Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Jobs' XQ Institute Plugs Competency Based Education

Laurene Powell Jobs is one of the major players in the reformster world. Steve Jobs's widow is the fourth richest woman in the world, and she has been a player in the world of education  venture philanthropy for a while, logging time with NewSchools Venture Fund (We raise contributions from donors and use it to find, fund and support teams of educators and education entrepreneurs who are reimagining public education). She founded the Emerson Collective, a Palo Alto-based do-gooding group (one of their major charitable actions was to give Arne Duncan a job after he left the USED). Emerson also bought controlling interest in The Atlantic. And it turns out that Emerson was also a mystery backer of Education Post, the war room rapid response PR operation for ed reform.

This woman deserves the same attention we give Gates, Broad, Walton, et al
Emerson also launched the XQ Institute, which launched the Super school project, complete with an all-network star-studded variety show PR blitz. But we're going to let that sit for the moment while we contemplate another XQ product.

The "report," "Show What You Know: A Landscape Analysis of Competency-Based Education" is one more sign that A) Reformsters are betting on CBE as the Next Big Thing and B) they don't really know what they're talking about and C) they are crafting some careful PR to push this business. It was commissioned by XQ and produced by Getting Smart, a website/organization under CEO Tom Vander Ark, a guy who has been pushing ed tech and privatization since even before his days at the Gates Foundation.

Who else is here? Russlynn Ali, a co-founder and CEO of XQ, manager of education fund at Emerson, former assistant secretary for civil rights at USED under Duncan, chief of staff to president of LAUSD board, vice-president of Education Trust, and assistant director of policy and research at Broad Foundation.

All told, there's a lot of privatizing reformster love in this room.

So what do we find in the report?

Ali's Foreword

Ali is going to lay out the foundation for the arguments to follow, and she ticks off all the usual items. Education has been doing things one way for 125 years (marked up, I guess, from the usual 100). Seat time is the old way, and the rules that go with it are getting in the way of awesome new reform things. Let's have "learning-based milestones," and let's call it "competency based education." Oh, but the rules, and the course divisions, and the grade-levels-- they all just bum reformers out. So we asked Getting Smart, a group really dedicate to promoting CBE and ed tech, to give us an objective view of the lay of the land. No prescriptions here, no sir. Just trying to provoke some thoughts and spark some discussion.

What did Getting Smart do to reap this harvest of information? They talked to fifty educators and read forty publications. Check the appendix and you will find that the people and publications were all folks who are heavily invested in reform ideas and ed tech promotion. So it will be no shock to discover that what Getting Smart "found" is that enthusiasm is high for CBE among people and corporations that are positioning themselves to profit from CBE. The "shift to competency-based education is occurring rapidly, right now" and there are still opportunities to "help make it happen faster, better, and more equitably." Hurry-- you can still get in on the ground floor of this investment opportunity.

Are there any reasons for caution? Sure. Increasing capacity might put a big burden on teachers. The detailed feedback will be a real burden. Hmmmm… if only there were tools that could help. Also, CBE has to be specifically focused on equity because the current system fails in that area, and yes, we've seen the research showing that non-wealthy noon-white students are actually doing worse in CBE-type models.

Getting Smart thinks the old system is "stuck" on things like conventional definitions ("ninth grader") and compartmentalizing "how and when teachers interact with students" and we want you to know right up front that we are not considering the possibility that any of the system is "stuck" because certain aspects are time-tested and known to work. We will start with the assumption that the old system needs to be scrapped. Here we go.

Just Some Things To Clear Up

Right off the bat, though the report hews to the current Unspoken Law of CBE (Don't portray it as a algorithm-run computer-delivered education product), the report has to admit that the "leading advocate for CBE is the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). Their definition is "an advancement on demonstrated mastery with well-defined competencies that empower students."

The report argues that everything-- the basic architecture of school-- will have to be changed (see how we just skipped the whole argument about why CBE would be better)  and that instead of taking a generation to do it, we can speed things up by setting a goal of near-full adoption within ten years, focusing on college- and Career-ready outcomes, accelerating the achievement of previously underserved learners--

Yeah, I'm going to jump in here to note that the report is filled with all sorts of off-hand tossed-in jaw droppers. So mark that-- to get CBE running sooner, just get all the slower learners to learn faster. Easy peasy.

-- and aligning with "quality learning goals." XQ just happens to have some.

The report throws in some definitions of various terms, noting that CBE, Proficiency-bsed Learning and Mastery-based learning are used as synonyms. They also get into definitions of personalized learning, blended learning, deeper learning, and student-centered learning. All of them are pretty close in meaning, and not a single definition mentions technology or computers. Way to stick to the script, team!

