More on FairTest and Why You Should Call Your Legislators TODAY

Two days ago, I wrote a blog post warning that FairTest was giving bad advice regarding the ESEA rewrite.

Admittedly, I wrote the post in a bit of haste.  I had a baby tugging at my leg, family members begging me to get off the computer, a fiery incredulity at what FairTest  had written  regarding its support of the new ESEA, and – yes – a heart-pounding sense of panic over how much confusion there seems to be regarding what will be in the new ESEA, and how very little time we have left to stop or delay the vote (t-minus 5 days).

So, I apologize for not making clear my view on this issue.

First, let me be clear that no, I do not know Monty Neill or Bob Schaeffer of FairTest, and I trust those who tell me that they are both firmly dedicated to education and our students.

But here is what I also know.

I know that unbeknownst to many of us, two distinct Opt-Out movements have grown up side by side.

One is true grassroots – the parents, teachers, and students who have had enough of corporate education reform, and who see opting out as a way to protest the usurpation of our schools

The other is what I will call “Corporate Opt Out” – the opt out movement quietly encouraged by groups like the  Education Commission of the States, next-gen ed reform masterminds like Tom Vander Ark, as well as the very testing companies that have already sold  their “summative testing” branches to focus on the  impending shift to embedded, competency-based assessment.

Corporate Opt Out has skillfully positioned the impending ESEA rewrites as a response to the voices of the people, who are worn down by years of NCLB-era reforms.

But this is not what the ESEA rewrites are.  They have been planned and  pre-cooked behind the scenes  by the very industries we seek to protest against.

Somehow, whether intentionally or not, FairTest has become allied with Corporate Opt Out.

They have signaled this not only through their advocacy of the ESEA rewrites, but also through their work behind the scenes as part of the Forum for Educational Accountability.

Here is some of what the FEA, chaired by Monty Neill of FairTest,  advocates:

“Support development of local and  state assessments that enable assessment of higher order thinking and that are instructionally
useful. Authorize significant sums to encourage states to develop these new systems.”
 “FEA supports the Guidelines’ having states expand their collection of “statewide longitudinal data systems” to include out-of-school factors such as students’ health and postsecondary experience.”
“Reforming the school improvement process to provide more assistance and give schools more time to implement necessary changes once they adopt an improvement plan.”
Read carefully, and you will see that these recommendations are identical to those being advocated by a swath of corporate reformers – including the Gates Foundation.
“Assessment systems” may sound nice to the battle wary among us, but believe me when I say that all your most detested testing companies  have been hard at work  at developing such systems.

Now see this, from FairTest’s annotated bibliography:

“Many states are working on performance assessments; some have included performance items as part of statewide exams. The Council of Chief State School Officers has a number of interstate consortia working on performance assessments, and they can put you in touch with states developing performance assessments, such as Vermont (portfolio assessments), Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Maine (performance exams).”

Now  read here, to see what this actually means in my home state of Maine.  (Spoiler alert: the Gates Foundation plays a prominent role.)

So you see, despite cries of bad form and intolerance of opposing views, I must stand by my position that FairTest is giving very, very bad advice by advocating that we support the new ESEA.

Please call your legislators today, and at the very least ask that they delay this vote.

Go here to find the number you need to reach your congressmen. (Don’t be nervous – someone friendly will answer, I promise!)










As the Opt Out Movement has grown, an organization known as FairTest has stepped in to offer information about the goings-on of the opt out world – including how to opt out and what the consequences may or may not be depending on where you live.

Keep in mind that the Education Commission of the States also provided information on Opt Out  – and that this was not an accident.

Today, FairTest has shown its true colors, and who its allies actually are.

By  informing its readers  that  “the pending Congressional overhaul of ‘No Child Left Behind’ will not in any way undermine the national, grassroots high-stakes testing resistance,” and that “it provides additional incentives for parents, students, teachers, administrators and community leaders leaders to press for even more meaningful assessment reforms at the national, state and local levels,” FairTest has revealed that it is either clueless (which I highly doubt) or has an alternate and well-hidden agenda.

Read this interview with Monty Neil, founder of FairTest, on the National Institute for Student-Centered Instruction, and now read here to find out what “student-centered” actually means.  Hint: it’s not what you think.

