Ed Reform 2.0: If You Can Train a Pigeon to Detonate Bombs…

Back in 1977, Superintendent James Guines of Washington D.C. explained his district’s competency-based education pilot program like this:

“The basic idea is to break down complicated learning into a sequence of clear simple skills that virtually everyone can master, although at different rates of speed. If you can train a pigeon to fly up there and press a button and set off a bomb, why can’t you teach human beings to behave in an effective and rational way?”

“We know we can modify human behavior. We’re not scared of that,” he added. “This is the biggest thing that’s happening in education today.”


HA! Those crazy 70’s!  Boy did they have some crazy ideas back then.

But wait…

Now check out this recent video from Angela Duckworth and Katherine Milkman:


Here’s what Milkman has to say:

“If you repeatedly reward good behavior, and pair it with memorable cues, positive routines become instinctual.”

Duckworth adds:

“We’ll use technology to make good decisions easier…If we can solve enduring behavior change, we can address every major social ill that confronts humanity.”


The video above is part of Duckworth’s and Milkman’s application to the MacArthur Foundation’s “100&Change” competition, which promises to award 100 million dollars to fund a single proposal that “promises real and measurable progress in solving a critical problem of our time.”

And if I had to guess, I’d say Duckworth and Milkman have a pretty good shot at winning the grant.

Lately, the MacArthur Foundation has been everywhere that Ed Reform 2.0 (personalized, competency-based, digital learning) has been – sponsoring conferences at the U.S. Department of Education on the merits of Social Impact Bonds, awarding grants to promote digital learning efforts, and even gaining recognition for their work with Mozilla and HASTAC in advancing the competency-based “digital badging” agenda from the Clinton Global Initiative.

(Yeah – the Clinton’s are involved in this too, in a big way.)

Just as it was back in the 70’s, behavior change – which now operates under the far friendlier banner of “social emotional learning” – is a major part of next-gen ed reform.

But parents need to beware: in Ed Reform 2.0 doublespeak,”social emotional learning” does not refer to kids simply learning to play well together at recess or turn in their homework on time.  Instead, the real agenda is more akin to what Duckworth and Milkman describe above:  using technology to reinforce “good behavior” through the same system of rewards-based behavior modification that B.F. Skinner used to get his pigeons to detonate bombs.

And “good behavior,” of course, may or may not mean what you think does.  For Duckworth, good behavior means grit;” other desirable behavior traits depend on what computer programmers and their financiers deem desirable for an effective, efficient workforce.

(Curiously, despite her statements in the video above, Duckworth recently backed out of a social-emotional assessment pilot program in California, suggesting that she might have moral reservations about what she’s promoting.  Perhaps the opportunity to earn a 100 million dollar grant is just too much to turn down.)

Now, for those of you who may be thinking: how bad could this really be – a little positive reinforcement never hurt anyone!  I encourage you to take a look at the disturbing way behavior modification by way of technology is currently being used in China:

Under the auspices of corporate giants Tencent and Alibaba, Chinese citizens will be required by 2020 to earn a character credit score based on their actions on social media. If you post government-approved articles, for example, you’ll earn points that you can then show off to your friends.  (It actually gets even creepier than that, so make sure to watch the video above.)

And if you’re now thinking: but that’s China! That could never happen here!  consider the fact that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg  – now a major investor in personalized learning initiatives across the country – is quite fond of Sesame Credit’s sponsor, Jack Ma of Alibaba.

According to the Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Zuckerberg said he was optimistic about China’s future development because the country focused on science and technology education.”


And now consider that one of Zuckerberg’s pet projects, Summit Public Schools (where, according to digital learning Guru, Tom Vander Ark,  students will have “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”) has partnered with Duckworth and Milkman as part of their MacArthur 100&Change Proposals.






Is Your District Changing its Grading Policy? Here’s the Real Reason Why.

All across the country, teachers are suddenly learning that their grading practices are rubbish.

“What does a 72 even mean?” they are asked in PowerPoint presentations delivered by well-paid consultants from Gates and Nellie Mae-sponsored nonprofits. “The problem is that it doesn’t mean anything.

