One to One Initiative Threatens Public Education

27 Mar

By Thomas Ultican 3/27/2017

One to one classroom agendas have a dark side that includes the destruction of public schools as we know them; where teachers and students interact. It’s a dystopian ideology that posits students earning education badges while working in isolation at a digital screen.

This month, the entire staff at my high school received an email from a colleague who recently volunteered to be on our district’s technology committee. The message said in Part:

“In doing research for next year’s Technology Plan I came across some interesting data collected by the Speak Up 2015 Research Project.

“Although this particular data is from 2015 it still makes a lot of great points! Click on the links below, I promise it is a quick read.  Enjoy!”

The email message included three links to infographics provided by

What do Parents Really Think about Digital Learning

Looking Inside Today’s Digital Classroom

10 Things Everyone Should Know About K12 Students’ Digital Learning

These infographics claim that to be the result of authentic unfiltered data from respectively; 38,613 K-12 parents nationwide, 38,157 K-12 educators nationwide and 505,676 K-12 students, parents and educators nationwide. Ever since my Viet Nam war experience, I have been less trusting. I seek verification for all claims. I want to know the research methodology and who is paying.

Project tomorrow’s research is based on volunteers who engage with their web site answering survey questions. The web site is mostly an advertisement for implementing digital learning and a guide for how to lobby local schools to implement it. It has an agenda and a profound bias.

There are more than 90 corporations and non-profits listed as supporters of, the cyber-space marketing address for this group. Many other organizations are lavishly financed by corporations to promote competency based education CBE including Future Ready. In addition to the eighteen largest contributors pictured below, both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association are contributors to

Corporations Sponsoring Project Tommorrow

My School District’s technology committee is being influenced by the corporate sponsors of Last time the district technology plan was updated (2014) the technology committee was swayed by Project Red which is supported by many of the same corporations as Project Tomorrow and Future Ready. All three organizations promote one-to-one education at a computer screen.

A fellow teacher presciently commented, “The last thing 21st century students need is to be put in front of another screen.

Last year when writing about this same issue, I wrote, “When congress passed the new education law (ESSA), the United States Department of Education (USED) became the nation’s leading education technology sales force.” USED works to sell “blended learning”; “competency based education”; “personalized learning”; “linked learning”; etc. These initiatives have at least four things in common; they all profit technology companies; they all are unproven; they all promote unhealthy education practices; and they overturn a student’s right to privacy.

Competency Based Education (CBE) Updates a Failed Strategy from the 1990’s

Obama’s Education Department was an unabashed supporter of CBE and the new federal education law ESSA provides money to encourage CBE. On the Department of Education web-site, it defines CBE:

“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.”

“By enabling students to master skills at their own pace, competency-based learning systems help to save both time and money. Depending on the strategy pursued, competency-based systems also create multiple pathways to graduation, make better use of technology, support new staffing patterns that utilize teacher skills and interests differently, take advantage of learning opportunities outside of school hours and walls, and help identify opportunities to target interventions to meet the specific learning needs of students.”

This all sounds great except CBE is basically outcome based education moved to digital space. Outcome based education was the new 1990’s name given to a previously failed strategy known as mastery education (AKA “seats and sheets”). Outcome based education failed miserably around the world. The big advantage for CBE is that giant profits are possible for corporate providers, especially technology companies.

I never expected to quote Phyllis Schlafly but she wrote a prescient report in 1993, “What’s Wrong With Outcome-Based Education?” She said:

“Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the famous Russian author and former political prisoner in Soviet Gulags, said in a speech in the mid-1970s: ‘Coexistence on this tightly knit earth should be viewed as an existence not only without wars . . . but also without [government] telling us how to live, what to say, what to think, what to know, and what not to know.’”

“Unfortunately, that’s what Outcome-Based Education is — a process for government telling our children how to live, what to say, what to think, what to know, and what not to know. What the children say, think and know must conform to the liberal Politically Correct ideology, attitudes and behaviour.”

Maybe you dismiss Phyllis Schlafly as a paranoid right wing cook, but this video about how the Chinese are gamifying good citizenship should give you the creeps. Teachers hated outcome-based education, but it was the extreme right that delivered the death blow.

