Sorry NYTimes. We’re Onto You.

This morning, the New York Times published an editorial claiming that our high school diplomas are meaningless.

Isn’t that funny?  That’s  exactly what the Digital Learning Now Council has been claiming too.

The DLN Council, made up of CEO’s and representatives from across the charter, ed-tech, and assessment industries, recently published a document called “Navigating the Digital Shift,” calling for all states to implement “proficiency” (competency) based diplomas.

In 2012, my poor home state of Maine  fell victim  to a well-orchestrated, Gates-funded PR campaign and has so far been the only state to make this corporate-driven idea a reality.

Apparently, the Times editors are of the same mind as Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon-Mobile, who recently angered parents across the country with his claim that the business community is the customer of public schools, and thus we have a responsibility to turn out products (people) that they can use.

According to the Times, “some South Carolina business leaders are worried that the state is producing high school graduates who are not qualified to compete for higher-skilled jobs at companies like Boeing, Volvo and BMW.”

I wonder if they’ve been talking to members of the Maine Chamber of Commerce, who recently urged our state lawmakers to “stay the course” on our experimental proficiency-based diploma mandate despite the havoc it is wreaking on our schools, because, according to their newsletters, “Business is, after all, the number one consumer of our public education system.”

Unfortunately for next-gen reformers, David Ruff of the Gates and Nellie Mae-funded Great Schools Partnership let the cat out of the bag when he explained in this article by digital-learning zealot Tom Vander Ark: “I like the idea of starting with graduation requirements as this is a huge leverage point…We are not telling schools how to teach, but rather, how the state coordinates what it means to graduate.”

Vander Ark, of course – who advised the Digital Learning Now Council, which devised policies that have been adopted by the American Legislative Exchange Council and made their way into the recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, thinks that kids should get to school each day and be greeted with a graph that looks like this:

 

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and that if the system finds they are off-track in any way, they should receive a big red warning system.

Yikes.

It’s also quite telling that the New York Times references a study by Achieve in their editorial.

If you’ve never seen this flowchart, devised by the brilliant Morna McDermott, check it out now and see how intimately connected Achieve is with big business, Common Core, and the infamous Pearson:

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Now check out the  link  the New York Times provides to Achieve, and see what policies it recommends.

 

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What do you know! Competency-based pathways!

Next-gen ed reformers are absolutely determined to make this idea (which has been around for decades) work once and for all, and it seems that they’ve enlisted the New York Times Editorial Board to help spin the requisite story-telling to generate public buy-in.

What do you say we stop them in their tracks?

Go  here  to leave a comment on the Times article.

 

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On the Obsession with Outcomes

Back in high school, I read Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations twice.

The first time I read it, I didn’t really read it. I skimmed some parts, but mostly studied the Sparknotes version well enough to get an A on the test.

The second time I read it was as a sophomore, after I’d transferred to a private boarding school. The small, intimate nature of our English classes made it impossible to hide the fact that I hadn’t done my reading, and so this time, I actually did read it.

And I dare say, I’ve never been quite the same.

I don’t fully remember the plot, but I do remember being engrossed by Pip’s transformation throughout the story: his pursuit of a high-class, gentlemanly life style, his descent into snobbery, and then his remarkable shift toward humility and kindness after discovering the truth about his financial benefactor.

And I also remember that as Pip transformed, I did too – at least a little. The story hit home in such a way that I do believe I myself became a bit kinder after reading it.  Suddenly, my own “great expectations” – my own pursuit of outcomes of all sorts – began to take a backseat to thoughts themselves.

There were other books, too, that had a similar soul-stirring effect on me: All Quiet on the Western Front, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Shakespeare had a way of getting to me as well.

I wonder, now, what would have happened to me had I attended a school like the one in Deer Park, New York, where an administrator explained that in the new era of Common Core, “We look at teaching literature as teaching particular concepts and skills. So we maybe aren’t teaching an entire novel, but we’re ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across,” or a Summit Public School, where students are greeted on their laptops each day with a graph that looks like this:

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 According to Tom Vander Ark, Summit Public Schools have a “college and career readiness system will track growth trajectory of knowledge, skills, and success habits against college goals, and “students falling short of their planned growth trajectory, on any front, will see a big red warning system.”

Let that sink in.

“Students falling short of their planned growth trajectory, on any front, will see a big red warning system.”

