ESSA Whack-A-Mole

Recently, I read a comment on Diane Ravitch’s blog that said that with the passage of ESSA, we will now be playing “whack-a-mole” with the American Legislative Exchange Council and host of billionaire-backed foundation-funded groups who – if they have not yet descended upon your neck of the woods – are no doubt ready to pounce on your state capitol and local districts.

ESSA, of course, offers states big grants for digital, blended learning, and competency-based learning projects –none of which have solid research support their use, but all of which have been developed behind the scenes with plenty of financial support from Wall Street and venture capitalists.

When Lamar Alexander said the following regarding ESSA:

“It will unleash a flood of excitement and innovation and student achievement that we haven’t seen in a long time…”

what he meant was exactly what Arne Duncan meant when he said this:

“Whereas No Child Left Behind prescribed a top-down, one-size fits all approach to struggling schools, this law offers the flexibility to find the best local solutions—while also ensuring that students are making progress.”

And both, of course, meant the following:

We now get to shop around, district by district, for the best “learning solutions” that are being offered by Pearson, McGraw Hill, Quester, Measured Progress, and all the rest.

As for the whack-a-mole analogy, I thought it was a great comment, and it made me think of a time when I was little and watched my mom absolutely crush a game of whack-a-mole at Hershey Park, in a feat of super-human determination and rapid-fire reflexes.

My mom, who is a superior court justice here in Maine, is extremely smart, lightning quick, and not someone you want to mess with when she’s got a plastic bat in her hand.

Which got me thinking:

If we (corporate deform resistors) are going to stay ahead of the game, we are probably going to have to be just as smart, quick, and determined as my mom was on that long-ago summer day at Hershey Park.

With that said, here are few thoughts on ways to send these moles back to the holes from whence they came.

1) Follow the money behind current and recently enacted education policies in your state, and be sure to let people know what you’ve learned.

Here in Maine, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation has funded lobbying, “will-building” campaigns, and non-profit consultant groups to transform our system into one that is “proficiency-based” (same as competency-based).   If you live in New England, Nellie Mae has probably been busy in your state too.

These groups are spending huge money to convince your fellow community members that their reforms are not only necessary, but have in fact been developed in your very own town or city – when, of course, little could be further from the truth.

2) Look beyond the facade.

Bellwether Education, which consults with all the biggest education corporations and foundations, recommends to its clients that they set up local nonprofits to help drum up “buy-in” for their reform ideas.

This isn’t a foolproof method, of course, but if you see the words “excellence,” “great,” “alliance” or “partnership” in the title of an organization, chances are good that you’re looking at a corporate front group that has been set up to convince your local community that you should buy whatever they are selling.


3) Ask your state officials and local school board for research to support the policies they are implementing.

If they send you something with colorful graphics and photographs of children looking excessively happy, send it back and tell them that what they have sent you is corporate propaganda.  Ask again for real research, and if they can’t find any, ask why they are using children in your state and/or district as guinea pigs.

4) If  you attend a local school board meeting and you find out that it’s being hosted by a consultant, find out who the consultant is and where they are from.

If they are from one of the groups mentioned above, know that they are selling snake oil.

5) If you attend a meeting in your local district and the meeting starts  with a list of  “desired outcomes,” ask whose outcomes they are.  

Chances are, they aren’t yours.

Okay.  That’s only  five suggestions, I know – but it’s a start.  Let me know if you have other ideas.

And happy whack-a-moling.



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 “ESSA Whack-A-Mole”

  1. Much as I would like to believe that asking policymakers – particularly those in the Legislature – for their research would actually make them think twice about what they’re doing, I don’t. When proficiency-based education was being introduced into Maine, but before we had the required PBE diploma, I asked multiple times of multiple people who had some clout what the basis for their optimism was. Not a single one provided actual evidence, research or data. They all just kept saying “Here are all these wonderful resources and you’re just being a blocker.” What will ultimately do in the current crop of ed reform is simply the passage of time: something new will come along. It always does. What would make a difference at the class and school level is for parents and teachers to (surreptitiously, maybe) agree to ignore the ed reformers – which may include their own superintendents and principals – and continue to support good teaching as best they can. Date: Fri, 11 Dec 2015 22:54:24 +0000 To:


  2. Nancy EH – I couldn’t agree more. If parents and teachers don’t “buy” the product, the company will go bankrupt. The public funds and owns public education and provide the two indispensable components – teachers and students.


  3. I believe the inception of CBE will be subtle. Many parents will be told it’s just so that their kids can be “tech savvy.” They won’t be aware, until it’s too late, that it’s 1:1 student:computer ratio and their early education will be spent socializing with a computer-not so much with their peers. It’s frightening! Here is the actual plan from the US Office of Educational Technology (when did this become a “thing”?)

    I remember driving by our local elementary school a few months ago, and seeing the reader board which said “Parent Meeting: Closing the Digital Divide”. I had no idea what that meant-but I guess now I do.


  4. My daughter graduated from high school using competency for each subject. This just meant that she was competent in subject evaluated by the teacher. She graduated high school with essentially no grades just competency. She wrote a multipage thesis on what she learned in high school and on the various subjects that she took. I am not sure what the problem would be with competency as a evaluation tool of the student.


    1. It is not the concept of “competency” that is the problem, but rather how it is now being used and implemented to push a digital, highly controlled form of education that is designed to benefit Ed tech, testing, and student loan companies … And also the way our laws and policies are being manipulated with little transparency.


  5. ALEC is an old hand at whack-a-mole scenarios, introducing dozens of bills through shills (AKA co-opted state legislators) so that the defenders of good policy are stretched out over those dozens of issues. You have to have good state-level organizing and educating to push back.


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