Niche.com’s Ratings Reinforce Reformers Vision of Schools as Commercial Commodities in a Competition
For the past several days my daily Google feed has features a succession of articles like this one hailing the high ratings of Scotch Plains NJ Schools based on data analysis by Niche.com. The Google feed articles seemed to be cascading state-by-state and after ignoring the posts for the past several days, it struck me this morning that this kind of rating system reinforces the reform movement’s notion that public schools are commercial commodities that compete for “customers” in an open marketplace. That, in turn, led me to see who was behind the rating system, what the basis for the ratings was, and how to help the public understand that this “ratings game” plays into the hands of the privatization movement.
So who or what is Niche.com? From what I can tell looking at their web page, they appear to be a group of well-intentioned “quants” from Pittsburgh PA. Here’s a description of their leadership team accompanies a page full of thumbnail pictures of 20 and 30 somethings:
Niche is a small team based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We’re a unique blend of data scientists, engineers, parents, and “yinzers” who are passionate about helping you discover the schools and neighborhoods that are right for you.
There was no Board of Directors page or no page outlining donors. Instead, it appears that Niche.com is funded by colleges and K-12 systems advertising fees! Here’s the page describing advertising opportunities, with some sections highlighted:
Advertising and Enrollment Marketing
Explore cost effective ways to reach students and parents on the largest website for researching K-12 schools and colleges.
Solutions for Colleges
Niche is where students choose their college. More than 50 percent of college-bound high school seniors use Niche to research colleges. Colleges can claim their school for free to manage their presence on Niche and upgrade to a Premium Profile to showcase their school and motivate next steps – Apply, Visit, etc. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Solutions for K-12 Schools and Districts
Niche.com offers rankings, reviews, and statistics for more than 120,000 public and private K-12 schools. Parents use Niche.com to decide where to enroll their children. Schools can claim their school for free to manage their profile and upgrade to a Premium Profile to showcase their school, generate referrals, and get their message across to prospective families. For more information, please email email@example.com.
Solutions for Real Estate
To discuss custom advertising solutions for real estate agents and brokers, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Advertising and Partnership Opportunities
To learn more about advertising opportunities or to inquire about a partnership, email email@example.com.
It didn’t seem plausible to me that a company of Niche.com’s scale could suddenly start-up and produce such a robust and wide ranging product based solely on advertising… and a few clicks of “research” led me to the discovery that College Prowler, the original enterprise founded by Niche.com’s current CFO, got a $500,000 infusion from a hedge funder named Glen Meakem. Wikipedia reports that he made his money from the $500,000,000 he made from the sale of an enterprise he started called FreeMarkets Inc., a software company that offers services to the Global Supply Management market.
And College Prowler itself seemed to have a somewhat shady history, which may have led to it’s re-branding and mission change. The “criticism” section of the Wikipedia entry on Niche.com succinctly describes a controversy College Prowler faced less than a decade ago:
In a 2008 scandal known as “Facebookgate”, hundreds of spurious “Class of 2013” groups were created on Facebook for the purpose of promoting College Prowler. Such groups would normally be created by actual students or colleges themselves. According to the CEO, “The original purpose was to use these groups as a way to inform students that they can access a free guide about their new college on our site.” He also added, “No employee or anyone else associated with College Prowler has used these groups to send out messages or wall posts.” College Prowler later removed all administrative access from the 125 groups, admitting “It was clearly over the line”.
After reading the history of Niche.com, I have no reason to question their ethics or motives, though I could easily construct a sinister narrative given the facts I just gathered in the past 15 minutes. Being someone who believes people operate from the best intentions, here’s what I believe happened. Their founder, Luke Skurman, came up with the idea for the “College Prowler” website when he was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, believing high schoolers who are swamped with information regarding college needed a more streamlined means of sifting through that information in order to decide which college is best for them. Because he had a background in data crunching, he devised an algorithm that he used to sell a print publication. When he saw an opportunity to increase the circulation of his idea to a wider audience he sought out some seed money and launched an on-line version of his product, which he called “College Prowler”. Seeing how Facebook’s de facto algorithms for spreading information worked, he created virtual “groups” that promoted his product without thinking about how that might be perceived by end users. When he was called on this mis-use, he disabled the groups and eventually decided to re-brand and expand the service to cover “an emerging market”: K-12 education.
Which leads back to the advertising page, because ultimately Niche.com’s money flow will rely on advertising… and implicit in the advertising for K-12 schools is the notion that “parents can decide where to enroll their children” and the corollary notion that a K-12 school has the resources to “upgrade… to showcase their school” so they can “get their message across to prospective families”. But what is even worse is the notion that advertising implies that education is a commodity that can be acquired in the marketplace the same way a loaf of bread or a used car can be acquired. If a parent doesn’t like a particular bread or a particular brand of automobile, they can always find another option further down the grocery shelf or at another dealer. And while a shiny new K-12 for profit charter school can always spend money advertising it’s “product” (and determining who can “buy” their “product”), public schools will never have the funds available to compete in the Niche.com advertising marketplace nor will they ever be able to exclude any “buyers”.
I am a blogger, not a journalist… but absent any evidence that Niche.com is being underwritten by the likes of the Walton Foundation I can only conclude that they are unwittingly playing into the hands of privatizers with their ratings … and public schools who trumpet their rankings are unwittingly playing along. But I know from experience that parents, teachers, school boards, and— yes— even school administrators love to tell the world when they achieve high ratings. I couldn’t resist looking to see that the district I led was ranked #1 in NH, for example… But I am not sure that most public school advocates realize that in playing the ratings game they are playing along with those who want to create a marketplace for public education.
