The Grand Plan

In 1999, Tom Vander Ark flew to Chugach, Alaska to scope out the reforms they had been implementing.

As newly minted executive director of education for the Gates Learning Foundation, Vander Ark had recently stepped into a leading role in the quest to remake education in our country, and was busy laying the groundwork to bring his vision of a competency-based, computer-centered schooling system to scale.

In 1994, Chugach, along with a handful of additional districts across Alaska, had embarked on an educational restructuring experiment based on principals borrowed from the theory of “total quality management,” originally developed in the manufacturing sector.  With grants from the National Science Foundation and support from the U.S. Department of Education, these rural and sparsely populated districts hired new superintendents to oversee the development of “shared visions” among staff members, generate buy-in among community members, and create data tracking systems. While vying for a chance to win the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, a handful of administrators were also actively conducting research in their districts as part of their  university dissertations.

There are varying accounts of what actually happened in Alaska during this time. The authors of the application for the Baldrige Award describe the reforms as a great success, while this researcher  paints a picture of a district under the thumb of self-proclaimed “visionary leader” building a “lighthouse” district for the rest of the state and enlisting “evangelists” who would go out and “sell the dream” of standards-based reform.

Either way, Vander Ark seemed to like what he saw, and awarded millions of dollars on behalf of the Gates Foundation for additional Alaskan districts to implement these reforms.

Meanwhile, four thousand miles away, Maine was busy experimenting with its own state systemic reforms. Here, the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Education funded the Maine Math and Science Alliance to reform math and science education using many of the same principles being implemented in Alaska.

Like the Alaskan superintendents, the MMSA sought to establish “lighthouse” districts that would serve as models for the rest of the state. The “Beacon Schools,” as they were called, were eventually dismantled, but its creators, undeterred by their lack of success, developed a new standards-based reform effort in its placed called “Promising Futures.”

When Vander Ark read about this initiative, and learned that Maine had also recently established a one-to-one laptop program that gave all seventh graders in the state their own computer, he saw fertile ground to plant the seeds of his own reform ideas, and in 2002, flew to Maine to award a 10 million dollar grant  to support the reform initiative.

Maine, which was number one based on its NAEP scores in 1997, began to decline in its national rankings.

Nevertheless, a vast network of foundations, policy initiatives, nonprofits, and grant-funded initiatives sprang up across the country in the years that followed.  Investors poured millions into ed-tech companies, all with the same core vision: a competency-based education system that, coupled with the Common Core State Standards and a proliferation of digital devices, was sure to unleash a multi-billion dollar market.

Superintendents flew from Alaska to Maine to run conferences; the Gates Foundation financed the creation of a group called the Reinventing Schools Coalition that could take the Total Quality Management system of schooling on the road; and members of the failed Promising Schools project assumed leadership roles at the newly formed non-profit consultant group called the Great Schools Partnership.

Vander Ark, who had since left the Gates Foundation to oversee an ed-tech venture capital firm and was growing impatient at the slow speed of transformation, helped form the Digital Learning Now  Council, which developed ten principles of digital learning that were quickly adopted by the corporate bill-mill known as the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Vander Ark’s vision was – is – as close to fruition as it has ever been. Maine now has a  proficiency-based diploma mandate, and states across the country are rapidly adopting similar policies of their own. The President of the United States recently endorsed competency-based education in his Testing Action Plan. The ESEA rewrites also offer incentives for states to adopt this model.

Does the public know that our schools are being remade?  Is this what we want?  Does it even matter if we don’t?


Rally Around the Kids

For most of my life, I’ve tended to shy away from political conversations. My sense has been that unless I know I have a firm grasp on the full picture of any particular issue – and who’s got time for that? – my opinion really isn’t worth much.

Now that my profession, our schools, and quite possibly our entire democracy is under attack, however, I’ve realized that these are waters into which I must wade.

But quite frankly, it hasn’t been easy.

Check out this slide on competency-based education from a presentation given at the The Summit for 21st Century Learning and tell me if, by looking at it, you can tell if this (CBE) is a policy promoted by the left or the right:

Screen shot 2015-11-09 at 5.12.35 PM

The NEA and AFT?  KIPP?  Microsoft?  Disney?  You don’t see the American Legislative Exchange Council on here, but you can bet they are behind this policy too.

“Money doesn’t have an ideology,” my husband explained, when I asked him for help making sense of it all.

And he’s right.  (Though yes – typically I am.)

Corporate reformers are just as happy manipulating ideology and language which is dear to the left as they are of that which is dear to the right.

Like freedom and individual liberty? We’ve got bills for that. How about social justice? We’ve got bills for that too.

Peel back the curtain, however, and you’ll see that most of these policies – competency-based education included – are meant to do one thing, and one thing only: transfer more money and more power into the hands of those that already have too much of it.

Call this “discursive” strategy, as academics do, or Orwellian double-speak.

Personally, I call it lying.

One of the most infuriating things about all this is that I am quite certain that the makers of these corporate policies are perfectly happy to see us pointing fingers at one another – blaming this as the fault of the left, and this as the fault of the right – while they quietly slip through legislation that suits their business needs.

Personally, here is what I think: no matter what our political ideology may be, we have one thing in common that these corporate reformers don’t.

Children are actually our priority.


If they’re going to form alliances like they have at the top, we better do the same on the ground.  Let’s rally around the kids.


Dear Reformers

Dear Reformers,

When I read the latest teacher-resignation  letter circulating the internet, I couldn’t help but suspect that it filled you with a bit of glee.

You don’t want us anyway. You have made this quite clear.

And so I am here to tell you something different.

I am here to tell you that there is a growing army of us – yes, army  – who are refusing to quit, despite the havoc you are wreaking on our profession.

I am here to tell you that not only have we vowed not to quit – we have also vowed to fight.

We are getting organized, and are rapidly growing in our ranks.

So let it be clear that just as you have declared war on us, we have declared war on you.

Yes, you have your freakish amounts of money and the political power  you’ve bought with it.

You have your strategically formed foundations and your consultants with their arsenal of devious, deceitful tricks.

You have your wickedly distorted narratives that you have spent years crafting.

You have your egos and your algorithms  and your data that means whatever you want it to mean.

But we have more than that.

We have families – parents, grandparents, sisters and brothers – and the unthinkable amount of love they generate each day.

We have momma bears whose claws are out and fangs are bared.

We have whole communities who will not stand idly by as their schools go under due to your business plans.

We have deep, fiery anger at the way we, as professionals, have been treated over the last decade, and even deeper anger over the way our children have been used as guinea pigs in your covert experiments.

We also have the truth.

So be prepared.

We are not quitting, and will not be surrendering.


Teachers (and mothers, and fathers, and grandparents, and communities…) Everywhere


CBE and Teaching Machines

With the recent announcement of Obama’s Testing Action Plan and its inclusion of incentives to move states toward competency-based models, it seems that people are suddenly paying attention to what CBE is, and where it came from.

I’ve written quite a bit about the corporate push behind the resurgence of this model – particularly the role of digital learning and student loan companies – as well as the very shady way that policies to support this model have weaseled their way into our states. But it seems that now would be a good time to draw people’s attention to some of the theory behind competency-based learning.

So now let me introduce you – or reintroduce you, if you took any psychology courses back in college – to B.F. Skinner.


Skinner was a psychologist at Harvard back in the 50’s best known for his work with animal training. The guy was really good – like, could get pigeons to detonate bombs good.

Here’s a quote I’ve referenced a few times before, from a guy named Thomas Guines, who shows up in this article written in 1977 about a competency-based pilot program (oh yeah – did I mention this has been tried before?) that took place in Washington DC:

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.”

Makes you shudder, doesn’t it?

But now, if you want to get really creeped out, check out this Youtube video of Skinner talking about his teaching machine invention:

and then compare how eerily similar his descriptions are of the teaching machine to the new, next-gen assessment programs that are being pushed aggressively upon us from all angles.

Here’s Skinner:

As soon as the student has written his response, he operates the machine, and learns immediately whether he is right or wrong. This is a great improvement over the system in which papers are corrected by a teacher, where the student must wait perhaps until another day, to learn whether or not what he is written is right.

Such immediate knowledge has two principle effects: it leads most rapidly to the formation of correct behavior. The student quickly learns to be right.

 Those pesky teachers! I guess they were getting in the way of innovation back in the 50’s too.

