The Next Social Contract for Public Education Needs New Terms of Service

Blog Post
July 7, 2016
This post appears as part of an EdCentral series on the next social contract for education,
which raises questions and discusses new directions for public education in the digital age.
Join the conversation online with the hashtag #EdTechContract on Twitter.

Based on universal access to free and equal schools, the social contract for public education equates the attainment of a high school diploma with readiness for college, meaningful participation in the workforce, and the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. Yet, for too many students, this social contract is a raw deal, based on shaky assumptions about equity of opportunity in a digital age and with no guarantee of a return even for those who are able to abide by all its provisions.

As New America’s Lindsey Tepe has suggested, it is time to reboot the social contract for public education. We must revisit our assumptions about and expectations for schools as public institutions in a digital age, about the preparation and work of educators, and about the roles for students and families themselves. There is every reason to expect that both entrepreneurs and enterprising educators will continue to generate new and compelling ideas about how to effectively address the challenges facing public education through technology, and for this we should remain optimistic and hopeful.

Yet, at the same time, we must remain clear-eyed and recognize the ways in which technology also introduces new issues and potential threats to the promise of public education. What we need are terms of service that provide every student and their family assurances that their interests remain at the fore, no matter what technological genie may spring from the bottle.

In my view, at least four such assurances are needed in a digital age:

1.    We must ensure every student has access to the digital tools they need to succeed in school. Any fair discussion of equity of opportunity in education in the digital age must include the issue of student access to computers and the internet – both at school and during the school year, as well as outside of school and over the summer. From textbooks to tests and from research papers to group projects, public education is in the midst of a sea change in how it provides learning opportunities to its students, in the tools it offers, and in what it expects its educators and students to use.

Accompanying the commitment to provide universal access to learning technologies for learners must be a parallel effort to ensure that all students have the age-appropriate skills to use those tools to meet their educational goals, including knowledge of basic computer operations, computer programming, and media and information literacy concepts. The goal is to ensure that students can take best advantage of the powerful learning tools at their disposal wherever their academic and career aspirations may lead them.

2.    We must address conflict of interest in decision-making about technology in public schools. If technology is to play a significant role in the new social contract for public education, it is long past due time for us to launch a national dialogue on the issue of conflict of interest in schools. As parents, we entrust our children to the public education system in the belief that the decisions made by educators, administrators, and policymakers are in the best interests of our children. As taxpayers, we expect schools to make financially responsible choices, impartially, and on the basis of evidence – and to be accountable for those decisions. And, we expect that those in public service will be guided – not by any personal or professional interest or future ambition – but by a real commitment to the primary beneficiaries of education’s social contract: students themselves.

It is for those reasons that it may be hard for some to fathom how commonplace potential conflicts of interest are today: public educators proudly promote their allegiance to technology brands on their social media profiles, accept gifts from school vendors, and are encouraged to commercialize and sell their lesson plans online; technology company representatives routinely speak at education conferences to make the case for why their solutions are best; and, it is hardly unusual for administrators and policymakers to be invited to attend lavish private events with technology company representatives to discuss the future of education and how their solutions may best be suited to meeting student needs. Indeed, for some in education, the payoff to public service appears to be found in being recruited to serve as a corporate brand ambassador to schools. One is left to wonder whose interests are being served in the current situation and whether public and private interests may already be too intertwined to disentangle.

Abstract ethical considerations aside, what is at stake for not attending to these issues of conflict of interest? Declining trust in educators, schools, and education leaders may be the smallest price we pay.  More tangible costs result from ill-considered decisions that can result in the waste, fraud and abuse of public funds. Most concerning are decisions that have a negative impact on student outcomes (whether academic or social) or in more extreme circumstances even jeopardize the health and well-being of children and youth. 

3.    We must guarantee clear, universal, and enforceable privacy rights for students. One of the great promises of the increased adoption and use of technology in public education is the availability of new tools to collect and analyze data about how best to meet the individual needs of students, support educators, and allocate scarce resources. Each of these broad purposes is valuable and important, and few would argue with the proposition that we need more high-quality information and research to guide decisions about school reform and improvement efforts and about how to personalize instruction.

While some data collection efforts are managed by academic researchers or are directly under the control of schools, increasingly schools (and in some cases individual educators of their own accord) are relying on or recommending external service providers who use technology to collect and analyze data involving students at unprecedented levels of granularity. Once collected, data about individual students may be repurposed, combined with other data sources, and used in ways to predict behavior that does not benefit students or may even cause them injury or harm today or at some point in the future.

Therefore, while the new social contract for public education in a digital age can and will be strengthened by an increased reliance on the automated collection and use of data about learning, it must not at the same time be silent on the privacy rights of students. The patchwork of current laws and regulations remains riddled with gaps and in most cases holds neither schools nor vendors sufficiently accountable for their behavior. Students should not have to trade their privacy in exchange for a free, high-quality public education.

4.    We must ensure that all instructional materials – no matter their form or medium – remain available for public inspection and review. The articulation of academic standards for students by elected and appointed public school officials is nothing less than an expression of community values and collective future vision for the country. For that reason, states and school districts have long provided parents and community members with the opportunity to review standards, curricula, and instructional materials up for adoption by local schools. While this is an imperfect process and often treated as a necessary evil, there are myriad examples where this public review process has helped to identify and remediate errors of fact and bias.

As traditional textbooks are replaced by their digital counterparts and software is used to supplement or even substitute for educators, the terms of service of the new social contract for public education must not walk back the commitment to public review and inspection of instructional materials designed to help students acquire the knowledge, skills and abilities embodied in publicly adopted academic standards. There simply is no room for instructional black boxes in public education. Digital instructional materials must be subject to public inspection to ensure accuracy and freedom from bias and – in the case of software applications – that the software code treats data about student learning responsibly, securely, and transparently. Moreover, the use of learning analytics and algorithms that substitute for human judgment about students should be subject to independent review and validation.

There is every reason to be optimistic about the future of public education in a digital age. Technology will help us address many of the core challenges of school reform and improvement in novel ways. At the same time, it will introduce new challenges. It is for this reason that we must undergird the new social contact for pubic education with terms of service that provide assurances that no matter what may change due to technology that students interests will always remain at the fore of our decision-making.