Then they find out that it’s actually even worse than that.  Teachers, the consultants explain to the teachers, have been factoring behavior into the grades they assign and it is damaging children irreparably. (Of course, you should be grading behavior, they say – all that social emotional stuff is very valuable data  – but you must keep it separate.)

Finally, teachers are told that the real issue at hand is ethics.  Our current practice of assigning A’s and B’s is simply wrong.  (Just ask grading “expert” Douglas Reeves – and be sure to overlook his own history of significant ethical breaches.)

Teachers, of course, who are painfully accustomed to hearing that most of what they do is wrong, listen patiently for the 1000th time to find out what they must do in order to be right.

And at last they are introduced to the solution, which has been in search of all these grading problems from the beginning: competency-based grading.  Of course.

Forget that 1-100 scale that allows teachers dangerous levels of subjectivism.  Instead, reduce the whole thing to a much simpler, much more standardized system of 1-4.

And stop scoring subjects too.  Instead, assign each student a score for each and every one of those handy standards we’ve given you. Nevermind when parents don’t have a clue what you’re talking about when you tell them their child is getting a 2 in “CC:ELA:4:RF.3a: Use combined knowledge of all letter-sound correspondences, syllabication patterns, and morphology (e.g. roots and affixes) to read accurately unfamiliar multisyllabic words in context and out of context.”)



Trust us – this system is much more transparent than the one you were using.

Soon enough, you can forget that big-end-of-year-test too. Instead, you can assess your students whenever you like – daily, hourly even – and you can even make your own assessments if your district allows, as long as they are properly aligned and approved by your higher ups, and as long as you enter all the data into the “learning management system” that has been purchased for you with money that could have been used to hire more teachers, but wasn’t because this is far more important.

Oh and by the way?  If all that ongoing assessing and scoring feels like too much, as long as your district has purchased 1:1 digital devices (and they will) you can use our learning management system to assign online learning playlists, assessments and assignments. If you go this route (which you should), you can feel free to sit back and be the “guide on the side” that you’re really meant to be anyway.


This is what the shift in your district grading policy is really all about: laying the groundwork for the corporate-driven shift to “personalized learning,” where digital devices can be put in front of each child and data can be mined for the millions of dollars it is worth.

For your friends who don’t believe it, I say simply: follow the money.

 I assure you: it’s really not about the kids.




Leaked Emails Shed Light on Hillary’s Education Agenda

Not long ago, I wrote a letter to my former Exeter classmate, Mark Zuckerberg, begging him to reconsider the corporate-driven education policies he had recently vowed to support.

Of course, I never heard back.

Zuckerberg was far more interested in hearing from elite political insiders than from teachers or those with young children like me.

Among the recently leaked emails from Wikileaks is a request from Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg to John Podesta for a meeting with Zuckerberg:

“Mark is meeting with people to learn more about next steps for his philanthropy and social action and it’s hard to imagine someone better placed or more experienced than you to help him,” she wrote.

“Happy to do,” Podesta replied.

Five months later, in an open letter to his newborn daughter Zuckerberg announced his commitment to helping “schools around the world adopt personalized learning.”

This, of course, was no coincidence.

Though education issues have been buried throughout the campaign (Common Core was deemed a “political third rail” and standardized testing referred to as an “elephant in the room” by members of the DNC and Clinton campaign), it is clear that a Clinton Administration would be poised to advance the ed-tech and Wall Street driven “personalized learning” agenda if Hillary is elected.

Young people cheer when Hillary talks about making college more affordable, but few seem to realize that the policies she is advocating are actually designed to favor the multi-billion-dollar online and digital learning industry (along with, ironically, student loan providers). Even fewer seem aware that in the future, “college” may not mean what most think it does.

The Clintons, who have benefited enormously from Bill’s speaking engagements with online learning giant Laureate Education, have used their foundation to drive the shift away from traditional credentialing to the far more profitable and corporate-friendly digital badging system, where students earn online “nanodegrees” and certificates to demonstrate their ability to perform workforce-aligned “competencies.”

