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.”

http://www.king.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/king-colleagues-offer-recommendations-to-strengthen-education-bill-

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.

http://www.king.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/king-urges-senate-committee-to-enact-testing-flexibility-for-maine-when-reauthorizing-no-child-left-behind-

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.”

http://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1977/08/01/competency-tests-set-in-26-schools/07f1f3f2-92a8-4ae2-b33c-e2c40419876f/

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?” (http://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelhorn/2012/12/06/could-competency-based-learning-save-the-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: http://www.christenseninstitute.org/our-team/michael-b-horn/), 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: https://emilytalmage.com/2015/05/02/proficiency-based-learning-standardized-testing-and-opting-out-whats-the-link/ )

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.  https://www.nwea.org/business-alliances/

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.

So Long, SBAC!

Yesterday, Maine officially pulled out of the Smarter Balanced Consortium, putting a very welcome exclamation point on what will surely go down in history as a very strange year for public education.

SBAC, you will not be missed – but rest assured that we will not forget you.

We will not forget how many hours you took from children so that they could take part in your failed testing experiment.

We will not forget the way you set our children up to fail – confusing them with strange, multi-part directions that even adults could not decipher; giving them reading passages written for students well beyond their grade level; requiring them to manipulate complicated computer interfaces to answer your questions…

We will not forget how hard some parents had to fight to protect their children from your nonsense.

We will not forget the way you hid your profit-seeking makers behind non-profit organizations.

We will not forget how very expensive you were.

We will not forget how you intimidated teachers by linking your strange self to our future evaluations.

We will not forget how you branded yourself with friendly words and phrases only to prove that you were the opposite of what you claimed to be.

But!

We also will not forget the way you helped band so many of us together across the country in a fight for what is right for our kids.

We will not forget the way you taught so many of us that we need to be more skeptical of what enters our schools in the name of reform – that we need to do more research, to show up to more meetings, to speak up, to question,

We will not forget that you helped wake many of us up to the very worrisome state of education reform in our country.

For that, we thank you, and now bid you a very welcome farewell.

(But be warned, SBAC – we are already on the lookout for your friends and family, and we now know how you like to disguise yourselves!)

PBE Testimony from May 11th

Yesterday, after listening for three hours as people testified about the merits of fixing different aspects of the Proficiency Based Diploma mandate, I finally got my chance to testify neither for nor against the bills that were presented.

It wasn’t particularly well-received by several members of the committee and some people in the room.  I believe representatives from Educate Maine and Great Schools were present.

Senator Langley tried to cut me off right around the part where I mentioned the 13 million dollars in grants from Nellie Mae that have gone to organizations in our state.  Maybe I was already at 4 minutes at that point, I don’t know, but I couldn’t help myself – when he asked me to stop speaking, I kept going.  Part of me feels guilty for being rude…part of me doesn’t.

I’ll post what I said below, and I also encourage anyone else that might like to share their testimony or anything else you may have written to send it along and I will post it!

….

Senator Langley, Representative Kornfield, and other members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs:

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston and I live in Auburn.

I have taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I am now in my third year teaching at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston. I also have two masters degrees – one in Urban Education, and one in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. In addition to teaching, I have worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

Several weeks ago, during my testimony in favor of LD 1153, I explained that I approach all inquiry related to educational practice and policy with two questions in mind: is this what’s best for our kids, and how do we know? To this end, for the past few weeks, I have worked diligently to understand what proficiency-based education is, where it came from, and why our state decided to mandate that we institute this concept statewide.

Here is a brief outline of what I have learned.

In 2010 – only five years ago – the Gates Foundation approached the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, a nonprofit born out of a multi-billion dollar sale to student loan corporation, Sallie Mae, in 2000, to help them develop the idea of “proficiency-based pathways.” A document from the Gates Foundation highlights their interest in promoting this concept by writing that with “the convergence of the Common Core State Standards … the development of new data systems, and the rapid growth of technology-enabled learning experiences…conditions are ripe for creating personalized learning opportunities beyond school—in an anytime, anywhere fashion.”

That same year, the Foundation for Excellence In Education convened the “Digital Learning Council,” which consisted of stakeholders across the education industry, including legislators, online providers, technology companies, and content providers, where they developed a set of “10 elements of High Quality Digital Learning.” One of these elements is called “Advancement,” whose metrics require that “all students must demonstrate mastery on standards-based competencies to earn credit for a course and to advance to the succeeding course.“ These 10 elements are the same elements discussed in a 2012 executive order given by Governor LePage in 2012. They are also the same elements used in a report card of state education systems produced by the American Legislative Exchange Council, where LD 1422 is listed as model legislation.

Shortly after Gates and Nellie Mae formed their partnership, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation awarded grants to a variety of high schools in New England that the foundation claimed were employing “competency-based models” in order to develop a report that they called an act of “research and development.” Meanwhile, they began awarding millions of dollars – thirteen million to date – of grant money to newly formed organizations in our state, including Educate Maine, the Great Schools Partnership, and the Reinventing Schools Coalition, to promote “State-Level Systems Change” and “Public Understanding and Demand.”

In 2012, only two years after the Gates Foundation first approached the Nellie Mae Foundation to begin developing this concept of proficiency-based learning, the state of Maine mandated that all high schools in our state award proficiency-based diplomas.

Why would Maine have taken such a risk by mandating a theory of learning that only two years ago was called nascent and emerging by the very investors who have developed this concept? Why have we been so eager to bring digital learning to our state, when there is no evidence that this form of learning is best for our children? And why are we allowing out-of-state organizations like the Foundation for Excellence in Education and the American Legislative Exchange Council dictate our state education policy?

Please – do not be fooled by their very expensive advertising campaigns. While studying the very short history of Proficiency Based Education, I read time and again that we need digital, personalized learning because for too long, teachers have been employing a “one-size-fits-all-model” in their classrooms. Come to our classrooms at Montello – “traditional” classrooms – and watch as we move from whole group lessons to small group activities to one-on-one conferences within our lessons. Watch how we tailor our instruction to meet the individual needs of students who speak no English, students who have suffered trauma and abuse, students who are hungry for healthy human relationships with caring adults.

I think if you look closely, you will see what real “personalized” learning looks like. You might even begin to reconsider whether or not we need our state education policy to be dictated by the “10 elements” developed behind closed doors by technology companies and content providers. Maybe you would even realize that rather than working tirelessly to fix this broken mandate, we ought to take several steps backwards and reconsider why we chose to travel down this road in the first place. My hope is that you would begin to see what a tremendous mistake we have in fact made, and that the only way forward is to move off the very risky path we are now traveling down.

Proficiency Based Learning, Standardized Testing, and Opting Out: What’s the link?

As an educator who has grown increasingly wary the role of standardized testing in our schools, the growing Opt-Out movement has given me a jolt of inspiration, relief, and motivation to continue pulling back the curtain to find out just what’s been going with education in our country and where we are headed.

For a few weeks, I did a deep-dive into the new Smarter Balanced tests, and discovered just how very far removed they are from the realities of our classrooms and how inextricably linked they are to corporate profit.  You can check out the culmination of this effort in an article on the Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/03/24/teacher-the-disturbing-things-ive-learned-about-our-new-common-core-tests/

Until recently, I was so busy reading, thinking, writing and talking about these new tests – while also teaching a very spirited fourth grade class by day and caring for an infant and home by night  – that the concept of “Proficiency Based Learning” barely entered my radar.  I knew that our high school and K-3 were busy reworking their report cards to align to this new idea, but truth be told, report cards of all sorts have always bugged me, and so I figured the new format would have little impact on my daily work in the classroom and wasn’t concerned.  (For a more complete understanding of my personal view on grades in the elementary level, check out this great article written by Alfie Kohn: http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/case-grades/)

It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, when my principal shared a district budget memo with us detailing various changes being made and a wish-list of new teaching positions to help alleviate over-crowding of classrooms, that I decided it was time to find out more about PBL. I desperately wish we could afford an additional fourth grade teacher next year.  I’ve got 21 kids now, and I’ve got my hands more than full!  Next year I’m slated to have 28 to start the year.  The thought makes my heart race!  So, when I learned that this was highly unlikely – and that, in fact, the city council was asking the district to make MORE cuts to the budget, I was mad.  And lately, when I get mad, I start asking questions.

