Radio Interview: Proficiency-Based Education

Last Saturday (September 19th), I went on the air with Julie McDonald-Smith, author of this article in The Forecaster, to talk about proficiency-based education.  Here’s a link to the podcast, and a transcription of our conversation below.

JMS:  Emily Talmage is a fourth grade teacher at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston. She has also taught special education in New York City – New York is another state that’s been under assault in the education realm.  She received a master’s degree in urban education from Mercy College and a master’s in developmental psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University.  While in New York, she also worked part-time as a research assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College.  She returned home to Maine in 2012.  She’s worked as a research analyst at Oldham Innovative Research in Portland prior to returning to the classroom.  She lives in Auburn with her husband and her almost one year old soon.  Hi Emily, thanks for coming on this morning.

ET:  Hi Julie, thanks for having me.

JMS:   You know, in the last half hour we were talking with David Lentini and trying to give listeners a little bit of an introduction into how these supposedly new ideas in education make their way into our state. You hear a lot that proficiency-based education is research-based, and David was explaining that that there virtually is no such thing in education.  These things come and go on a thirty year cycle.  We’ve seen outcome-based education; we’ve seen Common Core; now we have proficiency-based education.  I really want listeners to understand – and parents especially – that this affects every public school, child, in the state of Maine. It doesn’t matter if you live in some of the wealthier towns, if you’re in Cape Elizabeth or Falmouth or Yarmouth, or if you’re in some of the less advantaged towns, the smaller towns, the more rural towns.  The same program is going to be pushed – is being pushed – on every child.  I mean you could almost make that claim that, you know, some of these towns that like to say “oh, come move here, we’ve got a great education system” – local control is on its way out.  And I know you’ve been following proficiency-based education very closely.   I have a column this week in The Forecaster about the influence that Nellie Mae has in this state, in lobbying and pushing for proficiency-based education.  As a mom and a teacher, Emily, why don’t you tell us what you have found out about this type of learning?

ET:  Sure.  So you know David did a really nice job explaining how these reforms kind of keep coming back.  And proficiency-based education is one of those reforms that has been tried and failed a lot of times in history – in fact, I was just looking, there’s an article from the Washington Post in 1977 explaining – it’s identical to the reform that we are going through here in Maine.

JMS:  Unreal.

ET: Yeah and it’s kind of interesting   – you know, it went away.  And that’s happened various times throughout history.  But what’s interesting now with proficiency-based education – it’s being pushed as a response to these failed reforms that we’ve had, “this is fresh, this is gonna work” – a lot of rhetoric about how this is a response to this failed factory model  of schools, we’ve been “stuffing sausages,” which – you know, is really not true.  So the reality is that proficiency-based education right now is being pushed very hard by nationwide – and not just nationwide but actually worldwide – by the digital, online, and student loan industry.  And the reason for that is that this proficiency-based system goes hand-in-hand with what’s also referred to as “personalized” or “customized” learning – and you’ll hear the phrases “anytime anywhere” –

JMS: “Student-centered…”

ET:  Exactly, you know, “student-centered,” teachers are “guides on the side” – which , you know, personally as a teacher, I find that phrase…it bugs me.  But, the fact is that these companies see a prime opportunity sell their products, their online products, you know – and with the student loan industry – I think you kind of mentioned in your article – the idea is to link high school all the way through college so that instead of having these breaks that we’re used to with grade levels and even college level, it’s all just this set of skills that you perform, you get measured, and if you perform them up to par  you get promoted.

And you know another piece of it is that it’s not just skills. Parents might see this fall when they get their kids’ first report card – you should look for a section called “Habits of Work”

JMS:  Very Creepy.

ET: Yeah well, we’re actually also being asked to measure on a one through four kids’ habits of work.  And this is just an aside – I thought it was kind of interesting because a couple of weeks ago, Heidi Sampson of No Common Core was on MPBN she mentioned that this is actually related to an Eastern European model of schooling.  And everybody kinda scoffed and laughed, but you know – I looked it up, you know, is that true or not?  And it turns out that that phrase “habits of work” really does come right out of the polytechnic system that they used in Russia mid-century.  So, I mean, I don’t say that to scare people, but it’s worth looking up where these ideas are coming from and where they have their roots.

But anyway, so there’s very little research – this idea has failed –but now you enter Maine.  Because what happened, a lot of people know that with Common Core, it was billed as this state initiative, when in reality, we applied for Race to the Top funding, and in order to get that funding, we had to agree to adopt the Common Core Standards. But what a lot of people don’t know is that Maine is one of five states that also agreed to become a member of what’s called the “Innovation Lab Network.”  And the Innovation Lab Network is a program run through the chief – CCSSO – the Council for Chief State School Officers.   And the Innovation Lab Network is run now by Stephen Bowen who is our former commissioner.  This is now his project.

Maine is one of five states – and this program is designed – and this is straight out of the MOU that we signed with them back in 2009 hat can be found in the appendix of our Race to the Top application – that this initiative will “generate proof points”  that we can then “scale up.”  So the idea is to use Maine, and I believe New Hampshire, Oregon – I can’t remember the other two – to push this system, conduct research real-time, in the classroom, and then hopefully scale it up nationwide.  That’s the goal.

JMS:  So they’re actually saying they’re going to be conducting research while this is ongoing.

ET: Absolutely.

JMS: They’re not saying we’re bringing you this wonderful method of education that’s research-based and proven.  No.  They’re saying their own language and in their own documents that this is an experiment.

ET: Right.  So this is actually a quote:  “The labs network will employ collective state action to create proof points or tangible manifestations to deliver the educational outcomes that we seek.”

So, that’s quite a bit different than the type of pharmaceutical research that David Lentini was talking about.  And the piece that as a teacher, but also, actually, as a mom, that really concerns me is that there’s been no process of informed consent.  So when I worked as a research assistant at Teachers College, even if we just wanted to administer a simple survey to children – there’s really, there are protections against that – and you need to get what’s called IRB approval, you need to get parent consent – even to just do something simple like administer a survey – because children are really well protected in certain settings.

