Suspicions Confirmed: Testing Action Plan is Trojan Horse

Four years ago, Tom Vander Ark (former executive at the Gates Foundation, current partner at Learn Capital) wrote in an email exchange with members of the Foundation for Excellence in Education and the Council for Chief State School Officers:

 “New tests will hinder rather than help competency-based models…In short, I don’t want one big cheap end of year test used for more than it should be…I don’t want it to lock in the teacher-centric age cohort model for another decade. I don’t want simple assessments…I want a system that will incorporate all the performance feedback that students will be receiving a few years from now.”

Mr. Vander Ark, who is also a board member of a group called Global Education Futures, which recently put out this document that calls for turning “live education” into a “premium service” and advocates for the development of “competence profile(s)…that would record current state and development of individual’s knowledge & skills across different domains of professional & social life, and would accompany individuals throughout their life,” appears to have had a hand in the “Testing Action Plan” that was released by the White House this weekend.

According to the White House document, “A set-aside of $25 million would support competitive projects to help states develop innovative, new assessment models and address pressing needs they have identified for developing and implementing their assessments. This could include competency-based assessment.

“The Administration will invite states that wish to request waivers of federal rules that stand in the way of innovative approaches to testing to work with the Department to promote high-quality, comparable, statewide measures. For example, the Department granted a temporary waiver to New Hampshire to pilot a competency-based assessment system in four districts.”

“The Department will also “establish “office hours” for any state or district that wishes to consult on how it can best reduce testing but still meet its policy objectives and requirements under the law; will engage in proactive outreach to states and districts on this topic; and will bring in experts to advise the Department, states, and districts on this work. The Department will also share tools already available to do this work, including The Council of Chief State School Officers’ Comprehensive Statewide Assessment Systems: A Framework for the Role of the State Education Agency.”

A shift to competency-based education has been in the works a least a decade, with the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Gates Foundation, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education (among others) at the helm of this shift.

The Council for Chief State School Officers has received upwards of 90 million dollars in grants from the Gates Foundation in the past 6 years, much of it for the purpose of transitioning states  to competency-based models.

The Common Core State Standards are a key piece of this transformation, as are the billions of dollars that have been invested in digital and online learning companies.

Several weeks ago, in a post called “Cashing in on Opt Out,” I wondered if investors like Vander Ark would be laughing all the way to the bank if SBAC and PARCC failed.

Pardon the absurd online photoshop job, but…looks like he’s on his way.


Let’s stop him.


We Are Being Played (So Fight On!)

I really, really hate to be a Negative Nancy.

Hopefully, in a few months time, anyone who likes will able to say, “Look, Emily, you were wrong about all this testing stuff,” and I will gladly – gladly – eat my words.

But… I think we are being played.

I think that what we heard from the White House today about limiting testing is but a bone we have been thrown as we are ushered into an era of next-gen ed reform, where testing is all formative, all the time.

For those not familiar with eduspeak, “formative” assessment refers to the tests students take on their way to the end-of-year test.  When they are crafted and analyzed thoughtfully, and made by the teacher who knows the child, they are a normal part of every day schooling.  You took formative tests when you were a kid.  They were called quizzes.

In the brave new world of next-gen ed reform, however, formative tests are corporate-designed and digital, and are part of a system of schooling called “competency-based,” (also “proficiency-based,” “mastery,” “customized,” etc.), in which students take “on-demand” tests to demonstrate mastery before being allowed to move on to the next skill in a sequence.

I’ve written about this at length on this blog.  It’s not new, and it’s a concept that’s no different than the one that lies at the heart of this quote that I’ve pulled from an article written in 1977:

“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.

As Morna McDermott writes in this blog post found on the National Education Policy Center website, the current shift to competency-based (personalized) education has been over a decade in the making.  Investors have been pouring billions into online and digital learning companies, while  policy has been carefully crafted behind the scenes to support the shift to “personalized” (digital) learning.

In this article, Tom Vander Ark (former executive at the Gates Foundation and now partner at Learn Capital which manages a giant portfolio of online and digital learning companies) spells out the shift from the big-test to many mini-tests that will be part of this transformation.

