Tag Archives: Competency Based Education

Edtech is Business First – Part 2

24 Jun

By Thomas Ultican 6/24/2021

The pandemic brought a bonanza for online content providers and classroom organizing software. Programs like Google Classroom and Class Dojo which previously seemed superfluous performed a needed service during the crisis. Unfortunately, some of the edtech companies whose businesses spiked were taking advantage of the situation to sell profitable but harmful products based on bad education theory.

Content Providers

Neeru Kosala Presenting for her Non-Profit (Photo Credit CK-12)

Neeru Khosla is the founder and CEO of CK-12, a nonprofit that she started in 2007 to deliver free digital books, particularly on math and science topics. She has the same qualification to reform education as many of our lead education “disrupters”; she’s a billionaire. Her company claims to be providing high-quality, free resources and by free they also mean no pro-accounts or data collection.

Khosla is a mother who trained as a molecular biologist and later earned a masters from the Stanford Graduate School of Education but does not seem to have any classroom experience. Her husband, Vinod Khosla, is a venture capitalist whose massive wealth appears tied to early investments in Google (now Alphabet).

To finance CK-12, the couple uses two private philanthropies, Amar Foundation and CK-12 Foundation. For the past several tax cycles Amar Foundation (EIN 94-3055731) has liquidated about $9 million in Alphabet stock and forwarded the cash to CK-12 Foundation (EIN 20-8007128) which uses it to pay salaries and finance digital content development.

When the pandemic started this barely noticed service saw their registrations expand by 460 percent. Unfortunately, yet another billionaire amateur educator has gotten a larger megaphone to push the “personalized learning” agenda.

The Khan Academy is another content provider that saw their traffic soar in 2020. Originally, the academy generated an image of this selfless Silicon Valley guy, Sal Khan, making math education videos and distributing them for free. In 2007, he formed his non-profit but it was not until 2010 that Bill Gates (EIN 56-2618866) and other billionaires began sending him money.

It turns out that Sal Khan is not so selfless. His non-profit is making him wealthy. Khan Academy tax records (EIN 26-1544963) reveal that between 2010 and 2019 his salary totaled $6,009,694 and since 2015 his yearly salary has been more than $800,000. Between 2012-2017, the Gate Foundation gifted the Khan Academy $12,951,598 and the Overdeck Foundation (EIN 26-4377643) has kicked in $2,154,300.

In 2019, Khan Academy took in $92,559,725 of which only $27,629,684 was from contributions. The Academy has turned into a big-revenue generating non-profit.

In October 2020, Khan Academy announced a new joint effort with NWEA called Khan Academy Districts. There sales pitch says “Khan Academy has partnered with NWEA, creators of MAP® Growth™, to empower teachers to differentiate their instruction based on assessment results and meet the needs of all students.”

NWEA is the company that generated a lot of buzz with their covid-learning loss “research.” NWEA sells standardized math and English testing. They take in noisy data (All standardized testing data is noisy and fraught with error) 3-times a school year, do some fancy arithmetic and report out student growth determinations.

Last year, App Annie reported, “April 8, 2020 The top 3 Education apps in the US by downloads during the week of Mar 22 were Google Classroom, Remind: Safe Classroom Communication and ClassDojo, which saw 580%, 290% and 565% growth, respectively, versus the weekly average in Jan 2020.” This is the ongoing pandemic phenomena that prompted CNBC’s April 23, 2021 article Ed tech’ is booming: Wall Street analysts reveal how to trade the $5 trillion education market.”

Selling Education Snake Oil

The 2016 rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 named ESSA, specified big money for edtech in Title’s I and IV including grants promoting “personalized learning” (ESSA Page 1969). About the only workable training method using a computer is competency based education (CBE). It is a method of drilling small chunks of knowledge and then assessing the learning.

Unfortunately, CBE is just an update of previous failed teaching strategies. In the 1970’s it was called Mastery Learning and in the 1990’s it was called Outcome Based Education. CBE is simply putting Mastery Leaning on a computer instead of using worksheets and paper assessments. It is still bad pedagogy with a sixty-year history of not living up to its protagonist’s claims.

Not only is “personalized learning” bad pedagogy it is also unhealthy. Dr. Nicholas Kardaras wrote in “Time” magazine about health risks associated with student screen time. He noted that “over two hundred peer-reviewed studies point to screen time correlating to increased ADHD, screen addiction, increased aggression, depression, anxiety and even psychosis.” Also, the vast majority of school principals believe that students are experiencing too much screen time and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said in a 2015 report that heavy users of computers in the classroom “do a lot worse in most learning outcomes.

Curriculum Associates (CA) distributes i-Ready and its related testing services. The company which was founded in 1969 to provide worksheets for Mastery Learning curriculum is selling CBE based digital curriculum today. Children isolated at digital screens running their algorithms is called “personalized learning.” Student comments on the article “iReady Magnificent Marketing Terrible Teaching make it clear how much they despise this product.

