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:


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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