One of the most distressing elements of the new administration in Washington is its willingness to create and promote “alternative facts” thereby creating a reality that enables them to propose easy answers to complicated problems. The latest instance of this was Sean Spicer’s rationale for cracking down on the use of recreational marijuana. Why?
In explaining the rationale of greater enforcement of federal marijuana laws, Spicer cited growing problems with other illicit drug use.
“I think that when you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people,” Spicer said. There is still a federal law that we need to abide by.”
In a statement Thursday afternoon, the National Cannabis Industry Association took issue with that argument.
“Science has discredited the idea that marijuana serves as any kind of gateway drug, and the addiction and death rates associated with opioids simply do not occur in any way with cannabis,” said Aaron Smith, the organization’s executive director.
There is NO link between the use of cannabis and the opioid epidemic. The opioid epidemic is the result of the under-regulation of prescription medication production and the over-prescribing of opioids as pain-killers. But in the alternative-fact universe the current administration operates in they begin with a counter-factual premise and then offer an easy solution to the problem… a solution that inevitably involves the need for more order.
By deregulating everything from education to oil and mineral extraction to banking, by writing Executive Orders that are almost certainly going to be appealed, and by behaving in a way that it far outside the norms, Mr. Trump and his administration are intentionally creating chaos by overloading the courts and legislative systems. To what end? The more I watch this slow motion train wreck, the more I am convinced that the ultimate endgame of this tsunami of disorder is the imposition of a “new order” that benefits the rich and squelches protest from “the elites”. Stand back and take a look at who might benefit from a new order and who might lose out.
- The NEW order calls for the deportation of “illegal immigrants”, which requires an expansion of law enforcement and prisons
- The NEW order calls for the criminalization of protest (18 states are proposing such legislation), which requires an expansion of law enforcement and prisons
- The NEW order encourages the arming of all citizens and the opportunity for armed citizens to “defend themselves” when they feel threatened, which enables citizens to take the law into their own hands
- The NEW order calls for the elimination of state and local environmental regulations, which enables corporations to “fast track” projects that involve pipelines, fracking, and mining
- The NEW order calls for the transfer of public assets, like parklands, schools, hospitals, municipal services, and even police and fire protection to private enterprises which enriches the investor-class while diminishing democratic control over these assets.
I could make a longer list and welcome other examples… but the direction we are heading is clear. And here’s the problem I face as one individual who tries to spend as little time as possible indoors and as much time as possible in nature: there are too many fronts to fight against. For the past fifteen years I mostly argued against the “reform” movement in public education on this blog. I was distressed that President Obama was unable to enact the kind of agenda he envisioned when he was running for office, that he failed to hold the banks accountable for their role in the mortgage debacle, that he relied too much on drones to fight against terrorism, and that he failed to act quickly enough on Keystone XL and DAPL. But despite his shortcomings, I was confident he valued and respected democracy and was trying to find some kind of peaceful settlement to conflicts in the world. Now, with norms facing by the wayside daily and democracy being challenged at all levels of government it is easy to be overwhelmed.
In the end, though, facts are facts and solving complicated problems requires time, patience, and a grounding in reality. The only way to make the solution to problems easy is to simply them: to reduce them to binary choices. I cannot allow complicated problems to be simplified by changing the facts that underly them. To do so would be the end of democracy.
I was about to write a post titled “Trumplandia: When Facts Are Immaterial Easy Solutions to Complicated Problems are Unchallenged” when I cam upon this Common Dreams post which suggests that the elimination of a fact-based debate is part of a plan to impose order on the chaos that inevitably follows when arguments are unmoored from factual reality. The ultimate endgame of this tsunami of disorder that results from the planned deregulation of everything is the imposition of an order that benefits the rich and squelches protest from “the elites”.
There has been a lot of analysis suggesting that the executive-level politics we’re seeing play out right now are about incompetence or irrationality. The psychology of the President himself has been called into question, with bizarre public performances and blatant falsities being propagated, mirroring that of others in the Administration.
A maddening article by Kevin Carey in the Upshot section of the NYTimes breathlessly wrote:
“But even as school choice is poised to go national, a wave of NEW research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them. The results are startling — the worst in the history of the field, researchers say.”
Which prompted me to write the following comment:
Wait just a minute! The “NEW” research you cite was readily available BEFORE the election… which leads to the question of why it wan’t used by the Democratic party. The answer: BOTH parties have embraced the notion that the free market can solve the problem of “failing schools”, in part because both parties have received generous donations from those who stand to profit if such schools are put in place. Thus they overlook the research that shows “the best charters tend to be nonprofit public schools, open to all and accountable to public authorities. The less “private” that school choice programs are, the better they seem to work.”
From my perspective both the NYTimes editors and staffers like Kevin Carey are complicit in the forthcoming voucher debacle. Why? Because this “new research” was in plain sight in 2015 and 2016 when it was released and they effectively squelched reports on it because it was contrary to their narrative that deregulated charter schools were the solution to the “failing” public schools. By ignoring research on public education because it contradicts their narrative, the NYTimes is behaving the same was as the petroleum industry who ignore proof that their products are not damaging our environment.