Chapter 1: The Rationale

Here comes the evidence for making the transition.

The corporate training world has shifted to this model to "improve job readiness." Note: we will not discuss whether or not the goal of education should be job readiness. Also, Sal Khan, the video-ed king, says all students should master 100% of skills at a high level before moving on. Note: we do not discuss what high level, the value of talking about skills rather than knowledge, or what the system should do with students who fail to meet that high level or that high percent.

Learning science knows things. Here are some quotes and links. They lead us to Insights."It is no longer enough to simply develop skills and obtain knowledge; to achieve full potential, students will need to apply learning and transfer it to new contexts, which no doubt requires deeper learning and tapping into problem-solving, critical thinking, and self-management skills ." Seriously-- does the report think this is a new idea?

Equity is important. This is evidence for making that transition?

Agency is really important. We know this because there was a conference and people, like Michelle Weise of the reform Christen Institute, said so. Somehow, knowing exactly what they have been told they're capable of increases agency.

XQ learning (that's what we're going to call this now?) should be deep and rigorous because it will aim for students to be holders of foundational knowledge, masters of all fundamental literacies, original thinkers for an uncertain world, generous collaborators for tough problems, and learners for life. Not for the last time I am reading this report wondering what exactly these people think is going on in schools, because an awful lot of this is about reinventing the wheel, but, you know, a really shiny, sparkly wheel-- and look, we've invented spokes and tire treads!

The report then doubles back to underline that CBE fits the way the work world now works. Never mind that fancy shmancy liberal arts education. You need to be able to list the useful specific skills that somebody would want to pay for.

Chapter 2: Issues and Priorities

The chapter starts with the unsubstantiated header that CBE is more complex than our current time-based system. Is that so? Just take their word for it. Only smart people can see how complex and deep the emperors\'s new education system really is.

Actual useful question posed next: should we require students to demonstrate competence via "consistently applied external validations of narrow measures of knowledge and skill" (aka standardized quizzes) or use authentic assessments with teacher judgment? The report chooses both.

"CBE provides a great opportunity for gap-closing equity." Somehow. They do admit that it could open up new equity chasms based on students who move much more slowly through the material. But they have nine design principles straight from iNACOL and Competency Works that ought to fix the whole problem. They keep coming back to their mantra-- if CBE is designed with equity in mind, then everything will be okay.

The report defines six obstacles to creating CBE; let me list them and add what they've overlooked.

1) Defining Competencies

The Common Core are swell, but we still don't have aligned assessments for most of them. Nor will you ever, because the standards are so vague that it can't seriously be done. Here's one plucked mostly at random:

Analyze the impact of the author's choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama 

Exactly how would you definitively determine that a student has mastered that standard? Does it matter if the story is Green Eggs and Ham or Grapes of Wrath? Does it matter whether the analysis is insightful or superficial or regurgitated boilerplate?

This is the "lack of well-defined competencies" that is a huge problem. The report notes a lack of definition of work-ready skills and, well, no kidding. Years of talking about college- and career-ready skills and we still don't have anything remotely resembling an authoritative list of what skills are required to be ready for any and all careers and/or colleges. We don't have it, and we'll never have it because the very idea of such a list is ridiculous. Therefor CBE will never have a legitimate definitive list of well-defined competencies.

Also, lack of equity has to be addressed. How do you set up a list of competencies that addresses "previously underserved students."

2) Transition challenges

This means the transition from the old system to the new one. This subsection, like most of the chapter, would benefit from insights and observations about CBE's recent crash-and-burn in Maine, but the writers lacked either the time or the guts to go there. Too bad. Looking at a place where the transition failed would probably give you some clues about what has to be handled. But instead the report offers these possible pressure points for a transition.

From grades to rubrics is a problem, both for people who are assessing and for parents, who want an answer to "How's my kid doing?"

"Moving from a culture of success vs. failure to a culture of revision." Nope. Here's another thing that CBE advocates consistently try to skim past-- CBE is a pass/fail system. You get multiple attempts to pass, but at the end of the day, it's a pass/fail system, and that's the culture change you have to deal with. A culture that says "This is the minimum you have to do to move on. Doing more won't help you in any way, but you have to do this minimum sooner or later." They do acknowledge part of the issue as "pressure to retain privilege," as in, high-achieving students and their parents get upset when they realize this system doesn't care if you are a high achiever. You get the exact same payoff as someone who just barely squeaked by.

