Guinea Pigs?

In recent blog posts, I have pointed out that both versions of the ESEA rewrites contain language that is meant to encourage a shift toward the next frontier of education reform: personalized, competency/proficiency-based education made possible by an expansion of digital and online media.

Like most reforms we have grown accustomed to, corporate profit  plays a major role in this push, and all the usual players – including the Gates Foundation, Pearson, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – have been busy laying the groundwork for this change.

Given the rapid and radical shift happening across the country, which will almost surely accelerate if the reauthorization of ESEA retains its current language, many of us are asking what evidence exists to support such a change.

The answer? Virtually none.

Here is what Thomas Rooney, superintendent of Lindsay Unified School District, says in an article on the CompetencyWorks website:

“I have received three requests over the past week asking for evidence of success from competency education models.  The truth of the matter is that we are not swimming in proof points. And it is very, very important for our continued work to advance competency education that we generate them.”

Agenda first.  Then we’ll find the proof.

Led by iNACOL – whose Board of Directors  includes Tom Vander Ark, Gates Foundation’s former Executive Director of Education, Nicholas Donohue, CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, and newly appointed Chief Learning Officer of KnowledgeWorks, Virgel Hammonds – CompetencyWorks has established itself as clearing house of information on competency-based education. The vast majority of its “resources” are self-referential, drawing on documents developed by its member organizations.

Rooney, whose district has been in the midst of an attempt to generate “proof points’ through its work with the Reinventing Schools Coalition, is not alone in his admission of the lack of evidence to support this change. The Gates Foundation, in their 2010 report “Supporting Students,” refers to “proficiency-based education” (“proficiency” being their preferred term for K-12 education, with “competency” reserved for discussions of higher education) as “a nascent field” and says:

This field is still emerging. We do not yet have a common language, rigorous evaluation process, or literature base. The field does not have consistent metrics for delivering quality outcomes online. Our investments will support the field and establish indicators for mastering skills and knowledge.

True to their word, the Gates Foundation has funded experiments in districts across the country (including Rooney’s) to “support the field” – including districts here in Maine, by way of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and the Reinventing Schools Coalition, and in remote parts of Alaska.

The U.S. Department of Education has also been busy looking for research to support digital and online learning policies, and Rooney tries – in vain – to reference their work.

“Given that many competency-based models use online or blended learning as well, it’s important to note that the U.S. Department of Education study of online learning, ‘Evaluation of Evidence-based Practice in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies’ (2009)found: ‘Overall, […] students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.’”

Unfortunately for Rooney, a closer look shows that the vast majority of studies referenced in this meta-analysis refer only to higher education, and that similar conclusions cannot be drawn about online/blended learning in K-12.

Despite this dearth of research – or perhaps because of it –  both versions of the ESEA rewrites encourage the proliferation of “proof points” to support the competency/proficiency-based agenda through grants for participation in digital and blended learning projects and the development of “assessment systems” that are aligned to “competency-based” models.

Which means that our children will be participating in research happening in real-time, in their classrooms, without our consent.

Kinda like these guys:


ESEA Rewrites: A Tsunami of Next-Gen Ed Reforms?

images While those of us in the trenches have done our best to grin and bear a decade of failed NCLB and Race to the Top mandates, those at the top have steadily laid the groundwork for the next wave of reforms.

Here’s a glimpse at what’s been going on behind the scenes:

In August of 2010, Governors Jeb Bush and Bob Wise convened a “Digital Learning Council” – a group of high powered stakeholders across the education industry with representatives from technology companies, online content providers, foundations, the U.S. Department of Education, and a handful of legislators.

Click here to see the full list of those who were present.

(For those who read my previous blog post, take note of the presence of Dr. Milton Chen  of Edutopia, who serves as a “Global Consultant” on Yong Zhao’s “Global and Online Education” at the University of Oregon. Zhao, in his comment on my previous blog post, insists that his view of “personalized learning” is in no way related to the version being pushed by the same members of this council. The jury is still out for me.)

