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”:

Screen shot 2015-07-18 at 8.02.30 AM

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

Screen shot 2015-07-18 at 8.10.31 AM

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?

Screen shot 2015-07-18 at 8.11.54 AM

Is it ever about the kids??


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.

9 thoughts on “Big (BIG!) Money Behind ESEA Rewrites”

  1. Dear Ms. Talmage,

    I read your post about the ESEA reauthorization with great interest. Thank you for pointing out the potential financial motives behind education policies and defending the interests of all children against potential damages.

    However, your characterization of my views and myself in the post is inaccurate.

    First, my view of personalized learning is not the one you criticize in the post. There are different interpretations of personalized learning. The version of personalized learning I support in the Department of Education’s Ed Tech plan is not the Skinnerian approach you point out: “students progress at their own pace, moving from one lesson to the next when they have proven “mastery.””

    I myself have criticized such views and a blind faith in big-data driven Skinnerian approach toward education. For example, last year at the COSN conference, I questioned the value and promises of personalized digital learning driven by big data in a debate with Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia and now president of The Alliance for Excellent Education (, a DC-based non-profit organization that seems to the advocate of the type of technology in education you criticize (see its policy recommendations here: Some of the points made during the debate are summarized here:

    I have also written about my views of education and personalized learning in various places, none would come close to the one you criticize. If you are interested, I just posted an excerpt of a chapter I wrote in a new book concerning personalized learning (the post is here: You can also found my views of personalized learning and student autonomy in my 2012 book World Class Learners. The essence of my view of personalized learning is to enable each and every child to pursue education opportunities that enhance their strengths and support their passion. I don’t believe the idea of a one-size-fits all curriculum and approach.

    Second, I am not the head an online learning company. Oba is not an online learning company. It is not even a company. It is the name of an online collaborative learning platform. It is designed to support learning communities organized by students and teachers. It does not deliver curriculum or instruction to students. Teachers and students use it to create lessons and collaborate with each other. It is an initiative within the University of Oregon. One version of it is completely free and the other version charges a very minimal fee of one dollar per student per year, which is much less than most commercial learning systems schools pay for. More important, I have no financial interest in Oba.

    Third, my praising for China’s moving away from standardized testing is not to promote the version of personalized learning you criticize. It is to show how harmful standardized testing is and that a country that has long practiced the approach is moving away from it.

    Fourth, my “touting” of ePals is specific about its work and intention to provide online learning communities across different countries to promote student-student understanding and mutual learning, not about it as an “online learning company.” The comment was made several years ago when it was about launch an effort for Chinese-English language learning. I do not know what the company does now. I never had any financial relationship with ePals.

    Again, thank you for standing up for children. I hope this message helps clarify my stance on personalized learning.


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