing money. Not even in business yet.”
I counter, “What @RupertMurdoch? @Amplify projects operating loss of about $80 million this year” and: “Not even @GatesEd & #datapirate @inBloomedu can save @amplify from losing millions @rupertmurdoch.” To my regret, he doesn’t take the bait again.
May 28, 2013 - Amplify announces its biggest deal so far – what is billed as the sale of 21,215 tablets to Guilford County Schools in North Carolina, to be used in 24 Middle schools.  Guilford is spending more than $16 million in Race to the Top funds to purchase these tablets, which Joel Klein callsone of the largest 1-to-1 deployments, if not the single largest, to date in K-12 education….At Amplify, we’re working to transform the way teachers teach and students learn. We aren’t recycling consumer goods for the classroom. We are a company that is 100-percent focused on education.”  This announcement is followed by many credulous stories in the media.

Sept 15, 2013:  The NY Times Magazine runs a long feature on the Amplify tablet. In the article, Joel Klein bewails the amount of money spent on public education: “Any system that poured in as much money as we did and made as little progress has a real problem. We keep trying to fix it by doing the same thing, only a little different and better. This is about a lot different and better.”  Enthusiasm for the potential of technology to transform education is expressed by Secretary Arne Duncan, Greg Anrig of the Century Foundation, and Jonathan Supovitz of the University of Pennsylvania.

October 4, 2013, Guilford reports that more than 13 percent of the tablets received from Amplify have been lost, stolen or damaged.  Ten percent of the devices delivered just a few weeks before have developed cracked screens and some battery chargers have dangerously overheated.  The district suspends the use of the devices.    Guilford gets a new shipment of tablets the following July, but the entire episode has cost Amplify millions in lost revenue and prestige.  

March 31, 2014: NY Legislature passes a law against sharing data with inBloom.  We are the last state to pull out of this controversial project after parent protests, and in April, inBloom announces it is closing its doors, which likely represents yet another financial loss to Amplify, which was under contract to build and maintain its operating system.

November 4, 2014:  Joel Klein’s book is released to mixed reviews, called Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools.  He goes on a book tour and gives interviews about his view of how to improve the public school system, which includes a heaping dose of technology. 

November 16, 2014: In an exclusive, the Daily News reveals that the NYC is dumping ARIS, the little-used $96 million student information system built by Wireless/Amplify, along with its $10-$12 million annual maintenance contract, to create its own in-house data system.  

January 2015: According to a subsequent article in EdSurge, Joel Klein sends an internal memo to his staff: “It’s time to move past thinking about divisions and instead focus on our collective strengths.That’s why I’ve decided to begin the process of fully integrating Amplify.”  Instead of three, semi-autonomous divisions with 12 “C-level” executives and three presidents, the company is re-organized. Many high-level staffers begin to depart, including the head of Amplify’s tablet unit, Stephen Smyth.

April 7, 2015 – A devastating investigative report appears in Bloomberg Business by Laura Colby, who has replaced Stephanie Simon as one of the best investigative reporters covering education.  (Sadly, Simon left education reporting at the end of March.)  Colby reveals the multiple failures of Amplify, and exposes Joel Klein’s mismanagement of the company:  

“Murdoch’s News Corp. will have invested more than $1 billion in Amplify, its division that makes the tablets, sells an online curriculum and offers testing services. Amplify, which never set a timetable for turning a profit, has yet to do so. It reported a $193 million loss last year… The education effort has been riddled with technology failures, fragile equipment, a disconnect between tablet marketers and content developers, and an underestimation of how difficult it would be to win market share from entrenched rivals”.   

Amazingly, Amplify’s computer games are compatible only with iPads, not with its own tablets, and the devices have been marketed without any attempt to combine them with the company’s curricular modules.  Joel Klein responds with a letter, claiming that the article has exaggerated its failures, and that “Amplify is sticking by its customers, turning setbacks into wins, and delivering groundbreaking curriculum to students whose lives are better for it.”

June 22, 2015:   It is announced that Chris Cerf will leave Amplify to become head of Newark Public Schools. 

June 26, 2015:  Laura Colby reveals that as part of its retrenchment, Amplify is getting out of the tablet business entirely. 

August 12, 2015:  News Corp announces its intention to sell Amplify as soon as buyers can be found.  Joel Klein writes his staff: “Amplify and News Corp both believe it is time to explore new and exciting strategic opportunities, working with partners who share a deep understanding of what it takes to be successful in education. We are in active conversations with an outside investor regarding the potential sale of Amplify. We expect that this lead investor would be backed by Amplify’s management team, some of whom also plan to participate in the investment. “

August 16, 2015: Among the many negative reviews of Amplify on Glass Door’s website, there are these two:  Absolutely zero leadership. I have been in the industry for a very long time and have never witnessed such a complete void of any sort of leadership. It's not even fair to say "poor" leadership because there is literally no sign of it. Anywhere. Whatsoever. Joel pops his head in once or twice a year.”  

Another: “Assessment division may survive. Free Pita chips every once in a while. Nice office while it lasted. Many talented people. Hope they are able to find better jobs soon…Sad that a lot of people will lose their jobs over the next 6 mos. If deal goes through, one division may survive. If not, likely company will declare bankruptcy.


Sheila Resseger said...

Where is the modern Charles Dickens to transmute this tragicomedy into a classic novel?

Michael Fiorillo said...

Joel Klein, serial school killer, serial business failure...

Anonymous said...

Sheila- It's so ironic that you bring up Dickens,given Klein's uncanny physical resemblence to a Dickensian character out of say A Christmas Carol.You can just picture him with the accountant's visor on his balding pate, or doing a Montgomery Burns "Excellent!" as some poor soul is dispatched to the Rubber Room ,never to be seen or heard from again.These failures couldn't happen to a nicer... LAWYER!!!