Please be aware that investors have been waiting patiently for the shift from the “big end of the year test” to the embedded, competency-based testing that White House advocated for in its recent Testing Action Plan.

No, it is not a coincidence that McGraw-Hill sold its summative testing branch to focus on the growing formative assessment market.

It is also not a coincidence that the very same companies that worked behind the scenes with PARCC and SBAC are now stepping in to take over your state assessment system.

If the new ESEA passes, the testing industry wins.

Beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing, and call your legislators to tell them to vote no on ESEA.   Yes, we need change….




Community Schools, Inc.

As if it weren’t difficult enough to make sense of the world of next-gen edu-double-speak and the corporate co-optation of sensible ideas, Alison McDowell – Philadelphia parent, member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, and public education advocate – has discovered that a powerful arm of the current “community schools” movement is pushing us toward the proliferation of capital-C Community Schools –  outsourced, data-mined, and workforce aligned, of course.

Below, Alison describes the hidden agenda of this deceptive corporate-driven initiative.  Read the full article here.

And be sure to hold onto your hats.


“There are an increasing number of people who are involved with community school initiatives on the local level. They see community schools as neighborhood anchors. The problem is that they have absolutely no knowledge that there is another powerful group, the corporate education reformers, including Tom Vander Ark, working to undermine all they are doing.

Meanwhile, the corporate education reformers have set up the legislation so that once a network of non-profit and technological partnerships are in place, human teachers will no longer be necessary for their 21st century version of education. The federal government and partners like Citizen Schools move things along by putting resources behind this “transformation.”

It won’t happen immediately. The timeline is probably 10-20 years. So the corporate education reformers can just sit back and wait for the first group, people like us, to do the work of acclimatizing the public to the concept that community=school and school=community. Which will be fine, until one day the neighborhood schools close their doors in favor of an online and outsourced community model and we’ve reached the end game.

If you’ve ever sat through a Philadelphia School Reform meeting, you know that they are not going to give Philadelphia parents a “community school” in the sense of true community participation. We are on our third Broad Academy superintendent, and community engagement generally only qualifies as “theater” …

And where is the money going to come from to bring in those services? If they use social impact bonds, the accountability metrics will skyrocket because those partners will be accountable to the venture capitalists and if the rate of return varies based on success metrics, you can imagine there will need to be lots and lots of data gathered…

Outsourcing school functions means having children end up with data driven education and data-driven lives.

It’s also clear that the push is towards workforce development. Labor wants data they can use for their projections. They have the academic data, but they need the other stuff to make it work. They need that non-cognitive behavioral piece, because we all recognize that it’s important. How are they going to get that data?

Do you think parents are comfortable with the idea that partners may be monitoring Johnny’s “grit” level? Maybe they’ll want to know does Sally show proficiency in teamwork? Creative problem solving? Conformity?

The other piece you need to be aware of is ELOs, also know as Extended or Expanded Learning Opportunities. The folks behind ELOs include the National Governor’s Association and the Chief Council of State School Officers who brought us Common Core State Standards. In their view, education can just be broken down into bits, and in the future kids will collect them like digital badges through demonstrations of mastery that will eventually be done primarily online.

Of course most parents are not digital natives and would chafe against this vision of education as essentially cyber school.

So instead, certain competencies (also I think this is where the non-cognitive ones come in) are developed with partners through “real world” “community-based” problem solving. The sales pitch will be for THIS part of the blended learning model. They will sell parents on all these great projects combined with the most innovative technology, but what most students will get is a bunch of Rocketship Academies with vans that take kids to the local hospital for an internship (and maybe the hospital gets some volunteer labor). Maybe I’m jaded, but in my heart I feel that the innovative schools they have been set up in Philadelphia cannot be scaled to serve a majority of students.

I believe they are part of a bait and switch plan.

…In many ways, I fear the issue of high stakes testing was perhaps a straw man so they could make their profit on the tests, knowing that the plan was always to walk away from them and move into stealth testing.