Now compare the Skinner quote with this description that comes from the website of Questar – the testing company recently adopted by New York State:

With tablets and the right software, this approach is possible on an individualized basis: after every five minutes of individualized tablet-based instruction, students would be presented with a brief series of questions that adapt to their skill level, much as computer-adaptive tests operate today. After that assessment, the next set of instructional material would be customized according to these results.

Here’s Skinner again:

Another important advantage is that the student is free to move at his own pace. With techniques in which a whole class is forced to move together, the bright student wastes time, waiting for others to catch up, and the slow student, who may not be inferior in any other respect, is forced to go too fast. …A student who is learning by machine learns at the rate, which is most effective for him. The fast student covers the course in a short time, but the slow student, by giving more time to the subject, can cover the same ground.   Both learn the material thoroughly.

Now, compare this with Questar:

Because students progress through subject material at their own pace, they can be grouped by ability instead of grade level, similar to competency-based learning approaches currently being tried in various schools and districts.

Questar and Skinner…pretty much indistinguishable, aren’t they?

Here’s Skinner one more time:

A teaching machine is simply a convenient way of bringing the student into contact with the man who writes the program. It is the author of the program, not the machines, who teaches.   He stands in the same position as a textbook writer, except that he is much closer to the student. He and the student are constantly interacting.

Parents, here’s the moral of the story: if you want your child “constantly interacting” with whatever corporate testing company your state has contracted with, and if you trust that company to be your child’s teacher, then by all means, CBE is for you.

Personally, these companies haven’t exactly earned my trust over the last few years.



Can We Stop it in Time?

If Obama’s “Testing Action Plan” goes ahead as planned, be prepared for a massive expansion of online and digital learning and testing to sweep our country.

I mean massive.

As in – teachers?  You might want to start looking for alternative work.

Tom Vander Ark, former executive director of education for the Gates Foundation, is so ready for this.

Vander Ark, who recently gave a presentation at the Global Technology Symposium called“New Education: How to Unbundle the Potential of a Multi-Billion Dollar Market” and is now director of a venture capital firm called “Learn Capital” that oversees a giant portfolio of digital and online learning companies, knows that he is sitting on a goldmine – if only we can be manipulated into adopting the policies that will lead to the boom he has been waiting for.

“Coming from the business world, I thought this would all happen fast,” he said in this article. “It’s frustrating that 15 years later online learning is just beginning to mature.”

Poor guy.

Fifteen years ago, when he served as executive director of education for the Gates Foundation, Tom Vander Ark was here in Maine, awarding a 10 million dollar grant to shape schools in our state to his liking.

Never mind the fact that Maine was, at that time, number one in the country according to its NAEP scores (something we can no longer claim.)

“Consider developing two models for high school reform that specifically target rural high schools – one that uses digital technology and on-line courses, the other that is more traditional,” Vander Ark advised our then-commissioner, Duke Albanese.

Only two years earlier, Vander Ark was in Alaska, doling out millions for the state to develop a model of reform that would eventually become the Reinventing Schools Coalition – just one of handful of consultant groups which, with money from the Gates and Nellie Mae Foundations, has since shipped its disciples around the country in an attempt to remake our schools according to his (and his fellow investors’) fancy.

Recently, Vander Ark even appeared to be getting excited about the Opt Out movement.

 “New tests will hinder rather than help competency-based models,” he wrote in an email to members of the Council for Chief School Officers and the Foundation for Excellence in Education. “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 a system that will incorporate all the performance feedback that students will be receiving a few years from now.”

(Now go read the Testing Action Plan and see what it calls for.)

Vander Ark, as board member of an international organization called Global Education Futures, has some inside information as to what the future holds.

According to this document  from GEF (which, if you are prone to nightmares, you should not read) we’ll be looking at “performance feedback” systems that include “assessment of learning progress through the use of objective physiological parameters, using real time biometry and neurointerfaces,” and “continuous assessment in gaming-like dynamics that will “transform education into a personal quest to boost a character.’”

Sounds crazy, but Vander Ark and his cronies have been busy.

Using this “Policy Playbook” developed by Bellwether Education (with help from Vander Ark, of course!), corporate reformers have been setting up shop all across the country under the guise of friendly, state-run non-profits, generating demand in all kinds of deceptive ways for personalized (read: digital, competency-based) learning.

“Today, many areas in education, including new educational technologies, remain as hidden opportunities, potentially worth many billions of dollars, where first-movers will have a chance to corner this huge market,” the GEF document explains.