My first question was why our Curriculum and Staff Development budget was going up by almost 50%, with a good chunk of that money being spent on professional development of Proficiency Based Learning.  What does research say about PBL, I wanted to know, and how do we know it is more valuable than additional teachers? I consider myself pretty aware of new research and trends in education, and yet I knew almost nothing about PBL.

As my previous post explains in detail, this is because PBL is actually a very new concept, developed intentionally through investments of the Gates Foundation and a variety of corporations in order to expand opportunities for profit.

**A side note: I do believe that there is sound reasoning and theory behind certain concepts of standards-based education, particularly if the emphasis is genuinely on effective differentiation, allowing students to demonstrate mastery of subjects and topics in ways that are meaningful for them, and ample opportunity for student choice in learning.  A great example of a school that employs this type of learning is award winning teacher Nancie Atwell’s Center for Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb, Maine.

PBL, however, particularly as it is being implemented in our schools through organizations such as Great Schools Partnership and Reinventing Schools Coalition – both of which have received millions of dollars from corporate-sponsored non-profits – are not in the business of pushing this progressive type of educational model.  In fact, they have a much different agenda, which is tied directly to the agenda of the same corporations – Pearson, McGraw Hill, Microsoft, NewsCorp – that have invested so heavily in the new Common Core Smarter Balanced and PARCC tests.

And that’s where opting out and standardized testing comes in.

Several years ago, the very same corporations and organizations that have been pulling the strings behind the Common Core State Standards and its new tests formed an organization called “Digital Learning Now!”  http://digitallearningnow.com This organization was spearheaded by Jeb Bush, who is also founder of the Foundation for Excellence in Education – an organization closely allied with the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Here’s one reason why this alliance is concerning:  the American Legislative Exchange Council, more commonly called ALEC, is well known for its work in shaping state legislation that benefits corporate interest: http://www.npr.org/2011/07/21/138537515/how-alec-shapes-state-politics-behind-the-scenes   They have been a driving force behind efforts to privatize public education in all sorts of different ways.

So, what does “Digital Learning Now!” have to do with PBL, how do we know that it’s really about helping them make money as opposed to helping our kids, and what can Opt Outers do about it?

A few years ago, Digital Learning Now, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and ALEC worked together to create the 10 Elements of High-Quality Digital Learning.  One of the elements is called “Advancement,” and here are its metrics:

  • All students must demonstrate mastery on standards-based competencies to earn credit for a course and to advance to the succeeding course.
  • All students are provided multiple opportunities during the year to take end-of-course exams.
  • All students earn credits based on competency and are not required to complete a defined amount of instructional time to earn credit.
  • All districts and approved providers in the state accept credits from all other districts and state-approved providers.

Sound familiar?  It should!  This language mirrors that of LD 1422, Maine’s Proficiency Based Diploma Law, which is now listed as model legislation on the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s website – coded, of course, with a “D” for digital learning.

As readers of my previous posts know, LD 1422 passed by way of questionable lobbying practices by Educate Maine – a business-led organization that received almost three-quarters of a million dollars from Nellie Mae Education Foundation, which has at its routes ties to – you guessed it – ALEC.

LD 1422, it should now be no surprised, helped Maine boost its letter grade on ALEC’s annual report card on state education policy. http://www.alec.org/publications/report-card-on-american-education/  Since 2010, we’ve moved from a D+ according to their metrics (which, in addition to policies supporting digital learning, also account for school choice, charter schools, and teacher evaluation systems) to a C.

Interestingly, Massachusetts, which is the top-rated state in our country according to its scores on the NAEP test and other measures and is well-known for the academic success of its students, gets an “F” from ALEC for its digital learning policies.

So why is digital learning such a big deal for them?  If the state that ranks top in the nation for its academic is the worst performing state for digital learning policies, why would anyone want to push so hard for such policies?

Because companies like Microsoft, Apple, Amplify, Pearson, McGraw Hill, and newer start-ups like JumpRope stand to make an enormous profit off of these policies.  Do a quick search of theses companies up-and-coming Common Core-aligned, standards-based products, and you will see just how hard they have been working to have their goods coincide with the roll out of these new policies.

At this point, some of you may be asking, okay – I get that this is really meant to help these companies profit, but is there really anything wrong with digital and online learning?  Maybe we can all benefit from this.

My instincts say no, children will not benefit from such a heavy emphasis of online and digital learning.  My instincts say that children need close relationships with adults to learn best; that learning is not simply about acquiring bits of information but is also about communication with peers and actively constructing ideas through social interactions.

Certainly, there is a place for these methods of learning in our classrooms. I use laptops as a station each day in my math and literacy workshops to supplement the work we are doing in our lessons, and I value their ability to keep my students engaged for 20 or so minutes at a  time while they work on math problems or read books on RAZ kids. It is another way to institute choice in my classroom, and in limited doses, I find it useful.

Research, however, is beginning to show that this type of learning must be specific and supplemental to be most effective; not the main course, as many of these companies would prefer.  Pediatricians also agree that screen time should be limited.  And finally, when I searched for research to show how effective online learning can be for children in grades K-12, all I could find was one article commissioned by the US Department of Education in 2004 and conducted by Learning Point Associates  – a company now called American Institute for Research, which worked hand-in-hand in the development of the new Smarter Balanced and PARCC tests – who, despite their best efforts, concluded that there really isn’t any good evidence to show that this type of learning is any more beneficial to children than other methods. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED489533.pdf

So what are we to do about this?  Unfortunately it’s not nearly so easy to opt our children out of PBL than it is out of the Smarter Balanced test.

But here are some ideas to get us started: We can voice our concerns to our legislators and school districts; we can start asking more questions about what we are paying for and why; and we spread the word on social media like we’ve been doing with opt-out.

What are your ideas?

What is Proficiency Based Learning?

On April 22nd, I provided testimony for the Education Committee in support of LD 1153, “An Act to Restore Local Control to Towns.”

Originally, I intended to focus my testimony on my concerns over standardized testing, particularly with regard to the new Smarter Balanced tests. Recently, I have written about my concerns over these tests in a variety of outlets, and have focused on the lack of reliability of such tests; the level of corporate involvement and profit in their development; ways that they are developmentally inappropriate; and how this particular test was not meaningfully adaptive as it claimed to be.

As I did more research to prepare for this testimony, however, it became clear that an even greater threat to our schools in Maine is “proficiency based education,” particularly as it is being implemented through organizations such as Great Schools Partnership and Reinventing Schools Coalition.

In my testimony regarding LD 1153, I explained that I approach instructional and policy decisions with two questions in mind: How will this help our students, and how do we know? When I was not easily able to find substantial, peer-reviewed research to validate claims that “proficiency based education” is a valid and proven way to improve student learning, I grew concerned. After a great deal of searching, it became clear that the reason I was having such difficulty finding research is because it does not yet exist.

This is because proficiency-based education (also called proficiency-based learning and competency-based learning) is a concept that has been intentionally developed through strategic investments of the Gates Foundation and other corporate stakeholders in order to expand opportunities for profit by way of the new Common Core State Standards.

Investments made by the Gates Foundation to develop and promote the Common Core State Standards are no secret. It should also be no surprise that the Gates Foundation has also invested in projects to develop digital, online, and game-based learning. What has been less publicized, however, are their simultaneous investments in “proficiency-based pathways.”[1]

A paper produced by the Gates Foundation describing current investments related to Common Core has a section titled “Proficiency-Based Pathways.” The report states that “conditions are ripe for creating personalized learning opportunities beyond school—in an anytime, anywhere fashion,” and that “we believe it’s possible with the convergence of the Common Core State Standards, the work on new standards-based assessments, the development of new data systems, and the rapid growth of technology-enabled learning experiences.”

In order to order to make this vision a reality, however, the Gates Foundation had the foresight to see a need for a new theory of learning that they named “proficiency-based education.” The report refers to this as a “nascent field” that is “still emerging,” and can be described in a variety of ways, including proficiency-based pathways, mastery-driven instruction, standards-based design, and competency-based education.

