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:

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 3.49.26 PM

(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 –

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 3.56.06 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 4.03.40 PM

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:

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 3.41.52 PM

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…

. f73c87f184735cc41dbc4f8310f2c0033d5e6d1c1aee49dab8b00caec4d975ed

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.

26 thoughts on “ESEA Rewrites: A Tsunami of Next-Gen Ed Reforms?”

  1. Good blog. I particularly like your ending that you have skin in the game. I didn’t look at the pic you posted of your classroom. Make sure you have the parents’ permission before you post pics of their kids. Like I said, I didn’t look at what you posted – just saying.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Careful following NH:
    On Tue, Jun 2, 2015 at 4:20 PM, Ann Marie Banfield wrote:

    I wanted to follow up with you regarding the e-mail I had sent a short time ago. I did not receive a reply. I wasn’t sure if you had sent one and I missed it or if you did not receive the e-mail?

    It’s my understanding that the conference on Competency Based Ed. was well attended. I was wondering if any critical analysis on CBE was presented. For instance, were you able to present the letter from Heidi Sampson, a State Board of Ed. Member in Maine? She sent a critical analysis on CBE to all of the NH State Reps/Senators.

    If the NH DoE is serious about promoting critical thinking to students, would you agree that presenting a critical analysis on CBE should then also be a priority? This would allow the attendees to then see a different viewpoint.

    As I asked below: How long now has CBE been in the NH schools and do you have any data on the achievement levels per the standardized assessments?

    Ann Marie Banfield
    Education Liaison, Cornerstone Action
    Ann Marie,

    The purpose of the meeting was to provide an opportunity for students and educators to share their experiences with competency education. They provided the successes and challenges they’ve experienced.

    As you know, we are a locally governed state. We would not have any documentation on how long schools have individually used a competency-based education model.

    The results of the achievement levels for the state’s standardized assessments are on our website under each school/district.


    Heather Gage, Chief of Staff
    Division of Educational Improvement, Director
    101 Pleasant Street
    Concord, NH 03301-3494


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: