Who is Nellie Mae?

While foundations like Gates, Wallace, and Broad have earned notoriety for the “philanthrocapitalism” that has driven the privatization of public education, a lesser known foundation has flown mostly under the radar as it invests millions of dollars into “personalized” and “competency-based” education reforms.

Since at least 2009, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation has poured millions of dollars into the latest ed reform craze that has made headlines recently due to investments of billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Reed Hastings of Netflix.  When stripped of the misleading rhetoric that often surrounds it, “personalized learning” is the digital, data-driven system of schooling designed to trigger giant corporate profits along with tightly controlled, work-forced aligned learning outcomes.

Based in Quincy, Massachusetts, Nellie Mae was formed when New England-based student loan company, Nellie Mae Corporation, was sold to student loan behemoth, Sallie Mae.  (See here to learn about Nellie Mae’s sister foundation, Lumina, formed from a similar sale.) Since then, Nellie Mae has grown its assets to $532 million, thanks in part to an off-shore hedge fund in the Cayman Islands and major donations from the Gates Foundation.

Nellie Mae’s agenda to move public schools toward the unproven and controversial competency-based model of education dovetails neatly with the post-ESSA direction now aggressively pursued by the U.S. Department of Education, the American Legislative Exchange Council, as well as most major testing and ed-tech companies.

Grants from Nellie Mae can now be traced to countless personalized learning initiatives across the country, including conferences, lobbying efforts, market research,  and public relations campaigns aimed at generating public buy-in for their sought-after reforms. Recently, Nellie Mae teamed up with the Gates-funded KnowledgeWorks Foundation (which predicts the end of the teaching profession as we know it) and Mark Zuckerberg’s newly launched private-giving organization to define a “transformational vision” of education.

Nellie Mae has also awarded major grants to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), where Nicholas Donohue, who earns $450k a year as CEO and president of Nellie Mae, is a board member.

Locally, Nellie Mae has sunk its claws deep into the state of Maine.  Beginning in 2010, grants from Nellie Mae were instrumental in the passage of Maine’s “proficiency-based diploma” law, which laid the groundwork for the total upheaval of Maine’s schools. By following Bellwether Education’s advice and financing local non-profits like the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education to take legislators on a retreat and Educate Maine to take hold of the Teacher of the Year Program, Nellie Mae has ensured that most Mainers know little of the extent to which out-of-state special interest groups are dictating state education policy.

In Massachusetts, similar efforts are underway by way of the Center for Collaborative Education.  With grants from Nellie Mae and the Next Generation Learning Challenges, CCE recently launched the Massachusetts Personalized Learning Network with the goal of generating “a critical mass of urban schools that exemplify personalized, competency-based” learning.

Reflecting recent social science research from Frameworks Institute  (also funded by Nellie Mae), CCE’s website invokes the value of “progress” to make the case for its experimental reforms:  “As Massachusetts’ student population grows more diverse, the one-size-fits-all school educational model of the past can no longer properly prepare our students for in college, career, and life in the 21st Century.”

Nellie Mae has also recently extended its reach into Florida, where the state legislature recently passed a bill allowing three districts to “pilot” competency-based education models. The Nellie Mae-funded Great Schools Partnership will now consult with Pinellas County Florida as it attempts to transition to this model.  (Pinellas parents be warned: Great Schools is building a plane as they fly it, and no – they are not experts as they claim.)

According to its website, Great Schools Partnership has contracted with districts throughout New England as well as in Colorado, Illinois, and Georgia.

Finally, Nellie Mae appears to be behind the “assessment reform” movement that has attempted to attach itself to the Opt Out Movement’s coat tails. With KnowledgeWorks, the Center for Collaborative Education and iNACOL  (both Nellie Mae funded) were instrumental in developing ESSA’s “innovative assessment” option that encourages states to shift toward competency-based models.Recently, Nellie Mae even awarded a five thousand dollar grant to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) to help them showcase “performance based assessments” that are considered a “policy enabler” to bring about the shift to competency-based education.

Moral of the story: if Nellie Mae wasn’t on your radar, make sure they are now.  No doubt they’ll be in your state soon, and you’ll want to know what they’re up to.

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Opt Out Dad Sent to Facebook Jail

Is Facebook censoring an Opt Out parent?

Kevin Ohlandt, author of the blog Exceptional Delaware, father of a special needs son, and public education advocate was posting his recent piece, “The Parent Bill of Rights for Children,” when he suddenly received a message from Facebook saying that he was no longer allowed to post or join any groups for two weeks.

“I’ve done this hundreds of times without anything like this happening,” Ohlandt said.

Ohlandt wrote the “Parent Bill of Rights for Children” in response to a recent initiative from the pro-reform, Gates-funded group Center for American Progress (CAP) to gather signatures for its “Testing Bill of Rights.”

CAP’s Testing Bill of Rights echoes the recent Trojan horse “Testing Action Plan” from the Obama Administration, which poses as a response to parents’ concerns about over-testing, but is actually an attempt to usher in a corporate-driven, competency-based “assessment system” that has long been in the works.

Ohlandt is looking for 20,000 comments or signatures on his Parent Bill of Rights, which calls for the right to opt children out of standardized tests; the right to refuse the collection and use of children’s data in blended, personalized, or digital learning programs; and the right to “reject any ‘competency-based education’ decisions for our children that we feel are not based on reasonable, valued, well-researched, or statistically-normed guidelines or analysis.”

Read the full Parent Bill of Rights here, and help spread the word while Ohlandt is behind Facebook bars.

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Baltimore Mom Takes on Pearson

In Baltimore County, where Superintendent Dallas Dance is implementing a 270 million 1:1 digital learning experiment called “STAT,” some parents are getting mad.  So mad, in fact, that one mom decided to buy a “virtual ticket” to attend the Pearson online learning conference where representatives from her district were speaking.

“It signals strange times when the average parent finds it necessary to attend the very conferences that her own school administrators attend,” the Baltimore parent writes in this blog post.  “When we find ourselves anxious to learn what exactly our school system executives are up to and what they are planning to do to our children, it might be a sign that things have reached desperate levels.  And at Baltimore County Public Schools, they most certainly have.”

At the conference, the parent discovered several disturbing things: first, that Baltimore County has not, in fact, been “pioneering” visionary ideas like blended and personalized learning, but is instead a “speck on the back” of a fast-moving, nationwide conversion to digital learning.

She also learned that parents are viewed by corporate executives as obstacles to overcome in the shift toward digital and online learning.

In one session, Bruce Friend, Chief Operating Officer of iNACOL, zeroed in on a mother from New Jersey who put her district’s digital learning program in jeopardy when she voiced concerns to her local school board.

As Friend projected a picture of the parent speaking to her school board, he explained to the audience that his presentation was “due to this woman.”

A year later, the Baltimore mom writes, Friend “was still pained about it and he found it necessary to use her, her picture, her school system and even the exact date of the BOE meeting at which she spoke, as an example of what happens when, in his view, school systems fail to educate parents and get their ‘buy-in.’”

Friend also provided enough detail about the New Jersey mom and her son that the Baltimore parent was able to find her in three minutes flat.

“What Mr. Friend did not know about this woman,” she writes, “was that she is an active and very vocal advocate and is in no way confused. In fact, she is well aware and well informed about what he, and others like him, are peddling. “

That Pearson video has since been pulled from Pearson’s webcast archives.

“We have, indeed, reached a level at which we have to pay attention and do desperate things like follow our school administration around, virtually and otherwise,” writes the Baltimore mom.

“Parents must become engaged and stay engaged.  We must do our own research and share our resources and not follow rumor and hysteria, but actively inform ourselves on information that already exists and is available. We just have to be willing to be awake and to become informed; and we must push passed the feeling that this is just too big, but keep moving forward, no matter what.  Our school system depends on it and our 112,000 students deserve it.”

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Correction: Original post said that mom in conference video is from Florida.  She lives in New Jersey.  

Personalized Learning: How Big is the Beast?

If you’ve not yet heard, public education as we know it is on its way out.

While we toiled in the trenches under No Child Left Behind, a massive infrastructure was built to support a shift toward competency-based, “personalized learning” – just in time for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education (now called ESSA).

With its reliance on one-to-one digital devices, digital courseware, artificial intelligence, and massive data collection, personalized learning promises to reap big rewards for investors and corporate executives.

Just how big is the beast? Let’s take a look.

 Hydra Head #1: Digital Infrastructure

Remember PARCC and Smarter Balanced?   Those tests that were supposed to tell us whether or not our kids were “college and career ready”?

Here’s what they were actually intended to accomplish, according to the program from the 2012 National Conference on Student Assessment:

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.

This well hidden technology agenda is why, even if your state has pulled out of these consortia, it has been replaced by an assessment made by one of the companies contracted to build the PARCC and SBAC tests (Questar, Measured Progress, AIR, etc). It’s also why the new tests look remarkably similar to one another.

Another consortium, IMS Global, which includes most of the testing companies above as well as giant tech companies like Microsoft, Samsung, and Intel, also been busy building standard technology platforms to support the digital, personalized learning market.

Here’s how Rob Abel, CEO of IMS Global, explains it:

“When integrations cost time or money that nobody has, that stops progress from being made.  The theory is that if we take the friction out of going digital, that helps the market develop for everyone.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Education has teamed up with the Department of Defense to move the personalized learning market forward by creating a “Federal Learning Registry” of standards-aligned resources that will interact with the products the companies above plan to sell you.

“By making learning resources available within a common approach,” the Learning Registry website explains, “we may see more innovation in the marketplace because finding and assembling high quality solutions may be easier and cheaper.”

Even the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the Department of Defense is helping to build the infrastructure to support “personalized learning.”  A recent Request for Information from DARPA asked for submissions for possible “educational tools [that] would adapt to individuals over time” and would allow “student assessment [to] be embedded within the application as a seamless part of the overall instructional process.”

“An important aspect of this program is the development and integration of tools to monitor cognitive or physiological response of users while learning,” the DAPRA request states, and adds: “The system may monitor a variety of cues to determine the user’s attention and emotional states.”

(Does anyone else wonder what else the Department of Defense may want to do with this information?)

Hydra Head #2: Legal Infrastructure

Although we were assured that the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was intended to restore control to states and local districts, the truth is that much of the document was carefully crafted to enable a proliferation of “personalized learning.”

KnowledgeWorks highlights the many ways that  ESSA “opens the door” for personalized learning, including its Innovative Assessment Zones, resources for “21st Century Community Learning Centers,” and grant money for technology available in virtually every section of the document.

As for state and local policies, the Foundation for Excellence in Education and American Legislative Exchange Council have been busy meeting with politicians and executives from the testing and digital education companies to craft model bills that will move your state toward the competency-based framework that will support “personalized learning.”

Bellwether Education (where the wife of our newly minted secretary of education, John King, wife recently took a job) even has a  book of personalized learning “policy plays” for state policy makers.

As for ensuring that all the data that fuels the personalized learning machine can flow freely from one location to the next, privatizers made certain to revise the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) in 2011 to give third parties access to your child’s information.

 Hydra Head #3: Teacher Preparation

What do you do with teachers in a digital, “personalized” system where they are no longer needed?

Figuring that out has been one of Tom Carroll’s jobs at the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

“We’ve had a lot of talk lately about managing the human capital more effectively,” he explained at 2009 conference called Redefining Teacher Education for Digital Age Learners. “We need to move to a very different workforce model.”

Carroll’s solution?

“Schools of education [need to] get out of the preparation business, actually, and into the workforce development business in partnership with school districts.”

To help with the transition to “personalized learning,” KnowledgeWorks has prepared a document offering future job opportunities that displaced teachers may want to pursue, including “data tracker,” and “micro-credential” analyst.

Hydra Head #4: State-Based Non-Profits

These are the shepherds: the ones funded by corporate foundations, fueled with market research, and charged with orchestrating “will-building” campaigns to get the locals to think that competency-based, “personalized learning” is all a grand idea made just for them. Here in New England, the Nellie Mae and Gates Foundation have funded the Great Schools Partnership, Educate Maine, Voices for Vermont Children, the New England Secondary School Consortium, the Center for Collaborative Education, and others to help usher the masses toward this brave new world of schooling.  Have you looked to see who the shepherds are in your state?

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Hydra Head #5: Consultants

Someone must have given Dr. Marzano the heads up, because he now offers consulting services to move districts toward “competency-based,” personalized learning models. Here in Maine, we are home to the Great School Partnership, which also promises to teach your district how to implement a competency-based system. No doubt there are others, waiting for you state to pass the right ALEC model bill so that they can swoop in and offer their snake-oil services.

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There is more, of course – so much more – to the hydra.

But what’s missing?

Research. Proof that this will actually be good for your kids. Transparency.  Parental consent.  Sound pedagogy.

The question is: can we conquer it?

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Welcoming the Next-Gen Ed Overlords

Dr. Stephen Krashen, professor of linguistics and education at the University of Southern California, recently wrote the following:

Remember the Simpsons, 1994, “Deep Space Homer”? A radio announcer erroneously thinks the Earth is going to be taken over by giant space ants and says: “One thing is for certain: there is no stopping them; the ants will soon be here. And I for one welcome our new insect overlords.1 I’d like to remind them that as a trusted TV personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground sugar caves.”

All the major teaching organizations embraced the NCLB overlords. It is now widely agreed that NCLB was unsuccessful.   All the major teaching organizations embraced the common core overlords. It is now widely agreed that common core was unsuccessful.  Now that this has been made obvious, the insect masters are pushing competency-based education.

Competency-based education lacks hard empirical support, will cost billions, promises to lead to more testing than ever, reduces the classroom to little more than programmed online instruction, and threatens to drastically reduce the need for teachers.

Are the organizations getting ready to welcome the new competency-based education overlords?

Will the leaders of the teaching organizations soon cheerfully declare themselves eager to participate in the destruction of the teaching profession and round up students to toil in front of computer screens, working through unvalidated and often untested programs designed by employees of testing companies?

Now, personally, I have trouble discerning the difference between the overlords and those simply welcoming them, but to help answer Dr. Krashen’s questions, I’ll leave you with the following:

Here is the cover page of a document produced by a think-tank called “Convergence”:

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And here’s who helped fund this initiative:

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Here’s what they’re planning for us:

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Including, of course, the use of technology to “embed assessment seamlessly into learning, help provide adaptable and personalized learning pathways, and enabling coordination among networks of learners and adults.”

And here’s who signed off on the “vision”:

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Yes, those are the two major teachers’ union presidents you see up there, and here’s what KnowledgeWorks (see Judy Pepper in upper right hand corner) thinks the future of teaching should look like: Screen shot 2016-03-06 at 3.45.26 PM

Now, how to stop them from rounding up others to toil in the underground CBE sugar caves… ?

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Parents Beware

A growing number of legislators, lobbyists, and investors are either unaware or are unconcerned with basic research ethics, and they are signing your children up to be used as guinea pigs.

Across the country, states are adopting corporate-driven policies to experiment with “competency-based” and “personalized learning,” even though there is no sound research proving that these are effective educational models.

In Florida, where a bill to implement competency-based pilot programs recently passed, the Tampa Bay Times explained: “Several [legislators] said they support the program, because they want to see first whether it works.”

Mark Zuckerberg, who has recently poured millions into CBE/personalized experiments, told EdWeek: “We don’t know for certain that it’s going to work. All we can really hope to do is provide an initial boost and try to show that this could work as a model.”

Thomas Rooney, superintendent of Lindsay Unified School District, admitted in this article: “I have received three requests over the past week asking for evidence of success from competency education models.  The truth of the matter is that we are not swimming in proof points.”

Here in Maine, our state is part of the Council for Chief State School Officer’s “Innovation Lab Network,” which hopes to “generate proof points” that will help bring competency (proficiency) based learning “to scale.”

The Gates Foundation calls competency-based learning a  “nascent” and “still emerging” field, and has vowed to invest in its development.  (Most competency-based and personalized learning experiments are now at least partially funded by the Gates Foundation.)

When researchers in university settings conduct studies involving “human subjects,” there are two categories of people that always get extra special protection: pregnant women and children.  Even if the research involves minimal to no risk to the child (a survey, for example), an Institutional Review Board must certify that the investigators meet certain criteria, including obtaining permission from children’s parents or guardians.

Competency-based and personalized learning experiments, which typically rely heavily on digital and online learning, involve a number of potential risks – including those that are health-related (impact on vision, over-exposure to wifi radiation), academic, and social/emotional (what happens when students spend less time with teachers and more time with devices?).

And yet most parents are utterly unaware of these risks, and none of have been asked to give informed consent before their districts are given over to experimental restructuring.  When it comes to public school policy – especially when there are billions of dollars on the line – decision-makers seem to have decided that research ethics need not apply.

Are your legislators signing your children up to be guinea pigs?

Find out before it’s too late.

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ESSA: Are the “Innovative Assessment Zones” a Giant Trojan Horse?

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) recommends that we push our states to become one of the seven “innovative assessment” pilot zones now allowed by the ESSA reauthorization.

But should we?

For those of us who are trying desperately to protest the corporate takeover of our public education system, it appears that we are being ushered into yet another trap.

It turns out that these innovative assessment zones are a creation of Gates-funded organizations who been busy restructuring our public school system into one that is highly profitable for investors but of questionable value for our children.

Prior to the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, KnowledgeWorks, iNACOL, the Council for Chief State School Officers, and America Forward – which together have received will over 100 million dollars in grants from the Gates Foundation – worked closely with the Senate HELP committee to “design a workable program that would enable states to produce the next generation of high quality assessments.”

The goal is to enable states to design assessment systems that will align with the corporate-drive toward the experimental “personalized,” competency-based systems into which investors like Reed Hastings of Netflix and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook have recently been pouring millions.

In a letter dated January 21st, 2016, the organizations listed above offered Congress a“clarification of intent” on the new assessment law.

“Competency-based education systems employ a variety of assessments, including formative and summative, designed to support and evaluate student learning of key competencies and to evaluate how well students have synthesized their learning over a school year or other unit of time,” they write.

“ Performance-based assessments must be a key component of competency-based assessment systems, because they can be used to support instructional decisions to determine students’ areas of strengths and needs, but can also be used summatively to certify student mastery of competencies.”

The letter, signed by Susan Patrick of iNACOL, also recommends that the assessment zone peer review panel include a “competency education expert” – even though there is still no research showing the effectiveness of such a model, and so “experts” in the field are only those who have proclaimed themselves as such.

For those following the push toward competency-based education, it should be no surprise that former Gates executive and Learn Capital Partner, Tom Vander Ark, is a strong proponent of these assessment systems.

“With so much protest, it may go without saying but the problem with week long summative tests is that they take too much time to administer; they don’t provide rapid and useful feedback for learning and progress management; and test preparation rather than preparation for college, careers, and citizenship has become the mission of school. And, with no student benefit many young people don’t try very hard and increasingly opt out,” Vander Ark writes. “But it is no longer necessary or wise to ask one test to do so many jobs when better, faster, cheaper data is available from other sources.”

But is FairTest’s vision of a revamped assessment system fundamentally different from the one being advocated by KnowledgeWorks, iNACOL, and the rest of the privatizers – and is it possible to be part of one of these “zones” without signing up to be part of the corporate model?

It’s hard to tell.

One of FairTest’s prominent board members, Deborah Meier, sits on a handful of boards with David Ruff and Dan French, both of whom lead Gates-funded groups that are busy moving states toward the unproven competency-based model of education. The Coalition of Essential Schools, of which Meier is Vice Chair, even shares a mailing address with the Great Schools Partnership, which is now reworking Maine schools from the inside-out into proficiency (competency)-based models.

One thing I do know: when it comes to education reform, Trojan horses abound.

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