Go here  for a blog post I wrote several months ago, just after Maine pulled out of the Smarter Balanced Consortium.  As everyone celebrated, I had a deep sense of uneasiness, and was beginning to suspect that something else was already in the works.

Here is a portion from my piece below:

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.”

I hope I’m wrong.  I really do.

But I’m afraid I was probably right in this blog post I wrote a few months ago, and that the corporate reformers really will be laughing all the way to the bank.

I’ll be writing with updates as soon as they arrive.

In the meantime… fight on.



Gates Undercover


Several months ago, while conducting some much overdue research into the back-story of Common Core, I stumbled across a document from the Gates Foundation that painted such a frighteningly clear picture of next-gen ed-reform that I actually wondered for a time if perhaps I was hallucinating.

I wasn’t, and within a very short time, it became unmistakably obvious that the Common Core Standards, our new Smarter Balanced test, and Maine’s one of a kind (but not for long if they have their way, so watch out!) proficiency-based diploma mandate were all linked like pieces of a puzzle to a corporate-driven agenda to transform our schools into “personalized” (digital!) learning environments. (If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, see here  for more.)

Quite literally sick to my stomach, I emailed a union rep to ask if he knew anything about the paper I had found.

“It’s ghastly,” he replied, “but in Maine, it has been the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and the Great Schools Partnership that has been behind these policies.”

Okay.  So maybe I was mistaken. Nellie Mae sounded friendly enough. So did Great Schools. (Who doesn’t like great schools?)

Just to be sure, I went to the “Awarded Grants” section of the Gates Foundation website, and typed in the words “Nellie Mae.”

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Then I typed in Great Schools Partnership.

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And then I did this:


Then, I went to the Nellie Mae page, typed in the word “Maine,” and sure enough, there on their website was page after page of grants awarded to organizations in our state.

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Now thoroughly alarmed, I emailed a state education official, asking what he knew about our proficiency-based mandate. Where had it come from and why?

“That was passed in 2012 to strengthen our high school diplomas. Who could argue with it?  Look, here are all the people who support it,” he wrote back, with links to a handful of letters written in support of the bill.

I clicked on one, saw the Great Schools Partnership logo at the top, and then did this:


Then I clicked on another.

This one was from the Maine Teacher of the Year program. That seemed curious to me. Why were Maine’s Teachers of the Year supporting something for which there was not yet any research?

And so I looked up Maine Teacher of the Year. A group called “Educate Maine” had taken over the program in 2014.

Educate Maine? Hadn’t I just seen them on the Nellie Mae page?

Sure enough…

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And, as if it hadn’t gotten horrifying enough, I read this portion of our state legislative record, in which one senator describes a trip Educate Maine had taken them on to visit a school implementing a “proficiency-based” model.

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Now, of course, it all makes sense.

The Gates Foundation and Nellie Mae are clients of Bellwether Education, who suggest in their “Policy Playbook” setting up nonprofits to help create demand for personalized learning.

“Independent nonprofits can also serve as advocates for innovation with state policymakers, schools, and districts, working to spur demand for new models. For example, an organization might coordinate “field trips” for policymakers, principals, and civic leaders to visit schools in and outside the state that are implementing personalized learning model,” the playbook says.

Of course.

Coordinate field trips, to help convince lawmakers to vote for legislation that will allow you to experiment on children, and sell your products.

Have you looked to see where they’ve gone undercover in your state?


Vultures of ESEA

As it becomes increasingly apparent that our public education system is reaching a breaking point of sorts (see: teacher shortages, fed-up students and parents, andprincipals who have apparently lost their minds), a potential reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Act sits on the desks of our elected officials in Washington.

“The purpose of this act is to restore freedom to parents, teachers, principals and other school leaders, States, Governors, and local communities so that they can improve their local public schools,” the Senate version states.

How kind of them to finally think of us.


Too bad it’s a bunch of baloney.

Read what Morna McDermott of United Opt Out (and creator of this incredible flowchart showing Common Core’s countless corporate connections) has to say about the Trojan horse inherent in the rewrites in this blog post that has made its way to the National Education Policy Center.