“I’ve offered a few suggestions to make sure we are a bit stronger on accountability, we lead with our promise to families and students when we describe our compact, and we highlight innovation and on-line learning a bit more,” policy advisor Ann O’Leary wrote to Clinton’s speechwriters, just before Hillary unveiled her “New College Compact,” calling for “experiments allowing federal student aid to be used for high-quality career and lifelong learning programs with promising or proven records.”

Other leaked correspondence indicating Hillary’s education priorities include a note from Stanford professor and education insider Linda Darling-Hammond to Podesta, thanking him for his advice and guidance in setting up her new think thank, Learning Policy Institute, where Podesta’s close confidante, Susan Sandler, is a board member.

Darling-Hammond has been a strong advocate of forms of school accountability that enable personalized learning, especially for assessment “dashboards” that encourages data collection that goes far beyond standardized tests. (Think social-emotional learning and “school climate” data.)

“I love the idea of the dashboard,” Hillary said in a recent speech to leaders of the National Education Association.

(So does Arne Duncan, Tom Vander Ark, and CEO of Pearson, John Fallon.)

And then there are emails suggesting who will be a priority for Hillary: one from Code.org asking Hillary to make a statement of support for computer science; another from Laurene Powell Jobs requesting a meeting with Hillary and a group of ed reformers, include Netflix executive Reed Hastings and Silicon Valley venture capitalists – all strong proponents of “personalized learning.”

So, what can education activists expect if Hillary is elected?

Here’s my dismal predication: more screen time for even our youngest children; inflated local budgets to support one-to-one tech initiatives; more (way more) invasive school-wide and individual data collection; a proliferation of low-quality online K-12 and higher education programs; and (of course) ongoing meddling and experimentation on our kids by our country’s billionaires.

Moral of the story?  Keep your boxing gloves on.


Dear Personalized Learning Salesmen: Please Join Us!

By now, most people know that the Common Core State Standards have not only been an epic failure, but that the PR machine designed to sell the standards to the public was a botched job as well.

Unfortunately, not as many folks realize that our billionaire reformers have been working equally hard to sell the public on a make-believe need for “personalized learning” (which also goes by “competency-based” or the highly deceptive term “student-centered” learning) along with the one-to-one digital devices that will make (they hope) this highly lucrative K-12 transformation possible.

Here is just a sample of what the corporate and foundation-fueled agents of the personalized learning PR machine have done over the past few years:

  • Leveraged and even gone undercover as members of the Opt Out movement to encourage parents to opt in to personalized learning

Thankfully, despite the millions of dollars being spent on the propaganda effort, the growing number of parents  and teachers voicing their concerns over this research-devoid, massively expensive effort to remake our schools suggests that reformers might very well be botching this job too.

And there’s no question that increased pushback from parents already has personalized learning salesmen wringing their hands:  recently, Bruce Friend – the Chief Operating Officer of iNACOL, dedicated an entire session at a Pearson-sponsored conference to a discussion of one New Jersey mom and teacher who raised concerns about the efficacy of her district’s “blended learning” program.

At the upcoming Digital Learning Show in Dubai, former Gates Foundation executive Tom Vander Ark will host a session on how to “take your institution into the 21st century.”  This, of course, includes ways to “overcome challenges encountered in the implementation of blended and personalized learning” – which no doubt means dodging those pesky informed parents who don’t want their children learning from a tablet all day long nor do they appreciate having their state education policy manipulated by corporate profiteers dressed up as local organizations.

With all that said, I’d like to personally invite Mr. Vander Ark, Mr. Friend, Mr. Gates, and anyone else involved in their reform efforts to join a group of parents and teachers who know exactly what they are planning for us and are not happy about it to a webinar sponsored by Parents Across America this Sunday, October 16th, at 7pm.   Perhaps they’d like to take some notes to prepare for their upcoming workshops.

Parents, teachers, and anyone else interested in the latest reform efforts that are now flying at us fast and furious are, of course, also encouraged to join.

Click here for all the info you need.