Understanding the End Game

I gave this talk yesterday to a couple of groups of Philadelphia teachers and activists who wanted to better understand the ways education reform will be changing post-ESSA.

The push for conditioning and compliance will continue as we finalize the transition to an education system where surveillance is branded as data-driven “personalization” and devices monitor our children’s classrooms continuously. It’s difficult to organize and fight such a nebulous foe.  In this hour-long talk I hope to convey the reality of the reformers’ true end game- a future of automated teaching, virtual schooling, and community-based badging programs where workforce skills trump knowledge and critical thinking in the human capital game.  A future where parents and students must cobble together dozens of credentialed online and offline educational opportunities for their e-portfolios, feebly attempting to pay for them from meager virtual wallets/Educational Savings accounts. Watch it with the accompanying slide-share open. Many slides have links to resources you can investigate. Please share this post after watching, so we start to understand exactly what we’re up against and begin to organize effective resistance at a national level.

Mass Customized Learning Comes to Central Pennsylvania


This post was originally written this past fall as a FB note, but I am posting it here now so that it can be more widely available.

“Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning” is a book and an educational program developed by education theorists Charles Schwahn and Bea McGarvey. Is is one of a number of “personalized” digital education programs popping up in schools across the country. The program, implemented in several communities in Maine, has been widely criticized and resulted in large numbers of teachers leaving those districts. Concerns included the fact that there are no traditional grade levels or letter grades, students could advance only upon “mastery” of the standards, and that instruction was highly-fragmented as teachers were meant to be “guides on the side.” Ultimately it was impossible to provide the level of differentiation required by the program.

I have known for some time that CBE or “personalized” hybrid-blended learning is being incubated in south central PA. It first popped up in the Johnstown/Bedford area and now seems to be creeping over into Lancaster, York, and Harrisburg. It is being pushed by Appalachian Intermediate Unit 8. The Intermediate Unit is working in concert with the Pennsylvania Leadership Development Center. PLDC has close ties to Dusquene University via Pat Crawford (professor of education emeritus and now Director of Professional Development for the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators) and Franny Serenka Associate Professor and Director of the School Administration & Supervision Program in the School of Education. Crawford presented at Mass Customized Learning conferences in South Dakota in 2013 and in Maine in 2014.

Besides the fact that that area is a bit out of the way and less high profile than other districts, I could not figure out why south-central PA was being targeted. Now I think I have now found the link. The push for mass digital learning came when Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13111 that created the Advanced Distributed Learning program. ADL jumpstarted technology-based education for the Department of Defense and the Federal Government, but the plan was always to scale it for general use in K12 education. One of the first tasks was to create a coding system to manage the “learning objects” and that would support the “learning management systems.” That first program was called SCORM. It took until the mid 2000s to be widely adopted. Later, they wanted to expand the types of data that could be aggregated, so they transitioned to a more sophisticated and flexible software called Tin Can or xAPI. It was created by Rustici Software out of Tennessee. This slideshare goes into detail about how educational data is tracked across learning environments. The thing that made everything “click” tonight is Aaron Silvers. Silvers now works for ADL and does a lot of training for xAPI. According to his LinkedIn Profile, before coming to ADL, he was Chief Learning Officer for Problem Solutions, which is (BINGO!) based in JOHNSTOWN, PA. Problem Solutions is a MAJOR contractor to ADL and they are very much involved with the transition to “learning eco-systems.”  This is how Problem Solutions describes what they do:
“E X P E R I E N C E Learning and educational tech has been on our minds for over 15 years. Check out what we have done.
· We have built more open source ed tech projects through the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) initiative than any other program in government
· We contribute to open source tools like the Generalized Intelligent Framework for Tutoring
· Abundant knowledge of Shareable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM)- conformant materials
· Our engineers contributed to the SCORM specs and several eLearning whitepapers (check out our research)
· We build things like Experience API (xAPI) and the Learning Registry xAPI?
· Enables tracking of learning experiences, records learners’ actions, and allows mobile training and content outside of a web browser
· Designed to support existing SCORM use cases, enable new cases, and show us the connection between learning and performance.
· Pretty cool, right?
Ed tech is radically reshaping our world through engagement of learning experiences. There is a huge opportunity to impact innovation and economic growth.”
Important post script! A Mass Customized Learning Fall Summit was held at the Lancaster Resort and Conference Center on Friday, October 21, 2016. They toured Pequea Valley schools as part of that conference.

The gift no one wanted-how digital learning came to MA & Fair Test finally woke up.


The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced yesterday, the creation of a new statewide personalized-learning initiative called MAPLE (Massachusetts Personalized Learning EdTech) Consortium. It is important to note that educational technology is specifically called out in the name. This public-private partnership is being funded by the Barr Foundation and the Nellie Mae Foundation, one of the primary advocates for Competency Based Education in New England. There are currently twelve pilot districts, but the plan is to add an additional thirty districts over time.

