Competency Based Education and San Diego

15 May

A May 4 San Diego Unified School District  press release “announced a significant reduction in the amount of high-stakes standardized testing at local schools.” The next day, May 5, former Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, wrote on her blog, “I met [SDUSD] Superintendent Cindy Marten when she was a principal. I could see her love for the children and her respect for teachers. For her courage in doing what is best for children, I add her to the honor roll of the blog.” Two days later, May 7, Emily Talmage (educator and blogger from Maine who has notable expertise regarding Competency Based Education, {CBE}) wrote, “A closer look at San Diego Unified’s agenda reveals that instead of shedding corporate-driven, top-down reforms as Ravitch claims, the district is instead embracing the highly profitable yet woefully under-researched 21st century version of ed reform that is rapidly sweeping the nation.” Talmage was referring to CBE.

Looking into the matter myself, I have concluded that both of these women are correct. Cindy Marten has been wonderful and the reduction in testing is real and significant. I work in a school district adjacent to Cindy’s and we too have recently selected a true professional leader who works for good, Karen Janney. Even though both of these women are extraordinary leaders, their school districts are targeted by corporate sponsors of what Emily insightfully labeled “the highly profitable yet woefully under-researched 21st century version of ed reform.”

Cindy Marten and StriveTogether

Talmage implies that Cindy Marten is in league with Bill Gates and his ilk because she is listed as hosting a StriveTogether conference in San Diego, October 2014. StriveTogether uses the creepy subtitle “Every Child. Cradle to Career.” Its parent organization is KnowledgeWorks whose self described purpose is; “Every student experiences meaningful personalized learning that enables him or her to thrive in college, career and civic life.” This means a software driven curriculum delivered by a digital device. KnowledgeWorks has a large corporate sponsorship comprised mainly of companies associated with technology and testing. But I don’t think Marten intended to align herself with StriveTogether or Bill Gates.

In 2011, the Sol Price Foundation started the City Heights Partnership for Children where Marten was serving as principal of Central Elementary. In 2013 the United Way took over management of City Heights Partnership for Children. Marten’s relationship with StriveTogether is through Partnership for Children and United Way. Talmage is correct about StriveTogether being a terrible front for corporate raiders targeting education dollars and Marten should rethink representing Partnership for Children at any events associated with StriveTogether. However, Gates money is ubiquitous and it is difficult to be socially engaged and not have some relationship with organizations that Gates supports; for example the PTA, AFT and NEA.

The 70-person committee tasked with creating a plan for San Diego Unified’s digital path forward last reported in December 2014. One of their goals that they provided to Marten and the school board was “implement competency-based learning and problem-solving-based assessment, aligned with Common Core standards.” This also can be correctly interpreted to mean a software driven curriculum delivered by a digital device and tested on-line.

As a classroom teacher for the past fifteen years, I find these goals reprehensible. Common Core is a set of standards paid for by Bill Gates, copyrighted by a non-profit Bill Gates finances and written by testing corporation employees (mostly College Board and ACT). The standards are poorly written and horribly aligned. Competency Base Education is one of those awful agendas that will facilitate purloining education dollars but sounds reasonable to people who have no significant time in a classroom or have been out of the classroom so long they have forgotten how important the human connection is for a successful learning process.

Daisaku Ikeda, the founder of the Soka Schools, touches on this subject in his book Soka Education, “Recognizing each student as a unique personality and transmitting something through contacts between that personality and the personality of the instructor is more than a way of implanting knowledge: it is the essence of education.” Ikeda also mentioned that Socrates likened this to being “kindled by a leaping spark” between teacher and student. Low cost on-line learning is spiritless, amoral and dead.

Why so much Spending on Technology?

 Education is my fifth career. My previous career was as a researcher in Silicon Valley developing advanced recording devices. I wrote code to run test equipment and take data. The database I developed would handle automatic data inputs and produce presentable reports. I evolved into a technology loving geek. When I became a teacher, it was clear to me that technology was the wave of the future which would significantly improve teaching. I was wrong.

Technologists who are often entrepreneurs; government organizations under the influence of these entrepreneurs; school information technology leaders; and fans of technology form a formidable vanguard of support for the untested belief in the efficacy of digital based education. And when these groups meet, they easily succumb to the dangers of group think.

On October 23, 2015, most of the top technologists in San Diego County schools gathered to brief each other on what they were doing and to learn about new education technologies. The event was billed as a “Market Briefing.” The news release by The Center for Digital Education said. “The Center for Digital Education hosted a Market Briefing event in San Diego, CA. IT leaders from some of the largest districts in San Diego were [on] hand for a special briefing on their technology plans, priorities and focus for the coming years.”