Now check out the playbook corporate consultants have developed for a behind-the-scenes looks at the way state power afforded by the new ESEA will be manipulated to the liking of corporate profiteers.

No really – there’s an actual playbook, developed by a consultant group called Bellwether Education, whose client list includes… well, everyone you’d expect it to include.

If you’ve read any of my previous blog posts, you know that I’ve argued elsewhere that one of the real purposes of the Common Core Standards is to unleash a multi-billion dollar market by joining forces with a “competency” (proficiency, mastery, customized) based model of learning that is meant to bring about a massive expansion of “personalized” (digital and online) learning. Savvy investors have been counting on this unbundling for at least a decade.  See below:


To that end, Bellwether has provided its clients with a set of policy strategies to be enacted on the state and local level that will ensure that their products make it into our schools and that their shareholders will get a return on their investments.

Click the image below  to see a timeline of how some of these “plays” have already transpired here in Maine:

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Incubate or create a nonprofit organization to support personalized learning”?


“Waive or eliminate seat-time requirements to enable implementation of competency-based learning models”?

Check. (See LD 1422, Maine’s one-of-a-kind proficiency-based diploma mandate.)

“Modify teacher evaluation frameworks to foster the collaborative teaching that occurs in personalized learning environments”?


“Ensure third-party providers are able to access the data they need to support personalized learning, while also protecting students’ privacy and FERPA rights”?

Probably to the first part, who knows to the second.

Now go here to see the how these policy plays are manifesting themselves in schools in my hometown of Auburn, Maine, where we are clients of the Gates-funded Reinventing Schools Coalition, imported from Alaska in 2009 following their multi-million dollar experimentation in the Bering Straight.

Beware.  These guys are hungry.


UPDATED: What Are We Really Making Room For, or How Crazy Is This Gonna Get?

**I wrote this blog post yesterday after seeing the photo I included below posted on Facebook.  I hesitated to say too much about the photo itself until I knew the details….But, now I know the details from this article in the New York Post.  Updates are bolded below.**

A few years ago, a kind and well-meaning consultant took a look around my classroom and, with a clipboard and checklist in hand, suggested that I move my desk to the back of the room.

Positioned along one side of my classroom, my desk was as close as I could get it to the sole internet jack in the room.

“Think about the message it sends,” she told me. “Your desk is the first thing the children see when they walk into the room.”

I don’t blame our consultant for offering this advice. “Student-centered” learning, along with its sister-terms “personalized,” “customized,” “competency” and “proficiency-based,” are some of the hottest reform phrases out there right now, and consumers of current educational “research” are being informed from all directions that we, as teachers, must step to the side.

Just last week, a principal in the Bronx removed all desks and filing cabinets from her teachers classrooms.

“It’s the 21st century — you don’t need desks,” Connelly said, sources told The Post.

According to the Post, a city Department of Education spokesman said the furniture was moved “to ​facilitate better instruction.”

Remove the only space a teacher has to grade, plan, and store things like confidential student documents to facilitate better instruction??

How do such insane leaps of logic become endemic among certain people, and what are we really making room for?

The reform narrative goes like this: For too long, teachers have been simply “downloading” content into their students’ heads.

In a clever cooptation of the opt-out sentiment, some reformers have even appeared to ally themselves with our cause, suggesting that the NCLB-testing era has kept us trapped in an outdated, factory-model of education where teachers spend their days in teacher-centered classrooms demanding that kids do teacher-centered things like memorize all those facts they are expected to regurgitate on the state tests. Move the teacher to the back of the room, make him/her a “guide on the side,” and the kids will thrive.

But this narrative doesn’t hold up.

First, anyone who actually works in a public school knows that the state tests don’t expect students to know facts at all.

Teachers have been pulling their hair out for the past decade trying to make sure that their students have all the requisite skills and strategies necessary to pass these tests, and the teaching of actual content – history and science, for example, and all the dates and terms and facts that go along with them – has all but gone out the window.

And, except in certain extreme settings, most public schools employ “workshop” models that encourage teachers to teach only in small blocks of time – five to ten minutes at the start of a period.

Many veteran teachers will tell you that they have taught less in the last few years than ever before.

So what’s really going on here?

