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.



On ESSA and Party Crashing

I can’t help but think of good ol’ Tom Vander Ark tonight.

Back in 2010, Vander Ark wrote the following in a blog post on why he believed, at the time, that the reauthorization of ESEA should hold off just a few more years:

 “The world will be different a year from now: 20 states will be well into Race to the Top implementation, hundreds of i3 grantees will be hard at work, the Common Core will have been adopted and new assessments will be in development. The Department has the biggest boldest grant program in history. They should let it reshape the landscape before attempting to adjust the law that will frame the next decade. “

Sure enough, as Vander Ark has been busy investing in charter, online, and digital learning companies, giving presentations on how to unbundle the billion-dollar education market, and advising the Foundation for Excellence in Education and ALEC on policy plays to bring his dreams to fruition, the landscape has indeed shifted.

Just in time for today’s passage of ESSA, most state departments of education are now thoroughly under the thumb of corporations and related billionaire-controlled foundations.

 “It will unleash a flood of excitement and innovation and student achievement that we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Senator Lamar Alexander said in today’s article in the New York Times on the passage of ESSA. “But it will come community by community, state by state, rather than through Washington, D.C.”

If by “flood of excitement,” Senator Alexander means investors slapping each other high five, well – I imagine he’s right.

But I know I’m not jumping for joy.

I’ll tell you what though. For whatever reason, I don’t feel defeated. I know this was a big win for Team Profiteers and Team Deception, but I have this feeling in my gut that this fight is only just getting going.

Maybe it’s just the holiday spirit messing with my emotions.

Either way, as Vander Ark and his cronies no doubt celebrate their victory this evening, I’d like to take a moment to cheer the real heroes of the day: Team Truth and Team Don’t-Mess-With-Our-Kids.

You know who you are.

Now go crash every ESSA party you can find.









The Absurdity of Next-Gen Assessments

Like most teachers who have taught during the golden NCLB-era of American education, I have spent countless hours of my career analyzing graphs, tables and tiered diagrams of student data in order to make the “data-based” instructional decisions that are required of us.

Most of the time, our Pearson and/or McGraw-Hill analytics allow me to glean the following information about my students:  most are average, a few are below (typically the ones who are already getting extra help), and a few are above.

Thank you very much for confirming that bell-curves exist and can I please go back to teaching now.

Now, of course, with the all-but-inevitable ESEA reauthorization waiting in the wings and the “innovation” (read: corporate welfare) it promises, testing and tech companies are promising to deliver products that will give us real-time student data.

Thanks to the new, embedded, competency-based assessments developed by our favorite testing companies and brought to our states through stealth-policies meant to support and/or force their use, teachers won’t have to wait for standardized test data to make instructional decisions. 

Well hallelujah, because today, this happened (below), and I had no idea what to do because I had no digital data analytics at my disposal:

math problem


I’m just kidding.

(And yes – that’s pencil and paper you see up there.  I know – so industrial era, right?)

It turns out, I knew exactly what to do and how to help this student, because I have a brain.

In fact, not only was I able to help this student fix his mistake (he put his 5 in the tens place when it belongs in the hundreds) I was also able to read his mood (a little stressed, because this material is new) and even offer some “biofeedback” (a smile and gentle pat on the back for encouragement).

Not only that, but I was also able to go give more personalized feedback to three or four other students who had their hands raised for help!

Unfortunately, despite evidence of the ease, cost-effectiveness, and humanity of tried-and-true teaching methods like the one I used above, it seems that people have either a) completely lost their minds, b) are absolutely desperate to profit off half-baked edu-tech ideas, or c) the anti-teacher rhetoric of the last fifteen or so years really has been so effective that there are people out there who truly believe that teachers are so useless that we are incapable of giving “real-time feedback” without the aid of digital devices and data analytics.

I suppose it could be a combination of all three.