Typically, theories of learning are based on extensive research spanning multiple fields of study (education, psychology, sociology, etc.) and are built upon literature and research published in peer-reviewed journals, where they are subject to scrutiny, debate and dialogue with fellow experts. The Gates Foundation, however, in its rush to develop this field and with apparent disregard for this process, decided to bypass this route through a variety of strategic investments.

It is also worth noting that another organization, the Lumina Foundation, has been doing related work focused on higher education. The Lumina Foundation is a private, Indianapolis-based foundation arose from a $1 billion student loan sale to Sallie Mae in 2000. Its primary founder, Ed McCabe was Chairman of Sallie Mae at the time of the sale, and joined Lumina to guide its conversion to an Education Foundation. The Lumina Foundation is currently funding a three-year effort to develop and promote the concept of competency-based education (a term used more commonly than proficiency-based education when related to higher education) through Public Agenda, a nonprofit research organization, which is coordinating the work.[2] The Lumina Foundation, it should be noted, also has a variety of financial and personnel connections to the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization well-known for its interest in privatizing public education.

Another related organization that has been on the receiving end of the Gates Foundation’s investments in developing and promoting the concept of “proficiency based” education has been the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, a non-profit that retained 250 million dollars as an endowment when it separated from the Nellie Mae Corporation in 1998. At that time, the Nellie Mae Corporation was sold to Sallie Mae, which created the endowment for the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. In 2010, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation also received 1.7 million dollars from the Gates Foundation.

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation has been very active here in Maine. One of the first things the organization has done with regard to developing the concept of proficiency/competency-based education was to award grants to a handful of schools that it claimed were employing “competency education” models. Eleven small high schools, all with fewer than 600 students, were given grants in return for participating in NMEF’s “study.” A table profiling these schools can be found in a report produced by NMEF called “Making Mastery Work.” These schools employ a wide variety of educational practices, many of which educators hold in high-esteem. These practices include “expeditionary learning,” in which students produce in-depth projects through hands-on work outside of the classroom to demonstrate their learning, and “performance-based” learning, in which students show their learning through specific, “real-life” tasks rather than tests.

Curiously (or, perhaps, predictably) the third section of this report discusses the advantages of a variety of technological and digital tools in implementing a proficiency/competency model – even though many of the schools they profile do not use such tools. According to the report, “Many of the schools keep students updated on their progress using low-tech tools like wall charts, stickers, and student initials on lists of standards. Indeed, many schools find these tools valuable even when they have more robust technology systems in place.” Nevertheless, the authors of the report conclude: “In this era of digital data, the quest for an effective computer-based learning management system is inevitable.” In fact, the report even goes so far as to tell us what we, as teachers, want in our classrooms: “Neither packaged courseware products, which have little flexibility, nor learning management systems that allow for maximum customization but offer no content, meet teacher needs for online curriculum delivery systems.”

The report makes five key points in its conclusion, which together establish a clear link between the new Common Core Standards, technology, online learning, and what is now taking place in Maine with the recent implementation of LD1422 and the rapid spread of “proficiency based learning” in our state.

 

  • The Common Core Standards are more amenable to competency education.
  • Rapid technology innovations are simplifying the work of instituting comprehensive competency education information systems.
  • Blended and online curriculum increasingly provides opportunities for self-acing and differentiation
  • Friendly policies have passed at the federal, state and district level, making it possible to establish coherent programs in schools, programs and districts
  • Schools and districts are developing increasingly mature competency-basedpathways and approaches that others can study and potentially replicate.[3]

It is curious that the Nellie Mae Education Foundation discusses these “friendly policies” and “mature competency-based pathways” as though they occurred outside their sphere of influence, when little could be further from the truth. Since 2011, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation has given almost thirteen million dollars to organizations in Maine to implement proficiency-based learning initiatives, including $490,000 to Educate Maine, an organization that worked to get a law passed (LD 1422) requiring that all high school graduates receive a “proficiency-based diploma” by the year 2017. It is worth noting that LD 1422, currently the only law of its kind in the country, is now listed as model legislation on the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s website – another foundation with direct ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which again, is well-known for its efforts to privatize public education.

Grants from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to Maine-based organizations include[4]:

  • $490,000 to Educate Maine between the years 2012-2015 for State-Level Systems Change and Public Understanding and Demand
  • $3,339,416 to Great Schools Partnership for State-Level Systems Change and Public Understanding and Demand from 2012-2014
  • $250,000 to Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education for State-Level Systems Change from 2010-2011
  • $4,161,396 to Sanford Schools by way of Re-Inventing Schools Coalition for implementing PBL through Reinventing Schools
  • $281,000 to Maine DOE for State-Level Systems Change 2011-201
  • $4,179,040 Jobs for Maine Graduates based in Portland

According to a report put out by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (IACOL) and Competency Works, another organization funded by Nellie Mae, Educate Maine was formed to engage business leaders in the passage of LD 1422, establishing proficiency-based high school diplomas. Educate Maine has created a pathway for business leaders to engage directly with legislators in support of personalized, proficiency-based learning.” Despite receiving well over a half million dollars from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation for “State-Level Systems Change and Public Understanding and Demand,” however, Educate Maine (previously called the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education) did not register as a lobbyist when they were actively working with legislators and other stakeholders to pass LD 1422.

A memo dated July 2011 written by Tanna Clews, then Executive Director of the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education (and whose work, incidentally, is highlighted on the Lumina Foundation’s “Strategy Lab’s” website[5]), discusses the “$50,000 in additional funding for our policy work and the planning of a legislative retreat.” The memo thanks Yellow Light Breen (Chief Strategic Officer of Bangor Savings Bank and board member at Educate Maine) for his “leadership and persistence in navigating conversations with Nellie Mae,” as well as Henry Bourgeois (former Executive Director of the Maine Compact for Higher Education and president of the Alfond Scholarship Foundation) and Duke Albanese (former Maine Education Commissioner and current Senior Policy advisor at Great Schools Partnership, board member of Educate Maine, and treasurer of the Maine International Center for Digital Learning) for their “insight and willingness to answer my (many!) questions.”

The memo also discusses its grant proposal for Nellie Mae’s “Student-Centered Learning: Building a Supportive State Policy Environment” grant program, which “highlights Educate Maine’s legislative work with LD 1422.” Additionally, the memo discusses the purchase of 200 copies of Inevitable, Mass Customization of Education, to be “distributed by the Maine Department of Education to every superintendent in the state.”

In legislative records taken in a Maine Senate session on Thursday, April 5, 2012, Senator Brian Langley discusses the “retreat” sponsored by Educate Maine that he took with the rest of the Education Committee to visit two schools who are “involved in the transition to standards based education.”

 In preparation for coming into the second half of the 125th the Education Committee went on a retreat in November, sponsored by Nellie Mae, Educate Maine, which includes Cianbro, Apple Corporation, UNUM, and the Maine State Chamber. The New England Secondary Consortium was represented by former Commissioner of Education Duke Albanese. On this retreat we visited two schools who were involved in the transition to standards based education. We actually went into the schools and sat with children, side-by-side with them in the elementary school, and asked them about their education. They were actively involved, engaged, and they could tell you where they were and where they were expected to be before they could move on. It was impressive.[6]

 It is curious, however, to read the description of the classrooms the Education Committee visited. On a blog post, Representative Brian Hubbell describes his visit with to the Williams School in Oakland, where 200 students attend.

We visited during the school’s schedule-block for math,” he writes.  “In one classroom, the students were using a variety of tools to learn the fundamentals of multiplication.  In another, the topic was time.  Next door: geometry. Down the hall, it was money and currency.  In another classroom, on the floor with their teacher, students were studying division by doing punctuated sets of abdominal crunches.[7]

 Not a single student is described as using technology, online learning, nor game-based digital learning, yet there is little doubt that these are the learning methods being championed by the investors behind Educate Maine. To read this description and compare it with the stated goals of the organizations’ funders suggests that Educate Maine may have been intentionally engaging in a “bait and switch” scheme with the Education Committee in order to create buy-in and generate support for the new bill.

