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

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.

8 thoughts on “Five Secrets of CBE Salesmen”

  1. About the research: “Although an emerging research base suggests that CBE is a promising model, it includes only a few rigorous evaluations and analyses of current and ongoing CBE pilots and similar programs.”

    This is from the National Governor’s Association “Expanding Student Success: A Primer on Competency-Based Education from Kindergarten Through Higher Education, ” a document that aggressively pushes CBE.


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