Emily Talmage teaches public school in Maine, where CBE is being piloted. She describes what she’s learned:

‘“By collecting skill-based badges, the record of achievement begun in secondary school becomes the foundation upon which workers build their capabilities and tell their stories to employers,’ explains the infamous testing-behemoth, Pearson Education.

“Knowledgeworks recently described the new learning system as an ‘ecosystem,’ in which the role of the traditional teacher will soon be obsolete.

“With major investments from Wall Street, leaders in the online learning, ed-tech, and student loan industries, and even celebrity billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Reed Hastings of Netflix, the transformation has recently been picking up speed. Meanwhile, political groups on both the left and right are moving the system forward by lobbying for ‘personalized,’ competency-based policies and ‘innovative’ assessment systems.”

The educator known by his wonderful blog, Curmudgucation, Peter Greene, recently wrote:

“Personalized learning, whether we’re talking about a tailored-for-you learning program on your computer screen or a choose the school you’d like to go to with your voucher, is not about actual personalization. It’s about another path for marketing, a way of personalizing the marketing of the product, the edu-commodity that someone is already trying to make money from.”

There is presently a Tennessee court case asking the provocative question, “does a student have a right to a teacher or is a computer enough?”

What is the Proper Place for Digital Education?

The one-to-one initiative being marketed as personalized learning makes little sense. Having tax payers provide a tablet or laptop computer to every student is crazy. It is obviously not personalized learning any more than correspondence school was personalized learning in the middle 20th century. Some student with unique situations may succeed with cheap on-line learning but as a strategy for most students, there is no reason to think it will work.

Our spending for public education needs to be submitted to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis. As much fun as it may be to give every child a digital learning device, the quality of learning would likely be more improved if the school district used that money to reduce class sizes by one or two students. The one to one digital initiative is an unproven theory for improved education but class size reduction is a proven theory.

However, having sufficient computer resources available for students to use makes sense. It might be a good idea to make classes like keyboarding (typing) available and highly encouraged. My students are amazed when they see me typing without looking at the keyboard. That is a skill that has served me well and I think our students should have that opportunity.

Even cyber-course work could be valuable, if it is not mainly about maximizing profits. In his book, Teaching Minds, the cognitive scientist and pioneer in online learning, Roger Schank, makes the point that good online education costs as much as good classroom education. Class size still matters and the learning project designs must be well thought-out and relative to the particular class of students. However, today’s K-12 cyber-schools are really cyber-frauds.

The bottom line with technology spending and use in the classroom is that very aggressive well financed corporate sales teams see schools as a huge market. In addition, federal dollars are getting earmarked by corporate friendly politicians for technology spending. Therefore, it is prudent to look at how valuable this technology really is and not be swayed by the hype.

It is unlikely that good use of technology in education is going to come from the Bill Gates funded Kahn Academy or Tom Vander Ark. It is much more likely that most of the excellent thinking on use of technology in education will come from America’s classroom teachers. Let’s not be bamboozled or intimidated. It is classroom teachers that know what is valuable for learning.

19 Responses to “One to One Initiative Threatens Public Education”

  1. Roxana Marachi, Ph.D March 28, 2017 at 5:42 am #

    Thanks for this post. I have yet to see any of the reports pitching for the tech attempt to address the mounting concerns about long term impacts of extended screen time on children’s health, social, emotional, and neurological development. They simply don’t mention any concerns/risks at all as if to suggest they don’t exist. Here is a collection of research and updates that may be of interest to readers following the issues:


    • tultican March 28, 2017 at 3:32 pm #

      Roxana you are a treasure. Thank you for this wonderful resource.


  2. Tom Hoffman March 28, 2017 at 4:26 pm #

    One problem with your timeline here is that it is really outcome-based -> standards-based -> competency-based. This isn’t something that popped up in the 80’s, failed, and went away. It has just been re-branded twice.

    The reason it is so persistent is that there is not actually a formally defined alternative model beyond courses, grades and Carnegie units, which has almost no conceptual rigor or consistency underpinning it.

    If you’re going to think about the fundamental design of schooling, you’re going to end up asking “What do we want students to know and be able to do?” Once you do that, you’ve just made up some outcomes. If you believe that the educational system should be based fundamentally around the process of students achieving those goals, you’ve just re-invented “outcomes-based education,” whether you wanted to or not. For branding purposes, a new name might be necessary.

    It is like saying you’re in favor of a “laws-based” legal system. Of course! What else would you base it on? But it doesn’t mean every law or set of laws are great or just, and most aren’t.

    As someone who is somewhat burnt out and disillusioned about all this, I’d say that it has become clear that there are plenty of successful educational systems that survive with a fairly loose connection between their enumerated outcomes/standards/competencies and the schools’ processes.

    The biggest problem with these systems is that not enough serious effort has been put into understanding outcomes/standards/competencies. We don’t take that part of the process very seriously (compared to, say, Japan, which has a very formal, rigorous process for revising and implementing changes in outcomes on a 10 year cycle).

    The fundamental prerequisite for successful outcomes(etc) based education is the quality of the outcomes, and the US educational system has proven to be terrible at this.


  3. ciedie aech March 31, 2017 at 5:31 pm #

    The only thing I see now when looking at educational mandates as they have developed over the past two decades is a replica of the momentary opportunism which came to Russia right after the collapse of the USSR: Little countries claimed independence, and suddenly Western corporations/entrepreneurs were at their doorstep, promising growth and prosperity even as they assertively sucked up every penny they could manage and quickly got out. I see this exact pattern in the argument that “The big advantage for CBE is that giant profits are possible for corporate providers, especially technology companies.” Promise big things, get in, take the money, get out. This frustratingly predicable cycle hasn’t changed since NCLB was first mandated.


    • tultican March 31, 2017 at 9:04 pm #

      Isn’t this the Reagan legacy? Until Reagan who popularized the former charger quarterback, Jack Kemp’s pet economic theory, “supply side economics”, and made crackpots like Milton Friedman respectable; economic justice was a revered value. Common sense and community spirit trumped weird theories from academic scholars who held fringe opinions.

      Following these loony theories let loose scoundrels like John Arnold from Enron and exploded the national budget deficit. Now he is out there trying to profitize public education and President No Philosophy has signed on to that agenda.

      We need a humanist movement to sweep aside this abysmal ideology. No more wars unless we’re actually threatened. No more privatizing public assets. No more billionaires allowed.


      • ciedie aech March 31, 2017 at 9:23 pm #

        Ah, that even a small percent of society actually understood the overview you present.


  4. rqila April 5, 2017 at 8:42 pm #

    I am fascinated by this group Speak Up you reference.

    It seems they have a quasi-credible grassroots origin story: … if a little spendy nowadays. It’s the tshirts. Who has money for tshirts?

    But look at this group a little further south from you:

    They’re also known as “Speak Up” and they’re a wholly-ownded subsidiary of CCSA (CA Charter School Assoc) formed for the exclusive purpose, best I can tell, of unseating that radical-charter-hater (not) Steve Zimmer from the LAUSD school board. [IMHO the worst thing about Steve Zimmer is that he does *not* hate charters and keeps approving more and more, but whatevs…]

    It seems then that CCSA likes to appropriate solid well-known and reputable grassroots parent-type organizations and foment an astro-version of their own, confusing the field. Copyright laws be damned.

    Think, “PTA” or Parent Teachers Association – copyright 1907 or so I think. And then there’s CCSA’s “PTA” aka Parent Teachers Alliance – – they are the entity that supports Speak Up; this CCSA ‘pta’ let’s call it, is wholly supported by CCSA – you can look at everyone’s 990s etc. Not to mention their boards.

    So …. it got me to wondering about this study you said done. It wasn’t clear to me whether you’d investigated that; perhaps I didn’t read closely enough.

    I’m enjoying your blog! Why does it feel only those who know what’s going on are reading about it though? Do depressing … but don’t let me dampen your words, which are spot-on terrific. Go Go Go!!!


    • rqila April 5, 2017 at 8:44 pm #

      Sorry, we’re north of you, not south….


    • tultican April 5, 2017 at 10:11 pm #

      I have been following your blog as well and thoroughly enjoy it. I agree with you about Zimmer. He is a TFA spawn who does not really get how destructive the charter movement is even though he sees the financial strain public schools in LA face.

      The despicables at the CCSA are evil. Billionaires like Reed Hastings and Carry Walton Penner using their vast wealth to destroy the world’s greatest democratic institution drives me nuts. Isn’t this really a form of treason?

      As far as people not listening, let’s just keep banging away. I think our work will bear fruit eventually.

      Movements like Speak Up are being routinely compromised by big bucks. As soon as big wealth sees a possible use they take control by funding the movement. A good example is the T-party which did not start as a far right spooky movement. It became that when the Koch brothers took it over.

      When big money is coming from the technology sector to support an education based organization, it is no longer about improving education, it is about creating markets.

      I think we should tax all billionaires out of existence. Democracy cannot function when a few individuals control a vast percentage of all assets.


      • rqila April 6, 2017 at 2:54 am #

        I couldn’t agree more this is ultimately a 1%/99% thing. And that basically, there’s zero pedagogy underlying CCSS, and 100% marketing. Why people allow themselves to be distracted from this, losing our very precious public sector is just mystifying.

        I do want to correct the misimpression I may have left about Zimmer. I am a really big fan of his. I sit in awe of his political-ness; I think he gets lots and lots of stuff accomplished and done that many don’t even credit him with because it happens downstream of the precipitating cause and his fingerprints are lost from it. Which I imagine perhaps he wants too. As well, I think some of this anonymity is because, again, of that politicalness; I think he does a lot of stuff behind closed doors. Which lots of folk would have an issue with, at least ideologically. But, I’m learning to appreciate more.

        I say this from an older-person’s perspective. Laying all your cards down, wearing it all on your sleeves, failing to be a little protective and strategic – I think these are failings as well as virtues. And the mix with which any of us individuals employs them is what makes us unique. I am appreciative of Zimmer’s employing a lot of this to a degree I absolutely couldn’t, constitutionally. But IMO he does so to ends that I approve of, “social justice” ends. That’s my opinion, I think, personally, that he’s the real-deal in terms of social justice and equality and wanting and working toward that.

        Hence, I am a fan. When I say I object to the degree to which he *doesn’t* object to charters, that’s because I have come, at last, to feel fairly comfortable about rejecting the whole lot of em, even the “good” ones. For the underlying destruction and ideological destruction it does to the system.

        But he can’t, and he wouldn’t either. I doubt he believes that. I think he does believe in the “choice”-thing, to a larger extent than I could, at least. And it’s so ironic that he’s excoriated from the side, from the CCSA side. When in truth, my end of the spectrum, again, is unhappy with all that tolerance he insists on continuing to show.

        Back to your regular programming; thanks for so many amazing posts!


      • tultican April 6, 2017 at 4:43 pm #

        I agree! I voted for Hilary just from the prospective of realpolitik. Zimmer is infinitely better than the alternatives and I do think he wants equity.

        Financing multiple schools systems increases costs, therefore if the second system does not improve teaching and learning significantly more than it undermines public schools, it is not justified. There are many charter schools that do as good a job as the average public schools but that is not enough to justify the damage and costs. That is just one argument for ending the entire charter school experiment which has failed on so many levels.


  5. rqila April 6, 2017 at 5:28 pm #

    … and that’s a bingo in terms of how to deal with the oft-cited Charter school evaluation of ‘_x_ worse than regular district schools (RDS), _y_ the same and _z_ better’. You’re correct that given the costs and disruption, not only the “worse than” but also that “same as” category need jettisoning.

    For far too long it’s been accepted as axiomatic that change is good inherently, just because, intrinsically. Thus, “School Choice”, etc. But you’re right, that middle category is the “School Choice” one in which the cost:benefit to be evaluated is the benefit to all of us for having “choice” (encapsulated by their side as in that upper category but in fairness as single-metrics (sometimes even any quantitative ones) are problematic, the cost side can expand to contain more than that) vs the down-side to it all. It’s not about the “better than”, it’s about evaluating that middle section as a cost:benefit only. And the “cost” includes the disruption, the inefficiency, etc.

    I’ve actually struggled with that for a long while; it’s the problem with the analysis of all likert scales that attempt to analyze a categorical variable continuously (“on a scale of 6 to pretty how do you feel about…”).



    • tultican April 6, 2017 at 6:51 pm #

      Thank you. I am thrilled to be communicating with the Red Queen in LA!



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