But in this case, it feels like that process has been bypassed and that through this policy that’s been implemented in our state – this proficiency-based mandate – and by the way, listeners should know that Maine is the only state with that law – that children are subjected to this like it or not, and they are being experimented upon…like it or not.

JMS: Could you just go back for a second, Emily, that statement that you just read where in their own language they said the were looking for research that would prove the outcomes that they are seeking. Just repeat that one more time. Let that sink in.

ET: Yep – so, the “labs network” – of which Maine is a part “will employ collective state action to create proof points or tangible manifestations of scalable state and district systems that deliver the educational outcomes that we seek.” And that’s a direct quote, straight out of the Memorandum of Understanding that we signed – and it can be found in the appendix of our Race to the Top application. So, you know, we’ve signed up for this. And we’ve resigned this MOU each year. We re-signed it this past year. So, we’re part of the network, and proficiency-based education is a piece of this initiative.

So what’s happened is this organization of Stephen Bowen’s, CCSSO, now works with Nellie Mae. And you wrote about Nellie Mae really well in your article. Nellie Mae was a foundation that was born of a student loan sale. They’re based in Quincy, Massachusetts. And they have basically bankrolled this initiative here in Maine. They’ve funded lobbying; they’re funding the organizations which are now coming into our districts to teach us how to do this. So, Great Schools Partnership, has gotten upwards of 3.5 million dollars from Nellie Mae to start up this consulting business, which now is working with my district here in Lewiston. I believe – you know, if you go online, they’re working with a huge number of districts in our state.

JMS: The list is extensive.

ET: Well, and I think it’s interesting that when this mandate was passed, there was a small amount of funding that went with it – I think 1.9 million – that money, a huge percentage of it, went straight back to these consulting firms – these organizations that come into our schools… and you know. Yeah. It kinda leaves me speechless.

JMS: So we’re talking with Emily Talmage. She’s a teacher in Lewiston. We have a call from Bill in Cape Elizabeth. Hi, you’re on with Emily.

Bill: Hello, Emily.

ET: Hi!

Bill: I’ve got a question for you. You’re a fourth grade teacher, correct?

ET: You bet.

Bill: I’m not exactly sure what the objection to proficiency-based education is. Let’s say, for example, your fourth grade students – let’s say that either Common Core or proficiency-based education – let’s say that that standard – one standard – is that your fourth grade students should be able to divide one fraction by another fraction. Let’s say they should be able to divide one fraction, three-quarters, by another fraction, two-thirds. Now, it seems to me that it’s very easy to determine – you can determine – if your students are proficient in this and if they’re not. So, are you objecting to the fact that there is a standard that your fourth grade students have to be able to meet?

ET: Yeah, no. So, you have to be careful, because “proficiency-based” – in many ways, this is what teachers do anyway. You know, when I teach math, every day, after every lesson, I do what’s called a little “exit ticket.” I sort my kids into who got it, who didn’t. You know, the next day I know who needs a little extra help, who’s ready to move on. And we operate that way. And in some sense, that’s a proficiency-based model, and it certainly lends itself better to math than other subjects that are less performance-based. And so certainly, no, I have no problem with standards.

What I have a problem with is that with a proficiency-based model, kids simple can’t move on to the next grade or the next level until they’ve met whatever has been set for them. So it kinda opens this giant can of worms, which is – first of all, who says what’s proficient? Who decides that? What happens to kids that aren’t proficient? What happens if a kid, for example, really struggles with fractions, but does really well with division? Do we have to keep them on fractions for three or four months before they can move on? So there are all sorts of logistic problems that come up.

JMS: Well, and also the fact that kids don’t – you know, learning isn’t linear like that. I mean it’s – maybe you have to introduce them to – I mean, you’re the teacher, you tell me – but, maybe you have to introduce them to something slightly different, and then maybe come back to that. Rather than just saying, “You’re blocked. You have to stop here, and you cannot move on.”

ET: Yeah, and well another – you’re right. It’s an idea that sounds great in theory but in practice doesn’t work particularly well. And then another part of it is that, you know, philosophically – some of learning is what we call “procedural” – skill-based – but not all of it. You know, not all learning is something that a child does or something that can be measured. Some of it is what they know, or new understandings that they have, that isn’t necessarily a skill that you can then rate on a scale of one, two, three or four. And to reduce education to some that procedural and that simple – to me, it vastly oversimplifies what a really good education is.

You know, I was really blessed – I went to Phillips Exeter Academy for high school. We definitely didn’t use a proficiency-based system there. We did a traditional liberal arts education. And there were things, you know – I struggled in math, I wasn’t a great math student, but I was a good reader and writer –and you know, if I had been stuck in a proficiency-based system, I would have been trying to find the sine and cosine of a triangle for my entire time at Exeter. But instead I got to move on. I got exposed to new topics And I got this really fabulous education.

And you’ll notice that schools like Exeter aren’t adopting this model. They have no interest in it; they have no concern for it, because they realize that education is much more than just procedural knowledge. And its much more than just measuring, “What can a child do?”

And that’s what proficiency-based education forces our education system to boil down to. And that’s the piece that I have a problem with.

So, standards? Absolutely not. I hold my kids to very high expectations and for the most part they meet them, but yeah. That’s a great question, and it’s important to get those pieces ironed out – you know, what is it that we’re really talking about it.

JMS – The vocabulary, right. So, we’ve got – in four minutes or less, Emily, tell us what you’re problem is with Nellie Mae, and the way they sort of under-handedly, if you will, brought proficiency-based education into this state?

ET: Right. So Nellie Mae actually funded a group called Educate Maine – which, if you look them up, they were actually funded with the express purpose of lobbying for this bill back in 2012 – and now they also control the PR. So they’re now running something called Moose Camp that took place this summer… So they’re really controlling, I feel, the dialogue of what this is. You’ll hear a lot about, for example, Casco Bay High School – which, you know, I hope that they’re all having a really great experience there, but, Casco Bay has also gotten huge grants from Nellie Mae, and they’re now being held up as the poster child for what proficiency-based education is. So, you hear a lot about them. But you don’t hear a lot about experiences in Lewiston, for example, where this has really been hard. And teachers have left. I mean, I have friends who have left the district because its been such a difficult experience. And, it’s not a criticism of Lewiston; I love my district, I think we have some really great people working there. So it’s not a criticism of Lewiston itself. It’s the way this system has been thrust upon us.

JMS – Well, it’s problematic, Emily – I mean, I’m not excusing anyone at Casco Bay of anything –

ET: No, me either.

JMS: But, when you have a school that’s been a recipient of that many dollars of grant-funding, I mean – you know, what else are they gonna say? Are they gonna say no, this is terrible, and cut off the cash cow? I mean, there’s an inherent conflict of interest.

ET: Yeah. And you know, another piece – I’m kinda rare among teachers in that I speak up a lot, but a lot of teachers don’t.  And so maybe a lot of principals think, “You know, I haven’t heard anything negative about this. My teachers seem to love it.” But, we’re not in a particularly good place to be able to say that we like this or we don’t like this. You know, I kinda had the straw- whatever that expression is – my back broke – this spring, where it was like you now what? I can’t keep quiet about this. But a lot of teachers haven’t gotten to that point. And so, you don’t get a lot of honest feedback coming from the trenches. And you know, that’s concerning, I think.


Future Agendas?

Three years ago, In the Public Interest – a nonprofit whose stated goal is to “ensure that government contracts and agreements and related public policies increase transparency [and] accountability” – obtained thousands of emails sent between Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education and a variety of current and former state education commissioners (or the “Chiefs,” as they call themselves).

You can – and should – search these emails here for insight into the way next-gen ed-reformers  strategize.

Shortly after these emails were released, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post wrote an article about these emails here, as did Colin Woodard, an award-winning journalist here in Maine.

In his special report, Woodard exposed the collaboration of former education commissioner, Stephen Bowen (now Strategic Initiative Director of the Council for Chief State Schools Officers) with the FEE and members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to expand and deregulate digital education here in Maine.

In previous posts, I’ve written about one product of these exchanges – an executive order given by Governor LePage on the 10 Elements of High Quality Digital learning – and the role these elements play in the radical transformation of Maine’s schools into grade-less, “proficiency-based” systems designed to unleash a digital learning boom in our state.

Using crafty language, questionable lobbying practices, and plenty of out-of-state money by way of the Gates Foundation and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, Element 4, “Advancement,” is now mandated here in Maine in the form of a proficiency-based diploma requirement.

Needless to say, Woodard’s expose ruffled a few feathers, including those of next-gen ed-reform mastermind, Tom Vander Ark.

Vander Ark, who is a partner at Learn Capital – a venture capital firm with a giant portfolio of online and digital learning companies and sits on the board of countless organizations related to next-gen ed reform – accused Woodard of being on a “digital witch hunt” and referred to his article in the Press Herald as a “crazy attack.”

In an article  that appeared in the Huffington Post, Vander Ark wrote: “Investigative journalism is important to our democracy but this was an example of something different and dangerous—a slanted political and personal agenda.”

Did I mention that Vander Ark is also on the advisory board of a multi-national group of elites called “Global Education Futures,” which puts out documents like this, called “Future Agendas for Global Education”?

Did I mention that Vander Ark also appears in these emails in a discussion of the new “assessment ecosystem” he envisions for our future?

“New tests will hinder rather than help competency-based models…In short, I don’t want one big cheap end of year test used for more than it should be…I don’t want it to lock in the teacher-centric age cohort model for another decade. I don’t want simple assessments, I want complex performance based assessments. I want a system that will incorporate all the performance feedback that students will be receiving a few years from now.”

 Mr. Vander Ark, by “performance feedback that students will be receiving a few years from now,” do you mean the “continuous assessment in gaming-like dynamics that will “transform education into a personal quest to boost a character’ that is discussed in this document  put out by Global Education Futures?

Do you mean the “competence profiles that would record current state and development of individual’s knowledge & skills across different domains of professional & social life, and would accompany individuals throughout their life”?

Do you mean the “assessment of learning progress through the use of objective physiological parameters, using real time biometry and neurointerfaces”?

Because, truly, all of this sounds quite a bit more different and dangerous than anything I read in Woodard’s piece.

And as for personal and political agendas…. surely you’ll admit that you’ve got some pretty lofty ones of your own?


Our Children: Investment Assets?

This April, as my fourth grade students sat down to take the failed Smarter Balanced Assessment, Tom Vander Ark, former Executive Director of Education for the Gates Foundation and current CEO of Getting Smart, was busy giving a presentation in Silicon Valley titled: New Education: How to Unbundle the Potential of a Multi-Billion Dollar Market.

Last week, I wrote about Vander Ark’s efforts to usher us away from a single, “end-of-year” test in favor of a new era of all-encompassing, competency-based assessment systems. It turns out that Vander Ark is also a member of an organization called Global Education Futures – a group of wealthy elites from around the world who, in addition to giving presentations to one another about ways to make money off of our schools, quite literally get together to map out the future for our children.

They also produce 1984-like documents such as this, called “Future Agendas for Global Education,” which make big claims like this one:

The coming decades will see an era of the most radical changes in education since the appearance of national education systems. And the source of these changes will not be in the educational system itself, but rather it will be driven primarily by industries: digital technologies, healthcare, and finance.

while referring to our children as “investment assets” and “human resources” that should be “easily manageable.”

Here is a glimpse of what they envision for our future:

  • Learning through automated solutions

  • Continuous assessment in gaming-like dynamics that will “transform education into a ‘personal quest to boost a character’ in which “the ‘quest for achievement or trophy’ logic will be embedded into augmented reality systems that would award (with gaming bonuses, tokens, badges etc.) real-life professional conduct, healthy lifestyle, citizenship skills.”

  • Competence profiles that would record current state and development of individual’s knowledge & skills across different domains of professional & social life, and would accompany individuals throughout their life.

  • Assessment of learning progress through the use of objective physiological parameters, using real time biometry and neurointerfaces

If only we could dismiss this stuff as fantasy.

Unfortunately, with the support of high-powered politicians and all sorts of well-funded organizations and foundations, Vander Ark’s vision of a competency-based education system that relies on games and digital media to teach, track, and manage our children has made its way into the recent ESEA reauthorization.

Meaning that, unless something changes soon, we are well on our way to the future that these folks have been planning for us.

Is this what “unbundling” billions looks like?


Cashing In on Opt Out?

Despite the fact that Maine dropped out of the Smarter Balanced Consortium this spring, McGraw-Hill Education, maker of the SBAC Assessment, has managed to stay a step ahead of us.

The same corporation that designed a test for fourth graders full of ninth-grade level reading passages and left more than handful of my kids in tears after they spent hours navigating its confusing, glitchy online interface, has sold its “summative assessment” assets to Data Recognition Corporation so that it can focus on the burgeoning “personalized,” “adaptive” learning market that is driving big pieces of the ESEA reauthorization. 

Scott Marion, associate director of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, said in Education Week  that companies are always trying to gauge “where the market goes next,” and that “non-summative work is the next frontier.”

(Funny, that’s what I called it too.)

“Summative,” of course, means the big end-of-year test, which at least a handful of those at the top are encouraging us to move away from… but not for the reasons we would hope.

While most of us who teach and/or have children in public schools view the Opt-Out Movement as a way to protest corporate and profit-driven education reform, others – like Tom Vander Ark – see the movement away from the big-end-of-year test as a way to usher in a new era of all-encompassing, “competency-based” digital-ed reform that has the potential to make companies like McGraw-Hill Education bigger bucks than ever before.

Competency-based systems, which are rapidly and, in many cases, quietly, sweeping our nation by way of legislation crafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, essentially take the big test and spread it out over the course of the entire year, while restructuring our schools into grade-less systems where promotion and graduation is based on successful demonstration of certain outcomes.  (Whose outcomes is a question for another day.)

Vander Ark, who previously served as Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and now has a resume that includes, among other powerful positions, serving as treasurer for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), Board Chair of Charter Board Partners, director of Bloomboard, Digital Learning Institute, and Imagination Foundation and advisor to the National Association for Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) and New Classrooms explains the shift toward this “new frontier” like this:

What’s new? There have been six important assessment developments since NCLB was enacted in 2002:

  • Student internet access has improved sufficiently to support an expectation of frequent online learning and assessment.
  • Performance assessment tools make it easier to construct, manage, and assess projects and standards-aligned prompts (see features on LDC CoreTools, and Buck Institute).
  • Embedded assessments are incorporated into many forms of digital content.
  • Formative assessment systems have improved dramatically. Platforms like MasteryConnect, Acuity, Edmodo, OpenEd, and Schoology make it easy to build, administer, and share standards-aligned assessments.
  • Adaptive assessment, such as MAPS from NWEA, is widely used. Adaptive learning, which combines adaptive assessment and targeted tutoring, is gaining widespread use in blended learning models. Providers include DreamBox (K-8 math) i-Ready from Curriculum Associates (k-8 math and reading), ALEKS from McGraw Hill (mostly secondary use).
  • Broader aims of student success, including self management and relational skills, are widely recognized as important and are being incorporated into state and district goals. The hard to measure skills and dispositions require broader feedback systems than traditional standardized testing.

A few months ago, many of us were perplexed when Education Commission of the States, which partners with Pearson (maker of the PARCC) produced this document offering information on Opt-Out. But, given that its funders include Lumina, which has been busy “leading the discussion ” on competency-based education, and the Gates Foundation, which has been instrumental in bringing competency (also known as proficiency) based policies to our states – oh! and also partners with BloomBoard and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (see Vander Arks’s resume above) – does it make anyone else wonder if perhaps at least some of these folks were hoping we’d be up in arms over the new tests?

If the final ESEA reauthorization promotes “innovative” testing systems for competency-based systems, as the Senate version does now, while awarding grants for experiments in digital, adaptive learning, as an amendment in House version currently does, will these guys be laughing all the way to the bank?


Guinea Pigs?

In recent blog posts, I have pointed out that both versions of the ESEA rewrites contain language that is meant to encourage a shift toward the next frontier of education reform: personalized, competency/proficiency-based education made possible by an expansion of digital and online media.

Like most reforms we have grown accustomed to, corporate profit  plays a major role in this push, and all the usual players – including the Gates Foundation, Pearson, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – have been busy laying the groundwork for this change.

Given the rapid and radical shift happening across the country, which will almost surely accelerate if the reauthorization of ESEA retains its current language, many of us are asking what evidence exists to support such a change.

The answer? Virtually none.

Here is what Thomas Rooney, superintendent of Lindsay Unified School District, says in an article on the CompetencyWorks website:

“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. And it is very, very important for our continued work to advance competency education that we generate them.”

Agenda first.  Then we’ll find the proof.

Led by iNACOL – whose Board of Directors  includes Tom Vander Ark, Gates Foundation’s former Executive Director of Education, Nicholas Donohue, CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, and newly appointed Chief Learning Officer of KnowledgeWorks, Virgel Hammonds – CompetencyWorks has established itself as clearing house of information on competency-based education. The vast majority of its “resources” are self-referential, drawing on documents developed by its member organizations.

