Friday, November 27, 2015

Can Competency Based Education Be Stopped?

Over at StopCommonCoreNYS, you can find the most up-to-date cataloging of the analysis of, reaction to, and outcry over Competency Based Education.

Critics are correct in saying that CBE has been coming down the pike for a while. Pearson released an 88-page opus about the Assessment Renaissance almost a year ago (you can read much about it starting here). Critics noted way back in March of 2014 (okay, I'm the one who noted it) that Common Core standards could be better understood as data tags. And Knewton, Pearson's data-collecting wing, was explaining how it would all work back in 2012.

Every single thing a student does would be recorded, cataloged, tagged, bagged, and tossed into the bowels of the data mine, where computers will crunch data and spit out a "personalized" version of their pre-built educational program.

Right now seems like the opportune moment for selling this program, because it can be marketed as as an alternative to the Big Standardized Tests which have been crushed near to death under the wheel of public opinion. "We'll stop giving your children these stupid tests," the reformsters declare. "Just let us monitor every single thing they do every day of the year."

It's not that I don't think CBE is a terrible idea-- I do. And it's not that I don't have a healthy respect for and fear of this next wave of reformy nonsense. But I can't shake the feeling that while reformsters think they have come up with the next generation iPhone, they're actually trying to sell us a quadrophonic laser disc player.

From a sales perspective, CBE has several huge problems

Been There, Done That

Teaching machines first cropped up in the twenties, running multiple choice questions and BF Skinner-flavored drill. Ever since, the teaching machine concept has kept popping up with regularity, using whatever technology was at hand to enact the notion that students can be programmed to be educated just like a rat can be programmed to run a maze.

Remember when teaching machines caught on and swept the nation because they provided educational results that parents and students loved? Yeah, neither does anybody else, because it never happened. The teaching machine concept has been tried, each time accompanied with a chorus of technocrats saying, "Well, the last time we couldn't collect and act on enough data, but now we've solved that problem."

Well, that was never the problem. The problem is that students aren't lab rats and education isn't about learning to run a maze. The most recent iteration of this sad, cramped view of humans and education was the Rocketship Academy chain, a school system built on strapping students to screens that would collect data and deliver personalized learning. They were going to change the whole educational world. And then they didn't.

Point is, we've been trying variations on this scheme for almost 100 years, and it has never caught on. It has never won broad support. It has never been a hit.

Uncle Sam's Big Fat Brotherly Hands

Remember how inBloom had to throw up its hands in defeat because the parents of New York State would not stand for the extensive, unsecured and uncontrolled data mining of their children. inBloom tried to swear that the kind of data mining and privacy violation and unmonitored data sharing that parents feared just wouldn't happen on their watch. But the CBE sales pitch doesn't just refuse to protect students against extensively collected and widely shared data mining-- CBE claims the data grubbing is not only not a danger, but is actually a valued feature of the program.

The people who thought inBloom was a violation of privacy and the people that thought Common Core was a gross federal overreach-- those people haven't suddenly disappeared. Not only that, but when those earlier assaults on education happened people were uneducated and unorganized-- they didn't yet fully grasp what was actually happening and they didn't have any organizations or other aggrieved folks to reach out to. Now all the networks and homework are already done and in place.

I don't envision folks watching CBE's big data-grabbing minions coming to town and greeting them as liberators. CBE is more of what many many many people already oppose.

No Successes To Speak Of

This has always been a problem for reformsters. "Give me that straw," they say, "and I will spin it into gold." They've had a chance to prove themselves with every combination of programs they could ask for, and they have no successes to point to. Remember all those cool things Common Core would accomplish? Or the magic of national standardized testing? The only people who have made a respectable job of touting success are the charteristas-- and that's not because they've actually been successful, but because they've mustered enough anecdotes and data points to cobble together effective marketing. It's lies, but it's effective.

Everything else? Bupkus. This will be no different. CBE will be piloted somewhere, and it will fail. It will fail because its foundation combines ignorance of what education is, how education works, and how human beings work.