We are getting set up for a giant racket built on the backs of our kids.

Now the question is… can we stop it in time?


Don’t Let This Happen in Your State

Last spring, I pleaded with our state education committee to reconsider the “proficiency-based diploma” mandate that had passed in 2012.

This is experimental, I told them.  This idea did not come from teachers – it came from technology and student loan companies. The Gates Foundation is behind this, not parents, not teachers, not kids. There is no proof that this is best practice. Our students – our childrenare being used as guinea pigs.  They are using us to generate proof points!

Despite my impassioned plea, our education committee looked at me with blank stares.

(I didn’t know, at the time, that just a few years earlier, they had been courted by a group called Educate Maine on a retreat to learn about the virtues of proficiency-based education – a group that had been established and funded by Gates and Nellie Mae Education Foundation for the express purpose of generating “demand” for personalized learning.)

Oh how I wish I could get up before them again and say this:

I told you so.

With remarkably good (strategic) timing, the  National Governors Association recently published this document, called “Expanding Student Success: A Primer on Competency-Based Education from Kindergarten Through Higher Education,” which urges governors to consider adopting competency-based policies.

And what state do they highlight as a shining example for states to emulate?

Maine, of course.

Maine produced several communication resources to educate the public about its progress toward a CBE system. The Maine Department of Education home page prominently features the state’s plan, Education Evolving, for putting students first and a separate Web site devoted to CBE in the state. In addition to providing easy-to-navigate resources, the state created several informational videos that explain what CBE is and how it is benefiting Maine’s students. Governors in other states can use similar resources and work with their departments of education to develop plans and tools to publicize the benefits of CBE to students, families, educators, and state and local policymakers.

But who paid for and created the “resources” we have on our state DOE website?

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

Who paid for the trip our education committee took to learn about proficiency-based education?

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

Who paid for the very NGA document that encourages other states to use Maine as an example in their own work?

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

And who funds Nellie Mae?

Wait for it…

The Gates Foundation.

Sometimes I don’t know whether or not to do this:


Or this:


 Find out what they are cooking up in your state, and don’t let it happen to you.

Suspicions Confirmed: Testing Action Plan is Trojan Horse

Four years ago, Tom Vander Ark (former executive at the Gates Foundation, current partner at Learn Capital) wrote in an email exchange with members of the Foundation for Excellence in Education and the Council for Chief State School Officers:

 “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 a system that will incorporate all the performance feedback that students will be receiving a few years from now.”

Mr. Vander Ark, who is also a board member of a group called Global Education Futures, which recently put out this document that calls for turning “live education” into a “premium service” and advocates for the development of “competence profile(s)…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,” appears to have had a hand in the “Testing Action Plan” that was released by the White House this weekend.

According to the White House document, “A set-aside of $25 million would support competitive projects to help states develop innovative, new assessment models and address pressing needs they have identified for developing and implementing their assessments. This could include competency-based assessment.

“The Administration will invite states that wish to request waivers of federal rules that stand in the way of innovative approaches to testing to work with the Department to promote high-quality, comparable, statewide measures. For example, the Department granted a temporary waiver to New Hampshire to pilot a competency-based assessment system in four districts.”

“The Department will also “establish “office hours” for any state or district that wishes to consult on how it can best reduce testing but still meet its policy objectives and requirements under the law; will engage in proactive outreach to states and districts on this topic; and will bring in experts to advise the Department, states, and districts on this work. The Department will also share tools already available to do this work, including The Council of Chief State School Officers’ Comprehensive Statewide Assessment Systems: A Framework for the Role of the State Education Agency.”

A shift to competency-based education has been in the works a least a decade, with the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Gates Foundation, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education (among others) at the helm of this shift.

The Council for Chief State School Officers has received upwards of 90 million dollars in grants from the Gates Foundation in the past 6 years, much of it for the purpose of transitioning states  to competency-based models.

The Common Core State Standards are a key piece of this transformation, as are the billions of dollars that have been invested in digital and online learning companies.

Several weeks ago, in a post called “Cashing in on Opt Out,” I wondered if investors like Vander Ark would be laughing all the way to the bank if SBAC and PARCC failed.

Pardon the absurd online photoshop job, but…looks like he’s on his way.


Let’s stop him.