Rooney, whose district has been in the midst of an attempt to generate “proof points’ through its work with the Reinventing Schools Coalition, is not alone in his admission of the lack of evidence to support this change. The Gates Foundation, in their 2010 report “Supporting Students,” refers to “proficiency-based education” (“proficiency” being their preferred term for K-12 education, with “competency” reserved for discussions of higher education) as “a nascent field” and says:

This field is still emerging. We do not yet have a common language, rigorous evaluation process, or literature base. The field does not have consistent metrics for delivering quality outcomes online. Our investments will support the field and establish indicators for mastering skills and knowledge.

True to their word, the Gates Foundation has funded experiments in districts across the country (including Rooney’s) to “support the field” – including districts here in Maine, by way of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and the Reinventing Schools Coalition, and in remote parts of Alaska.

The U.S. Department of Education has also been busy looking for research to support digital and online learning policies, and Rooney tries – in vain – to reference their work.

“Given that many competency-based models use online or blended learning as well, it’s important to note that the U.S. Department of Education study of online learning, ‘Evaluation of Evidence-based Practice in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies’ (2009)found: ‘Overall, […] students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.’”

Unfortunately for Rooney, a closer look shows that the vast majority of studies referenced in this meta-analysis refer only to higher education, and that similar conclusions cannot be drawn about online/blended learning in K-12.

Despite this dearth of research – or perhaps because of it –  both versions of the ESEA rewrites encourage the proliferation of “proof points” to support the competency/proficiency-based agenda through grants for participation in digital and blended learning projects and the development of “assessment systems” that are aligned to “competency-based” models.

Which means that our children will be participating in research happening in real-time, in their classrooms, without our consent.

Kinda like these guys:


ESEA Rewrites: A Tsunami of Next-Gen Ed Reforms?

images While those of us in the trenches have done our best to grin and bear a decade of failed NCLB and Race to the Top mandates, those at the top have steadily laid the groundwork for the next wave of reforms.

Here’s a glimpse at what’s been going on behind the scenes:

In August of 2010, Governors Jeb Bush and Bob Wise convened a “Digital Learning Council” – a group of high powered stakeholders across the education industry with representatives from technology companies, online content providers, foundations, the U.S. Department of Education, and a handful of legislators.

Click here to see the full list of those who were present.

(For those who read my previous blog post, take note of the presence of Dr. Milton Chen  of Edutopia, who serves as a “Global Consultant” on Yong Zhao’s “Global and Online Education” at the University of Oregon. Zhao, in his comment on my previous blog post, insists that his view of “personalized learning” is in no way related to the version being pushed by the same members of this council. The jury is still out for me.)

That fall, the Council released its “10 Elements of High-Quality Digital Learning,” which were quickly adopted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)  and integrated into its annual report card on state education policies.

Among these 10 elements are “personalization” and “advancement based on mastery” – key features of the competency/proficiency-based system of learning that is rapidly and quietly sweeping our nation.  See below to get a sense of where your state stands in this conversion process:

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 3.49.26 PM

(If these terms aren’t familiar to you, please check out one of my earlier posts for a more thorough explanation. The key idea is that grade levels disappear, and students advance from one lesson to the next upon mastery of pre-determined outcomes. As I’ve written previously, at its core, it is based on behaviorist theories of B.F. Skinner.)

Despite the fact that there is no correlation between a state’s digital learning policies and the academic performance of its children – top-ranked Massachusetts gets an “F” from ALEC for its digital learning policies –

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 3.56.06 PM

ALEC now includes states adoption of the 10 elements in its yearly assessment of states education policies.

Meanwhile, the Gates Foundation, in collaboration with organizations like the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and the Reinventing Schools Coalition, began pouring millions into digital learning projects, including a variety of “proficiency-based” (see “Advancement” in the 10 elements) experiments.

(Please read this post  to learn how PBL came to Maine for a more complete picture of the Gate’s Foundation role in advancing the 10 Elements here in Maine.)

It shouldn’t be any surprise, of course, why technology companies and online content providers would have an interest in pushing digital learning policies. Take a look at some of the market research reports from Ambient Insight, whose client lists includes all the big players in the field of educational technology, and you’ll get a sense of just how much money is at stake for these companies. It’s astronomical.

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Now flash forward four and a half years to March of 2015. This spring, the Partnership for 21st Century Learning – a spin-off of America’s Promise Alliance, which helped sponsor the Common Core State Standards initiative, and coalition of 30 member organizations  (including many of those represented on the Digital Learning Council) – hosted a “Summit on 21st Century Learning.”

The summit, sponsored in part by Pearson, Disney, the AFT, and the NEA, featured workshops and presentations  titled: “A New Age in Accountability: Performance Assessment for Competency Education – The New Hampshire Model,” “Blended Learning +Personalized Pathways = Competency- Based Education (P21 Partner State: Iowa),” and “A Transformational Vision of the Future of Learning: A Strange Bedfellow Collaboration.”  

Look closely and you will see that the ideas presented in these workshops – which place a special emphasis on personalized, competency/proficiency-based and blended learning – mirror the 10 Elements of Digital Learning.

This time, however, it isn’t just ALEC and the members of Jeb Bush’s select council pushing these policies. Take a look at this slide from the presentation:A Transformational Vision of the Future of Learning: A Strange Bedfellow Collaboration: Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 4.17.10 PM

and you’ll see that the two major teacher’s unions, the NEA and AFT, have joined forces with Nellie Mae, Microsoft, KnowledgeWorks, and a variety of other organizations to push the new “learner-centered” (read: digital) paradigm of the future.

(As a side note, this slide, which they used to show the “old paradigm” of teaching, really bugged me:

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My classroom doesn’t look like that, does yours? Here’s a picture of my classroom, as proof: my class

Anyway – this February, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills also sent a letter to Congress, endorsing the “Schools of the Future” amendment to H.R.5.