Anchored to What?

A CBE system needs to be linked to some sort of national standards, but only those who have been very well paid have a deep commitment to them are still even speaking the name of Common Core. To bag and tag a nation's worth of data, you must have common tags. But we've already allowed states to drift off into their own definitions of success, their own tests, their own benchmarks. Saying, "Hey, let's all get on the same page" is not quite as compelling as it once was, because we've tried it and it sucked. As the probably successor to ESEA says, centralized standardization of education is not a winning stance these days. So to what will the CBE be anchored?

Expensive As Hell

Remember how expensive it was to buy all new books and get enough computers so that every kid could take a BS Test? You can bet that taxpayers do. Those would be the same taxpayers who saw programs and teachers cut from their schools even as there was money, somehow, for expensive but unnecessary new texts and computers (which in some cases could be used only for testing).

When policy makers announce, "Yeah, here's all the stuff you need to buy in order to get with the CBE program," taxpayers are going to have words to say, and they won't be happy, sweet words.

If every single worksheet, test, daily assessment, check for understanding, etc is going to go through the computer, that means tons of data entry OR tons of materials on the computers, through the network, etc etc etc. The kind of IT system required by a CBE system would be daunting to many network IT guys in the private sector (all of whom are getting paid way more than a school district's IT department). It will be time-consuming, buggy, and consequently costly.

Who wants to be the superintendent who has to say, "We're cutting more music and language programs because we need the money to make sure that every piece of work your child does is recorded in a central data base." Not I.

Program Fatigue

For the first time, the general taxpaying public may really get what teachers are feeling when they roll their eyes and say, "A NEW program? Even though we haven't really finished setting up the old one?!"  

Bottom Line

I think that CBE is bad education and it needs to be opposed at every turn. But I also think that reformsters are severely miscalculating just how hard a sell it's going to be. We can help make it difficult by educating the public.

There will be problems. In particular, CBE will be a windfall for the charter industry if they play their cards right. The new administration will play a role in marketing this and I see no reason to imagine that any of the candidates won't help market this if they win. (Well, Sanders might stand up to the corporate grabbiness of it, and Trump will just blow up all the schools.)

But there will be huge challenges for the folks who want to sell us this Grade C War Surplus Baloney. It's more of a product that nobody wanted in the first place. We just have to keep reminding them why they didn't like it.


  1. Despite the fact that PBE has been proven to work exactly nowhere, Maine students must earn a proficiency-based diploma starting in 2 years. I hope the rest of the country watches and learns.

    1. The HST diploma is failing all over the country. Hopefully Maine realizes before full implementation, and not pull a California and have to retroactively award HS diplomas.

  2. Opt OUT/data iN (stays in the school district). Ed resistance should begin distributing paperwork for both to parents.

  3. Opt Out is doable. Keeping Data iN is more difficult as most districts provide data reports to the State in exchange for $$ funding. Heck, we can't even SEE what data compilation is being made at the state level? Anyone ask their State DoE for a list of data elements in the SLDS? Or any parent ask their State DoE for their child's data record in the SLDS? No transparency.

    1. I wonder how much difference there would be across states in a spread sheet of all data points that are legally or $-tied to state turnover, and which are not. From what i have read, the cbe data points planned for collection are a big expansion beyond duncan's maw, which was itself much more than what was collected 10 years ago. Parents should certainly have this information within their states and clear school-provided guidelines on what they have the legal right to withhold (plus encouragement to do so by optout groups).

  4. My kids are right in the middle of this transition in York, Maine, just as they are ready to apply for college. Worried and concerned and angry is an understatement.

  5. Maine was duped and our legislators bought into this idea in 2012. They are/have been pouring millions into selling the public on this ... We need to get ahead of them.

  6. Peter, I am a big fan and really enjoy your blog. I am in wholehearted agreement with about 90% of what you write, but your beefs with the CCSS and now with CBE escape me.

    If I were a reformy-leaning person (I am not), I would find it pretty easy to pigeonhole you in the "supports failure and mediocrity" slot if you oppose BS tests, but also oppose using actual competency standards to measure student learning. You really come off as just basically saying, "What teachers are doing right now is as good as it gets and the rest of you should just accept that without question."

    Maybe I'm misunderstanding, but it seems like you are nicely fitting into the reformster narrative of public educators who are afraid of any kind of evaluation.

    1. You can't have read very much of Peter's blog.

    2. Based on what has occurred in Maine in the last 6 years, (specific to this issue) other states be ware! It's the non-profit, self proclaimed experts who will be peddling their snake oil to unsuspecting policy makers, school administrators, school boards and parents through a host of avenues and means. Their words will be smooth as silk, bathed in double speak and cloaked with deception. There is not an ounce of evidence that any of this has worked as was so well express in this article. Grants will flood your state for the purpose of "System Change", to prepare the soil, plant and water their seeds and then coerce the legislature with whatever means to get a law passed so they can then harvest the fruit of their labors. They will then sweep on the scene helping 'school districts' wade through the challenges of the 'trans formative change'. What a powerful example of self-propagation.

  7. Opt Out is doable only for end of year statewide assessments, not daily or weekly CBE assessments that actually guide instruction. In NH the CBE slows down proficient students as they wait for others to catch up. Not seeing the "independent" learning. Keeping Data iN is more difficult as most districts provide data reports to the State in exchange for $$ funding. Heck, we can't even SEE what data compilation is being made at the state level. Anyone ask their State DoE for a list of data elements in the SLDS? Or any parent ask their State DoE for their child's data record in the SLDS? No transparency. To reverse CBE, school board members need a strategy. Eliminating the CBGrading will undermine the CBEducation. Eliminating online tools that send student level data outside the district needs to be eliminated.

  8. I've only recently become aware of the scope of this travesty of so-called competency based learning, aka "personalization," aka student-centered learning. From what I've read (huge thanks to Emily Kennedy Talmage, Alison Hawver McDowell, and Morna McDermott), this is pure double-speak. The recently adopted RI Strategic Plan for Public Education: 2015-2020, supposedly developed with stakeholder input (NOT) includes a blueprint for "personalized" competency based, blended, and digital learning. See pages 23 and 24 of the plan. Apparently this is similar to the plan in Delaware, as described here: I am very concerned that these reasonable sounding goals will fool the majority of parents and this will be a done deal before most people can realize the dastardly nature of it. I recently found out that in Providence, RI public schools they are already using I tremendously admire Peter's blog posts, but I'm very afraid that he underestimates the forces that have been powerfully aligned for years to bring about this education travesty.

  9. I am a little puzzled by this post. In my local school district, students are required to take and pass a certain number of courses in order to graduate from high school. I had assumed that in order to graduate, they had to demonstrate competence in the particular topics that the state government mandated that they take.

    1. Do you even bother to read before you post? Peter has covered "Competency Based Education" and what it really is several times. Just because it has a nice-sounding name doesn't mean it actually is what it says it is. Come to class prepared next time.

    2. Ddienne,

      Always good to hear from you.

      It seemed to me that the post was a bit of a mishmash of things, mostly complaining about recording the results of student assignments and using computer based instruction. As someone who records the results of student assignments in a computer and uses computer based instruction for the introductory classes I teach, I find little wrong with those practices.

    3. It's a mystery why it's so hard to understand your train of thought -- in fact, you seem to have no train of thought -- and why it seems to be so hard for you to understand what you read. Is it fuzzy thinking, ineffective communication skills, the intent to be confusing, or all three? Lack of reading comprehension skills, lack of logical deduction skills, lack of skill in making inferences, lack of skill in seeing and understanding the main idea. What is wrong with you? How can you be a college instructor when your brain doesn't seem to work? I've successfully taught foreign language to kids who were cognitively disabled, and they certainly understood things much better than you do. Your lack of understanding is so incredible I think you must be just playing dumb, but I can't imagine why anyone would want to pretend to be so stupid.

    4. Rebecca,

      It would be helpful if you could make a point about my statement rather than trying to insult me. Perhaps you could outline your understanding of competency based education and cite some research about how it is ineffective.

    5. I'm not insulting you, I'm talking about what I observe, and I really don't understand how you could be a college professor. Here, work on your reading comprehension skills:

    6. Rebecca,

      You might take a look at my response to your comment in the Has CCSS affected instruction thread.

    7. I don't know why you're talking about the way things were when your kids were in school, because all that has changed, which is the whole point.

      At some point you have to use your own judgement.

    8. your own judgement based on what you've read from many sources.

    9. Rebecca,

      My youngest graduated from our traditional public high school last spring. I don't think much changed over the summer.

    10. "My young children at least did not get grades until junior high, and even those grades did not really have any consequences until high school. In high school the only tests of any real importance were teacher generated tests that determined grades and eligibility to graduate from high school."

      Your kids didn't have to take state-mandated tests to graduate high school? In Ohio we've had to take stated-mandated, not teacher-generated, tests since 1994. My son got stressed out practicing for it starting in sixth grade.

      The "literacy", or 3rd grade reading test is based on CCSS. Kids are practicing for it starting in kindergarten. Maybe they don't have to do "math literacy" yet, but it's probably not far behind. My son wouldn't have passed a third grade "literacy" test because he didn't start reading very well until fourth grade, when context was more important than phonics.

      In Ohio we've always had grades starting in first grade, and the kids always stress about them, because nobody realizes that colleges only care about high school, although of course you can not pass if you don't pass enough core subjects. How could your kids not get grades until middle school? How can your state not have state-mandated tests that are not generated by the subject teachers in the school??

    11. Rebecca,

      It appears that most states do not have state mandated tests for high school graduation (Wikipedia lists 23 states that do, including Ohio). My state is among the majority of states that have no test. High school graduation is determined solely by teacher assigned grades, as is admission to my university.

      I certainly realized that only high school grades really matter, so it was not an issue until high school, and not much of an issue in high school. My children were not given letter grades because that is not the practice in my school district. I think it is adults who create the stress for small children, not really the grades.

      I can remember taking literacy tests and having a lexile score long long before there was any CCSS. I do not see any connection with the two. Do you have any supporting documentation connecting the two?

    12. I thought NCLB made all schools use state-mandated tests.

      I never heard of an traditional elementary school not having grades. Mine had grades back in the 60's. Where I'm from, an elementary school without grades is considered radical and leftist.

      I've never even heard the term "literacy test" except in connection with Jim Crow voting laws. I don't see how a 3rd grader could be considered "literate".

      I only heard the term lexile score recently regarding how they determine what grade level a book is considered appropriate for. I know the blogger Russ on Reading used several different formats of lexiles that exist to examine PAARC readings and said that PAARC readings are not grade-appropriate.

      Grades are a big deal in high school because they determine class rank, which can determine college scholarships.

      The only kind of standardized test I had to take until the ACT was the Iowa test in sixth grade, which was used to determine who should go into Honors classes.

    13. Rebecca,

      NCLB did not make states have mandated tests for high school graduation. My state certainly has none just like many others. You can look at the differences between high school graduation requirements across states here:

      Perhaps Peter can comment on state high school graduation standards. The table in the link does not list any standards as of 2011-12.

      High school grades are a big deal because they determine if a student graduates from high school and in college admission. The most competitive colleges and universities do not offer merit scholarships, so for them the high school GPA and class rank has no impact on scholarships. State universities like the one I teach for do offer merit scholarships, and high school GPA does play a role.

      My children took standardized exams, but there were no consequences for them.

  10. I guess I thought all schools had to make the state-mandated tests graduation requirements, because why would Ohio do it otherwise? I guess it must be to make the students take it seriously, since it counts for the fed-mandated school grade card and AYP.