Vander Ark describes the system with breathless admiration: “I don’t know of anyone else thinking about goal-focused tracking on these dimensions,” and at a White House summit on next-gen high schools, Isabelle Parker, CFO of Summit Public Schools, boasted: “We cultivate in our children the real-life habits and skills that lead to success in today’s world. And we ensure every minute of every day at school is supporting this type of student-centered learning.”

But I wonder: what kind of effect might an outcome-obsessed system like this have on a young person’s mind?  What happens to those transformative literary experiences like the one I had with Great Expectations?  Are students trapped into believing that the “outcomes” they are working toward are all there is?

If you’ve not yet read it, please take a moment to read this exceptional essay by Peter Greene called “One Wrong Move.”

Greene, who has taught for 30 years in the same town, describes an experience with a class of juniors who were “so paralyzed with fear they couldn’t do much of anything.”

“These were honor students,” Greene writes. “The top students that my rural/small town high school had to offer. And they couldn’t get past their fear-inflicted need to never do a thing unless they were sure it was right (because one way to avoid making One Wrong Move is to never move at all).”

I agree wholeheartedly with Greene that much of the ed reform movement has been a reflection of this mindset.

“We must set benchmarks,” he writes, “and we must get students to meet them because if they don’t meet those benchmarks, they will be failures and the nation will fail and our national defense will be compromised and our international standing will disintegrate and our seat at the United nations will be moved to a van down by the East River.”

The absurdity seems to only get worse with each passing year, and the paralysis extends long after students leave the classroom.

When I worked at a charter school in Brooklyn for a year, I was surrounded by many bright, highly accomplished TFAers, who were so determined to prove that they could jump through any hoops that were set for them that they seemed unable to recognize the harm they were inflicting on the young people in their classrooms.

The obsession with raising test scores was so blinding that I remember asking, once, if it would be okay to do a quick game with the kids to make a long morning of learning only about “procedures” (how to use the bathroom, walk in the hall, etc.) a bit more fun.

Our supervisor snapped at me: “Fun is absolutely not an appropriate objective.”

But the blindness, of course, can be even more sinister than eliminating “fun” from elementary schools in the name of outcomes.

In an article titled, “Why Philanthropy Actually Hurts Rather Than Helps Some of the World’s Worst Problems,” Linsey McGoey, author of No Such Thing As A Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy, notes yet another problem with the direction education reforms have taken us:

“High-profile, 19th-century authors such as Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens often wrote essays and fiction that satirized and denounced the way that philanthropy seemed to entrench inequalities rather than dissipate them,” says McGoey, of one of the mediating factors that once help to keep “philanthrocapitalism” in check. “That literary thread seems almost absent today.

If McGoey is right, this means that the types of soul-stirring, mind-awakening, independent-thought-provoking experiences that allow us to question powers that be are being pushed out of our schools by…the powers that be.

I have only one word for this:

Yikes.

Okay and three more:

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Ed Reform Groundhog Day

During a conversation about education reform at a holiday party I attended last week, a long-time high school teacher said to me, “You’ll see as you get more years of experience.  You start to feel like: haven’t we seen this already?”

I laughed and said it’s like that cliché you always hear about insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

When it comes to ed reform, of course, it’s really not a cliché. It’s par for the course.

Check out the quote below, and see if you can guess the year it was written:

 …schools will offer a common core of learning and, at the same time, provide diversity and choice. In short, individualized education implies the personalization of the entire educational process.

If you guessed 1974, you were right.

This was written by Robert G. Scanlon, former Pennsylvania Education Secretary, in an article called: “A Curriculum for Personalized Education.”

Recently, with endorsements and investments from Mark Zuckerberg, the U.S. Department of Education, and members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, personalized learning has been heralded as the latest, greatest “innovation” to hit our reform-battered schools.

But a close look into the internet archives of educational history reveals that there is nothing innovative about this idea at all.

In “A Curriculum for Personalized Education,” Scanlon describes a curriculum that “permits student mastery of instructional content at individual learning rates,” “encourage[s] student evaluation of progress toward mastery,” and includes “a variety of paths for mastery of any given objective.”

Flash forward forty years to a portion of a document published by the Gates Foundation titled “Proficiency-Based Pathways”:

“Learning solutions—units, courses, and subjects—should have clear progress trajectories from novice through apprentice to mastery. Students should understand how to advance from one level to the next.”

The Gates Document boasts in its introduction: “We have been thinking in very nontraditional ways.”  But compare the two quotes above, and you’ll see that the Gates Foundation is calling for the very same reform ideas that have been planned and attempted for decades.