This amendment awards grants to schools to be used for: (A) Technology-based personalized instructional systems. (B) Adaptive software, games, or tools, that can be used to personalize learning. (C) Computer-based tutoring courses to help struggling students. (D) Games, digital tools, and smartphone or tablet applications to improve students’ engagement, focus, and time on task. (E) Other tools and courses designed to personalize the learning experience.

I’ve written previously about other places within each of the ESEA rewrites where a similar agenda can be found.

Now, please don’t get me wrong – I am not categorically opposed to the use of technology in classrooms. At the right times, in the right doses, it can certain be useful. (This article in the New York Times has a nice discussion of the pros and cons of technology use in the classroom.)

What I am opposed to, however, is legislation that is designed to benefit technology companies and content providers, when research not yet proven that it is equally beneficial for our children.

I am opposed to legislation that will open the door for technology companies to deliver products that train our children rather than teach through rewards-based, Skinnerian methods.

I am opposed to legislation that has the potential to benefit giant tech corporations, while sucking our local budgets dry.

And I am opposed to legislation that has largely been crafted behind closed doors by members of select “councils” and political organizations, who then quietly slip such legislation into our states.

I am a teacher and a mother.  I’ve got a lot of skin in this game.  So, I would really like to have a say in the next generation of “reforms” that are coming our way. Unfortunately, unless something changes fast…

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Big (BIG!) Money Behind ESEA Rewrites

In March of 2010, Yong Zhao, author, professor, and director of the Institute for Global and Online Education at the University of Oregon, praised the National Educational Technology Plan released by the US Department of Education by saying:

“’Personalized learning instead of a one-size-fits-all curriculum, pace of teaching, and instructional practices.’ What a vision! The group that worked for the plan must be congratulated for what they have done and the Department praised for releasing the report…I hope the recommendations of this plan will be taken seriously by the Department. Moreover I hope the same philosophy will be driving the reauthorization of the ESEA (now under the name of NCLB).”

Zhao, who has been celebrated by many (including Diane Ravitch),  for his anti-standardized testing rhetoric and warnings that we are moving toward an authoritarian, Chinese-style system of education, must be very pleased with much of the language found in both versions of the ESEA rewrites.

“Personalized learning” is without a doubt the next frontier of educational reform – not only in the US, but around the world. There is a great deal of confusion surrounding what personalized education really is, but when stripped of the rhetoric that usually accompanies it, the concept is quite simple: students progress at their own pace, moving from one lesson to the next when they have proven “mastery.”  At its core, it is a theory of learning based on behaviorist theories of B.F. Skinner.  Many other terms, such as “blended learning,” “competency-based education,” “proficiency-based education,” “mastery learning,” “self-paced learning,” and  “customized learning,” are in fact manifestations of this same theory of learning.

Despite the fact that a 2006 meta-analysis from the US DOE found no studies contrasting K–12 online learning with face-to-face instruction that met methodological quality criteria,and thus no evidence that it is best for our kids, technology and online learning companies have seized upon this concept, and for good reason: wide-scale “personalized learning” is only possible if we have their products in hand.

Ambient Research, a market research firm whose client list includes all the big players in educational technology, including Microsoft, Apple, Pearson, K-12 Inc, and McGraw Hill, uses this graph to show the massive investments that are being made toward “learning technology suppliers”:

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and this graphic to illustrate the massive boom in the global adoption of learning technology:

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Check out the circle at about 11 o’clock – “Education Policies Mandating Online Learning” – and now read this section H.R. 5, the House version of the ESEA rewrite:

From the amount of funds a State educational agency reserves under subsection (c)(3) for each fiscal year to carry out this paragraph, the State educational agency shall award grants on a competitive basis to eligible entities in the State to carry out blended learning projects described in this paragraph.

 The term ‘blended learning project’ means a formal education program that includes an element of online learning, and instructional time in a supervised location away from home, that includes an element of student control over time, path, or pace; and in which the elements are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.

Grants can be used for:

Planning activities, which may include development of new instructional models (including blended learning technology software and platforms), the purchase of digital instructional resources, initial professional development activities, and one-time information technology purchases, except that such expenditures may not include expenditures related to significant construction or renovation of facilities.

According to this report from Ambient Research, over 25 states initiated high-profile legislative efforts relating to PreK-12 online learning in 2011 alone.

Other states, like Maine, have implemented legislation that is less direct but equally targeted toward an expansion of digital and online learning.

If you are curious as to how your state ranks according to its online and digital learning legislation, you can check out your state’s report card issued by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which crafts much of the legislation we find in our states:

The Senate version of the ESEA is also less direct in its push toward personalized/digital learning, but it is there nonetheless in the opportunities it offers states to develop assessment systems based on “competency-based” models of learning.

Is it any wonder, then, that Zhao, who despite his inspiring anti-standardized testing rhetoric is head of an online learning company called “Oba” and is leading the global push toward “personalized” learning, would hope to find such legislation in the ESEA rewrites and our state policies?

Is it any wonder that he is praising China for their move away from standardized testing toward personalized learning, and touting an online learning company called ePALs, which – according to Ambient Research – is leading the globe in investments?

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Is it ever about the kids??


Senate ESEA Reauthorization Points to What’s Next in Testing

Here in Maine, where SBAC was recently dumped, many of us have been wondering what’s next on the horizon for testing.

In recent posts, I’ve suggested that despite losing SBAC, we may not, in fact, be out of the woods, and that an even more all-encompassing testing scheme may be on the way.

These “next generation” tests, as they have been called by members of the Senate HELP committee and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, will be based on the radical transformation of our schools into “competency” or “proficiency” based models of education. This transformation has already begun in Maine, New Hampshire and a variety of other districts across the country.

This model restructures school as we know it, by doing away with “seat time” (time spent in class) and breaking all learning down into a sequence of measurable skills that students must “master” before moving on to the next skill.  Only when you prove that you are “competent”  or “proficient” at all skills in the sequence – regardless  of whether you are 14 or 21-  may you graduate.