The fact is, what we’re being told to make room for isn’t the kids at all: it’s the onslaught of Common Core-aligned, digitized products that will allow corporate reformers to achieve their dream of students working “anytime, anywhere” – and on any device.

Check out which organizations are pushing this “student-centered” concept most heavily, and who funds them: the Gates Foundation, spin-offs of the student-loan industry, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and every variety of online and digital educational-product company  out there. Read about what’s happening here in Maine.  Get even more details here. 

Don’t be fooled.

And by all means, don’t do something like this:


How Bad Is It Going to Get?

Less than a year ago, I really didn’t know much about Common Core or Smarter Balanced.

I know.  I’m a teacher.

How is that possible?

But let me tell you that when you work in a field where those with the cash and political influence are constantly “reforming” your profession, without ever asking what those who actually work with children think about the changes they are making, you realize pretty quickly that there’s really not much you can do about any of it anyway. And so all the new stuff that comes your way starts to become…. well, all the new stuff that’s always coming your way.

As we got closer to having to administer the new Smarter Balanced test, however, and began hearing things that really didn’t make much sense – that, for example, this test was going to be the most powerful teaching tool we had (Better than books, pencils, and my own trusty eyes and ears? How could that be?) – I decided it was best to do some research.

And so the first thing I wanted to find out was what information I was going to get back at the end of it all.

Side-note: I have not yet gotten anything back at all. And, even if I had, my fourth-graders from last year are now fifth-graders, so it wouldn’t do me much good anyway.

Anyway – here is what I did: When the kids were out at recess, I Googled: “Smarter Balanced reporting platform,” to find out what kinds of revolutionary graphs and data points this particular test was promising to deliver. And it was then only a few clicks before I had a photo of Joel Klein’s facing smiling back at me:


and with another click or two, discovered that the company that was planning to deliver the data points that would revolutionize my teaching practice, “Amplify,” was owned by Rupert Murdoch – the tabloid guy!

I actually ran down to my principal’s office to inform him of this.

No big surprise – there wasn’t much he was able to do about it.

And so I emailed our superintendent.

“The proof will be in the pudding,” he wrote back to me.

When I taught in New York, and discovered just how bad things were getting, I went into a flight mode of sorts. I left the classroom, did some work in educational research, got another degree, and eventually ended up back in Maine.

But now I had nowhere left to flee.

Joel Klein and everything creepy about ed-reform that he represented had followed me to Maine!

And so I wrote letters to the editor, including one that I sent to Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post that she actually posted. I went to our capital to testify.  I called into radio shows.  I started a blog.  I had our state commissioner visit my school.  I Facebook-friended anyone and everyone that seemed remotely interested in what was going on in our schools.

And as I did all this, it just kept getting worse. The more I researched, the more horrifying it became.

Not only were we administering experimental tests to our kids, but I also discovered that in Maine, we are on front-lines of yet another Common Core experiment – this time as part of an attempt on the part of the Council for Chief State School Officers, the Gates Foundation, and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to generate proof-points for a “new” (but even that’s not true! It’s been tried before and failed!) model of education called “proficiency-based education.”

And even worse – despite the fact that the our poor state has yet to generate the “proof points” that these organizations so desire, competency-based (another name for proficiency-based) education has already been written into the Senate version of the ESEA rewrite!

This fall, I watched the presidential debates of both parties, hoping that at least one candidate would say something – anything? – to give me hope that soon things would begin to change … but I heard nothing.


And so now I ask, can anyone tell me how bad this is going to get?

What the Core is Really For

In his article, “Are Common Core Standards actually Data Tags” Peter Green hit the nail on the head. Data tags are precisely what the standards are, and in a moment I’ll show you how this works in real classrooms here in Maine.

First let me recap a bit.

In previous blog posts, I’ve tried to show that the Common Core Standards are part of an even bigger picture of reform that includes a massive expansion of digital and online learning, all of which is meant to operate around a system of “advancement” that goes by various names depending on which state you’re in, including “competency-based”, “proficiency-based,” mastery, personalized, or customized learning.

