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Ivanka Trump penned an op-ed in The New York Post last week, arguing “Why we need to start teaching tech in Kindergarten.” The answer, of course, is “jobs.” There’s just not enough skills training for five-year-olds, apparently.

There are quite a few ed-tech startups that offer products to teach coding to preschoolers and kindergartners specifically. The list includes Kibo, Kodable, Scratch Jr., Tynker, Osmo, and Primo.

And there’s been quite a bit of credulous press as well that computer science for tots should be mandatory – “to prepare preschoolers for an automated economy,” as The New York Times put it.

I want to put any questions of research aside for this article – that is, is learning to code “developmentally appropriate” for toddlers? And I want to put aside too questions about pedagogy and “curriculum”. What should five-year-olds be doing in school?

What I’m more interested in, here and in general, is how this narrative about “everyone needs to learn to code” started and how it spread – how it spread to this White House (particularly since this White House seems to want undo most of its predecessor’s agenda, of which promoting education technology was a very big deal).

I’d like to use Ivanka Trump’s announcement to look a bit more closely at what her “ed-tech industry network” looks like. That is, what has she invested in? What are the relationships between and among her investments, other investments, and their companies and products? What, if anything, can we glean by looking at this network, not just in light of this White House initiative that kindergartners learn programming but more generally in light of Ivanka Trump’s announcement she plans to make education technology a focus of her “White House portfolio.”

Crunchbase, a company that tracks startup funding, only lists one investment by Ivanka Trump: in a company called Twigtale. The formal disclosure paperwork she had to file with the federal government is much more extensive – although perhaps not complete. Twigtale doesn’t seem to be mentioned in it. Although they’ve divested, Trump and her husband Jared Kushner were also investors in Thrive Capital, a venture firm run by Kushner’s brother Joshua. (Among the startups in Thrive Capital’s portfolio: Codecademy and The Flatiron School, two learn-to-code companies.)

Twigtale is a “personalized storytelling” company that, according to its website, makes books that address “common childhood challenges, family changes, identity, love, separation anxiety and grief.” It was co-founded by Carrie Southworth, an actress whose roles include General Hospital: Night Shift, a primetime version of the daytime soap opera.

Southworth is part of powerful network: she is married to Collister “Coddy” Johnson. Johnson is the godson of President George W. Bush – Johnson’s father was roommates with Bush at Yale and Johnson worked in the GWB administration. Southworth’s younger sister Lucinda is married to Google’s co-founder Larry Page. Page also invested in Twigtale, as did Anne Wojcicki, who at the time of the seed funding round in 2011, was married to Google’s other co-founder Sergei Brin. Another notable investor: Wendi Murdoch (or now that’s she’s divorced from conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch, Wendi Deng) – reportedly a close friends of Ivanka Trump’s.

“Coddy” Johnson, a former executive at the video game company Activision, was hired in April of last year to be the COO of AltSchool, a K–12 private school founded by a former Google executive. But Johnson was back at Activision one year later – Bloomberg reported in May that he was “granted $15 million in stock options and performance-linked restricted shares that vest over four years, as well as a $2.2 million ‘contract inducement’ to come back.”

Most venture capitalist firms now have some learn-to-code company in their portfolio; and many, many technology firms have given financial support to Code.org, an organization that promotes computer science education. (You can find some of the datasets where I am tracking this information at data.hackeducation.com. And from last year: “Who’s Funding Learn-to-Code Startups?”) The mantra “everyone should learn to code” has been repeated (along with a variety of very questionable statistics about skills shortages and job prospects) by Code.org, coding startups, and others. This mantra is central to their push to reshape curriculum to suit their own industry needs. “Our nation’s schools and workforce-training programs need to align the skills they teach with the jobs that define the modern economy,” Trump writes. “A cornerstone of our administration’s approach is the integration of coding and computer science into the fabric of not just what we teach, but how we teach.”

The cornerstone of this approach is, in fact, the products and ideologies that investors like Trump and her friends (her network) are quite keen to promote.

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Audrey Watters


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