"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, April 27, 2015

Proficiency Based Learning Invades Maine

Emily Talmage is at Ground Zero of a big corporate education reform story that is coming to light in Maine.  It involves another miseducative, money-making "efficiency" scheme. If it is not already in your state, it is coming, thanks to Gates, Lumina, and ALEC. 

But your teachers and parents can stop it before the blood funnel gets fully attached to your state and local education dollars.
    My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine.  In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn.  I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University.  I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

    On April 22nd, I provided testimony for the Education Committee in support of LD 1153, “An Act to Restore Local Control to Towns.”

    Originally, I intended to focus my testimony on my concerns over standardized testing, particularly with regard to the new Smarter Balanced tests.  Recently, I have written about my concerns over these tests in a variety of outlets, and have focused on the lack of reliability of such tests; the level of corporate involvement and profit in their development; ways that they are developmentally inappropriate; and how this particular test was not meaningfully adaptive as it claimed to be. 

    As I did more research to prepare for this testimony, however, it became clear that an even greater threat to our schools in Maine is “proficiency based education,” particularly as it is being implemented through organizations such as Great Schools Partnership and Reinventing Schools Coalition. 

    In my testimony regarding LD 1153, I explained that I approach instructional and policy decisions with two questions in mind: How will this help our students, and how do we know?  When I was not easily able to find substantial, peer-reviewed research to validate claims that “proficiency based education” is a valid and proven way to improve student learning, I grew concerned.  After a great deal of searching, it became clear that the reason I was having such difficulty finding research is because it does not yet exist.

    This is because proficiency-based education (also called proficiency-based learning and competency-based learning) is a concept that has been intentionally developed through strategic investments of the Gates Foundation and other corporate stakeholders in order to expand opportunities for profit by way of the new Common Core State Standards.

    Investments made by the Gates Foundation to develop and promote the Common Core State Standards are no secret.  It should also be no surprise that the Gates Foundation has also invested in projects to develop digital, online, and game-based learning.  What has been less publicized, however, are their simultaneous investments in “proficiency-based pathways.”
    A paper produced by the Gates Foundation describing current investments related to Common Core has a section titled “Proficiency-Based Pathways.” The report states that “conditions are ripe for creating personalized learning opportunities beyond school—in an anytime, anywhere fashion,” and that “we believe it’s possible with the convergence of the Common Core State Standards, the work on new standards-based assessments, the development of new data systems, and the rapid growth of technology-enabled learning experiences.”

    In order to order to make this vision a reality, however, the Gates Foundation had the foresight to see a need for a new theory of learning that they named “proficiency-based education.”  The report refers to this as a “nascent field” that is “still emerging,” and can be described in a variety of ways, including proficiency-based pathways, mastery-driven instruction, standards-based design, and competency-based education.

    Typically, theories of learning are based on extensive research spanning multiple fields of study (education, psychology, sociology, etc.) and are built upon literature and research published in peer-reviewed journals, where they are subject to scrutiny, debate and dialogue with fellow experts. The Gates Foundation, however, in its rush to develop this field and with apparent disregard for this process, decided to bypass this route through a variety of strategic investments.

    It is also worth noting that another organization, the Lumina Foundation, has been doing related work focused on higher education.  The Lumina Foundation is a private, Indianapolis-based foundation arose from a $1 billion student loan sale to Sallie Mae in 2000. Its primary founder, Ed McCabe was Chairman of Sallie Mae at the time of the sale, and joined Lumina to guide its conversion to an Education Foundation.  The Lumina Foundation is currently funding a three-year effort to develop and promote the concept of competency-based education (a term used more commonly than proficiency-based education when related to higher education) through Public Agenda, a nonprofit research organization, which is coordinating the work.  The Lumina Foundation, it should be noted, also has a variety of financial and personnel connections to the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization well-known for its interest in privatizing public education.

    Another related organization that has been on the receiving end of the Gates Foundation’s investments in developing and promoting the concept of “proficiency based” education has been the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, a non-profit that retained 250 million dollars as an endowment when it separated from the Nellie Mae Corporation in 1998. At that time, the Nellie Mae Corporation was sold to Sallie Mae, which created the endowment for the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. In 2010, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation also received 1.7 million dollars from the Gates Foundation. 

    The Nellie Mae Education Foundation has been very active here in Maine.  One of the first things the organization has done with regard to developing the concept of proficiency/competency-based education was to award grants to a handful of schools that it claimed were employing “competency education” models.  Eleven small high schools, all with fewer than 600 students, were given grants in return for participating in NMEF’s “study.”  A table profiling these schools can be found in a report produced by NMEF called “Making Mastery Work.”  These schools employ a wide variety of educational practices, many of which educators hold in high-esteem.  These practices include “expeditionary learning,” in which students produce in-depth projects through hands-on work outside of the classroom to demonstrate their learning, and “performance-based” learning, in which students show their learning through specific, “real-life” tasks rather than tests. 

    Curiously (or, perhaps, predictably) the third section of this report discusses the advantages of a variety of technological and digital tools in implementing a proficiency/competency model - even though many of the schools they profile do not use such tools.  According to the report, “Many of the schools keep students updated on their progress using low-tech tools like wall charts, stickers, and student initials on lists of standards. Indeed, many schools find these tools valuable even when they have more robust technology systems in place.”  Nevertheless, the authors of the report conclude: “In this era of digital data, the quest for an effective computer-based learning management system is inevitable.”  In fact, the report even goes so far as to tell us what we, as teachers, want in our classrooms:  “Neither packaged courseware products, which have little flexibility, nor learning management systems that allow for maximum customization but offer no content, meet teacher needs for online curriculum delivery systems.”  

    The report makes five key points in its conclusion, which together establish a clear link between the new Common Core Standards, technology, online learning, and what is now taking place in Maine with the recent implementation of LD1422 and the rapid spread of “proficiency based learning” in our state.

    The Common Core Standards are more amenable to competency education.
    Rapid technology innovations are simplifying the work of instituting comprehensive competency education information systems.
    Blended and online curriculum increasingly provides opportunities for self-acing
    and differentiation
    Friendly policies have passed at the federal, state and district level, making it possible to establish coherent programs in schools, programs and districts
    Schools and districts are developing increasingly mature competency-based
    pathways and approaches that others can study and potentially replicate.

    It is curious that the Nellie Mae Education Foundation discusses these “friendly policies” and “mature competency-based pathways” as though they occurred outside their sphere of influence, when little could be further from the truth. Since 2011, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation has given almost thirteen million dollars to organizations in Maine to implement proficiency-based learning initiatives, including $490,000 to Educate Maine, an organization that worked to get a law passed (LD 1422) requiring that all high school graduates receive a “proficiency-based diploma” by the year 2017. It is worth noting that LD 1422, currently the only law of its kind in the country, is now listed as model legislation on the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s website – another foundation with direct ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which again, is well-known for its efforts to privatize public education. 

    Grants from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to Maine-based organizations include:

    $490,000  to Educate Maine between the years 2012-2015 for State-Level Systems Change and Public Understanding and Demand
    $3,339,416 to Great Schools Partnership for State-Level Systems Change and Public Understanding and Demand from 2012-2014
    $250,000 to Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education for State-Level Systems Change from 2010-2011
    $4,161,396 to Sanford Schools by way of Re-Inventing Schools Coalition for implementing PBL through Reinventing Schools
    $281,000 to Maine DOE for State-Level Systems Change 2011-201
    $4,179,040 Jobs for Maine Graduates based in Portland
    According to a report put out by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (IACOL) and Competency Works, another organization funded by Nellie Mae, Educate Maine was formed to engage business leaders in the passage of LD 1422, establishing proficiency-based high school diplomas. Educate Maine has created a pathway for business leaders “to engage directly with legislators in support of personalized, proficiency-based learning.” Despite receiving well over a half million dollars from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation for “State-Level Systems Change and Public Understanding and Demand,” Educate Maine (previously called the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education) did not register as a lobbyist when they were actively working with legislators and other stakeholders to pass LD 1422. 

    A memo dated July 2011 written by Tanna Clews, then Executive Director of the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education (and whose work, incidentally, is highlighted on the Lumina Foundation’s “Strategy Lab’s” website), discusses the “$50,000 in additional funding for our policy work and the planning of a legislative retreat.” The memo thanks Yellow Light Breen (former Education Commissioner, Chief Strategic Officer of Bangor Savings Bank and board member at Educate Maine) for his “leadership and persistence in navigating conversations with Nellie Mae,” as well as Henry Bourgeois (former Executive Director of the Maine Compact for Higher Education and president of the Alfond Scholarship Foundation) and Duke Albanese  (former Maine Education Commissioner and current Senior Policy advisor at Great Schools Partnership, board member of Educate Maine, and treasurer of the Maine International Center for Digital Learning) for their “insight and willingness to answer my (many!) questions.” 
    The memo also discusses its grant proposal for Nellie Mae’s “Student-Centered Learning: Building a Supportive State Policy Environment” grant program, which “highlights Educate Maine’s legislative work with LD 1422.”  Additionally, the memo discusses the purchase of 200 copies of Inevitable, Mass Customization of Education, to be “distributed by the Maine Department of Education to every superintendent in the state.”

    In legislative records taken in a Maine Senate session on Thursday, April 5, 2012, Senator Brian Langley discusses the “retreat” sponsored by Educate Maine that he took with the rest of the Education Committee to visit two schools who are “involved in the transition to standards based education.”

In preparation for coming into the second half of the 125th the Education Committee went on a retreat in November, sponsored by Nellie Mae, Educate Maine, which includes Cianbro, Apple Corporation, UNUM, and the Maine State Chamber. The New England Secondary Consortium was represented by former Commissioner of Education Duke Albanese. On this retreat we visited two schools who were involved in the transition to standards based education. We actually went into the schools and sat with children, side-by-side with them in the elementary school, and asked them about their education. They were actively involved, engaged, and they could tell you where they were and where they were expected to be before they could move on. It was impressive.
    It is curious, however, to read the description of the classrooms the Education Committee visited.  On a blog post, Representative Brian Hubbell describes his visit with to the Williams School in Oakland, where 200 students attend.  

We visited during the school’s schedule-block for math,” he writes.  “In one classroom, the students were using a variety of tools to learn the fundamentals of multiplication.  In another, the topic was time.  Next door: geometry. Down the hall, it was money and currency.  In another classroom, on the floor with their teacher, students were studying division by doing punctuated sets of abdominal crunches.

Not a single student is described as using technology, online learning, nor game-based digital learning, yet there is little doubt that these are the learning methods being championed by the investors behind Educate Maine.  To read this description and compare it with the stated goals of the organizations’ funders suggests that Educate Maine may have been intentionally engaging in a “bait and switch” scheme with the Education Committee in order to create buy-in and generate support for the new bill. 
    This would not be the only time Educate Maine engaged in questionable lobbying practices.  In 2014, Educate Maine took over the “Maine Teacher of the Year” program. That same year, Educate Maine sent a letter on behalf of Maine Teachers of the Year advising that LD 579, “An Act to Allow Teachers to Teach and Students to Learn by Amending the Laws Governing Education Standards,” ought not to pass.  The letter states that the “goal of proficiency-based education is two-fold: to close the achievement gap in Maine and to close the opportunity gap by holding all students to high expectations connected Maine’s Learning Results.”  It worth noting that the original report from the Gates Foundation does not discuss either of these goals with regard to proficiency-based learning.
    In Lewiston, where I teach fourth grade, we have partnered with Great Schools Partnership, one of the organizations given multi-million dollars grants from Nellie Mae, to implement proficiency-based learning in our schools.  Most of the work has begun in the high school, where parents, teachers, and students have grown increasingly frustrated and wary of the work they are being asked to do.  The work has centered around reworking report cards and grading systems, creating Common Core aligned rubrics and assessments, and trying to negotiate new scheduling challenges.  In our elementary schools, the work has been more gradual, but perplexing nonetheless.  In a planning meeting, we were required to re-code reading and writing assessment data into “standards-based” format and enter it into Pearson Inform.  When I asked what the purpose of this was, the answer given by our instructional coach was simply, “It’s the way Pearson wants it.”
    I now have no doubt in my mind that in Lewiston, we are guinea pigs for a new, experimental method of teaching and learning that has been designed to benefit content providers rather than students.  An article published in Forbes in 2012 had the foresight to predict this change.  Its author, Michael Horn, wrote that at that time:

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. 

Indeed, we have seen how unhappy parents, teachers, and students have been with the new Smarter Balanced tests, and it is likely that Horn’s predictions of students performing poorly will be accurate.  It is Horn’s next prediction, however, that is even more concerning:    

Of course, if there were instead systems of assessments in a competency-based learning system built for students to take an assessment on-demand when the 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.

    In Maine, we are witnessing this very experiment take place in our schools in the form of proficiency-based learning. The Nellie Mae report writes, “Schools and districts are developing increasingly mature competency-based pathways and approaches that others can study and potentially replicate.”  States that have not adopted proficiency-based learning will look in the future to data gathered from students and schools in Maine when deciding whether or not to adopt similar legislation to LD 1422.  We will be the data that does not yet exist.  
    In Lewiston, we have already committed at least sixty thousand dollars to professional development for proficiency-based learning in our district for the coming year, as well as many thousands more to additional technology and software programs to support this new, unproven, corporate-driven theory of learning.  Meanwhile, we cannot afford additional teachers so that my colleagues and I will not have overcrowded classrooms (upwards of 30 students) in the coming year, even though we know that smaller class sizes leads to not only improved educational outcomes, but also outcomes for students beyond school.
     It should go without saying that I am deeply concerned for the future of our public schools, and am hopeful that we will begin to look more closely at the policies we are enacting in our state.  In my opinion, we do not need more time or more money to implement an experimental, corporate-driven reform idea in our public schools.  We do not need to simply start in earlier grades and move forward from there.  

    Our children deserve much better than this.  They deserve classrooms that employ well-research, thoroughly studied educational practices that have been proven effective.  They deserve educators who are empowered professionals and are able to employ their expertise in meaningful ways.  They deserve adults who will advocate for their needs rather than bend to the wishes of corporate interests.  And they deserve to be treated as valuable individuals – not guinea pigs in a large-scale experiment.  

[1] https://docs.gatesfoundation.org/Documents/supporting-students.pdf
[2] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/12/12/lumina-funded-group-seeks-lead-conversation-competency-based-education
[3] http://www.competencyworks.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Making-Mastery-Work-NMEF-2012-Inline.pdf
[4] http://www.nmefoundation.org/grants
[5] http://strategylabs.luminafoundation.org/champion/tanna-clews/
[7] http://www.mainehousedistrict35.com/private-business-and-public-education-a-wary-but-promising-partnership/#comment-67414
[8] http://www.mainelegislature.org/legis/bills/getTestimonyDoc.asp?id=28083
[9] http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/pb_-_class_size.pdf



  1. Emily, thank you so much for having the courage to expose this dangerous scheme.
    Where is the Ethics Committee, OPEGA and the Attorney General? It sounds like both
    parties are neck deep. Gates has lots of money to go around.

  2. Anonymous8:21 PM

    Thank you for taking the time to write this! I am also a concerned teacher in Maine who is questioning all of the changes with proficiency based learning. Is this really good for kids? We hardly have time to plan anymore we are so involved in data, assessments, reporting in proficiency based report card programs, re-aligning rubrics, etc. I feel we are losing the perspective of looking at students as precious children whose skills are developmental. What can we do????