That fall, the Council released its “10 Elements of High-Quality Digital Learning,” which were quickly adopted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)  and integrated into its annual report card on state education policies.

Among these 10 elements are “personalization” and “advancement based on mastery” – key features of the competency/proficiency-based system of learning that is rapidly and quietly sweeping our nation.  See below to get a sense of where your state stands in this conversion process:

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(If these terms aren’t familiar to you, please check out one of my earlier posts for a more thorough explanation. The key idea is that grade levels disappear, and students advance from one lesson to the next upon mastery of pre-determined outcomes. As I’ve written previously, at its core, it is based on behaviorist theories of B.F. Skinner.)

Despite the fact that there is no correlation between a state’s digital learning policies and the academic performance of its children – top-ranked Massachusetts gets an “F” from ALEC for its digital learning policies –

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ALEC now includes states adoption of the 10 elements in its yearly assessment of states education policies.

Meanwhile, the Gates Foundation, in collaboration with organizations like the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and the Reinventing Schools Coalition, began pouring millions into digital learning projects, including a variety of “proficiency-based” (see “Advancement” in the 10 elements) experiments.

(Please read this post  to learn how PBL came to Maine for a more complete picture of the Gate’s Foundation role in advancing the 10 Elements here in Maine.)

It shouldn’t be any surprise, of course, why technology companies and online content providers would have an interest in pushing digital learning policies. Take a look at some of the market research reports from Ambient Insight, whose client lists includes all the big players in the field of educational technology, and you’ll get a sense of just how much money is at stake for these companies. It’s astronomical.

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Now flash forward four and a half years to March of 2015. This spring, the Partnership for 21st Century Learning – a spin-off of America’s Promise Alliance, which helped sponsor the Common Core State Standards initiative, and coalition of 30 member organizations  (including many of those represented on the Digital Learning Council) – hosted a “Summit on 21st Century Learning.”

The summit, sponsored in part by Pearson, Disney, the AFT, and the NEA, featured workshops and presentations  titled: “A New Age in Accountability: Performance Assessment for Competency Education – The New Hampshire Model,” “Blended Learning +Personalized Pathways = Competency- Based Education (P21 Partner State: Iowa),” and “A Transformational Vision of the Future of Learning: A Strange Bedfellow Collaboration.”  

Look closely and you will see that the ideas presented in these workshops – which place a special emphasis on personalized, competency/proficiency-based and blended learning – mirror the 10 Elements of Digital Learning.

This time, however, it isn’t just ALEC and the members of Jeb Bush’s select council pushing these policies. Take a look at this slide from the presentation:A Transformational Vision of the Future of Learning: A Strange Bedfellow Collaboration: Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 4.17.10 PM

and you’ll see that the two major teacher’s unions, the NEA and AFT, have joined forces with Nellie Mae, Microsoft, KnowledgeWorks, and a variety of other organizations to push the new “learner-centered” (read: digital) paradigm of the future.

(As a side note, this slide, which they used to show the “old paradigm” of teaching, really bugged me:

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My classroom doesn’t look like that, does yours? Here’s a picture of my classroom, as proof: my class

Anyway – this February, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills also sent a letter to Congress, endorsing the “Schools of the Future” amendment to H.R.5.

This amendment awards grants to schools to be used for: (A) Technology-based personalized instructional systems. (B) Adaptive software, games, or tools, that can be used to personalize learning. (C) Computer-based tutoring courses to help struggling students. (D) Games, digital tools, and smartphone or tablet applications to improve students’ engagement, focus, and time on task. (E) Other tools and courses designed to personalize the learning experience.

I’ve written previously about other places within each of the ESEA rewrites where a similar agenda can be found.

Now, please don’t get me wrong – I am not categorically opposed to the use of technology in classrooms. At the right times, in the right doses, it can certain be useful. (This article in the New York Times has a nice discussion of the pros and cons of technology use in the classroom.)