For all the talking points we have, CBE offers an answer. Hate having a kid’s evaluation riding on one test? OK, we’ll gather their data all the time through stealth testing. Hate standardization? We’ll offer you “personalization.” Have we driven out thousands of experienced teachers through our emphasis on testing, test prep, and data-driven instruction? Oh, we can fix that. We’ll just raise class sizes using a blended learning model where the kids are online most of the time and out in the community the rest of the time.

We really don’t need so many teachers, and the ones we want around are the ones who can tolerate spending their days in front of data dashboards.

It was all so very clever, and it will be hard to tell folks the emperor has no clothes.

In all of these plans for “community schools” are the partners who will be providing the services and ELOs going to be big “C” community members or little “c” community members?

Many of these initiatives seem to be linked to major players like the United Way and local universities and outposts of national non-profits and city agencies. I mean it’s not like your neighbors are actually going to be running the programs.

If that is the case, why not just put the money directly back into the schools, so they can build the community there?



Whose Future Is It?

Last winter, as I began piecing together the frighteningly well-choreographed plans for next-gen ed reform, a family member asked me: “Do you mean they actually get together and plan this stuff?”

This family member was rightfully concerned about me, as I looked – for about a solid month – like this:


But here’s the scary truth: they do get together to plan this stuff.

Most of us who follow education reform are well aware of the many foundations involved in the transformation of our schools, as well as the many political groups (American Legislative Exchange Council, the Council for Chief State School Officers, and the National Governors Association, to name only a few) that have been busy pulling strings and pouring millions of dollars into their vision of what schools should be like for everyone’s children but their own.

But even further behind the scenes is a group called Global Education Futures – a spin-off of a Moscow and San Francisco self-described “think-and-do-tank” called “Re-engineering Futures,” who believe that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

According to the group’s website: “We don’t expect change, we find a way to make it.”

Using a technique called “Rapid Foresight,” which involves putting “objects of the future” on note-cards and then voting on whether or not they earn a place on the “map,” Global Education Futures and the organizations it consults with literally map out the future they wish for the rest of us.

Now, if we knew the people planning our futures for us were saints, we might not need to worry so much.

But let’s be real. These people are politicians and heads of big corporations. Chances are pretty good that we’ve got at least a sprinkling of megalomaniacs in this bunch.

According to the group’s website: “the vision for the future which we create during foresights leads to “start-ups and/or change management strategies for corporations & educational institutions” and “policy-making initiatives & civil society action.”

Again, we might be able to laugh this stuff off, if it weren’t apparent that this group appears, in fact, to be remarkably influential.

Tom Vander Ark, whose was instrumental in leading the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s Digital Learning Now Coalition   …which was instrumental in creating the “Ten Elements of Digital Learning”   …which were adopted by the American Legislative Exchange Council    …whose policies have now made their way into the ESEA rewrites and President Obama’s Testing Action Plan…   is a board member of Global Education Futures.

So is Jose Ferreira, of Knewton.

Now take a look at this diagram for a comprehensive picture of the plans that Global Education Futures and the groups it “foresights” with have developed for us:

Screen shot 2015-11-22 at 5.27.39 PM.png

Do you see “blended learning?” I do.

Do you see “personalized learning?” I do.

Do you see “competency” based portfolios? I do.

(Now try something, if you dare: look up the current versions of the ESEA rewrites, and search for some of these very same terms.)

Right now, we are being told that we simply cannot wait for the new ESEA to pass – that children and families have waited too long.

But  I’m left wondering: who is it, really, that can’t wait for these changes?

Whose future is it, anyway?






Isaac Asimov on the Future of School: “The Fun They Had”

Diane Ravitch's blog

Isaac Asimov wrote a short story in the 1950s called “The Fun They Had.” It was about a brother and sister in the year 2157 discussing a rare find: a book. They had never seen a book before. All their learning was at home, on a computer. They didn’t know what a human teacher was. Their mechanical teacher “taught” them and graded their responses.

Margie went into the schoolroom. It was right next to her bedroom, and the mechanical teacher was on and waiting for her. It was always on at the same time every day except Saturday and Sunday, because her mother said little girls learned better if they learned at regular hours.

The screen was lit up, and it said: “Today’s arithmetic lesson is on the addition of proper fractions. Please insert yesterday’s homework in the proper slot.”