Now check out this quote from Scanlon in 1974:

“The objectives of individualized instruction can be used as a basis for designing educational technology. How these devices will be made more cost- effective by new miniaturizations and transistors remains a question, but plans for their utilization must begin now.

Can you imagine Scanlon’s delight at the invention of Chromebooks and iPads?  And is it any wonder why reformers like Gates are so optimistic that the time has finally come to bring about the dream of personalized learning?  See Gates below:

“Conditions are ripe for creating personalized learning opportunities beyond school—in an anytime, anywhere fashion…We believe it’s possible with the convergence of the Common Core State Standards, the work on new standards-based assessments, the development of new data systems, and the rapid growth of technology-enabled learning experiences.”

It also sheds new light on the borderline desperation found in this quote from Tom Vander Ark, who cannot bear the thought of having to wait any longer for the competency-based restructuring of our schools:

 “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.”

And it reveals why Jeb Bush and Bob Wise called their council “Digital Learning Now!” Reformers have been waiting for this for decades and are losing their patience!

If you’re beginning to wonder if perhaps I’m giving these guys too much credit for their ability to plan, check out this quote below, again from 1974, this time from Harold E. Mitzel in an article called “Computer Technology: The Key to the Future?”

“Education is so decentralized that it seems unlikely that individual school organizations will be able to afford the development of their own computer-based curriculum. Statewide or regional consortia seem to be the best bet for actually putting programs together…Even if states or regions can mount the necessary curriculum initiative, it will probably be up to the federal government to provide the financial resources for massive program development.

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post arguing that the one of the hidden reasons behind the formation of the Smarter Balanced and PARCC consortia was the opportunity for IT and assessment vendors to collaborate on “interoperability frameworks” – or common coding languages.  See this quote below from the 2012 National Conference on Student Assessment program:

 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.

Voila!  Precisely what Mitzel called for back in 1974!

Here’s another quote from Mitzel:

These applications of the computer depend neither on new technological developments nor on new pedagogical concepts. The major restraints lie within the social institutions responsible for education.

And here is the U.S. Department of Education in its latest technology plan arguing the very same thing:

“The roles of PK–12 classroom teachers and post-secondary instructors, librarians, families, and learners all will need to shift as technology enables new types of learning experiences.”

The fact is, the reason these reform ideas keep coming back, decade after decade, is that they never really die.  The planners retreat but come back swinging, because at the end of the day, they can’t seem to shake this sentiment, uttered recently by the CEO of Exxon Mobile:

“I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer…What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation…Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested?”

Of course, what they don’t seem to understand is that we don’t want to turn our schools into human capital factories.

But this seems to be the fundamental misunderstanding that keeps us locked in this never-ending cycle, where “innovative” always means same-old same-old, and our schools are constantly under attack by bad ideas that just won’t go away.

I say keep opting out. It may be the only way to escape Ed Reform Groundhog Day.

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Our Schools Are Not Widget-Makers

Last May, only a week or so after I testified  in opposition to our proficiency-based diploma mandate, my fourth grade colleagues and I took our students on a field trip to visit our state capitol.

Our first stop was the state house, which was bustling with activity, as we had arrived just before a legislative session was about to begin.

During a whirlwind tour of the Senate chamber, my students and I found ourselves longing to do what we knew we shouldn’t:  the kids, or at least a few of them, wanted very much to try pushing the “yes” and “no” voting buttons; meanwhile, I had to hold my hands behind my back to keep from snatching up the newsletters that had been placed before each legislator’s chair.

Placed squarely in front of each seat was a copy of “Impact” – the newsletter put out by the Maine Chamber of Commerce – with the following headline at the top of the page:

“Maine State Chamber Urges Education committee to Stay the Course on Proficiency-Based education: Maine’s workforce development needs are too critical.”

And then, only a few lines in, was the following quote:

“Business is, after all, the number one consumer of our public education system.”

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Consumers?  Of public education?  Did that mean that the curious kiddos that I was leading through the senate chambers were products that we were developing – for business?

The mentality fits squarely with proficiency (also known as competency) based education, which argues that students should work at their own pace and be given as many tries as necessary before they have demonstrated the requisite competencies and attitudes to be considered an output of sufficient value.

It also echoes comments made by Rex Tillerson, head of Exxon Mobile, found in this article in Fortune and written about brilliantly here by Peter Greene:

“I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer…What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation…Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested?”

And this, of course – in addition to the profits to be made through its implementation and all the digitalization and data collection it demands – is why “personalized” and competency-based learning has long been popular among members of the business community: it treats students – children – as products that can be managed like any other resource.