What I am opposed to, however, is legislation that is designed to benefit technology companies and content providers, when research not yet proven that it is equally beneficial for our children.

I am opposed to legislation that will open the door for technology companies to deliver products that train our children rather than teach through rewards-based, Skinnerian methods.

I am opposed to legislation that has the potential to benefit giant tech corporations, while sucking our local budgets dry.

And I am opposed to legislation that has largely been crafted behind closed doors by members of select “councils” and political organizations, who then quietly slip such legislation into our states.

I am a teacher and a mother.  I’ve got a lot of skin in this game.  So, I would really like to have a say in the next generation of “reforms” that are coming our way. Unfortunately, unless something changes fast…

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Big (BIG!) Money Behind ESEA Rewrites

In March of 2010, Yong Zhao, author, professor, and director of the Institute for Global and Online Education at the University of Oregon, praised the National Educational Technology Plan released by the US Department of Education by saying:

“’Personalized learning instead of a one-size-fits-all curriculum, pace of teaching, and instructional practices.’ What a vision! The group that worked for the plan must be congratulated for what they have done and the Department praised for releasing the report…I hope the recommendations of this plan will be taken seriously by the Department. Moreover I hope the same philosophy will be driving the reauthorization of the ESEA (now under the name of NCLB).”

Zhao, who has been celebrated by many (including Diane Ravitch),  for his anti-standardized testing rhetoric and warnings that we are moving toward an authoritarian, Chinese-style system of education, must be very pleased with much of the language found in both versions of the ESEA rewrites.

“Personalized learning” is without a doubt the next frontier of educational reform – not only in the US, but around the world. There is a great deal of confusion surrounding what personalized education really is, but when stripped of the rhetoric that usually accompanies it, the concept is quite simple: students progress at their own pace, moving from one lesson to the next when they have proven “mastery.”  At its core, it is a theory of learning based on behaviorist theories of B.F. Skinner.  Many other terms, such as “blended learning,” “competency-based education,” “proficiency-based education,” “mastery learning,” “self-paced learning,” and  “customized learning,” are in fact manifestations of this same theory of learning.

Despite the fact that a 2006 meta-analysis from the US DOE found no studies contrasting K–12 online learning with face-to-face instruction that met methodological quality criteria,and thus no evidence that it is best for our kids, technology and online learning companies have seized upon this concept, and for good reason: wide-scale “personalized learning” is only possible if we have their products in hand.

Ambient Research, a market research firm whose client list includes all the big players in educational technology, including Microsoft, Apple, Pearson, K-12 Inc, and McGraw Hill, uses this graph to show the massive investments that are being made toward “learning technology suppliers”:

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and this graphic to illustrate the massive boom in the global adoption of learning technology:

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Check out the circle at about 11 o’clock – “Education Policies Mandating Online Learning” – and now read this section H.R. 5, the House version of the ESEA rewrite:

From the amount of funds a State educational agency reserves under subsection (c)(3) for each fiscal year to carry out this paragraph, the State educational agency shall award grants on a competitive basis to eligible entities in the State to carry out blended learning projects described in this paragraph.

 The term ‘blended learning project’ means a formal education program that includes an element of online learning, and instructional time in a supervised location away from home, that includes an element of student control over time, path, or pace; and in which the elements are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.

Grants can be used for:

Planning activities, which may include development of new instructional models (including blended learning technology software and platforms), the purchase of digital instructional resources, initial professional development activities, and one-time information technology purchases, except that such expenditures may not include expenditures related to significant construction or renovation of facilities.

According to this report from Ambient Research, over 25 states initiated high-profile legislative efforts relating to PreK-12 online learning in 2011 alone.

Other states, like Maine, have implemented legislation that is less direct but equally targeted toward an expansion of digital and online learning.