If this idea doesn’t make you nervous, perhaps  this quote from an article published in The Washington Post in 1977 about competency-based education will raise some eyebrows:

Guines said the new curriculum is based on the work in behavorial psychology of Harvard University’s B. F. Skinner, who developed teaching machines and even trained pigeons during World War II to carry bombs and detonate them.

The basic idea, Guines said, 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,” Guines remarked, “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. This is the biggest thing that’s happening in education today.

Indeed, competency/proficiency based education has been tried and rejected many times throughout the last century, but due to heavy investments and strategic grant-making of a variety of large foundations, including Gates, Lumina, Nellie Mae, and KnowledgeWorks foundations, endorsements from Arne Duncan and members of the Senate HELP committee, and carefully crafted model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council (and the giant corporations it represents), CBE/PBE is now making a rapid comeback.

Please read this previous post for a more comprehensive explanation of who is behind the push for CBE/PBE, and why. (Hint: digital learning and the big profits behind it play a leading role.)

Perhaps because they realized such phrases make parents and teachers bristle, those pushing this idea, and the PR firms they hire, are now careful not to make overt references to behaviorism and animal training; look carefully, however, and you will see that the concept remains the same.

And now,  thanks to the collaboration of KnowledgeWorks and policy makers , if the Senate’s version of the reauthorization of the ESEA remains intact, states like Maine will be free to implement a comprehensive assessment system based on this model. (See here for the specific recommendations  that KnowledgeWorks made to Congress.)

According to the Every Child Achieves Act, States may now design their own “assessment system” that uses “performance-based academic assessments of all students that may be used in a competency-based education model that emphasizes mastery of standards and aligned competencies” and “multiple statewide assessments during the course of the year that can provide a summative score of individual student academic growth.”   (See here for the full text of the Senate version of ESEA, and scroll down to page 23 and 24 to read the text about new “assessment systems”.)

This sounds like something the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) is already prepared to offer us.

So, what can we expect our classrooms to look like if these next generation assessments replace “the big test” (as many “behind the scenes” have been hoping for some time) that we have now?

Probably something like this:


I wonder what the author of this recent New York Times article about screen addiction in children would have to say about this plan?

Was SBAC Meant to Flop?

Okay, I know I sound like a conspiracy theorist, but hear me out.

First, take one more look at that Michael Horn quote from a 2012 issue of Forbes which I’ve referenced in earlier blog posts:

“The behind-the-scenes buzz on Common Core touched on everything from how different the assessments really will be from what some states have today to whether Common Core will doom testing and the accountability movement more generally because of the length of the assessments to whether governors will stick with Common Core once the first year of assessment results come out and people see how students perform poorly on them.”

It’s pretty clear, isn’t it, that people “behind-the-scenes” knew well ahead of time that the new tests would be problematic?  Far enough ahead of time that you’d think they would have been able to make adjustments so that they weren’t quite so long, or quite so developmentally inappropriate?

Now, take another look at his alternative, while keeping in mind that this just so happens to match an idea that the Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation began pouring millions of dollars into that same year:

“If there were instead systems of assessments in a competency-based learning system built for students to take an assessment on-demand when they were ready to demonstrate mastery on specific competencies, we would see a different picture develop with assessments that left no doubt that they were different.”

And now, notice that this is exactly what Senator Angus King and five other senators suggested in a recent letter to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee:

“Promote Next Generation Assessments: Many states are experimenting with new assessment systems that are tied to competency-based learning models. These tests are rigorous and designed to provide timely information to students, educators, and parents about the individual needs of learners. We encourage the Committee to provide a more clearly-defined and timely application process for states to pilot dynamic assessment systems.”

This spring, Senator King was busy talking with teachers in Maine about their concerns with the current testing system. I was encouraged, at the time, that he wanted to know what teachers thought, and even sent him a letter of my own.

But ….  something now tells me that he and his fellow senators didn’t just happen to come up with the same competency-based assessment system idea that Horn was talking about back in 2012.  In fact, here is what King said after his visit to Maine schools this spring:

“Just yesterday I visited several schools in the state – including Portland’s Casco Bay High School and Freeport Middle School. Both schools are leaders in Maine’s transition to a student-centered, proficiency-based learning model…. To fully realize the potential of this new education model, Maine and other states will need flexibility from the federal government – particularly in relation to federal testing requirements. This is why I hope to work with you to provide states like Maine with relief from federally-mandated annual summative assessments, provided these states can demonstrate – through a clearly-defined, timely process – that they have developed robust state and local assessments aligned to similarly high standards.

So, Senator King came to Maine in the midst of the testing brouhaha to sit down with teachers and “listen” to their concerns, but then immediately began pushing a plan that has clearly been in the works since at least 2012?

Maybe SBAC wasn’t meant to flop, but I’m quite sure that there are many “behind-the-scenes” who are happy that it did! Make way for “Next Generation Assessments”!

As for me?  A real-life teacher, that works in a real public school, with real children?

You can read my earlier posts to get a sense of how I feel about this new “next generation” testing plan.  Or check out this quote below, written in The Washington Post in 1977, which pretty clearly sums up what competency/proficiency-based education is really all about:

“The materials will be standardized, the lessons will be standardized,” Guines said. “We’re taking the play out. We’re taking the guesswork out. We’re putting in a precise predicted treatment that leads to a predicted response.”

Guines said the new curriculum is based on the work in behavorial psychology of Harvard University’s B. F. Skinner, who developed teaching machines and even trained pigeons during World War II to carry bombs and detonate them.

The basic idea, Guines said, 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,” Guines remarked, “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. This is the biggest thing that’s happening in education today.”

Smarter Balanced is Out, So What’s In?

Last week, the State of Maine officially ended its relationship with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

As so many of us predicted, the test was an expensive, poorly designed, time-consuming experiment that has yet to deliver its meaningless data.

