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?


Rally Around the Kids

For most of my life, I’ve tended to shy away from political conversations. My sense has been that unless I know I have a firm grasp on the full picture of any particular issue – and who’s got time for that? – my opinion really isn’t worth much.

Now that my profession, our schools, and quite possibly our entire democracy is under attack, however, I’ve realized that these are waters into which I must wade.

But quite frankly, it hasn’t been easy.

Check out this slide on competency-based education from a presentation given at the The Summit for 21st Century Learning and tell me if, by looking at it, you can tell if this (CBE) is a policy promoted by the left or the right:

Screen shot 2015-11-09 at 5.12.35 PM

The NEA and AFT?  KIPP?  Microsoft?  Disney?  You don’t see the American Legislative Exchange Council on here, but you can bet they are behind this policy too.

“Money doesn’t have an ideology,” my husband explained, when I asked him for help making sense of it all.

And he’s right.  (Though yes – typically I am.)

Corporate reformers are just as happy manipulating ideology and language which is dear to the left as they are of that which is dear to the right.

Like freedom and individual liberty? We’ve got bills for that. How about social justice? We’ve got bills for that too.

Peel back the curtain, however, and you’ll see that most of these policies – competency-based education included – are meant to do one thing, and one thing only: transfer more money and more power into the hands of those that already have too much of it.

Call this “discursive” strategy, as academics do, or Orwellian double-speak.

Personally, I call it lying.

One of the most infuriating things about all this is that I am quite certain that the makers of these corporate policies are perfectly happy to see us pointing fingers at one another – blaming this as the fault of the left, and this as the fault of the right – while they quietly slip through legislation that suits their business needs.

Personally, here is what I think: no matter what our political ideology may be, we have one thing in common that these corporate reformers don’t.

Children are actually our priority.


If they’re going to form alliances like they have at the top, we better do the same on the ground.  Let’s rally around the kids.


Dear Reformers

Dear Reformers,

When I read the latest teacher-resignation  letter circulating the internet, I couldn’t help but suspect that it filled you with a bit of glee.

You don’t want us anyway. You have made this quite clear.

And so I am here to tell you something different.

I am here to tell you that there is a growing army of us – yes, army  – who are refusing to quit, despite the havoc you are wreaking on our profession.

I am here to tell you that not only have we vowed not to quit – we have also vowed to fight.

We are getting organized, and are rapidly growing in our ranks.

So let it be clear that just as you have declared war on us, we have declared war on you.

Yes, you have your freakish amounts of money and the political power  you’ve bought with it.

You have your strategically formed foundations and your consultants with their arsenal of devious, deceitful tricks.

You have your wickedly distorted narratives that you have spent years crafting.

You have your egos and your algorithms  and your data that means whatever you want it to mean.

But we have more than that.

We have families – parents, grandparents, sisters and brothers – and the unthinkable amount of love they generate each day.

We have momma bears whose claws are out and fangs are bared.

We have whole communities who will not stand idly by as their schools go under due to your business plans.

We have deep, fiery anger at the way we, as professionals, have been treated over the last decade, and even deeper anger over the way our children have been used as guinea pigs in your covert experiments.

We also have the truth.

So be prepared.

We are not quitting, and will not be surrendering.


Teachers (and mothers, and fathers, and grandparents, and communities…) Everywhere


CBE and Teaching Machines

With the recent announcement of Obama’s Testing Action Plan and its inclusion of incentives to move states toward competency-based models, it seems that people are suddenly paying attention to what CBE is, and where it came from.

I’ve written quite a bit about the corporate push behind the resurgence of this model – particularly the role of digital learning and student loan companies – as well as the very shady way that policies to support this model have weaseled their way into our states. But it seems that now would be a good time to draw people’s attention to some of the theory behind competency-based learning.

So now let me introduce you – or reintroduce you, if you took any psychology courses back in college – to B.F. Skinner.


Skinner was a psychologist at Harvard back in the 50’s best known for his work with animal training. The guy was really good – like, could get pigeons to detonate bombs good.

Here’s a quote I’ve referenced a few times before, from a guy named Thomas Guines, who shows up in this article written in 1977 about a competency-based pilot program (oh yeah – did I mention this has been tried before?) that took place in Washington DC:

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.”

Makes you shudder, doesn’t it?

But now, if you want to get really creeped out, check out this Youtube video of Skinner talking about his teaching machine invention:

and then compare how eerily similar his descriptions are of the teaching machine to the new, next-gen assessment programs that are being pushed aggressively upon us from all angles.

Here’s Skinner:

As soon as the student has written his response, he operates the machine, and learns immediately whether he is right or wrong. This is a great improvement over the system in which papers are corrected by a teacher, where the student must wait perhaps until another day, to learn whether or not what he is written is right.