If you are curious as to how your state ranks according to its online and digital learning legislation, you can check out your state’s report card issued by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which crafts much of the legislation we find in our states:

The Senate version of the ESEA is also less direct in its push toward personalized/digital learning, but it is there nonetheless in the opportunities it offers states to develop assessment systems based on “competency-based” models of learning.

Is it any wonder, then, that Zhao, who despite his inspiring anti-standardized testing rhetoric is head of an online learning company called “Oba” and is leading the global push toward “personalized” learning, would hope to find such legislation in the ESEA rewrites and our state policies?

Is it any wonder that he is praising China for their move away from standardized testing toward personalized learning, and touting an online learning company called ePALs, which – according to Ambient Research – is leading the globe in investments?

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Is it ever about the kids??


Senate ESEA Reauthorization Points to What’s Next in Testing

Here in Maine, where SBAC was recently dumped, many of us have been wondering what’s next on the horizon for testing.

In recent posts, I’ve suggested that despite losing SBAC, we may not, in fact, be out of the woods, and that an even more all-encompassing testing scheme may be on the way.

These “next generation” tests, as they have been called by members of the Senate HELP committee and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, will be based on the radical transformation of our schools into “competency” or “proficiency” based models of education. This transformation has already begun in Maine, New Hampshire and a variety of other districts across the country.

This model restructures school as we know it, by doing away with “seat time” (time spent in class) and breaking all learning down into a sequence of measurable skills that students must “master” before moving on to the next skill.  Only when you prove that you are “competent”  or “proficient” at all skills in the sequence – regardless  of whether you are 14 or 21-  may you graduate.

If this idea doesn’t make you nervous, perhaps  this quote from an article published in The Washington Post in 1977 about competency-based education will raise some eyebrows:

Guines said the new curriculum is based on the work in behavorial psychology of Harvard University’s B. F. Skinner, who developed teaching machines and even trained pigeons during World War II to carry bombs and detonate them.

The basic idea, Guines said, is to break down complicated learning into a sequence of clear simple skills that virtually everyone can master, although at different rates of speed.

“If you can train a pigeon to fly up there and press a button and set off a bomb,” Guines remarked, “why can’t you teach human beings to behave in an effective and rational way? We know we can modify human behavior. We’re not scared of that. This is the biggest thing that’s happening in education today.

Indeed, competency/proficiency based education has been tried and rejected many times throughout the last century, but due to heavy investments and strategic grant-making of a variety of large foundations, including Gates, Lumina, Nellie Mae, and KnowledgeWorks foundations, endorsements from Arne Duncan and members of the Senate HELP committee, and carefully crafted model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council (and the giant corporations it represents), CBE/PBE is now making a rapid comeback.

Please read this previous post for a more comprehensive explanation of who is behind the push for CBE/PBE, and why. (Hint: digital learning and the big profits behind it play a leading role.)

Perhaps because they realized such phrases make parents and teachers bristle, those pushing this idea, and the PR firms they hire, are now careful not to make overt references to behaviorism and animal training; look carefully, however, and you will see that the concept remains the same.

And now,  thanks to the collaboration of KnowledgeWorks and policy makers , if the Senate’s version of the reauthorization of the ESEA remains intact, states like Maine will be free to implement a comprehensive assessment system based on this model. (See here for the specific recommendations  that KnowledgeWorks made to Congress.)

According to the Every Child Achieves Act, States may now design their own “assessment system” that uses “performance-based academic assessments of all students that may be used in a competency-based education model that emphasizes mastery of standards and aligned competencies” and “multiple statewide assessments during the course of the year that can provide a summative score of individual student academic growth.”   (See here for the full text of the Senate version of ESEA, and scroll down to page 23 and 24 to read the text about new “assessment systems”.)

This sounds like something the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) is already prepared to offer us.

So, what can we expect our classrooms to look like if these next generation assessments replace “the big test” (as many “behind the scenes” have been hoping for some time) that we have now?