Amplify is another company selling “personalized learning.” After Rupert Murdoch and Joel Klein failed miserably to profit in the edtech arena when Murdoch purchased Generation Wireless and rebranded it Amplify, they took a $371 million write off and exited the business. The billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs’s “Emerson Collective” assumed control of Amplify.

A third company selling CBE based lessons delivered to a screen is Education Elements. They are the classic technology startup company being financed by five venture capital funds including New Schools Venture Fund.

Technology holds great promise for enhancing education, but when profit motives trump ethics it is like feeding poison to America’s children.

Selling Edtech when Disguised as Philanthropy

27 Nov

By Thomas Ultican 11/27/2020

“Personalized learning” is being driven by foundations derived from companies that stand to profit by its implementation. Last year, George Mason’s Priscilla Regan and the University of Ottawa’s Valerie Steeves wrote the peer reviewed paper Education, privacy, and big data algorithms: Taking the persons out of personalized learning in which they state, “Other than the Carnegie Corporation, the private foundations who have been most supportive of personalized learning are those supported by the technology companies, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Google Foundation.”

In the case of the Carnegie Corporation, the authors note that the philanthropy has been supporting education causes since its founding in 1911. Recently, Carnegie has given monetary support to “personalized learning” but “typically in partnership with one of the tech foundations.”

Based on a listing of the fifteen largest education spending philanthropies in the first decade of the millennium,  the paper’s authors selected the technology linked Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (the largest donor); Michael and Susan Dell (fourth largest donor); and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (#8 in 2010) for analysis. They added two newer giving organizations, the Google Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, to complete their list of five tech associated education grant making companies to analyze.

In their review of scholarly papers and the popular press, they identified five types of activities supported by tech foundations with their K-12 spending:

“The first activity … involves grants to public schools for adoption of edtech applications, including personalized learning initiatives, or to educational initiatives to organizations working in public schools (such as Teach for America) or to organizations providing alternatives to public schools (such as charter schools).

“The second entails grants or some form of funding support for edtech companies.”

“The third area of activity is tech foundation support for coverage of edtech, especially coverage in publications directed to education professionals.”

“A fourth area of activity is tech foundation funding for research into studies evaluating the results of edtech applications, including personalized learning.”

“The fifth area of activity is tech foundation funding for advocacy groups who work in K-12 education.”

Three important observations from Regan and Steeves paper:

“We argue that, although there has been no formal recognition, personalized learning as conceptualized by foundations marks a significant shift away from traditional notions of the role of education in a liberal democracy and raises serious privacy issues that must be addressed.”

“It presents yet another example of the transformation of the traditional role of public education as educating citizens to one of educating future workers and consumers, a contrast of liberal democracy with neoliberal democracy.”

“The edtech sector has been focused on the notion [of personalized learning] …. While companies have generated hundreds of products and a smattering of new school models are showing promise, there is little large-scale evidence that the approach can improve teaching and learning or narrow gaps in academic achievement.”

After investigating education journalism, the authors chose to focus on Education Week as representative. The 1981 non-profit bills itself as “American education’s newspaper of record.” It has a print circulation of 50,000 and an online subscribership of 750,000 made up predominately of educators. Education Week has gotten an infusion of grant money from philanthropic foundations including $10 million from the Gates Foundation since 2005.

The authors concluded, “It accordingly is a site where various actors involved in personalized learning, including, teachers, school administrators, developers, policy-makers and foundations, share their views.” They also note that Education Week intersects with all five of the activity types supported by the tech foundations. For the study, they reviewed articles from the five year period 2013 to 2017.

What is being Sold?

“Personalized learning”, “blended learning” and standardized testing are three of the bigger items being promoted. Huge lobbying by big tech has turned the United States Education Department (USED) into a de facto tech sales firm. Statements like this abound on the USED web site,

“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 grotesque distortion of reality is little more than propaganda backing technology based bad pedagogy. Tech provided schemes like “personalized learning” are founded on the behaviorist based mastery education theory. Besides promoting tech industry products, USED champions age inappropriate learning and publishes unfounded blather about better student outcomes.

The 1970’s “mastery learning” was so detested that it was renamed “outcome based education” in the 1990s and now is called “competency based education” (CBE). The name changes are due to the five-decade long record of failure. CBE is simply putting “mastery leaning” on a computer instead of using worksheets and paper assessments. In the 1970s teachers began calling it “seats and sheets.”

“Personalized Learning” is a euphemistic term that indicates lessons delivered on a digital device. These lessons are often organized with a playlist and come with a claim of using artificial intelligence to tailor the lessons to the recipient. The scheme is based on mastery learning theory.

“Credit recovery” is the fraud that has engendered soaring graduation rates. It is another way of implementing “personalize learning.” Students are completing semester long classes and receiving full credit for them in as little as one day. America’s high school graduation rates peaked at about 77% in 1970 and then drifted down for almost four decades to 69% in 2007. Today, fueled by this technology based scam, graduation rates are approaching 90%.

