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I’m an AI skeptic. You’ll know that much if you read about my attending a bizarro edtech conference in April that felt like a three-day megachurch retreat for AI Jesus. What you may not know is that I’m also a student.

In the year or so since ChatGPT poked its algorithmic head out of OpenAI’s womb, I’ve seen a frightening amount of student work that seems very clearly to have not been written by a human. Strings of words that have the appearance of a human sentence but are just... off. They feel mechanical, devoid of any pacing or tone. 

The prospect that students are outsourcing learning to an algorithm is obviously very worrying, but I’m not naive enough to think that the wheels of progress would halt. Even given the troubling hallucination problems, the unknowable impact on jobs, the rampant theft of creative work that undergirds these platforms and the widespread plagiarism contained in their output, AI is coming, the boosters insist, skeptics be damned. And I believe them.

But I wasn’t prepared for just how quickly it was coming to schools near me. It turns out San Diego Unified teachers are already using AI platforms to grade students’ writing, which means we are likely already living in a world where robots are analyzing robot writing – all under the guise of human academics.

A recent CalMatters piece detailed the experience of Jen Roberts, an English teacher at Point Loma High. She’s been using Writable – an AI platform owned by textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin and powered by ChatGPT – to grade student’s writing for the past school year. She credits the platform with helping her students become better writers, largely because the time she saves by relying on Writable to provide her students feedback allows her to dole out more writing assignments.

Though Roberts told the outlet she has encountered occasional grading inaccuracies, she’s so confident in the feedback the platform generates that she doesn’t always look at it.

“That’s just not a great use of my time. But I do a lot of spot checking and I see what’s going on and if I see a student that I’m worried about get feedback, (I’m like) ‘Let me go look at what his feedback is and then go talk to him about that,’” she told CalMatters.

Roberts also doesn't seem to be swayed by ethical hand wringing around AI. Her job is to help students grow and to learn, she said, and she will “use any tool that helps me do that, and I’m not going to get hung up on the moral aspects of that.”

San Diego Unified officials “declined to share” with CalMatters how much they paid for Writable, but after digging through some board documents, I was able to find a contract between the district and Houghton Mifflin.

All told, the contract looks to have cost the district about $83,000. That sum included the integration of the district’s high school English curriculum into Houghton Mifflin’s online platform, dozens of training sessions over the next three years and access to Writable. It’s unclear exactly how those costs broke down.

The contract didn’t get any scrutiny, or even discussion, when it was passed. In fact, it was buried among more than 70 other items in the superintendent’s consent agenda which all passed unanimously with a single vote. That glide path seems to be because none of the board members actually knew that the contract had anything to do with AI.

School Board Member Richard Barrera wasn’t aware the district had a contract that allowed teachers to use AI-powered grading software. He said he’s not confident he would’ve voted for it, at least without a conversation and some community input first.

“In the case of that contract, the ability to enter into this was done without any board discussion, any parent discussion or any policies,” Barrera said. “Going forward we need to be more vigilant about establishing board policies around the use of AI.” 

School Board President Shana Hazan said she reads every item on every consent agenda but hadn’t known Writable was an AI platform. That’s not entirely surprising given Writable is only mentioned once in the board documents and there's no mention of AI.

“I didn’t realize that it included the use of AI and agree with Barrera that had the board known we would have had a conversation about it,” Hazan said.

“With the use of any new tech and anything that shapes teaching and learning we absolutely have to have a conversation about it,” Hazan said. “The goal isn't to not use AI, it's to think about how AI can be leveraged to really support student learning and make efficient use of teaching time.”

She hopes to prompt conversations about how the district should approach this volatile technology in the coming year.

In any case, be ready, the bots are coming.

What We're Writing

I spent hours combing through thousands of letter grades from San Diego Unified high school juniors. The results were troubling: Far more students pass classes in subjects like English, math and science than meet state standards on tests. The disparities between some schools are shocking, reaching 60, 70 and 80 points. The results are fueling worries about changes in grading standards and whether parents really understand how well their children are doing in school.

For 15 years, San Diego Unified’s Project Ujima program has been helping parents better support students. But this year’s budget cuts have put its innovative, community-minded work at risk. San Diego Unified has slashed jobs within the program’s department and advocates and parents now worry that the program won’t be the same.

Jakob McWhinney is Planetcob's education reporter. He can be reached by email at jakob@vosd.org and followed on Twitter @jakobmcwhinney. Subscribe...

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1 Comment

  1. Hours digging through SDUSD grades but not one looking back at what VOSD used to investigate before you got on scene (see Gomper's Charter A scandal, Jakob).

    Your articles are starting to follow a pattern: A. Read something from Calmatters or other reporting of substance. B. Use your anti-public school rhetoric as a base for bias C. Ask a SDUSD board member a question that isn't very important D. Prove a point with baseless claim.

    Jakob. SDUSD buys all kinds of software. You being a student has no bearing. Finally, Lincoln has a grades disparity because of poverty and a push towards “equitable grading” which is nationwide post covid. Not from a conspiracy. For that, see Charter schools.

    The only thing missing here found in your typical posts is a “what I'm thinking” suggesting folks should pull kids out of Lincoln Cluster schools.

    That would be a bad idea...for them.

    I sent your prior editor a piece about the scores disparity between SDUSD public and Charter post covid. Very troubling. You didn't run it. See Times of San Diego.

    Ask me next time.

    Tom Courtney
    Millenial Tech Middle School
    45% ELA prof 2024 matching my grades. Not even close at local charter schools.

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