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.

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.


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:

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:

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!” 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:   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.  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.

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?