San Diego: If it sounds too good to be true…

On Wednesday, San Diego Unified School District announced that it was “slashing standardized testing to focus on student well-being and achievement.”

Prominent education activist and blogger Diane Ravitch shared the news on her website, and word quickly traveled around the web. Education activists and opt-out advocates around the country celebrated with likes and shares and smiling emoticons.

Unfortunately, as is becoming all too common in the battle to save our schools, the celebration was premature.

First – San Diego Unified isn’t actually doing away with “high-stakes” standardized testing. According to its website, San Diego Unified will continue to administer the Smarter Balanced Assessment. Any tests that that the district plans to do away with are those selected and administered by San Diego Unified for its own purposes.

The deception of San Diego’s story, however, goes much deeper.

A closer look at San Diego Unified’s agenda reveals that instead of shedding corporate-driven, top-down reforms as Ravitch claims, the district is instead embracing the highly profitable yet woefully under-researched 21st century version of ed reform that is rapidly sweeping the nation.

According to the district’s “i21Now Status Update” from December 2014, the district has made a fervent commitment to restructuring San Diego Unified into a “competency-based,” “personalized” learning ecosystem with one-to-one digital technology for all.

Those paying attention know that competency-based, “personalized learning,” is code for the digital (and/or outsourced) learning favored by tech companies and philanthrocapitalists like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. It should be no surprise, then, that the highly polished “i21” document is adorned with professional photographs of children glued to digital devices.

The document also reveals what San Diego Unified has in mind when it says it will rely on “real-time reporting” rather than standardized testing to measure student progress. According to the i21 document, one of the district’s goals is to “incorporate reputable online resources and real-time data to differentiate instruction.”

Digital vendors are, of course, ready and waiting to offer districts this “real-time” data. Recently, the Center for Digital Education hosted a market briefing in San Diego. The event (sponsored by McGraw Hill, Samsung, and Sprint) brought vendors and district representatives together for a “special briefing on their technology plans, priorities and focus for the coming years.” Robert Grano represented San Diego Unified at the briefing.

San Diego’s embrace of next-gen ed reform, however, doesn’t stop there.

In 2013, San Diego Unified partnered with “StriveTogether,” a subsidiary of the Gates-funded KnowledgeWorks Foundation. In communities across the country, StriveTogether – with support from corporate giants like MetLife, the Ford Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, and Target – is attempting to build “cradle to career” networks of data-driven public-private partnerships using controversial (some would argue unethical) methods.

In Salt Lake City, for example, StriveTogether and United Way put out promotional videos encouraging families to waive their FERPA rights to make it easier for organizations across the city – including public schools, religious organizations, mental health groups and the Chamber of Commerce – to share personal information about children.

StriveTogether also favors the use of Social Impact Bonds, which allow investors to lend money for social programs with repayment contingent upon highly questionable and easily manipulated monetized outcomes. In Salt Lake City, for example, a Social Impact Bond initiative led by StriveTogether resulted in a drastic and highly controversial reduction in the number of kindergarten children receiving special education services. Like all corporate ed reform ideas, it’s not difficult to see how these “cradle to career” experiments will benefit investors at the expense of local community members.

Unfortunately, the headlines that circulated last week were yet another example of the deception that is being played on education activists across the country, who – understandably – are eager to hear a bit of good news amidst the on-going attacks on public education. If we are to have any hope of staying a step ahead of the reformers, however, we would do well to remember the old adage that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.



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 “San Diego: If it sounds too good to be true…”

    1. Diane’s post is way too positive because she has chosen to help create and promulgate the happy talk that began with the passage of ESSA. NEA, AFT, NPE, and Fairtest are all engaged in a massive deception that will allow the tech companies a big jump in promoting constant testing and surveillance teacher proof ed reform that the oligarchs have sold to the corporate unions and their mouthpieces.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have serious doubts that CBE (oligarch version) is going to to do more, educationally, than turn out a race of zombies. The talent is not there inside the ed-tech brigade. Did you see this? :
        In the world of computing it is “Solution = Solve the problems we can and sweep the others under the carpet”
        My solution, in a wishful moment, is to supply every CBE classroom with a set of hammers.


      2. Yes. Diane Ravitch knows exactly what the agenda is and she is banking on it. Her and others (NPE) have co-opted the genuine opt out movement because they knew what was next in line after proving HSTing to be a failure. They could look like the heroes joining in dismantling HSTing and then ushering in the “new way”. That is why she sits on the board of the Gordon Commission. Go to their website and check out their agenda. They want in on the big bucks to be made on this “alternate assessment” idea of every day data collection through “individualized learning environments”.


  1. Bravo, Ms. Talmage, for not allowing any school district to tout themselves as public educators finally taking the high road and bucking standardized testing! San Diego USD is, indeed, a wolf in sheep’s clothing for pretending to take such a glorious step forward towards real learning and teaching! Shame on them.


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