If you aren’t yet familiar with this piece of the reform agenda, it is probably because you do not live, as I do here in Maine, in an Innovation Lab Network state, run by the Council for Chief State School Officers and funded handsomely ($90+ million) by the Gates Foundation and where our children are being used as guinea pigs in a grand proficiency-based experiment.

Consider yourself lucky, but not out of the woods.

Before I go on, let me be clear that this model of learning is not new. For decades, those of the “total quality management” (corporate) mindset have been trying to rework our education system into something that can be more easily manipulated, measured, and managed. See this article from 1977 on one failed attempt at implementing a competency-based model, or just read the quote that I’ve pulled out below:

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.

 Take a moment to compare the quote above with Green’s observation:

 We know from our friends at  Knewton what the Grand Design is — a system in which student progress is mapped down to the atomic level. Atomic level (a term that Knewton lervs deeply) means test by test, assignment by assignment, sentence by sentence, item by item. We want to enter every single thing a student does into the Big Data Bank….We’ve been saying that CCSS are limited because the standards were written around what can be tested. That’s not exactly correct. The standards have been written around what can be tracked.

 The standards aren’t just about defining what should be taught. They’re about cataloging what students have done.

Yep.  Things haven’t changed – they’ve just tweaked the language a bit so we don’t freak out about the pigeon analogies.

This time around, the TQM (total quality management) folks have big – astronomical, in fact – amounts of money and political influence pushing this reform.

One key proponent of competency-based learning is Michael Horn of the Innosight Institute, who wrote in this article from 2012 called “Could Competency Based Education Save Common Core?” that he is a proponent of the corein part because of the innovation their adoption could seed through the creation of a common market. Having common standards across the country could begin to reward content providers that target the long tail of learners because they would help to aggregate demand across the country.

Another is Tom Vander Ark, former executive at the Gates Foundation and partner of Learn Capital, who recently gave a presentation in Silicon Valley titled “New Education: How to Unbundle the Potential of Multi-Billion Dollar Market.”

It’s pretty clear how, isn’t it?

First, coerce us into adopting standards that can “seed a common market” that will “reward content providers.” Quietly sign states up to be part of a giant “lab” that will hopefully “generate proof points” for your reform ideas. Then, get the American Legislative Exchange Council to help rework our state policies to accommodate and/or force a new proficiency-based system. Work with big foundations to get legislation included in the ESEA rewrites  that will encourage states to purchase the products you want to sell them.

Meanwhile, tap into the riches from tax-exempt foundations to fund “will-building” campaigns to convince the common-folk that this is really all for our own good. Set up non-profits in individual states that can do things like take over your state teacher of the year program and send letters of support to your local newspapers, to confuse people into thinking that this is a teacher and community-led reform. Explain that this is simply a common sense reform to make high school degrees “more meaningful,” and accuse anyone of questioning your logic as “lowering standards.”  Change the word “computer” to “student” so that you can claim that your model is “student-centered” and no one will know what you really mean.

Now sit back and watch as local school districts are destroyed and remade in your corporate image.

Here are some screenshots of the training program that all teachers here in my hometown of Auburn, Maine, which has partnered with the Gates and Nellie Mae Funded “Reinventing Schools Coalition,” recently went through.

i am aware

See the question “I am aware of the significant research validating SBG Standards-Based Grading Approach to Assessment,” where you must answer “true” in order to move on and get your “mastery star.”  I’d be willing to answer “true” if we could stick a carrot just before “research” and add the word “bogus.”

Or the question above, “I can distinguish between a “Factory Model” of education” and a “Student-Centered model,” where again, you have to answer “true” to move on and the rationale refers to a make-believe version of the history of education in our country.

Kinda makes you wonder if this is the kind of thing our kids will be expected to do as well – you know, answer “true” to things that aren’t true at all so that they can get their gold star and move on?

Then there’s this, where teachers get rated on how proficiently they can regurgitate the propaganda they’ve been force-fed:

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And this, where they get a demonstration of how they will be tracking their students growth according to those data tags – I mean standards – we’ve been forced to adopt:

kid mastery

And this, where they learn how to “manage virtual environments”:

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Who needs teachers when you have all this student-centered personalization?  Imagine the costs to be cut!

Meet your child’s new teacher.  It’s the lady: