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?