Margie did so with a sigh. She was…

View original post 105 more words


Just as we are waking up to the truth about what is in these rewrites – just as long over due debates on education reform are springing up all across our country – Congress has decided to charge forward with ESEA’s corporate-driven  plans to remake education in our country.

A final vote could happen as early as December 2nd.


Yes, we want change, but this bill is not the change we are asking for.

 It is the change that has been planned and “pre-cooked” behind the scenes by the  testing  and  charter  industries.

 Tell your representatives to vote “NO” on ESEA.



Then get all your friends to do the same.





While We Were Testing

Three years ago, top-level executives, company presidents, and other fancy-titled stakeholders from across the testing industry gathered in Minneapolis for a four-day conference, sponsored by the Council for Chief State School Officers (financed handsomely by the Gates Foundation), as well as all the big names in the educational testing industry – including Pearson, McGraw-Hill CTB, Measured Progress, AIR, DRC, and Questar.

Their first night in Minnesota, the executives dined on steak and sushi at a restaurant called Seven, before embarking on four days of presentations on things like “learning progressions,” “readiness,” and “growth models” – all meant to reinvent the wheel of the teaching profession for profit.

(I picture them throwing around the words “formative assessment” and “instructional practice” with great zeal, as if they had invented these concepts – not knowing, of course, that this is what teachers do each day in very simple, inexpensive ways, nor how dismally little their “progress monitoring” tools tell us about the students with whom we spend our days.)

Throughout the conference, executives were in high spirits, as they knew something that the rest of us didn’t.

They knew that a shift was coming: that the “end of the big test” was near, and that a new era of “formative,” personalized, competency-based testing – testing so all encompassing and so much a part of every day curricula that students (and parents) might not even know it was happening – was on the horizon.

Those at the top, of course, also knew that the new ESEA rewrites would support this shift.  They knew that foundations like KnowledgeWorks  and, of course, the Council for Chief State School Officers, were already working closely with legislators to include incentives for states to shift to competency-based testing.

It was no secret they had the federal government on their side. Here is a description from one conference session, led by the Smarter Balanced Consortium:

The Federal Government’s strategy to transform the Education Assessment industry by investing in standard technology platforms led by multi-state consortia such as Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) has required unprecedented collaboration among consortia members, SEA and LEA representatives, assessment companies and the greater IT vendor community.

Pause. It is time for a cat face.




The fact is, the state-led testing consortia , which promised to use our tax money to bring us high quality tests that would get our kids “college and career ready”, were actually business consortia, strategically formed to collaborate on “interoperability frameworks” – or, to use simpler terms, ways of passing data and testing content from one locale to the next (from Pearson to Questar, for example, or from your local town to the feds).

Just as the Common Core State Standards were intended to unleash a common market, so, too, was the effort to create a common digital “architecture” that would allow companies like Questar and Pearson and Measured Progress and all the rest to operate in a “plug in play” fashion. (Think of Xbox, Nintendo, PlayStation, and all the rest teaming up to make a super-video-game console.)

Has your state pulled out of PARCC or SBAC? If so, which of these companies has it been replaced with?

In New York, it is Questar, whose advertisements fill the pages of the program for the 2012 conference. In Maine, it is Measured Progress, which participated behind the scenes in a “Smarter Balanced Proficiency-Based Task Force” in order to synch our next test with our new, Gates-funded proficiency-based diploma mandate.

Indeed, it has all been an effort to “unbundle billions,” if I may use the words of Tom Vander Ark (who was, it should be no surprise, present at the conference).

And now, of course, the federal government, with its sham of a recent testing reduction announcement and the impending reauthorization of ESEA, is about to do its part in this transformation, which will no doubt send the executives back to the restaurants for more steak and sushi.

And while they find ways to get their programs to do all the things teachers can already do infinitely better than their algorithms, and while they send their kids to private schools to avoid the mess they have made, the rest of us – if they have their way – will be contending with a corporatized, gamified, junk educational system that we will pay for with our tax dollars.

Enter cat face.



Dear Mark

Dear Mark,

You probably don’t remember me, but we were students together at Phillips Exeter Academy fifteen years ago. I was a lower (sophomore) when you were a senior, so our paths didn’t overlap much, but I do believe we had one class together – Latin with Mr. Morante.

I’m writing for two reasons: first, a quick thank you for Facebook. I’ve always enjoyed it as a social tool, but recently I have discovered how powerful it can be as networking tool to gather people around a common cause.  Lately, I’ve connected with parents, teachers, administrators, bloggers, and other activists around the country who are all working passionately toward one goal: getting our local schools back from the powerful corporate and political interests that now strangle them. We share notes and research, triumphs and setbacks, inspiration and outrage, and lately it seems – incrementally at least – that we may be getting somewhere.

A bit about me: after Exeter and college (Amherst ’07), I followed the two-year teaching-temp route through the New York City Teaching Fellows program. But, instead of going on to more “big time” things (as a fellow classmate once asked if I would), I discovered that I loved being in the classroom and working directly with kids so much that I became a career teacher, and now teach fourth grade in Maine. Would you believe that with a salary of 40k a year, a mortgage, a baby, a husband in law school – and, as a result, a net worth well in the negative numbers – I haven’t once regretted this decision?

But it hasn’t been easy. For the last eight years, I have witnessed and experienced the harm that reform efforts are inflicting on teachers and students alike. Much of this abuse is related to the testing mandates of No Child Left Behind, but there are also new, potentially even more harmful policies with which we are now contending. Recently, I have been using this blog, and yes, Facebook, to try my hand at being an outspoken advocate for our kids, parents, teachers, and local schools.

Which brings me to the second reason that I am writing.

Yesterday, I was alarmed when a friend of mine sent me a post from your own Facebook page endorsing “personalized” learning, as well as announcing your recent partnership with Summit Public Schools to promote this model.

I am quite certain that in doing so, you have genuinely good intentions. I also suspect that you have been heavily courted by reform-oriented groups and foundations, and that they have, through their carefully curated examples of “personalized learning,” presented nothing less than a miracle to you in hopes of gaining your support and endorsements.

“Corporate reformers,” as we call them on the ground, are very good at preying on our best intentions. I, myself, was once taken in by a school that promised it was “closing the achievement gap,” but whose practices were so appalling and abusive that I left within a year. Of course, I have never been to a Summit Public School, so I cannot speak about their system. I must confess, however, that when I see who else  is promoting this school, the hair on the back of my neck stands up.

Let me assure you that “personalized learning,” as it is being pushed by the Gates Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Digital Learning Now Council, as well as countless educational technology companies, start-ups, and venture capitalists who have invested millions into personalized learning experiments (they call them “innovations”), is a far, far cry from the type of education we got at Exeter.

At Exeter, we sat around shiny hardwood tables debating meaning buried within novels that were carefully selected by our teachers; we disagreed about interpretations of historical events, and were sometimes drowned out by the passion of Harkness Warriors (I was never one of those, were you?). Our teachers had ways of guiding us toward particular insights, but they never held us hostage to specific outcomes, or “competencies” as they are called now, before allowing us to move on.  (If you aren’t sure what I mean by “competencies” and the role they play in personalized learning models, please read more here.)  If an outside observer had come into one of our classrooms, as happens now in many public schools, to ask us “What is your learning target today, and how will you know if you have met it?” I’m quite sure not many of us would have been able to say.  Our teachers probably would have been appalled at such a question.

These are the constraints under which “personalized” learning models operate. Standards, competencies, learning targets and progressions, all of which must be tracked and monitored and controlled in order to work, are the ingredients of “personalized learning.”  Students may be in control of their “learning trajectory,” in such a model, but not of their own minds, as we were at Exeter.

In my humble opinion, this is a bastardization of true education.

Of course, you can see why venture capitalists, educational technology companies and their related foundations (yes, I do mean Gates) would see a prime opportunity for profit through this type of model. Computers can, indeed, do this type of work.

I encourage you to look more deeply into the  policies and practices  you are now advocating. Look beyond the carefully selected models you are presented, look beyond the well crafted and well financed PR campaigns, and reach out to the teachers, parents, and students whose local schools are being destroyed and remade according to the whims of corporate investors. You may be surprised, and saddened, by what you hear.