This would not be the only time Educate Maine engaged in questionable lobbying practices. In 2014, Educate Maine took over the “Maine Teacher of the Year” program. That same year, Educate Maine sent a letter on behalf of Maine Teachers of the Year advising that LD 579, “An Act to Allow Teachers to Teach and Students to Learn by Amending the Laws Governing Education Standards,” ought not to pass. The letter states that the “goal of proficiency-based education is two-fold: to close the achievement gap in Maine and to close the opportunity gap by holding all students to high expectations connected Maine’s Learning Results.”[8] It worth noting that the original report from the Gates Foundation does not discuss either of these goals with regard to proficiency-based learning.

In Lewiston, where I teach fourth grade, we have partnered with Great Schools Partnership, one of the organizations given multi-million dollars grants from Nellie Mae, to implement proficiency-based learning in our schools. Most of the work has begun in the high school, where parents, teachers, and students have grown increasingly frustrated and wary of the work they are being asked to do. The work has centered around reworking report cards and grading systems, creating Common Core aligned rubrics and assessments, and trying to negotiate new scheduling challenges. In our elementary schools, the work has been more gradual, but perplexing nonetheless. In a planning meeting, we were required to re-code reading and writing assessment data into “standards-based” format and enter it into Pearson Inform. When I asked what the purpose of this was, the answer given by our instructional coach was simply, “It’s the way Pearson wants it.”

I now have no doubt in my mind that in Lewiston, we are guinea pigs for a new, experimental method of teaching and learning that has been designed to benefit content providers rather than students. An article published in Forbes in 2012 had the foresight to predict this change. Its author, Michael Horn, wrote that at that time:

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.

 Indeed, we have seen how unhappy parents, teachers, and students have been with the new Smarter Balanced tests, and it is likely that Horn’s predictions of students performing poorly will be accurate. It is Horn’s next prediction, however, that is even more concerning:

Of course, if there were instead systems of assessments in a competency-based learning system built for students to take an assessment on-demand when the 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.

In Maine, we are witnessing this very experiment take place in our schools in the form of proficiency-based learning. The Nellie Mae report writes, “Schools and districts are developing increasingly mature competency-based pathways and approaches that others can study and potentially replicate.” States that have not adopted proficiency-based learning will look in the future to data gathered from students and schools in Maine when deciding whether or not to adopt similar legislation to LD 1422. We will be the data that does not yet exist.

In Lewiston, we have already committed at least sixty thousand dollars to professional development for proficiency-based learning in our district for the coming year, as well as many thousands more to additional technology and software programs to support this new, unproven, corporate-driven theory of learning. Meanwhile, we cannot afford additional teachers so that my colleagues and I will not have overcrowded classrooms (upwards of 30 students) in the coming year, even though we know that smaller class sizes leads to not only improved educational outcomes, but also outcomes for students beyond school.[9]

It should go without saying that I am deeply concerned for the future of our public schools, and am hopeful that we will begin to look more closely at the policies we are enacting in our state. In my opinion, we do not need more time or more money to implement an experimental, corporate-driven reform idea in our public schools. We do not need to simply start in earlier grades and move forward from there.

Our children deserve much better than this. They deserve classrooms that employ well-research, thoroughly studied educational practices that have been proven effective. They deserve educators who are empowered professionals and are able to employ their expertise in meaningful ways. They deserve adults who will advocate for their needs rather than bend to the wishes of corporate interests. And they deserve to be treated as valuable individuals – not guinea pigs in a large-scale experiment.

[1] https://docs.gatesfoundation.org/Documents/supporting-students.pdf

[2] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/12/12/lumina-funded-group-seeks-lead-conversation-competency-based-education

[3] http://www.competencyworks.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Making-Mastery-Work-NMEF-2012-Inline.pdf

[4] http://www.nmefoundation.org/grants

[5] http://strategylabs.luminafoundation.org/champion/tanna-clews/

[6]http://legisweb1.mainelegislature.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2013/02/110-04-05-12R2.pdf

[7] http://www.mainehousedistrict35.com/private-business-and-public-education-a-wary-but-promising-partnership/#comment-67414

[8] http://www.mainelegislature.org/legis/bills/getTestimonyDoc.asp?id=28083

[9] http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/pb_-_class_size.pdf