On the other end of the scale, we find what they call a problem of "limited supports." For low achievers, the fact that they must clear each competency bar can be demoralizing and leave them stuck in place for a whole lot of time. Imagine you are ten and you have been working on the same module for a month. You will need a buttload of support for that kid.

This is the problem with CBE that is not addressed in the previous point-- if you set the bar too low, the system is boring, but if you set the bar too high, a large number of students will never clear it. That's why the mantra of CBE, all the way back to the days it was called Outcome Based Education, is "all can learn all." Because if we admit there are some competencies that some students can never meet, then we have a huge bug in the system.

Also, we need to have teacher preparation, because when implementation of flawed models go poorly, it's always the teachers' fault.

3) Tools and Resources

What's the problem with CBE tools and resources? We don't have them. We don't have learning management systems that can handle it, and we don't have the curriculum materials to implement it, either.

4) Technical Challenges

We don't have any kind of common record-keeping model for this system. We don't really know how it will work, so we don't know how to record the results. In our heart, we really see this as a system in which competencies are acquired from a variety of programs and educational opportunities (students can learn anywhere), but we don't know how that turns into a shared and interoperable record.  And we don't have a way to combine formative assessments but could possibly use data tagging and-- holy schneikies! I actually called this one back in 2014-- Common Core can perhaps best be understood as a set of data tags to use in digitizing all students school data.

Bottom line, CBE generates a ton of data which in turn creates a need for a system that can handle it all. And although they said they'd consider both standardized assessments and authentic assessments scored by teachers, note that the teacher one makes this whole data managing thing way harder. The most obvious (if not necessarily best) solution to technical challenges will always be to make everyone take the same standardized assessments.

5) Reporting

"What the hell is this? Where is my kid's report card? How am I supposed to know how she's doing? And how am I supposed to put this gobbledeegook with her college application?"

Also, the NCAA likes things the old way, too.

6) Accountability

The fed regulations support grade-level grouping and seat time. Also, nobody has done CBE well enough to provide a useful example of how it could work, yet. Again, this would have been a good time to talk about Maine.

Design Choices

So what do these obstacles mean in terms of choices to make in designing a CBE system?

Short answer: They don't know how to do it, but, boy howdy, it will be hard.

Getting the standards and goals right is necessary, and hard. Assessing and tracking "sub-skills" is hard and requires designers to deal with the fact that, as the report admits via quote, fragmenting skills into mini skills gets you parts that are way less than the whole. Rich standards become a checklist. Maybe subskills in clusters of micro-- oh, good lord. They have no idea. Also, the quote Michael Fullan saying that the work should be irresistibly engaging" and "elegantly efficient."

There's a skill map here, and the assertion that the next generation of schools will promote deeper understanding in a context of broader aims. Well, that sounds mighty fine. Once again the report seems to elevate these future schools by depicting education as droning lecture. Also, my car is a great car if you compare it to a donkey-drawn wagon.

A chart shows that learning processes should be more multiple dimensions-- an interesting challenge when we're breaking everything down into mini-competencies. And again with the mythical traditional school. "Traditional schools rely on finals, or end-of-course exams." Really? Says who? Reformsters saddled public schools with a single Big Standardized Test at the end of the year, but I literally have never encountered in all these years as teacher or student a single teacher anywhere who relies on a final at the end of the year.

And here's a moment when they almost admit this is an algorithm-controlled computer-centered system-- Traditional schools depend on teacher judgment nut next-generation models "combine automated formative assessments with teacher observations."

Then there's a whole sidebar on standards-based grading, another part of CBE that is unpopular and hard to pull off (hint-- we're back to the pass-fail problem again).

Chapter 3: What's Out There Now

Model schools, learning tools, student supports, teacher development, and policy are the five areas in which they've seen things happening.

The model schools are all barely-begun babies. Skip. The learning tools don't fully exist yet, and school experience with other digital tools has not exactly made them excited about one more computer program coming at them. Tools they list include Summit and AltSchool, two charter groups that shifted to a software-dispersing business model. They also include Power School, a program I'm familiar with from years of taking roll on it, and if that's their idea of a next-generation tool, they're in more trouble than I thought.

They ask some good questions in this chapter (What is the actual work students do? What is the quality of the curriculum?) but they don't really have answers for them (Instructional materials ought to be aligned, as soon as someone creates them. We really need some good curriculum.) Khan academy. NWEA. There are a lot of deeply mediocre resources name-checked in this chapter.

The policy part boils down to "We need to get the rules changed to fit our way of doing things even though our way isn't really agreed-upon, established, or proven to actually work."

Maine doesn't come up in this chapter.