Emily Talmage (formerly Kennedy), Exeter ‘03

P.S. I’m going to include your picture below, so that when I post this on Facebook, people see which Mark I mean.


Five Secrets of CBE Salesmen

It’s no secret that corporate reformers make whatever claims they want about our schools in order to push their profit-driven agenda.

True to form, after years of planning and untold millions spent, reformers have recently unleashed glitzy PR campaigns designed to sell the public next-gen solutions to the very mess that they, themselves, have made.

Strategically timed to coincide with the ESEA rewrites and Obama’s trojan horse “Testing Action Plan,” the onslaught of next-gen, “competency-based” and “personalized learning” propaganda now seems to be everywhere.  Here are some tricks to lookout for so that you – and hopefully your legislators – don’t fall prey to the snake oil salesmen, who are now operating openly and undercover all across the country.

Sales Pitch #1:  We’ve been employing factory-model, one-size-fits-all approach for too long. Competency-based learning will fix that.

If you were to ask any of these next-gen reformers to explain the history of education and where our current model came from, chances are good that they would be able to toss out something vague about the Prussians, but would then go running to Wikipedia to find out the rest.  The fact is – and you can read more here from Dr. Sherman Dorn – claiming that our current system is based on a “factory model” makes a great foil for their next-gen plans, but  is an egregious oversimplification of history.

It’s also deeply ironic, given that the competency-based model of schooling is rooted in the theory of “total quality management,” which comes straight of out the manufacturing industry.

But that’s not the worst part about this particular pitch.  Yes, teachers and parents everywhere have been complaining that one high-stakes end-of-the-year test is a total sham, because who says that “proficiency” should mean the same thing for all 8 years olds. Not willing to miss an opportunity to manipulate the public, however, next-gen reformers have been listening and, as is their habit, co-opting the sentiment.

Not only is this a strategic attempt to set CBE in opposition to the very mandates reformers themselves have shoved upon us – they also mean something very different by the word “personalized” than the kind teachers already do each day. (We call it “differentiating”).

For corporate reformers, “personalized” means you get to work on a device toward your pre-selected “learning targets” in the form of an individual “playlist.” Bits of learning – whose content is carefully monitored and controlled in the form of standards – are now commodities that we consume at a rate that pleases us.

If you’re scratching your head wondering what happens to things like literature studies, class debates, in-depth history lessons, and inquiry-based projects where learning is often open-ended, well….


Yeah.  I’m wondering that too.

Sales Pitch #2: CBE is “student-centered.”

Again, here we see co-optation at work designed to both trick and confuse.

No, corporate reformers don’t suddenly care more about kids than they do about their bottom line. “Student-centered” is actually a phrase adapted from the Total Quality Management theory, where efforts at “continuous improvement” must be “customer-centered.

Replace the word “student” with “device,” and you’ll have a much better sense of what is truly meant by this phrase.

Sales Pitch #3:  Our kids are so bored at school.  CBE will finally get them motivated.

Here is what one reporter  had to say in an interview with Tom Vander Ark, one of the current masterminds behind the shift to CBE/digital learning:

“A child who was perfectly content with a video stream, an MP3, and a chart flowing past him is suddenly ordered to sit still, shut up, and listen while a grown-up scrawls on a blackboard and delivers a monologue.”

And here’s Vander Ark’s solution: give them more of the digital stimuli their used to, turn learning into a “game,” and suddenly they’ll spend as much time “learning” as they do on video games.

The fact is, what CBE promoters mean by “motivated” is actually more akin to addiction. Heard of dopamine receptors?  You know, those things deep in the brain that light up when people gamble, smoke, or eat junk food?  Yeah… they’ve heard of them too.  This why you’ll notice a system of game-based rewards embedded in all of their learning “solutions.”

Mastered a learning target in your playlist today? Hooray!  You get a star!  Mastered ten of them?  Here’s a pretend trophy:


Now ask a second grader why we read books.  It’s to get to the next level in the game, isn’t it?

Sales Pitch #4: CBE will give teachers the meaningful assessments they have been longing for.

Next-gen reformers like to throw around the words “formative assessment” as if they’ve invented sliced bread, but here’s a dirty little secret:  we (teachers) only use these pre-packaged “formative” assessments and “progress monitoring” programs because we are told we must by the data overlords (as fellow blogger Peter Greene so aptly calls them).  Give teachers a little planning time, and we’ll design and analyze assessments that give us infinitely more information about our kids than these “innovative” products.

Formative assessment is what teachers do all day long, with our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts.

These products don’t hold a candle to the kind of formative assessment we do each day.

Sales Pitch #5:  CBE is research-based and proven to raise student achievement.

Okay, they aren’t actually claiming this.  Which should tell you something.

learner king

The Grand Plan

In 1999, Tom Vander Ark flew to Chugach, Alaska to scope out the reforms they had been implementing.

As newly minted executive director of education for the Gates Learning Foundation, Vander Ark had recently stepped into a leading role in the quest to remake education in our country, and was busy laying the groundwork to bring his vision of a competency-based, computer-centered schooling system to scale.

In 1994, Chugach, along with a handful of additional districts across Alaska, had embarked on an educational restructuring experiment based on principals borrowed from the theory of “total quality management,” originally developed in the manufacturing sector.  With grants from the National Science Foundation and support from the U.S. Department of Education, these rural and sparsely populated districts hired new superintendents to oversee the development of “shared visions” among staff members, generate buy-in among community members, and create data tracking systems. While vying for a chance to win the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, a handful of administrators were also actively conducting research in their districts as part of their  university dissertations.

There are varying accounts of what actually happened in Alaska during this time. The authors of the application for the Baldrige Award describe the reforms as a great success, while this researcher  paints a picture of a district under the thumb of self-proclaimed “visionary leader” building a “lighthouse” district for the rest of the state and enlisting “evangelists” who would go out and “sell the dream” of standards-based reform.

Either way, Vander Ark seemed to like what he saw, and awarded millions of dollars on behalf of the Gates Foundation for additional Alaskan districts to implement these reforms.

Meanwhile, four thousand miles away, Maine was busy experimenting with its own state systemic reforms. Here, the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Education funded the Maine Math and Science Alliance to reform math and science education using many of the same principles being implemented in Alaska.

Like the Alaskan superintendents, the MMSA sought to establish “lighthouse” districts that would serve as models for the rest of the state. The “Beacon Schools,” as they were called, were eventually dismantled, but its creators, undeterred by their lack of success, developed a new standards-based reform effort in its placed called “Promising Futures.”

When Vander Ark read about this initiative, and learned that Maine had also recently established a one-to-one laptop program that gave all seventh graders in the state their own computer, he saw fertile ground to plant the seeds of his own reform ideas, and in 2002, flew to Maine to award a 10 million dollar grant  to support the reform initiative.

Maine, which was number one based on its NAEP scores in 1997, began to decline in its national rankings.

Nevertheless, a vast network of foundations, policy initiatives, nonprofits, and grant-funded initiatives sprang up across the country in the years that followed.  Investors poured millions into ed-tech companies, all with the same core vision: a competency-based education system that, coupled with the Common Core State Standards and a proliferation of digital devices, was sure to unleash a multi-billion dollar market.

Superintendents flew from Alaska to Maine to run conferences; the Gates Foundation financed the creation of a group called the Reinventing Schools Coalition that could take the Total Quality Management system of schooling on the road; and members of the failed Promising Schools project assumed leadership roles at the newly formed non-profit consultant group called the Great Schools Partnership.

Vander Ark, who had since left the Gates Foundation to oversee an ed-tech venture capital firm and was growing impatient at the slow speed of transformation, helped form the Digital Learning Now  Council, which developed ten principles of digital learning that were quickly adopted by the corporate bill-mill known as the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Vander Ark’s vision was – is – as close to fruition as it has ever been. Maine now has a  proficiency-based diploma mandate, and states across the country are rapidly adopting similar policies of their own. The President of the United States recently endorsed competency-based education in his Testing Action Plan. The ESEA rewrites also offer incentives for states to adopt this model.

Does the public know that our schools are being remade?  Is this what we want?  Does it even matter if we don’t?