“We’re taking the play out,” said Superintendent Thomas Guines back in 1977 about a competency-based pilot program conducted in Washington D.C. “We’re taking the guesswork out. We’re putting in a precise predicted treatment that leads to a predicted response.”

A predictable product, that is.

It’s also why the system being implemented in my local district by the Gates and Nellie Mae-funded Reinventing Schools Coalition is based on experiments conducted in rural Alaskan districts where the theory of Total Quality Management – originally developed in the automotive industry – was applied to schools.  TQM is at the heart of our data and outcome-obsessed education policies.

Keeping in mind the quotes above, read Wikipedia’s definition of total quality management:

Organization-wide efforts to install and make permanent a climate in which an organization continuously improves its ability to deliver high-quality products and services to customers.

and now try this: substitute the word “organization” with the word “school,” “products and services” with the words “human capital”,” and “customers” with the word “business”:

School-wide efforts to install and make permanent a climate in which a school continuously improves its ability to deliver high-quality human capital to business.

And this, of course, is what the Maine Chamber of Commerce, the Exxon CEO,  and most of our legislators seem to believe is the purpose of our public schools.

Peter Greene expertly describes this viewpoint below:

“Tillerson’s view is anti-education, anti-American, anti-human. It’s a reminder that the education debates are not about Left versus Right or GOP versus Dems. The education debates are about the interests of the human beings who are citizens of a nation and stakeholders in its public institutions versus the interests of a those who believe their power and money entitle them to stripmine an entire nation in order to gather more power and money for themselves. The education debates are about democracy versus oligarchy. The education debates are about valuing the voices of all citizens versus giving voice only to the special few Who Really Matter.”

This is so much of what this battle is all about, and why – despite a year of one ambush after another – we have no choice but to say onward and upwards.

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Our schools are not your widget-makers.

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How ALEC Stole the Public from Public Education: A Cautionary but Inspring Tale

Andy Goldstein, a parent and teacher in Florida, wrote this story below and recited it before the School Board of Palm Beach County. The story is a cautionary tale about ALEC’s involvement in our public schools.

For those who may not know, ALEC is an organization that connects corporations and politicians behind closed doors.  They draft model legislation (designed to boost corporate profit) and bring these laws to our states.  Incentives for many of their favored policies, including Pay for Success, competency-based education, and – of course – high stakes testing – were written into the latest version of ESEA, which was signed into law this month.

Here is the story, with a link to his brilliant performance below.   Enjoy!

How the ALEC stole the Public from Public Education

Every kid
Down in Kidville
Liked public education a lot!
But the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, did not.

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ALEC hated public education
The whole public school season!
If you want to know why,
I’ll tell you the reason.
It’s a cautionary tale
That spans
‘cross many a political season.

Long long ago
And far far away
from high upon its perch
ALEC spied down
And set its eyes upon some prey!

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It saw little boys and girls skipping merrily to school
and it grimaced a terrible grimmace
And it growled a terrible growl
And it slobbered and drooled and thought to itself

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They’re so naturally happy,
there’s no money in that!
I must put a stop to it at the drop of a hat.

 

So ALEC thought and thought and thought some more
About how it could make money and say what it’s for.

It snapped its finger and with a chuckle and glee
Said I’ll buy me a politician or two or three!
Or three thousand! Or ten thousand!
From sea to sea!
They’ll do my bidding
For a political fee!

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But I must have a ruse, he said with a snark
When people ask me what for
I’ll tell them we need a Common Core.
A national standards, with high-stakes galore!

We’ll keep those kids busy, worrying and fretting
Over malfunctioning computers that keep track of all they’re forgetting!

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And those teachers! Those fools! Trying to help all the kids!

We’ll demonize them and theirs schools and put out for bids
To privatize, privatize with charters and kids
Yes, we’ve got private kids paid for with public monies!

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It takes money away from the rest and leaves many with empty tummies.
And Alec thought to himself with a sly wicked smile
I’m winning! I’m winning a ton of money!

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But there were angels afloat, quickening the air
With trumpets sounding a blast at ALEC
The last trumpet drawing near
Sounding a great sound and a note that
the greed will be no more.
And calling upon one and all
To stand and be counted and rise real tall
To Lift their voices so they can be heard
Through rallies and strikes around the world

 

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And here in Florida
We say
Enough is enough!
Join us January 14th
For the Rally in Tally
To support our public schools
Unite unite
Rise up and be heard!