(Am I the only one who wishes we could scream, “We told you so!” at the top of our lungs?)

Federal law, however, says we must administer an annual test, and so the question remains: if not SBAC, then what?

The RFP for the new test has not yet been released, but there are plenty of clues that point to what is on the way – if not this year, then in the very near future.

Let’s take a look.

Back in 2012, a guy named Michael Horn – MBA in business, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, and author of the book “Disrupting Class” – wrote a few things in a Forbes article called “Can Competency-Based Education Save Common Core?” ( that we should pay very close attention to.

First, in reflecting on some time he spent in Washington DC with those in-the-know, he writes:

The behind-the-scenes buzz on Common Core touched on everything from how different the assessments really will be from what some states have today to whether Common Core will doom testing and the accountability movement more generally because of the length of the assessments to whether governors will stick with Common Core once the first year of assessment results come out and people see how students perform poorly on them.

So back in 2012, those “behind-the-scenes” knew and were talking about the fact the tests wouldn’t be the innovative assessment solutions they claimed to be, and knew and were talking about the fact that students would perform poorly on them.  This was, of course, before the assessments had been field-tested and before cut-scores been determined.

Kinda makes you want to scream, doesn’t it?

Anyway, in the very next breath, Mr. Horn reveals what he’s really worried about here. (Hint: it’s not the kids.)

I’m a proponent of states adopting Common Core state standards that are fewer, clearer, and higher in part because of the innovation their adoption could seed through the creation of a common market. Having common standards across the country could begin to reward content providers that target the long tail of learners because they would help to aggregate demand across the country, as opposed to what happens today where those providers that tailor their offerings to different and idiosyncratic state standards, for example, are rewarded.

By “content providers,” of course, he means those who have played a major role in financing Common Core and developing its related products – Pearson, McGraw Hill, Amplify, Microsoft, Apple, etc. – as well as many start-ups eager to get in on the market. And by “reward” he means – well, what else? – profit.

Back in 2012, however, Mr. Horn was already pitching an alternative:

If there were instead systems of assessments in a competency-based learning system built for students to take an assessment on-demand when they were ready to demonstrate mastery on specific competencies, we would see a different picture develop with assessments that left no doubt that they were different.

 Now, Mr. Horn is a pretty well-connected guy (see his biography here:, so it’s pretty unlikely that Forbes gave him all this space to just wax philosophical.

And it’s probably no coincidence that only a year earlier, the Gates Foundation began investing heavily in the development of “Proficiency-Based Pathways” (read the fine print and you’ll see that proficiency means the same as competency) alongside Common Core.

It’s also unlikely a coincidence that, through extensive lobbying efforts by organizations funded by Gates and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the State of Maine passed its “proficiency-based diploma” mandate 2012. (See here my previous post for a more thorough explanation of this law and the very shady way it came to be: )

Finally, it probably not a coincidence that in 2011, Michael Horn was a keynote speaker at a conference held by the Northwest Evaluation Association – more commonly known as NWEA – and that through a variety of strategic business partnerships and a couple million dollars from the Walton Family Foundation, NWEA has just unveiled a brand-new “system of assessments” – fully compatible with proficiency/competency-based systems and, much to Mr. Horn’s delight, I’m sure, fully aligned both to Common Core and to a wide variety of “content providers.”

And yes, even Pearson has stepped in, albeit indirectly. A company called Certica, which partners with Pearson and their data collection system, Powerschool, now owns NWEA’s formative assessment question bank.

Now, we don’t know yet for sure if NWEA will be the vendor of our new test, but we’ve got yet another clue that NWEA or something very similar is in the works.

Just a few days ago, our governor vetoed legislation that would have required the DOE to “create a report that compiles and clearly outlines the federal and state laws and judicial decisions relating to the right or options of a student’s parent to excuse the student from a statewide assessment program administered pursuant to this chapter.”

According to Governor LePage: “The proper solution to the issue of “opting out” of statewide assessments is to implement a new testing system that eliminates the problematic issues involved while still complying with federal law.”

So, what might a “new testing system” offered by NWEA or a potential competitor look like?

First, take a moment to step into the shoes of a businessman.  For Horn, and those who think like him, education is a perpetual process of mastering discrete skills in a specified sequence.

In his article in Forbes, Horn compares education to learning to install a seat in a car. (Which, by the way, is more than a little ironic because in other pieces he discusses our need to move away from our “factory model” of educating kids.) In his article, Horn talks about a guy name Steve who discovers that in order to successfully install a seat, he must learn how to learn how to do step one before he moves on to step two.

In the context of a classroom, this might mean learning how to add before moving on to learning to subtract, or multiply one digit numbers before moving on to two digits. So, the idea is not much different from what we do now in subjects like math – the only difference is that rather than proving their “mastery” on one end-of-year exam, the assessments would be part of an ongoing – you guessed it – system.

Now, if you are thinking that this grossly oversimplifies what learning and education are really about – that mastering discrete skills is but one part something much more abstract and meaningful than simply proving, endlessly, that one can do pre-specified things – well, you and I are in the same boat.

You may also be wondering how this concept would possibly work. How will students be able to prove “mastery” of a concept at any time, regardless of what is happening the rest of the classroom? How will the teacher possibly manage such a system?

Not to worry! Horn and his many content-provider friends have already developed Common Core aligned digital and online learning solutions for us, with plenty of help, of course, from investments of the Gates Foundation. See here for a look at the many business alliances NWEA has formed with companies promising to offer “student-centered” (re: digital) learning solutions, where students can learn how to do things through the computer and then take tests whenever they are ready do the next thing in the sequence.

Never mind that pediatricians recommend limiting children’s screen time. Never mind that there is no research to show that learning on digital devices is  beneficial for children. Never mind those pesky things like history and literature that don’t lend themselves to being measured.  And never mind those self-centered people called teachers who bore our kids to tears!

This is the future! It’s inevitable!

And boy we are in big trouble.