The Center for Digital Education belongs to eRepublic. Take a quick look at the eRepublic web pages and you will learn how eRepublic can help you create and market digital products to all levels of government. They are not education specialist. They are sales facilitators, who understand how to co-opt government employees and make them allies. At conferences like “Market Briefing,” digital tools are seen as unquestionably essential to the path forward for 21st century education.

The Obama administration is 100% on board with Competency Based Education. His department of education has literally hundreds of citations from reports, mostly by think tanks supported by technology companies, which sell the virtues of CBE. The department’s stance on CBE is made clear here:

 “Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. Competency-based strategies provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned or awarded, and provide students with personalized learning opportunities. These strategies include online and blended learning, dual enrollment and early college high schools, project-based and community-based learning, and credit recovery, among others. This type of learning leads to better student engagement because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs. It also leads to better student outcomes because the pace of learning is customized to each student.”

This statement is typical of the statements supporting CBE and other digital learning schemes. It is all assertion with no evidence. The Achilles heel of “corporate education reform” continues to be that the evidence does not support the claims.

When the government and corporate America is applying so much pressure for schools to embrace CBE and other digital strategies, it is little wonder that school boards and superintendents acquiesce. This week, the leadership (which I like and respect) in my school district (Sweetwater) announced that the board voted to: “Accept the technology task force recommendation to continue purchasing student devices for grades 9-10, and direct staff to enter into contracts and execute lease agreements for such purchase, and to maintain the iPad program at middle schools for the 2016-2017 school year, and allow the technology task force to continue its work for the 2016-2017 school year.” If they had conducted a more thorough cost benefit analysis, they might have hired more teachers or janitors instead of purchasing I-pads and laptops.

The Sweetwater Union High School District’s technology plan was published in 2014 before the present leadership took the helm. However, it is clear that the push for a 1:1 digital device ratio and facilitating online learning are still being pursued. The evidence supporting these policies in the Technology plan is provided by corporate America. Here is an example:

 “’Schools with a 1:1 student/computer ratio are cutting the dropout rate and reaping this broader benefit.’ On another front, there are the cost-savings associated with reduced printing, copying and paper usage. According to Project RED, ‘It is estimated that high schools where every student has a computer and which use an LMS [learning management system] could cut copy budgets in half. On a national basis that would equate to savings of $400M a year for high schools alone.’” (page 81)

 This is just one of many statements citing Project Red as evidence for these policies. The problem is Project Red in not an independent research organization without an agenda. They are funded by some of the largest companies in the world including Pearson Corporation, a company that hopes to dominate the online education world.

Technology does have a place in education and online learning is possible. But, it cannot be done on the cheap. Computer learning systems that are little more than drill and skill systems are terrible. School leaders need informed educators and constituents to help them protect community schools from corporate greed and government malfeasance. One to one digital policies do not pass a rigorous cost-benefit analysis and Competency Based Education appears to be more scam than legitimate education policy.

6 Responses to “Competency Based Education and San Diego”

  1. SD Educators United May 15, 2016 at 11:28 pm #

    Reblogged this on San Diego Educators United and commented:
    Interesting perspective on where San Diego Unified School District is headed with Cindy Marten at the helm.

  2. Emily Talmage May 16, 2016 at 12:19 pm #

    Thanks for doing all this research!! Just a tiny bit of self-defense… I didn’t actually say anything about Cindy Marten in my post. I think the comment about her role with StriveTogether was in one of the comments on Ravitch’s blog… My hunch from the start was that Martin is herself well-intentioned.

    • tultican May 16, 2016 at 3:06 pm #

      I am sorry if I misconstrued you. I am a big fan of your blog and hold you in high regard so I have not interest denigrating you at all.

  3. ciedie aech May 19, 2016 at 8:26 pm #

    Thanks for another great post. My own experience of flailing around inside the inanities of test-based school reforms which entered our district years and yeas ago is that more often than not well-meaning school administrators went along with the ideas and dictates pushed onto schools by NCLB only to find out much later how invasive and wrong-headed these same policies had become. The only recourse offered to these “old-school” student-protective administrators was to support ALL invasions and dictates with enthusiasm…or lose their jobs. It’s sad that so many of those used-to-be-student/teacher-protective administrators simply chose to keep their jobs and become top-down no-excuses dictators — to the great detriment of the public school system.

    • tultican May 19, 2016 at 9:59 pm #

      Big money (with no virtue but the worship of Mammon) chasing after a new revenue source (school funding) is a colossal evil. If one stands with good, one must battle this scourge. Otherwise you are facilitating it; you are a Quisling.

      200 pages into your book and thoroughly enjoying it.

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