See below for a quote from this document put out by the Center for the Future of Museums:

“The development of technology that can tap into human brains will tell us what is really going on in there—both conscious and subconscious responses. Teachers are already deploying tools, such as Khan Academy’s learning analytics, that give them real-time feedback on where students are stumbling and what kind of help they need. NeuroFocus has already deployed portable, wireless electroencephalogram (EEG) scanners for market research. As the hardware becomes even smaller and less intrusive, how long before it is harnessed to track learners’ attentiveness, concentration and mood?”

And now see if you can keep from doing this:



On Personalized Learning, Mark Zuckerberg, and Makin’ it Rain

Recently, I have written two letters (here and here) to my former classmate, Mark Zuckerberg, to warn him of the dangers of his educational investment plans. Both letters were as polite and friendly as I could muster – especially given the circumstances – and I took care not to sound too accusatory in either of them.

But of course – despite the fact that Shakira and Melinda Gates got personal notes on his Facebook page a few days ago – I am still waiting on a response.

So, while I wait for an explanation as to why he believes investing in a purely experimental, corporate-invented and corporate-driven theory of learning that has no proven track record of success is a good idea, I thought I’d offer readers more information on why he is such a strong supporter of personalized learning.

To start, let me show you who else is promoting this model.

This guy:


And this guy:

And this guy:



And this guy:



And all of these businesses and corporations:

new-google-logo.jpg             og.jpg           2000px-Dell_Logo.svg.pnght_microsoft_cc_120823_wg.jpg                     o-PEARSON-facebook.jpg532213790eafd.preview-300.jpg           ETSLogo.JPG         2000px-Dell_Logo.svgchi-textbook-publisher-houghton-mifflin-files-001              Connections Academy


And these guys:



Oh! And most of the people who work here, too:


(See ESSA, pages 462-465).
You see, back in 2010, Governors Jeb Bush and Bob Wise convened the Digital Learning Council to “develop the roadmap to integrate current and future technological innovations into public education.” Most of the individuals and organizations above were part of this council.

(No big surprise here: I was not invited – nor were any other elementary school teachers as far as I know – though this is probably for the best, because I would have definitely caused a scene.)

One of the main accomplishments of this Council was the development of the “Ten Elements of High Quality Digital Learning.”

Element number three, of course, is “Personalized Learning,” which is defined as such:

All students can customize their education using digital content through an approved provider.

Now, why would these companies and corporations have such an interest in this type of model, especially when there is no research to show that it is effective for K-12 students?

I’ll let them tell you:

“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.” – Global Education Futures, where Tom Vander Ark (advisor to Digtal Learning Now Council) is a board member


“It’s one of the few bright spots in the market. That’s why we are seeing this battle in education, they all know how important the education segment is, it’s critical…It’s basically a head-on fight for the entry level part of the market that is procuring huge volumes.” – Futuresource analyst Mike Fisher, regarding the explosive sales of Google Chromebooks to local school districts

“The worldwide market for Self-paced eLearning reached $47.9 billion in 2015. The five-year compound annual growth rate is flat at 1.0%, but revenues will reach $50.4 billion by 2020.” – Ambient Insight

And then there is, of course, this old gem from Rupert Murdoch, who has contributed handsomely to Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education:

“When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching…”

So you see, what Mark Zuckerberg is doing is not for the children. It is for his fellow investors, who are anxiously awaiting the unbundling of this multi-billion dollar market.

Which means, of course, that as they continue to experiment with all their digital, “data driven” products brought to our schools through stealth-policies, our children will look like this:


And Mark will be doing this:


Pssst…Mark, it’s me again.

Dear Mark,

First – my sincerest congratulations on the birth of your baby girl.  My son (now sleeping in my arms and making typing a bit difficult) was born just over a year ago, so I know quite well the wonder and fatigue of those first few weeks. I hope you and your wife have gotten some sleep since you’ve been home, and if you haven’t – don’t worry, it’ll get better soon.