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Watch Andy read his poem here:

Chilling Words

Last spring, before my fourth graders took the Smarter Balanced Assessment, I knew that it would not be a test worth administering.

In addition to knowing that it would be long, developmentally inappropriate, and unlikely to inform my instruction in any meaningful way, I also knew that I would be required to sign a security agreement that said I could not view the test as my students took it.  (Were they hiding something or did they really just have that little respect for teachers?)

I also knew a few things that I don’t think many people know even now – that, for example, the “adaptive” version of the test had never been field tested (they used the “fixed” version as the field test, claiming that results from that test would inform the “adaptive” version), and that the “adaptive” claim itself was pretty much bunk.

So, when I got a note from a parent a week or two before the test began asking for my professional opinion on the upcoming test, you might think that I would have been able to do the type of things doctors get to do when parents ask about treatments: explain the benefits (um…), and the risks (your child is being used as a lab rat in what amounts to a corporate testing experiment, it may or may not severely stress her out, she’ll lose a bunch of learning time while she’s at it, and neither you nor I will have a clue what to make of the “results” when we get them back.)

But, of course, I was allowed to do no such thing.

Instead, letters went home with all students explaining the “benefits” of the test, and I, meanwhile, was told to be “very careful.”

Check out the video below, and realize that this is the message being sent to teachers all over the country and not just about standardized testing.  (A teacher told me recently that her administrators insisted they appear to be “on board” with the latest reforms both in and out of school.)

 Audience Member: “Can educators share their legitimate concerns about the test with parents?”

 Anita Skop (New York City Superintendent): “They shouldn’t. They shouldn’t because they have no right to say ‘This is how I feel.’ They have no right. It’s not their job.”

Tell me, Ms. Skop, what is our job?

To do the bidding of our higher ups, whatever they may be?

To conduct “research and development” in our classrooms for private testing companies?

To  administer digital media  while we monitor data dashboards?

How have we reduced teachers – who have dedicated their careers to educating children – to so little?

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U.S. Department of Education Enters the Twilight Zone

Last week, in a move that coincided so perfectly with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that it almost made you wonder if the whole thing was pre-planned behind the scenes, the U.S. Department of Education released its five-year technology plan.

No big surprise here: rather than offer sensible suggestions and grant opportunities for states and local districts to implement technology in ways proven to be beneficial for kids, the plan instead reads like a blueprint for a complete overhaul of our national educational system.

It also mirrors the plan being pushed by the testing, charter, digital/online learning, and student loan industries, as most of its recommendations appear to come straight from “Ten Elements of High Quality Digital Learning” – a list of recommendations developed by a council of executives from testing giants like Pearson and McGraw Hill, charter chains like Rocketship, tech companies like Apple and Microsoft, and – of course – the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Personalized learning (Mark Zuckerberg’s other new baby), competency-based education, and embedded, stealth assessment – including assessment of “non-cognitive competencies” – all play prominent roles in both the “Ten Elements” and the U.S. DOE’s new technology plan.

But if that alone doesn’t give you shivers, there’s more.

Despite an admission that research on the effectiveness of technology-enabled programs and resources is still limited, the technology plan also suggests that “the roles of PK–12 classroom teachers and post-secondary instructors, librarians, families, and learners all will need to shift as technology enables new types of learning experiences.”

Yes – you read that right.  According the U.S. DOE, not only our schools, but also our families will need to change to make way for the Brave New World recommended by the edu-profiteers.

The plan also says that we will need to consider the “redesign of physical learning spaces to accommodate new and expanded relationships among learners, teachers, peers, and mentors,” and that “leaders should take stock of current systems and processes across learning systems and identify those that can be augmented or replaced by existing technologies.”

I don’t know about you, but when I hear the phrase “redesign of physical learning spaces,” I think of this poorly executed plan (below) that a principal in the Bronx had, where she demanded that teachers throw out their desks to make the rooms more “student-centered.”

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The plan also suggests that we, in our states and local districts, conduct research and development to “explore how embedded assessment technologies such as simulations, collaboration environments, virtual worlds, games, and cognitive tutors can be used to engage and motivate learners while assessing complex skills” – meaning, of course, that we should use taxpayer money to do the work of private companies – using our children, in their classrooms, as lab rats in these projects.

Frankly, the whole thing makes me wonder if the U.S. DOE has been “foresighting” with the organization that developed this graphic below:

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Does anyone else wonder what kind of strange twilight zone we seem to be entering?

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