PBE Testimony from May 11th

Yesterday, after listening for three hours as people testified about the merits of fixing different aspects of the Proficiency Based Diploma mandate, I finally got my chance to testify neither for nor against the bills that were presented.

It wasn’t particularly well-received by several members of the committee and some people in the room.  I believe representatives from Educate Maine and Great Schools were present.

Senator Langley tried to cut me off right around the part where I mentioned the 13 million dollars in grants from Nellie Mae that have gone to organizations in our state.  Maybe I was already at 4 minutes at that point, I don’t know, but I couldn’t help myself – when he asked me to stop speaking, I kept going.  Part of me feels guilty for being rude…part of me doesn’t.

I’ll post what I said below, and I also encourage anyone else that might like to share their testimony or anything else you may have written to send it along and I will post it!


Senator Langley, Representative Kornfield, and other members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs:

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston and I live in Auburn.

I have taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I am now in my third year teaching at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston. I also have two masters degrees – one in Urban Education, and one in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. In addition to teaching, I have worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

Several weeks ago, during my testimony in favor of LD 1153, I explained that I approach all inquiry related to educational practice and policy with two questions in mind: is this what’s best for our kids, and how do we know? To this end, for the past few weeks, I have worked diligently to understand what proficiency-based education is, where it came from, and why our state decided to mandate that we institute this concept statewide.

Here is a brief outline of what I have learned.

In 2010 – only five years ago – the Gates Foundation approached the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, a nonprofit born out of a multi-billion dollar sale to student loan corporation, Sallie Mae, in 2000, to help them develop the idea of “proficiency-based pathways.” A document from the Gates Foundation highlights their interest in promoting this concept by writing that with “the convergence of the Common Core State Standards … the development of new data systems, and the rapid growth of technology-enabled learning experiences…conditions are ripe for creating personalized learning opportunities beyond school—in an anytime, anywhere fashion.”

That same year, the Foundation for Excellence In Education convened the “Digital Learning Council,” which consisted of stakeholders across the education industry, including legislators, online providers, technology companies, and content providers, where they developed a set of “10 elements of High Quality Digital Learning.” One of these elements is called “Advancement,” whose metrics require that “all students must demonstrate mastery on standards-based competencies to earn credit for a course and to advance to the succeeding course.“ These 10 elements are the same elements discussed in a 2012 executive order given by Governor LePage in 2012. They are also the same elements used in a report card of state education systems produced by the American Legislative Exchange Council, where LD 1422 is listed as model legislation.

Shortly after Gates and Nellie Mae formed their partnership, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation awarded grants to a variety of high schools in New England that the foundation claimed were employing “competency-based models” in order to develop a report that they called an act of “research and development.” Meanwhile, they began awarding millions of dollars – thirteen million to date – of grant money to newly formed organizations in our state, including Educate Maine, the Great Schools Partnership, and the Reinventing Schools Coalition, to promote “State-Level Systems Change” and “Public Understanding and Demand.”

In 2012, only two years after the Gates Foundation first approached the Nellie Mae Foundation to begin developing this concept of proficiency-based learning, the state of Maine mandated that all high schools in our state award proficiency-based diplomas.

Why would Maine have taken such a risk by mandating a theory of learning that only two years ago was called nascent and emerging by the very investors who have developed this concept? Why have we been so eager to bring digital learning to our state, when there is no evidence that this form of learning is best for our children? And why are we allowing out-of-state organizations like the Foundation for Excellence in Education and the American Legislative Exchange Council dictate our state education policy?

Please – do not be fooled by their very expensive advertising campaigns. While studying the very short history of Proficiency Based Education, I read time and again that we need digital, personalized learning because for too long, teachers have been employing a “one-size-fits-all-model” in their classrooms. Come to our classrooms at Montello – “traditional” classrooms – and watch as we move from whole group lessons to small group activities to one-on-one conferences within our lessons. Watch how we tailor our instruction to meet the individual needs of students who speak no English, students who have suffered trauma and abuse, students who are hungry for healthy human relationships with caring adults.

I think if you look closely, you will see what real “personalized” learning looks like. You might even begin to reconsider whether or not we need our state education policy to be dictated by the “10 elements” developed behind closed doors by technology companies and content providers. Maybe you would even realize that rather than working tirelessly to fix this broken mandate, we ought to take several steps backwards and reconsider why we chose to travel down this road in the first place. My hope is that you would begin to see what a tremendous mistake we have in fact made, and that the only way forward is to move off the very risky path we are now traveling down.

Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

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