The current version of the national education law, The Every Student Succeeds Act, defines “blended learning”:

‘‘The term ‘blended learning’ means a formal education program that leverages both technology-based and face-to-face instructional approaches—(A) that include an element of online or digital learning, combined with supervised learning time, and student- led learning, in which the elements are connected to provide an integrated learning experience; and (B) in which students are provided some control over time, path, or pace.”

This means that a student gets lessons delivered to their digital device from a provider like the Khan Academy. Later the student’s teacher takes on the roll of tutor and helps them with their assignments during class. It is another way to de-professionalize teaching and sell technology.

There are many dark sides to education technology including personal privacy being sundered.

Education psychologist and author of “Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds”, Jane Healy, spent years doing research into computer use in schools and, while she expected to find that computers in the classroom would be beneficial, now feels that “time on the computer might interfere with development of everything from the young child’s motor skills to his or her ability to think logically and distinguish between reality and fantasy.”

Dr. Nicholas Kardaras wrote Screens In Schools Are a $60 Billion Hoax for Time magazine. When discussing health risks associated with student screen time, he stated, “over two hundred peer-reviewed studies point to screen time correlating to increased ADHD, screen addiction, increased aggression, depression, anxiety and even psychosis.”

Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of Generation Me and iGen recently wrote an article for Atlantic magazine about the damage screen time is doing. She shared about the current group of teenagers she labels iGen,

“Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

Not all edtech is bad. In fact some is necessary and some greatly enhances learning. In my personal experience, I found Jupiter Grades, the online grade book to be a very valuable tool for communicating with both students and their parents. Student management systems like those provided by Illuminate Education are essential for managing attendance, enrollment and other things schools legally must track.

In the classroom, high speed data acquisition equipment, word processing capabilities and high end calculators are a boon. Textbooks that take advantage of technology to create hints and provide tools for exploration are excellent learning tools.

The difference between technology that enhances pedagogy and bad edtech is the underlying purpose. Technology that is designed to fill a need and enhance learning is normally a good thing. Technology that is designed to improve system efficiency the way robotics has increased production outputs per worker is generally bad for learning.

In the new book A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire explain,

“Because learning is deeply rooted in relationships, it can’t be farmed out to robots or time-saving devices. Technology, of course, is rapidly moving into classrooms. But just having more Chromebooks or online learning platforms hasn’t allowed for faster or larger batch-processing of students.”

Looking at the Scholarly Analysis

Regan and Steeves wrote,

“With respect to personalized learning, all five of the foundations emphasize that there are differences in the ways student learn and the importance of ‘flexible learning opportunities’ (Hewlett), ‘the right experiences to help students learn’ (Dell), ‘a truly transformative, personalized learning experience’ (CZ), and ‘the right learning materials’ (Google), which leads to the importance of ‘real-time assessments for gauging student learning’ (Gates) and ‘formative data … gathered as learning is happening … in-the-moment use of data in the classroom’ (Dell). None of the five foundations, however provide a definition of what they actually mean by personalized learning instead describing the importance of data and differences.

“Moreover, none of the five foundations offers actual evidence for the effectiveness of the innovations they are advancing although all discuss the importance of evidence.” (Emphasis Added)

 “Perhaps most interesting in our review of foundations’ Web sites was the almost universal absence of any mention of privacy or the implications of collecting all this data on students’ learning and personal characteristics that would be a necessary component to implement personalized learning, as well as an outcome of that implementation. … The absence of this topic from their overviews is startling given the attention companies like Google and Facebook have been forced to pay to both privacy and security.”

When looking at the EdWeek material the authors observed,

“The EdWeek data set … bifurcates into two, mostly separate, discourses. The first replicates the same themes we found in the foundation Web site materials. It consists of 14 articles written by eight authors, including senior EdWeek writers …; all eight authors are explicitly assigned to cover ed-tech from a business perspective …. For simplicity sake, we refer to this as the dominant discourse.”

“The second discourse appears almost exclusively in 14 articles written by Benjamin Herold, a staff writer who came to EdWeek from public radio and who covers ‘ed-tech, newsroom analytics, digital storytelling and Philadelphia’.”

One of the main themes from the dominant discourse is diminishing the roll of teachers.

“From this perspective, teachers are not experts in the education process equipped to make decisions about how and when to use edtech; instead, they must embrace the fact that, because of technology, ‘they don’t need to know it all. They’re not the experts’ …. Expertise resides in the edtech itself.”

The authors note, “And ultimately, when faced with hard numbers that suggest personalized learning is not effective, the dominant discourse falls back on the need to believe in the technology.”

Benjamin Herold’s articles pushed back against the dominant discourse. His basic argument is captured in the following quote attributed to a parent activist,

“As parent Karen Effrem, ‘the president of … an advocacy organization that supports parents’ right to control their children’s education’ says, ‘We’re sacrificing our children’s privacy, and we’re allowing corporations to make potentially life-changing decisions about our kids, all for technology that doesn’t actually help them.’”

San Diego Schools Embrace Untested “Depersonalized” Learning

21 Jun

San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) is spending lavishly on technology despite their budgets being decimated by California’s unaccountable charter school industry. During the 2016-17 school year, SDUSD bought digital badging and 16,000 new Chromebooks.

“The district is struggling with a projected $124 million shortfall to its $1.4 billion budget, and have issued in the neighborhood of 1,500 layoff notices to full and part-time employees” reports the San Diego Union.

This kind of insanity seems to be a national movement. There is almost no evidence supporting these new theories of technology driven education. Yet, the leaders of financially strapped SDUSD are spending to have their students become experimental subjects for learning products produced by technology companies.

A recent article in the NY Times by Natasha Singer describes how DreamBox (a widely distributed math learning program) is popular with children but not for doing the math but for doing things like spending points to customize their avatar. Singer writes,

“So far there is little proof that such technologies significantly improve achievement. Adaptive learning courseware, for instance, generally did not improve college students’ grades or their likelihood of completing a course, according to a 2016 report on some of these programs by the S.R.I. Education research group.”

“Badges, We Don’t Need No Stinking Badges”

My friend, Tim, graduated for University City High School this year and invited me to attend his ceremony. I went to the school’s website for parking instructions, where I saw this:

Digital Badge

The badge image contained a hotlink to the SDUSD website which notifies the reader:

“Starting winter 2016, San Diego Unified will begin awarding achievement by issuing digital badges. Digital badges are virtual tokens issued as recognition of a skill, or behavior demonstrated, or an achievement a student has earned.”

Much of this informational page is little more than a corporate advertisement with a video claiming how wonderful and popular digital badging is. The instructions for getting started say SDUSD offers ninety-five high school badges and 20 elementary and middle school badges. Students and parents are informed:

“Students will be notified of badges through their Gmail email account accessible through their Google apps for education.”

Elementary and Middle School Badges

SDUSD also informs us that they won’t just be Cub Scout style merit badges. Soon, students will receive “micro-credentials” that will be recorded in their records kept by University of California San Diego extension.

This all looks harmless enough but it is not! Behind the digital badging scheme is a toxic combination of corporate greed and hubris. As digital badging grows, classical teacher led education will be undermined in all but exclusive high end private schools. It is yet another path to education on-the-cheap driven by profit motives instead of pedagogic expertise.

Additionally, badging is a data mining corporations dream come true. Students will lose all semblance of privacy.

Behavior badging in China is explained in this video about gamifying good citizenship. It gives me the creeps; however, behavior modification is already part of digital badging.

Emily Talmage teaches public school in Maine, where badging started a couple years ago. 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.” [Note: Reed Hastings of Netflix is also owner of DreamBox Learning, Founder of Rocketship charter schools and a board member of California Charter Schools Association.]

“Personalized learning” is the Orwellian name given to computer delivered education. It is isolating and devoid of human interaction. There is nothing personal about it. It truthfully should be labeled de-personalized learning.

Adults Engaged with Students are Key to Intellectual Growth

America’s public education system was wildly successful right up to the advent of modern education reform. There were problems but the creativity of America’s students led to cultural, scientific and economic leadership in the world. No other country comes close to matching the US in either Nobel Prizes awarded or new industries created. The non-coercive (no high stakes testing) learning environment of our public schools allowed students to create wonderful respectful relationships with many adults and develop according to their own personality.

Daisaku Ikeda, the founder of the Soka Schools, discusses the importance of teachers 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 mentions that Socrates likened this to being “kindled by a leaping spark” between teacher and student.

This May, Fredrik DeBoer posted results from a January study by Jens Dietrichson, Martin Bøg and Trine Filges. In his post, DeBoer explains the science behind the study and praises its methodology. He also shares some of the results that are behind a pay wall. The abstract for the report called “Academic Interventions for Elementary and Middle School Students With Low Socioeconomic Status.” states,

“This systematic review and meta-analysis seeks to identify effective academic interventions for elementary and middle school students with low socioeconomic status. Included studies have used a treatment-control group design, were performed in OECD and EU countries, and measured achievement by standardized tests in mathematics or reading. The analysis included 101 studies performed during 2000 to 2014, 76% of which were randomized controlled trials.

Weighted Average Effect Size

This graphic from DeBoer’s post is a comparative graph of the weighted average effect size. The impact of each intervention component is shown in terms of standard deviations on the horizontal axis. The five most effective interventions all require human interaction. If we are led by evidence, then we must admit that the human component in education is crucial.

There are Reasons Education Technology is More Popular than Effective

In 2013, SDUSD created the i21now committee and gave it ninety days to prepare a report on education technology going forward. The committee made up of 104 individuals included Cindy Martin SDUSD Superintendent, several other district executives, seven classroom teachers and thirty-five representatives of corporations and foundations promoting digital learning.

Corporations/Foundations Count
Apex Learning 2
Apple 3
At&t 4
Cisco 2
Cox 3
Dell 1
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 1
iEngage Mobility 1
Intel Foundation 1
Lenovo 2
Microsoft 3
Partnership for Children 1
Project Tomorrow 1
Promethean 1
Qualcomm 3
Reality Changers 1
SENTRE Partners 1
Time=Warner 2
ViaSat 1
XO 1
Total 35

In general, the teachers and IT professionals who volunteer to be on a technology committees are themselves technophiles likely to be biased. Of course, the representatives of the network, software and hardware corporations who comprise an outsized share of the committee membership are there to promote their products.

Project Tomorrow has a representative on the i21now committee. I have written previously about the influence Project Tomorrow had on the school district where I worked (Sweetwater Union High School District). One of the teacher members of our technology committee sent us all data and brochures from Speak Up praising computer based education and de-personalized learning. Project Tomorrow and Speak Up are both part of tomorrow.org.

More than 90 corporations and non-profits are referenced as financial supporters of tomorrow.org. Included amongst the contributors are both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

It is not surprising that the i21now committee mapped a technology path forward that is nearly identical to the positions promoted by large technology corporations and tomorrow.org. The executive summary of their report has 21 bullet point. Here are a few that caught my eye.

“Pursue new funding sources and repurposing current funding by moving expenditures away from textbooks and structured classrooms toward virtual learning, digital content and personalized learning.”

“Provide students with mobile access to broadband connectivity anytime/anyplace, while leveraging resources and partnerships to drive down costs.”

“Ensure sustainable funding to provide access at home and beyond for all students.”

“Support upgraded wireless, wired, and 1:1 environments, plus building systems and VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), while ensuring accessibility with digital dashboards and portals.”

“Incorporate reputable online resources and real-time data to differentiate instruction and engage students with real-world content.”

“Implement competency-based learning and problem-solving-based assessment, aligned with Common Core standards.”

The last bullet point calls for competency-based learning. This is not a new idea and it has failed miserably in both the 1970’s and the 1990’s. The theory is that education can be chunked down into discrete learning standards or competencies.

In the 1970’s this theory was called mastery learning. Soon educators were derisively calling it “sheets and seats.” It failed so miserably as a pedagogical practice that it was renamed. In the 1990’s it was called outcome based education. The new name did not help because the theory was still bogus.

Badging and competency-based learning are yet another incarnation of this behaviorist theory of education. Just because it is being done on a computer does not mitigate the fact that it is based on a bad theory of human behavior.

I do not say that education technology and learning programs have no value, but I have never seen an exemplary learning program. At their core, they all eventually become computer based drill and skill. Teachers have known for a long time that this is a bad pedagogical method widely denigrated as “drill and kill.”

The implementation of technology in the classroom will never reach its potential until that implementation and design is led by educators. Some of my friends believe that the badging and competency-based education are an existential threat to public education. I don’t. It is a bad product and parents do not want their children sitting at computer terminals. They expect them to be in authentic learning environments with competent experienced teachers.

Rich people will never accept this enervated method of education for their children.

I Am Done – I Hope Public Education is Not

24 May

June 2nd will be my last day as a classroom teacher. For the past 15 years, I have been teaching mathematics and physics. It has been exhilarating, it has been heart breaking. It reminds me of the way Charles Dicken’s opened A Tale of Two Cities,

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, ….”

During my tenure in education, costly efforts were made to improve schools. However, the welfare of country and children were too often ignored in pursuit of new markets. Vast fortunes were spent by philanthropists mostly on foolish and destructive agendas which often appeared self-serving.

In 2010, Rupert Murdock stated, “When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone ….” From one point of view, our commitment to children is laudable, but this huge amount of money has engendered darkness. Integrity and community too often succumbed to greed. Corporate and political leaders regularly bowed to dark human tendencies.

Difficult Time for a New Teacher

In 1998, Prince rereleased “Party like its 1999.” In 1999, I didn’t feel it. I was driving around Silicon Valley ready to move on. The party seemed over. Hearing co-workers drone on about stock options or being regaled by stories of new startups creating instant millionaires got stale. I enjoyed my work but hated the traffic. It was time to go home to San Diego and become a teacher.

By 2001, I was in graduate school at the University of California San Diego. At the same time, Ted Kennedy was teaming up with George W. Bush to federalize public education with the “No Child Left Behind” rewrite of the education law. When, I earned a master’s degree in education, NCLB was the law of the land.

The new federal law mandated standards based multiple choice exams. These exams were completely useless for measuring school or teacher quality or for guiding instruction. The only outcome from these tests with statistical significance is that they accurately identified the economic health of the school’s community.

Standards based testing has been both cynically and foolishly used to claim that public schools are failing thus opening the door to a national tragedy. The world’s greatest public education system and our bulwark for democracy is being privatized. Wonderful and venerable institutions in tough neighborhoods like Crenshaw High are being destroyed. The generational legacy that spawned the likes of Ice-T, Darryl Strawberry and Marques Johnson has been stolen from its community.

My second year of teaching was one of my favorite years. I was given a one year temporary contract to teach at Mar Vista Middle School. I really enjoyed the kids (me and middle schoolers think alike), but it was my interactions with the staff that always engenders fond joyful memories. I was incredulous a few years later, when the middle school was reconstituted because of failing test scores. At the time I wrote about the “Unwarranted Demise of Mar Vista Middle School.”