Such immediate knowledge has two principle effects: it leads most rapidly to the formation of correct behavior. The student quickly learns to be right.

 Those pesky teachers! I guess they were getting in the way of innovation back in the 50’s too.

Now compare the Skinner quote with this description that comes from the website of Questar – the testing company recently adopted by New York State:

With tablets and the right software, this approach is possible on an individualized basis: after every five minutes of individualized tablet-based instruction, students would be presented with a brief series of questions that adapt to their skill level, much as computer-adaptive tests operate today. After that assessment, the next set of instructional material would be customized according to these results.

Here’s Skinner again:

Another important advantage is that the student is free to move at his own pace. With techniques in which a whole class is forced to move together, the bright student wastes time, waiting for others to catch up, and the slow student, who may not be inferior in any other respect, is forced to go too fast. …A student who is learning by machine learns at the rate, which is most effective for him. The fast student covers the course in a short time, but the slow student, by giving more time to the subject, can cover the same ground.   Both learn the material thoroughly.

Now, compare this with Questar:

Because students progress through subject material at their own pace, they can be grouped by ability instead of grade level, similar to competency-based learning approaches currently being tried in various schools and districts.

Questar and Skinner…pretty much indistinguishable, aren’t they?

Here’s Skinner one more time:

A teaching machine is simply a convenient way of bringing the student into contact with the man who writes the program. It is the author of the program, not the machines, who teaches.   He stands in the same position as a textbook writer, except that he is much closer to the student. He and the student are constantly interacting.

Parents, here’s the moral of the story: if you want your child “constantly interacting” with whatever corporate testing company your state has contracted with, and if you trust that company to be your child’s teacher, then by all means, CBE is for you.

Personally, these companies haven’t exactly earned my trust over the last few years.



Can We Stop it in Time?

If Obama’s “Testing Action Plan” goes ahead as planned, be prepared for a massive expansion of online and digital learning and testing to sweep our country.

I mean massive.

As in – teachers?  You might want to start looking for alternative work.

Tom Vander Ark, former executive director of education for the Gates Foundation, is so ready for this.

Vander Ark, who recently gave a presentation at the Global Technology Symposium called“New Education: How to Unbundle the Potential of a Multi-Billion Dollar Market” and is now director of a venture capital firm called “Learn Capital” that oversees a giant portfolio of digital and online learning companies, knows that he is sitting on a goldmine – if only we can be manipulated into adopting the policies that will lead to the boom he has been waiting for.

“Coming from the business world, I thought this would all happen fast,” he said in this article. “It’s frustrating that 15 years later online learning is just beginning to mature.”

Poor guy.

Fifteen years ago, when he served as executive director of education for the Gates Foundation, Tom Vander Ark was here in Maine, awarding a 10 million dollar grant to shape schools in our state to his liking.

Never mind the fact that Maine was, at that time, number one in the country according to its NAEP scores (something we can no longer claim.)

“Consider developing two models for high school reform that specifically target rural high schools – one that uses digital technology and on-line courses, the other that is more traditional,” Vander Ark advised our then-commissioner, Duke Albanese.

Only two years earlier, Vander Ark was in Alaska, doling out millions for the state to develop a model of reform that would eventually become the Reinventing Schools Coalition – just one of handful of consultant groups which, with money from the Gates and Nellie Mae Foundations, has since shipped its disciples around the country in an attempt to remake our schools according to his (and his fellow investors’) fancy.

Recently, Vander Ark even appeared to be getting excited about the Opt Out movement.

 “New tests will hinder rather than help competency-based models,” he wrote in an email to members of the Council for Chief School Officers and the Foundation for Excellence in Education. “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.”

(Now go read the Testing Action Plan and see what it calls for.)

Vander Ark, as board member of an international organization called Global Education Futures, has some inside information as to what the future holds.

According to this document  from GEF (which, if you are prone to nightmares, you should not read) we’ll be looking at “performance feedback” systems that include “assessment of learning progress through the use of objective physiological parameters, using real time biometry and neurointerfaces,” and “continuous assessment in gaming-like dynamics that will “transform education into a personal quest to boost a character.’”

Sounds crazy, but Vander Ark and his cronies have been busy.

Using this “Policy Playbook” developed by Bellwether Education (with help from Vander Ark, of course!), corporate reformers have been setting up shop all across the country under the guise of friendly, state-run non-profits, generating demand in all kinds of deceptive ways for personalized (read: digital, competency-based) learning.

“Today, many areas in education, including new educational technologies, remain as hidden opportunities, potentially worth many billions of dollars, where first-movers will have a chance to corner this huge market,” the GEF document explains.

We are getting set up for a giant racket built on the backs of our kids.

Now the question is… can we stop it in time?