Updates on the program were given to Massachusetts’ Digital Learning Advisory Council in January 2016: http://www.doe.mass.edu/boe/sac/dlac/2016-0106minutes.pdf

Digital Learning Advisory Council members for 2015-16 included representatives of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, MIT, The Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, The Virtual High School, The Center for Applied Special Technology, The American Federation of Teachers, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association. Full member list here.

According to the Council’s September 2016 minutes, the contract for the program had been awarded to Learn Launch as of that time. Ann Koufman-Frederick, the Chief Academic Officer of Learn Launch, appears to be the project contact. She has ties to districts across the state.

Within 24 hours of MAPLE’s announcement, Fair Test came out with a cautionary post on the potential for personalized learning to lead to constant online testing. And in a bit of irony, actually cited one of Wrench In The Gears’ blog posts as a reference.

A number of education activists who were aware that the structure of the ESSA was designed to expand privatization and data-mining by giving preference and support to online digital learning reached out to Fair Test in months leading up to the passage of this bill explaining the dangers and asking them to withdraw their support of the bill (see below for examples). The response received was that it was more important to address NCLB sanctions than what might happen with Competency Based Education and performance assessing.

As Edward Snowden said in a recent interview with Katie Couric “This is the year everyone got everything wrong.”


November 1, 2015




November 30, 2015


December 1, 2015


ELOs: How Community-Based Learning Advances the Cyber Education Agenda


This is the third installment in a series on learning ecosystems. For more information see these related posts: “Future Ready” schools and digital badges.

A key tenet of Ed Reform 2.0 is “anytime any place learning.” Detaching education from the normal school day and physical school buildings will permit the transfer of face-to-face classroom instruction to digital platforms. Once implemented, these systems of “personalized learning” will efficiently extract children’s data so their futures can be channeled through black box algorithms, while significantly reducing staff costs since online instructors can theoretically “teach” thousands of children at a time. If reformers were up front about it, “Future Ready Schools” would be a much harder sell. And since they are nothing if not expert at framing their issues, my belief is that they intend to use Extended/Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELOs) as cover for this planned cyber takeover. Most Americans would never willingly trade neighborhood schools for a chrome book education, but reformers will sell the public on project-based learning in communities while minimizing the central role devices are intended to play. Out-of-School-Time (OST) learning will be presented as a welcome relief, an antidote even, to the harm wrought by No Child Left Behind. It’s all part of the plan, so please don’t be fooled.

ELOs are learning experiences that by definition happen OUTSIDE the classroom. This makes them a perfect foil for digital learning. These learning opportunities, pitched as experiential and hands-on, will readily capture the imaginations of students and parents who have been steamrolled by the test-and-punish system. In selling the 21st Century “redesigned” ecosystem version of education, reformers will play up exciting partnership programs like robotics, filmmaking, and CTE apprenticeships. There will be allusions to educational technology, its importance for 21st century work force skills, but the extent to which this new version of public education relies on adaptive, data-mined modules will be downplayed.

ELOs are vastly different from school-community partnerships of the past. We’re not talking about an organization working closely with a teacher or group of teachers and their classes on a unit of instruction- planning field trips, research opportunities, projects and presentations. This is not about collaboration, organizations coming INTO schools to do their work. No. ELOs are about sending students OUTSIDE schools, individually, to earn credit towards graduation by demonstrating competencies tied to set national standards. While a teacher may work with a student to develop an ELO plan and monitor their progress, they have no instructional role in the process. They are essentially case managers handling the paperwork.

The Afterschool Corporation (TASC) is an ELO proponent. George Soros founded TASC in 1998 with funding from the Open Society Foundations. In 2012 TASC prepared a policy brief entitled “Learn Anytime, Anywhere: Rethinking How Students Earn Credit Beyond School Hours.” The document outlines strategies states can employ to expand opportunities for students to earn credit in alternative settings. Among those recommendations are:

  • Giving districts the ability to award school credit via proficiency based assessments.
  • Providing stimulus money to develop new credit-bearing ELOs.
  • Creating databases that match students to ELO providers.
  • Transferring public school funding to Out-of-School-Time education programs/partners. Tie funding to mastery rather than enrollment.
  • Encouraging the use of ELOs as part of school turnaround strategies.

I encourage you to investigate the amount of foundation support being poured into Out-of-School Time (OST) learning where you live. If it’s a major metropolitan area, my guess is there is quite a bit of money flowing. Does your city have a cool new maker space? Neighborhood robotics program? Culturally responsive creative writing center? 21st Century Community Learning Center? Are unusual things showing up in your library? Things like 3D printers and culinary programs? Maybe your town is a HIVE learning community or a LRNG city?

Once you have a sense of the OST programs and their funding sources, consider the following:

  • Are the foundations funding non-profit community-based learning spaces ALSO advocating for appropriate funding of our public schools, reduced class sizes, access to safe-healthy buildings and adequate instructional materials? And if not, why not?
  • What interest might those funders have in controlling the public education sphere? Do they influence what gets taught and what does not through their grant making?
  • How about those community partners? Does the existence of their organization or educational program depend upon continued denial of resources to the schools they serve?
  • Are the programs being offered by community partners something that would normally have been found IN a school 15 years ago?
  • Are your community’s OST or after school programs experimenting with digital badging?
  • What data are these partners collecting on students, and with whom is it shared?

ELOs further privatization interests, but in this case community-based non-profits and workforce partners are the ones who stand to benefit, not charter schools. This is one way Ed Reform 2.0 differs from Ed Reform 1.0. Years of budget cuts have taken their toll on neighborhood schools, and many districts serving majority low-income populations are no longer able to provide a well-rounded curriculum with arts, music, school libraries, sports, and extracurricular activities. As a result, schools have become reliant on public-private partnerships to fill gaps where they can.

In recent years the Community School movement has risen in prominence, and the ranks of organizations vying to meet the needs of students caught in intentionally defunded school systems has swelled. It should be noted that while ELOs are a significant component of Community School movement nationally, they are rarely part of the public discussion. You can read more about issues with a community school model here. It should be noted that Strive Together is a major player in this movement. Pushing pathways from cradle to career, Strive is a program of Knowledgeworks. Knowledgeworks, based in Cincinnati OH, is funded by the Gates Foundation and one of the most prominent advocates for the learning ecosystem model that relies on badges and ELOs.

Unless we call attention to it, few will question the growing role of Out-of-School Time, project-based learning in public education. Even if it means tacitly accepting that due to ongoing austerity this type of learning has less and less of a place WITHIN schools, people are likely to accept it because something is better than nothing. But by making this concession, rather than fighting for the well-resourced schools our children deserve, we normalize the starvation of neighborhood schools and lay the groundwork for the transition to a decentralized learning ecosystem. Schools are being hollowed out. Many of the activities we, as children, were fond of-clubs, plays, and creative writing-are being turned over to the OST sector. Certified teachers with knowledge of child development and pedagogy are being forsaken, abandoned in their device-filled classrooms and left to enforce the data-extraction process. We shouldn’t allow that to happen. We need to reclaim joy and bring it back INTO our schools. Once we start outsourcing credit, elective or core, to community partners the days of neighborhood schools are truly numbered.

Part two will provide background on the rise of ELOs as a tool of education reform as well as examples of how they are being implemented nationally.

Personalization or Profiling? Childhood in the Ed-Tech Era


It was great spending time this afternoon with opt out activists in New York City discussing Ed Reform 2.0 developments and digital education. I created a slide share for that presentation, and because it contains a number of useful links and resources, I wanted to make it available to others. Click on the image above to access it. This is a work in progress, so feel free to make suggestions in the comments!

Trade you a backpack of badges for a caring teacher & well-resourced school.


This is the third in a series intended to describe the process by which education reformers are transitioning us from neighborhood schools to learning eco-systems. For additional background you can read “From Neighborhood Schools to Learning Eco-Systems, A Dangerous Trade” and “Questions We Should Be Asking About Future Ready Schools.”

Since the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the drumbeat for “innovative,” “personalized” education has grown stronger and more insistent. Key to the successful implementation of Education Reform 2.0 is convincing the public that education in school buildings with certified human teachers is obsolete. The No Child Left Behind Act laid the groundwork. It created increasingly hostile working conditions for teachers, inhumane learning conditions for students, and emphasized standards and test scores above all else.

While the public was sold a story that national standards were about ensuring equity for all children, parents of children enrolled in predominately low-income districts know that is not true. Time and time again we have seen that the standards-based accountability frameworks established under NCLB focus on outputs, NEVER inputs. These laws did not secure additional resources for children in need. They were designed to raise expectations for college and career readiness while kneecapping, through ongoing austerity budgets, our schools’ ability to meet our children’s most basic needs. Imposition of Common Core State Standards, value-added measures, high school exit exams, third-grade reading guarantees, test-score based “turnaround” policies, data-walls, and the like, have gradually institutionalized a punitive, data-driven approach to education across our country.

So what exactly does that have to do with badges? Well, data-driven education and badges go hand-in-hand. It makes sense once you realize the end goal is to replace our current system of public education with individualized pathways geared to “anytime, anyplace, any pace” learning mediated largely through technological devices that collect and aggregate educational data. The data is all aligned to The Common Educational Data Standards and now xAPI or Tin Can has replaced SCORM to make collection of online and offline educational data easily trackable.

This is not limited to K12 or even P20, the powers that be envision this process of meeting standards and collecting badges to be something we will have to do our ENTIRE LIVES. If you haven’t yet seen the “Learning is Earning” video-stop now and watch it, because it makes this very clear. Badges are representations of standards that have been met, competencies that have been proven. Collections of badges could determine our future career opportunities. The beauty of badges from a reformer’s perspective is that they are linked to pre-determined standards and can be earned “anywhere.” You can earn them from an online program, from a community partner, even on the job. As long as you can demonstrate you have mastery of a standard, you can claim the badge and move on to the next bit of micro-educational content needed to move you along your personalized pathway to the workforce.

In this brave, new world education will no longer be defined as an organic, interdisciplinary process where children and educators collaborate in real-time, face-to-face, as a community of learners. Instead, 21st century education is about unbundling and tagging discrete skill sets that will be accumulated NOT with the goal of becoming a thoughtful, curious member of society, but rather for attaining a productive economic niche with as little time “wasted” on “extraneous” knowledge as possible. The problem, of course, is that we know our children’s futures will depend on flexibility, a broad base of knowledge, the ability to work with others, and creative, interdisciplinary thinking, none of which are rewarded in this new “personalized pathway/badging” approach to education.

The reformers needed to get data-driven, standards-based education firmly in place before spotlighting their K12 badge campaign. Low-key preparations have been in the works for some time. In 2011, Mozilla announced its intention to create an Open Badges standard that could be used to verify, issue, and display badges earned via online instructional sites. The MacArthur Foundation and HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) supported this effort. In 2013 a citywide badging pilot known as “The Summer of Learning” was launched in Chicago. 2013 was also the year that the Clinton Global Initiative joined the badge bandwagon. They have since agreed to incorporate badges into their operations and work to bring them to scale globally as part of the Reconnect Learning collaborative.

Other partners in the “Reconnect Learning” badging program include: The Afterschool Alliance, Badge Alliance, Blackboard, Digital Promise, EdX, ETS, Hive Learning Networks, Pearson, Professional Examination Service and Council for Aid to Education, and Workforce.IO.

The Chicago Summer of Learning program expanded nationally and has since evolved into LRNG Cities, a program of the MacArthur Foundation. According to their website: “LRNG Cities combine in-school, out-of-school, employer-based and online learning experiences into a seamless network that is open and inviting to all youth. LRNG Cities connect youth to learning opportunities in schools, museums, libraries, and businesses, as well as online.”

In some ways such a system may sound wonderful and exciting. But I think we need to ask ourselves if we shift K12 funding (public, philanthropic, or social impact investing) outside school buildings, and if we allow digital badges to replace age-based grade cohorts, report cards, and diplomas, what are we giving up? Is this shiny, new promise worth the trade off? Many schools are shadows of their former selves. They are on life support. It is very likely that expanding the role of community partners and cyber education platforms via badging will put the final nail in the coffin of neighborhood schools. But before that happens we first need to ask ourselves…

Do we really want pathway designers and non-credentialed mentors guiding our children instead of certified teachers who understand pedagogy and child development?

Do we want a public education framework built on the constant input of data into devices in order to earn badges for the skills others value? Is that productive or emotionally healthy?

Do we want an integrated, holistic approach to teaching children that is attuned to their humanity or are we sticking with the data-driven version that has been thrust upon us?

What would the adoption of a “badging” approach to K12 education mean in terms of local control of curriculum? Are we really comfortable handing over the education of future generations to employers, museums, online games/simulations, and learning management systems that are unaccountable to voters?

What are the privacy implications for K12 badging? Are there going to be badges for social-emotional qualifications, too? Because that certainly seems to be the direction that CASEL and NAEP are headed.

Do we want to be that reliant on technology that has such a short lifespan, is vulnerable to hacking and technical problems, and is actually very expensive (cost and energy-wise) to maintain?

Badges appeal to our desire to accumulate and collect. They quench our craving for short-term gratification and allow us to indulge in healthy (and unhealthy) levels of competition. In an age of the quantified self, badges serve to create and reinforce our identity in the virtual world. Badges have their origins in scouting (oh those sashes) and later gaming and avatars. They seem so harmless, fun even. But would we really want to be reduced to the contents of an online backpack of badges? Is that something we want for our children?

I can see how badging could work as a SUPPLEMENT to a properly funded, equitable public education system that prioritizes developmentally appropriate instruction and human teachers and offers a rich, IN-SCHOOL curriculum for children up to the age of 18. IF you have ALL of that in place, feel free to supplement with badges during out-of-school time for children who choose to take advantage of such programs. But don’t require it. And don’t use it as a means to outsource education to community partners and cyber education companies.

While right now badges may seem an innocuous novelty, if they end up being used as a substitute for an independent system of public education we’re in real trouble.

More on badges:
The Business of Badging and Predicting Children’s Futures

Will Public Education Survive the Next Administration?