Chapter 4: Technical Development and Opportunities

Leads off with an ed tech classic-- the list of things that computers are totally going to do in the near future. This is the song of ed tech, the recurring sweet promise by which teachers have been seduced again and again and again and again and again-- something awesome is right around the corner and any day now we will be able to do the most wonderful stuff. Better tests that measure critical thinking have been almost here for over a decade. Software that can assess writing is always just on the verge of being released.

This is no different. Adaptive learning will soon be "nearly as good as one-on-one tutoring." There will be automated feedback, citing the writing feedback systems that are already use (it does not mention that these systems, without exception, are lousy).

And then we turn the page and-- oh joy! Blockchain! The same marvel that brings us bitcoins will make it possible for students to amass credentials any where at any time from anyone, and yet keep those credentials all in their blockchain purse. It will store new kinds of credentials, the kinds of credentials that let entrepreneurs go straight to market without having to be approved by some silly authority.

Chapter 5: Recommendations

First, though CBE models will require time and resources "new school development or high school redesign (directly or through partners) provides a high return and relatively low-risk investment strategy ." There's money to be made here, folks.

Second, a whole lot of curriculum and assessment toolage is required. How about some open source stuff? You know-- where teachers just give away their work for free!

Third, "a coherent approach to exponential technology." This seems to mean that private start-ups are too risky, so a public-private team would be better. You know, where the public part shoulders risk and expense, and the private part makes money. Sweet deal, eh?

Fourth, new approaches to technical and design challenges. Because what we've got isn't cutting it. They suggest design competitions, and it's true that competitions for grants ands prizes are great because you get to have a whole bunch of people work for you, but you only have to pay one of them.

Fifth, keep working on it. Keep advocating and supporting lobbying groups and publishing slick reports.

Call To Action

Big finish. We need to ask three questions-- what do we want students to know, how will we know what they know and are able to do, and what experiences and supports will get them there. CBE answers those questions differently, without grade levels, time tables, and discrete subject areas. Also, don't forget equity. And outcomes, networks, evidence and transcripts.

Basically, we have a sort of a vision of what we'd kind of like to do, but we haven't worked out any of the specifics yet. It's almost as if we are a bunch of educational amateurs who are trying to design schools from scratch without any fundamental knowledge about teaching and learning and schools.

Are You Still Here?

Good for you. You can look at the appendix that shows you all the people they talked to, like Blockchain Research Institute and the College Board and Florida Virtual School and NWEA and IDEA Public [sic] Schools and Microsoft and Relay Graduate School of Education and Udacity and NewsSchool Venture Fund and seriously, there is not a single legitimate non-reform source on the list.

But as you can see, all the various reform constituencies are lined up behind CBE, even though there isn't a single, solitary aspect of CBE that they can point to and say, "We have absolutely worked this part out now." They are still thoroughly enthusiastic about coming to your school and offering your students the chance to be beta testers for a system that doesn't actually exist yet. How can anything possibly go wrong.


  1. While not directly related to this article per se, my comment does relate to the general topic. I recommend you look up today's issue of the Oak Oark Wednesday Journal (home of the proud progressive school which is featured in the previously mentioned Starz documentary, "America to Me") and you will find two opinion pieces by black parents in that community who believe district 200 really cannot meet their children's needs and so they send their children to private schools.

    There is no greater vocal advocate for equality, no stauncher supporter for public education, no more progressive oriented community than Oak Park. Meanwhile, they are oreparing to vote on spending hundreds of millions of dollars to improve school facilities. If Oak Park, the self procaimed home of all the best liberal values in America, is unable to handle this growing crisis of inequity, who can?

    And I am honestly asking, would you try to convince these parents to keep their kids in OPRF and fight the good fight?

  2. And please don't tell us how well CBE works with 3rd graders. When this crapola hits them in adolescence, the outcomes are almost too easy to predict:

    GAMING / SCHEMING the programs (future millionaires)
    SILCON ZOMBIES, incurious and apathetic
    IGNORANCE on steroids

  3. Our school is living through CBE Hell right now.

    The district refuses to pay teachers for the time it takes to create quarter-length "studios." The word "unit" is verboten.

    Parents are confused and students are struggling. But we're told all will be well. And students and teachers get to sit in shiny new fishbowls, where they're on display to passers-by. Plenty of surveillance cameras as well.

    Wish I could say more, but the mortgage has got to get paid.

  4. view: most of teachers enjoy their job and see the advantages of being a teacher as clearly outweighing the disadvantages. This is good news for education systems around the world: job satisfaction has important implications for teacher attrition as well as teachers’ attitudes about their job Educatological