It seems there was an effort to charterize Mar Vista Middle School, however, the community quickly rejected that. The school was reconstituted by firing half of the staff and reopened as Mar Vista Academy. The only result of the reconstitution was disruption in the lives of teachers, parents and students. The school still serves the same neighborhood. At the high school where I now work, we have seen no substantive change in the readiness of students coming from this feeder school.

I Was Victimized by the First Honored DFER

In the master’s program, we did some student teaching during the first year and then in the second year we were given paid intern positions to teach three classes a day. When that school year ended most of my classmates were offered a position. I wasn’t. It could be that I was not a very good teacher or it might have been that I was 52 years-old and schools wanted younger new teachers.

I finally got a position at Bell Junior High School teaching four sections of physics and one section of honors physics to 9th graders. Each class had 36 students. My classes scored amazingly well on the district end of course exams. They scored especially well at the end of semester 2. San Diego Unified School District has more than 130,000 students. My honors physics class at Bell was the second highest scoring honors class in the district and my 4 regular classes were the top scoring out of the 13 sections of physics at Bell.

Bell junior high school consisted of mostly minority students including many language learners and free lunch recipients. Several or my students were afraid to walk home after school. The neighborhood was that tough. It was at Bell that I started to realize that the experienced teachers were amazing and not the worthless slugs that I had heard so much about.

In her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch wrote about Alan Bersin a lawyer with no education experience being tapped to run what was arguably the top performing urban school systems in America. I have written about the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and Bersin. The following citation honoring Bersin is from the DFER web presence (it has since been removed):

“Appointed in 1998 as Superintendent of Public Education of the San Diego Unified School District, Bersin led the eighth largest urban school district in the country. In 2005, Governor Schwarzenegger appointed him as California’s Education Secretary. Bersin led the way as one of the nation’s first ‘non-traditional’ big city school leaders, promoting ambitious reform to raise the quality of education and bolster student achievement. …. Bersin was a founding board member of DFER.”

One feature of the “non-traditional” superintendent’s leadership was fear. At Bell, I witnessed three tenured teachers lose their jobs. Yes, a determined administrator can get rid of a tenured teacher. It appears there were targets for the number of teachers to be fired each year. It also seems that a certain percentage of new hires were required to be given unacceptable evaluations. I suspect being a new hire in my 50’s made me a target.

My final evaluation said that I was not able to control my classes and was not moving them towards achieving standards. The not moving them towards achieving standards comment meant that I could not even apply to be a substitute teacher. Ironically, my evaluation the next year by the principal at Mar Vista Middle School referenced classroom management as a particular strength.

Conclusions and Concerns

Standards based education is bad education theory. In the 1960’s Benjamin Bloom proposed mastery education in which instruction would be individualized and students would master certain skills before they moved ahead. By the 1970’s this idea had been married with B.F. Skinner’s behaviorist philosophy and teachers were given lists of discrete items for their students to master. The “reform” became derisively known as “seats and sheets.”

By the 1980’s corporate leaders and many politicians were turning these mastery skills into standards. In the 1990’s the IBM and former RJR Nabisco CEO, Louis Gerstner, made instituting education standards and standards based testing his mission in life. The result of his almost two decade effort are the Next Generation Science Standards and they are awful. I wrote about them here, here and here.

The other corporate leader that loves the concept of education standards is Bill Gates. Without him, there would be no Common Core State Standards. Bill Gates and Louis Gerstner share two traits, neither of them have any real experience or training in education and the education standards they have forced on America are horrible. I wrote about the Common Core standards here and here.

Vouchers have not led to better education outcomes. Allowing the privatization of public schools is foolhardy. Public schools are wonderful crucibles of democracy where parents have input. Vouchers undermine this democratic principle and they can be misused. Vouchers have been employed to force all taxpayers to fund religious schools and to promote segregation.

This March (2017) a Texas Superintendent of Schools, John Kuhn, informed the Association of Texas Professional Educators about vouchers. “Three different research studies published recently have found that voucher programs harm student learning—including one study sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation and the Fordham Institute, both proponents of vouchers. Students who use vouchers underperform their matched peers who stay in public schools.”

It is in all of our interest to adequately fund public education. Even if you do not want your children to attend a public school. On the other hand, tax money should not be spent on private or religious schools. If parents want that option, that is their right, but it is not the responsibility of society to fund their decision.

Charter schools are bad policy. There are some absolutely wonderful charters schools but the money they remove from the public system is causing significant damage to the schools that serve the vast majority of students.

If taxpayers want to fund charter schools they need to understand that it will cost more than just funding public schools. It costs more money to run multiple systems. Not providing adequate funding degrades the public system – bigger classes and less offerings. In extreme cases like Detroit, we see a complete collapse of both the public and charter systems.

Albert Shanker thought that charters could be used to unleash the creativity of teachers, but once he saw the early direction of the charter movement, he became a charter opponent. In her book School Choice, Mercedes Schneider shares this quote from Shanker:

“A pluralistic society cannot sustain a scheme in which the citizenry pays for a school but has no influence over how the school is run. … Public money is shared money, and it is to be used for the furtherance of shared values, in the interest of e pluribus unum. Charter schools and their like are definitely antithetical to this promise.” (Page 57)

When writing about Schneider’s School Choice I paraphrased her:

“Charter schools have never honestly out performed elected board directed public schools. In some cases, charter schools have gotten relatively good testing results, but on closer inspection these good testing results are not the result of good pedagogy. There are three common practices that help charters look good on testing; (1) instead of a balanced curriculum they focus on preparation for testing, (2) through various techniques, they only accept easier to educate students and (3) they do not back fill when students leave the school.”

Another bad idea is CBE. This big school privatization effort could be called the make Silicon Valley “great again” effort. It is known by various names: one-to-one, personalized education, blended learning, competency based education, etc. Its supporters, like Billionaires Reed Hastings and Bill Gates, are spending huge amounts of money promoting computer delivered education.

In 2010, the President-CEO of the Charter School Growth Fund (a Walton family effort), Kevin Hall, decided to purchase the struggling Dreambox Inc. of Bellevue, Washington for $15,000,000. He subsequently invested another $10,138,500 into Dreambox. [data from 2014 form 990]

A recent National Public Radio report on the Rocketship schools reported:

“Rocketship students often use adaptive math software from a company called Dreambox Learning. The company was struggling when Reed Hastings, the Netflix founder turned education philanthropist and investor, observed it in action at a Rocketship school several years ago. His investment allowed Dreambox to become one of the leading providers of math software in North America, currently used by about 2 million students.”

Reed Hastings is a funder of the Rocketship schools, a board member of the Charter Schools Association of California and the primary owner of Dreambox Learning. What he is not is a highly trained experienced educator.

An Organization for Economic-Cooperation and Development study concludes, “Investing heavily in school computers and classroom technology does not improve pupils’ performance.” The last thing 21st century children need is more screen time.

San Jose State’s education Professor Roxana Marachi provides access to information about the possible health risks involved with screen time and juvenile cell phone use. I recommend her Educational Psychology & Technology page. The CBS news magazine 60 Minutes, recently presented information about tech addiction being purposefully designed into digital devices.

Of course there is a place for technology in education, but that place should be driven by professionally experienced educators and not technology companies looking to enhance profitability.

My biggest take-away is that professional educators should be running education. The Regan era idea that business people, lawyers and Nobel Prize winning scientists were more equipped to lead America’s schools than experienced professional educators was a foolish error. Today, we have an amateur politician rich guy trying to run the country. His lack of experience is showing.

In the same way, insurance salesmen (Eli Broad), retailers (Doris Fisher) and technologists (Bill Gates) are harming America’s schools, because they do not know what they are doing. Experience and training matter in all fields of human endeavor and education is no different.

California’s Charter School Led CBE Invasion

29 Jun

This January (2016), Fortune Magazine announced that Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings, has launched a new $100-million-dollar fund to support education initiatives and other groups. The notice goes on to state:

“Hastings is the fund’s sole trustee while Neerav Kingsland, the former CEO of charter school supporter New Schools for New Orleans, is serving as CEO. The fund’s website explains its philanthropic mission: “Currently, too many children do not have access to amazing schools. Our aim is to partner with communities to significantly increase the number of students who have access to rich and holistic educational experiences.”

The “rich and holistic educational experience” is to be delivered by charter schools employing competency based education (CBE).

Competency Based Education

The United States Department of Education promotes and describes CBE:

 “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.”

 Instead of a structured course with a teacher, students will log into a computer and earn badges for demonstrating competencies in an online environment. “Personalized learning opportunities” is a euphemism for a computer based course delivered in isolation.

It is a terrible idea! The last thing a 21st Century student needs is to be shoved in front of another inert digital device. Students need to interact with “highly qualified” certificated teachers, adults who they can trust. Students need to; measure, calculate, weight, work in small groups, discuss ideas, write, and get professional feedback. Students need structure, stability and direction. None of this is provided online.

Technology in education is more of an expensive mirage than a useful tool and competency based education (CBE) is fool’s gold.

In 2003, I took the state of California’s 52-hour life insurance course. That meant 52 hours of seat time with an insurance industry veteran who made the subject come alive. Today that insurance course is online with an online exam. No real industry context is imparted and cheating on the exam is rampant.

This is the kind of education Hastings and his ilk are vigorously promoting. CBE means lower quality education delivered at great profit to corporate providers and testing companies.

CBE learning is embraced by President Obama, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Reed Hastings, Education Secretary John King, The Walton family, the new federal education law, Pearson Corporation and many business executives. Few experienced education professionals not profiting from one of these entities support it.

Computers are good at drilling information and conducting fact checks. However, educators have known for more than a century that this kind of teaching is destructive. To create understanding, all of the modes of learning must be actively engaged. Drill and skill destroys the desire to learn and undermines development of creativity.

Big Money Being Poured into CBE

 In 2004, the Don and Doris Fisher Foundation along with the Schools Future Research Foundation each provided $100,000 to start the Charter Schools Growth Fund in Broomfield, Colorado. The Fisher Foundation is based on profits from GAP Inc. and the School Future Research Foundation was a Walton Family Foundation supported fund that seems to have disappeared. The original elected board of directors for the Charter School Growth Fund was comprised of John Walton, Don Fisher, and John Lock.

In 2010, the President-CEO of the Charter School Growth Fund, Kevin Hall, decided to purchase the struggling Dreambox Inc. of Bellevue, Washington for $15,000,000. By then the fund was so large and he could do it. He subsequently invested another $10,138,500 into Dreambox. [data from 2014 form 990]

A recent National Public Radio report on the Rocketship schools reported:

 “Rocketship students often use adaptive math software from a company called Dreambox Learning. The company was struggling when Reed Hastings, the Netflix founder turned education philanthropist and investor, observed it in action at a Rocketship school several years ago. His investment allowed Dreambox to become one of the leading providers of math software in North America, currently used by about 2 million students.”

 Kevin Hall left his $465,000 a year position at the Charter School Growth Fund to join Hastings on the board of Dreambox Inc. This company is now positioned to be the dominant supplier of software products into the CBE market. Pearson corporation has positioning itself to be the company that tests students and issues completion badges. If the big standardized test goes away, Pearson will do just fine supporting CBE.

In March, Emily Talmadge wrote a very interesting piece about CBE from a more national prospective. She reported:

“Since at least 2009, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation has poured millions of dollars into the latest ed reform craze that has made headlines recently due to investments of billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Reed Hastings of Netflix.  When stripped of the misleading rhetoric that often surrounds it, “personalized learning” is the digital, data-driven system of schooling designed to trigger giant corporate profits along with tightly controlled, work-forced aligned learning outcomes.”

The foundations working to privatize public schools are almost all organized under IRS tax code 501(c)(3), which means they cannot engage in direct or even indirect support of political candidates and they must file an IRS form 990 every year. These forms detail who they gave money to and how much they pay top fund administrators. For following these and other rules, they become a tax free entity. The latest complete set of form 990’s is from tax year 2014 which details spending in 2013. The chart below is based on an analysis of selected 2014 form 990’s

Fund Totals

Fund Spending on Organizations Implementing CBE

 The 2013 spending of the following list of seven funds was analyzed: California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), The Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation (Broad), New Schools Venture Fund, Charter School Growth Fund, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Gates), The Silicon Valley Fund, The Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Other than the data for the Gates fund, the information all comes from 2014 form 990’s. The Gates data came from his foundation web site.

The spending on these five schools was extraordinary in that the amounts given are far greater than the amounts these organizations typically give to other charter schools. Most grants to charter schools from these funds are significantly less than $50,000 unless it is for startup purposes. So what made these five schools worthy of $33,000,000 in 2013? They are all testing CBE principles on their students.

A look at some of the key board members of these funds reveals a small community of wealthy true believers.

 KIPP Foundation: Doris Fisher, John Fisher, Reed Hastings, Carrie Walton Penner

Silicon Valley Fund: John Fisher, Ted Mitchell

New Schools Venture Fund: Lauren Powell Jobs, Ted Mitchell

Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation: Eli Broad, Gregory Mcginity

Charter School Growth Fund: Kevin Hall, John Fisher, Carrie Walton Penner

California Charter Schools Assoc.: Reed Hastings, Carrie Walton Penner, Gregory Mcginity

 The Silicon Valley Community Foundation is a little different than the other six organizations. It is not significantly about privatizing schools. There are many large community funds in California like this one and they support things ranging from community art to homeless shelters. However, funds like the San Diego Foundation and the Los Angeles Community Foundation have huge assets and they support charter schools at a much higher rate than they support public schools. A little light shined on these community foundations might make it less likely that they continue spending patterns that many of their board members probably do not understand.

All of this spending to undermine the present public education system is predicated on an article of faith held by wealthy (amateur education policy experts) reformers – “public schools are failing.”

In a June Atlantic Magazine article, Jack Schneider put it this way:

 “Thus, despite the fact that there is often little evidence in support of utopian schemes like “personalized online learning,” which would use software to create a custom curriculum for each student, or “value-added measures” of teachers, which would determine educator effectiveness by running student test scores through an algorithm, many people are willing to suspend disbelief. Why? Because they have been convinced that the alternative—a status quo in precipitous decline—is worse. But what if the schools aren’t in a downward spiral? What if, instead, things are slowly but steadily improving? In that light, disruption—a buzzword if ever there was one—doesn’t sound like such a great idea.”

 The evidence says America’s public schools are indeed continuously improving. But, misguided “do-gooders” are threatening to destroy the system and charter schools are the vehicle implementing their schemes. It is time for an OPT OUT of charter schools movement and a halt to CBE.