When you get a chance to come up for air from your new life with little Max, I have another letter for you to read. (I say “another” because, if you’ve not yet seen it, I wrote you  this letter  a few weeks ago.)

Mark, without question, you said many lovely things in your open letter to your daughter. I know that you – like all parents – truly want this world to be a better place, as it is the world you’ll be leaving behind for Max.

But there was something you said, as you were describing your investments in personalized education, which was not lovely at all.

Here it is below:

“It will take building new technology and trying new ideas. And it will take making mistakes and learning many lessons before achieving these goals.”

Mark, now that you have a little one of your own, will you do something for me? Will you pick her up, put her sweet, floppy little head in the crook of your elbow, and then – just for a moment – imagine something you’d rather not imagine?

Imagine that Max’s mind – the most precious thing she has – will be experimented upon when she gets to school.

Imagine that you no longer have the resources to send her anywhere you like for school, and so she will attend your local public school.

And now imagine that your local public school is working with an out-of-state organization to implement an experimental model of education advocated by digital learning companies, because recently, your state  has quietly signed up  to be part of a lab network with the hope that your daughter and her peers will generate the “proof points” they are looking for.

Now imagine not knowing if Max’s education – the only one she will get – will be one of the mistakes that are made as philanthropists and investors such as yourself work to achieve their goals.

Imagine, too, not knowing for certain what these goals even are – as there has been little to no transparency regarding your state’s new policies nor where they have come from.  Imagine not knowing what will happen to the data your little girl generates for them. Will it be sold? Stored?  For whom and to what end?

This is my reality, Mark, and the reality of many parents in our country. Your friend, Bill Gates, whom I know you admire, along with a network of other organizations – all with corporate ties and funding – has used his money to do in Maine  precisely what I described above.

Please don’t get me wrong: I do not want you to turn away from education. Many schools are in desperate need of resources, and we could certainly use your help and generosity.

But we do not want nor do we deserve to be guinea pigs in corporate experiments.

You said in your letter that you want equality for all.   If this is true, then you need to know that treating humans as subjects in personalized learning experiments is not treating them as equals.

Our children’s minds, just like little Max’s, cannot afford to be “mistakes” that are made as you and other reformers seek to mold education according to the visions you craft behind closed doors. No child should have their education become a casualty that is made along the way as you and other digital reformers attempt to get this right.

My sweet son is now waking (no really – he’s learned to time his naps with mom’s blog posts), and I’m sure you are ready to get back to your wife and baby.  Enjoy every moment with your precious little one, and please let me know if this is something you’d like to talk more about.  I know a few people who’d like to chime in.


Emily Kennedy Talmage, Exeter ’03

P.S. – This is lovely photo.




For several months, I have been blogging like a madman about my suspicions that we are being ushered into a new era of embedded, competency-based assessment that has been planned behind the scenes for years by the testing, ed-tech, and student loan industries.

And now here we are.  The final bicameral version of the ESEA rewrite has been released for us to view, two days before the House intends to vote on it.

I wonder – are our Congressmen busy doing what many of us are tonight?  Searching this document madly to see what’s in it?  Trying to make sense of which clauses go with what, and what all the double-speak actually means?

Do they know what is meant by “competency-based“?  How about “instructionally embedded”?  Do they know the difference between community schools and Community Schools?

What will your representative think when (if?) he or she reads this section below?  Do they know who stands to gain from all of this, and what it may mean for our kids?

The term ‘innovative assessment system’ means a system of assessments that may include competency-based assessments, instructionally embedded assessments, interim assessments, cumulative year-end assessments, or performance-based assessments that combine into an

annual summative determination for a student which may be administered through computer adaptive assessments; and assessments that validate when students are ready to demonstrate mastery or proficiency and allow for differentiated student support based on individual learning needs.
Please call if you haven’t and ask them to delay this vote.  We need time to explain to them what all this means.


Here he is again, the No Squirrel: