Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Selling Competency Based Education

Lurking just over the horizon is the next Big Reformster Thing, a movement designed to take everything wrong with test-based accountability and make it even worse-- Competency Based Education, a Big Dumb Idea Whose Time Has Come (Again). And as this thundering lumox gets closer, we can start to see how it will be sold.

Here's a chatty write-up about CBE from John Baker, a guy who heads up a company that plans to make a bundle off of CBE.

John Baker likes the idea of flexibility, what techno-edu-crats have been selling as personalization. Except that it isn't, really. With CBE, we're talking about computerized learning, and that means that students can only go where the software is prepared to take them. A truly personalized journey would be somebody handing you the keys to a four-wheel-drive land rover and saying, "There's the world. Go explore whatever you want to explore." But this is about saying, "Okay, everybody is going to ride the tracks from Point A to Point Z. If you get to Point D and you need to go back to Point C again, you can do that. If you want to skip ahead and get on at the Point F station, you can do that, too. But everybody is going to ride the same tracks over the same route to the same destination."

Baker is excited about using analytics and giving students choices (play a game! do some drill!), and he anticipates objections:

This flexibility makes some people nervous. There will be those who argue that if education needs to change at all, it needs to go “back to basics.” For some, the best education system is always going to be the one they grew up with. Maybe with desks in neat rows and classrooms with chalk dust and pencil sharpeners where kids learn the reading, writing and arithmetic—or the “Three R’s.”

Maybe I'm in a super-progressive corner of the world and just don't know it-- but I doubt it. Baker, like many reformsters, argues against retaining the educational model that schools abandoned thirty years ago. "Personalized learning" as currently envisioned seems far more boring and limited than antedeluvian chalk and desks.

But Baker sees CBE as a way to save time and money, and for certain basic pieces of learning, he's sort of correct. But there's a problem with the competencies that are being tested.

This sort of module-based computer learning is already out there. In PA, we all do computer-based modules to "train" for giving the Keystone exam. It's considered a win because the state doesn't have to hire someone to come drone at us while we're all stuck together in a room. But manufacturers of the program have already learned to be cagey-- we aren't allowed to take the competency test until we've watched the instruction videos, power point, etc. Okay, technically, we're not allowed to take the test until the program has played on our computer. Some teachers-- I'm sure I don't know which ones-- let the instructional portion play while they get other work done. Then  they come take the multiple choice competency test which, when all is said and done, is an excellent measure of your ability to take the kind of multiple choice tests that come with basic industry-rules-style "training."

And that's part of the issue here-- competency-based education measures students' ability to take the kind of questions that get asked for this kind of program.

Since we're talking about a program that needs to score tests close to instantly (or else how will you know which station to travel to next), the tests are focused only on the sorts of things that can be measured by multiple-choice questions.

This was bad enough when it was the focus of a once-a-year Big Standardized Test. But look at what Pearson envisions as its "Balanced Assessment System."  Their system features six types of assessment, including formative of which they say "This happens every day!" Yes, it's all assessment, all the time. This would be somewhat ironic in that this is exactly what real live human teachers do-- assess students in a dozen ways every single day. Pearson and other CBE promoters have truly re-invented the wheel. Except that their wheel is a hexagon with an off-center axle. Because to do this kind of constant assessment with a computer, one of two things has to happen-- a teacher enters data for six hours every day, or student assessments are focused strictly on the sort of narrow, simple, surface learning that a multiple choice question can measure.

The Pearson sales pitch is that the BAS will show these results: "Monitored students feel in control of success, measured progress towards college and career readiness, students of all abilities are helped."

Instead of just a little bit of narrow, crappy data once a year, we'll be harvesting crappy data every day. It will have all the limitations of the BS Testing-- no ability to test higher order thinking, critical thinking skills, collaboration-- but it will be far more omnipresent. Instead of thinking the purpose of school is to get past That One Test, students will now be told that the purpose of school is to finish off That Next Module. And in the far future--oh, reformsters just get delirious. A giant warehouse with hundreds of students, all logged in and typing away while a handful of minimum wage monitors keep an eye on them. It will be glorious and profitable.

We've looked at this before, in Pearson's breathless position paper about an assessment renaissance, but now Pearson and Baker and the rest are in that sweet spot where people are demanding to be released from the tyranny of the annual BS Test. And somehow, test manufacturers are going to try to look like heroes for offering even larger doses of what test opponents are trying to escape. It will be a sales pitch of epic proportions, because it will be a cash stream and data mining opportunity of epic proportions. Pay attention. Stay tuned.


  1. My system is rushing to implement "personalized learning." With the accompanying "mastery based" grading system where students receive a 1- 4 score based on "mastery level."

    1. Oh dear, I thought "mastery" was an absolute state of affairs.

  2. The whole idea that everything can be achieved by sitting kids in front of computers, largely based on observations that kids like sitting in front of computers when out of school is so flawed as to be unbelievable. Kids love playing with their personal technology because they get to CHOOSE what they do with it. To think that a kid is not going to be fooled by a CBE system into thinking he has control is seriously dumb. This is going to be a push for the development of mini hackers, as the kids try to sabotage the system, and get it under their control.