Probably something like this:


I wonder what the author of this recent New York Times article about screen addiction in children would have to say about this plan?

Was SBAC Meant to Flop?

Okay, I know I sound like a conspiracy theorist, but hear me out.

First, take one more look at that Michael Horn quote from a 2012 issue of Forbes which I’ve referenced in earlier blog posts:

“The behind-the-scenes buzz on Common Core touched on everything from how different the assessments really will be from what some states have today to whether Common Core will doom testing and the accountability movement more generally because of the length of the assessments to whether governors will stick with Common Core once the first year of assessment results come out and people see how students perform poorly on them.”

It’s pretty clear, isn’t it, that people “behind-the-scenes” knew well ahead of time that the new tests would be problematic?  Far enough ahead of time that you’d think they would have been able to make adjustments so that they weren’t quite so long, or quite so developmentally inappropriate?

Now, take another look at his alternative, while keeping in mind that this just so happens to match an idea that the Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation began pouring millions of dollars into that same year:

“If there were instead systems of assessments in a competency-based learning system built for students to take an assessment on-demand when they were ready to demonstrate mastery on specific competencies, we would see a different picture develop with assessments that left no doubt that they were different.”

And now, notice that this is exactly what Senator Angus King and five other senators suggested in a recent letter to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee:

“Promote Next Generation Assessments: Many states are experimenting with new assessment systems that are tied to competency-based learning models. These tests are rigorous and designed to provide timely information to students, educators, and parents about the individual needs of learners. We encourage the Committee to provide a more clearly-defined and timely application process for states to pilot dynamic assessment systems.”

This spring, Senator King was busy talking with teachers in Maine about their concerns with the current testing system. I was encouraged, at the time, that he wanted to know what teachers thought, and even sent him a letter of my own.

But ….  something now tells me that he and his fellow senators didn’t just happen to come up with the same competency-based assessment system idea that Horn was talking about back in 2012.  In fact, here is what King said after his visit to Maine schools this spring:

“Just yesterday I visited several schools in the state – including Portland’s Casco Bay High School and Freeport Middle School. Both schools are leaders in Maine’s transition to a student-centered, proficiency-based learning model…. To fully realize the potential of this new education model, Maine and other states will need flexibility from the federal government – particularly in relation to federal testing requirements. This is why I hope to work with you to provide states like Maine with relief from federally-mandated annual summative assessments, provided these states can demonstrate – through a clearly-defined, timely process – that they have developed robust state and local assessments aligned to similarly high standards.

So, Senator King came to Maine in the midst of the testing brouhaha to sit down with teachers and “listen” to their concerns, but then immediately began pushing a plan that has clearly been in the works since at least 2012?

Maybe SBAC wasn’t meant to flop, but I’m quite sure that there are many “behind-the-scenes” who are happy that it did! Make way for “Next Generation Assessments”!

As for me?  A real-life teacher, that works in a real public school, with real children?

You can read my earlier posts to get a sense of how I feel about this new “next generation” testing plan.  Or check out this quote below, written in The Washington Post in 1977, which pretty clearly sums up what competency/proficiency-based education is really all about:

“The materials will be standardized, the lessons will be standardized,” Guines said. “We’re taking the play out. We’re taking the guesswork out. We’re putting in a precise predicted treatment that leads to a predicted response.”

Guines said the new curriculum is based on the work in behavorial psychology of Harvard University’s B. F. Skinner, who developed teaching machines and even trained pigeons during World War II to carry bombs and detonate them.

The basic idea, Guines said, is to break down complicated learning into a sequence of clear simple skills that virtually everyone can master, although at different rates of speed.

“If you can train a pigeon to fly up there and press a button and set off a bomb,” Guines remarked, “why can’t you teach human beings to behave in an effective and rational way? We know we can modify human behavior. We’re not scared of that. This is the biggest thing that’s happening in education today.”