KnowledgeWorks, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the push for competency based learning

big money

How can I have a problem with competency based learning? This is a question I get asked quite a lot these days.

To be fair, critics of my stance usually take the time to patiently explain in the comment section how my concerns miss the point – competency based learning doesn’t have to be done online or on an electronic device; it’s all about students showing mastery.

Let me lay out my concerns.

I think the term competency based learning has multiple meanings, based on the goals of those who are using the phrase.

It’s a clever strategy to introduce an idea the public would reject outright – like students spending their time on computers rather than being taught by human teachers – and wrapping it in a concept the public does value.

Who doesn’t like the idea of students showing mastery of material in an independent, self-paced manner?

Dick DeVos, husband of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, laid out how to use this stealth approach to ed-reform during a speech at the Heritage Foundation.

The goal is to re-package destructive policy initiatives by co-opting ideas that are considered social positives. This marketing strategy both disarms critics and cuts across ideological lines.

So, while personalized learning can be done in a hands-on way in the classroom, the big money is behind the push for students on devices, working their way through adaptive learning environments.

KnowledgeWorks is just one organization working to replace traditional brick and mortar public schools with kids on laptops, learning at anytime and in any place.

KnowlegeWorks has dreamed up an entire pay as you go, privatized, just-in-time education economy.

Students learn to earn, by mastering very specific skills. These narrow competencies can be traded for money or re-invested in another education opportunity offered by the gig economy. All of this is wrapped in the gee-wiz veneer of a high-tech, innovative, learning ecosystem.

This model works if we, as citizens, accept the idea that the value of education is purely financial. Students are nothing more that vessels to be filled with knowledge which later can be traded in a market. Competition will decide who has access to the best educational opportunities, colleges, and careers.

The problem for KnowledgeWorks is everyone knows that the old system of college and career is broken. Today’s crushing student debt coupled with the disappearance of living wage jobs proves it; preparing for college and career is a lie.

This is why the re-imaging of public education away from the liberal arts and towards personalized learning is so critical; it prepares kids for the coming gig economy and redirects attention from the current human suffering caused by of the old college and career self-betterment strategy.

There wouldn’t be much public buy-in, especially from parents, if they knew what all this innovative talk was really about. What if coding for kids and STEM programs run by big cultural organizations like the WISE Consortium, didn’t put their children on the fast track for success, but rather was preparation for their role as future precariats in the cognitive gig economy.

Personalized learning is a way for the wealthy to remake the economy in a way that allows them to keep their fortunes, while dealing with, and profit from, future job scarcity. It also avoids a public discussion about wealth inequality or how to create a system where all could benefit.

It’s no surprise then that KnowledgeWorks is absolutely giddy over the opportunity to push personalized learning into more states during the implementation of the ESSA. This strategy fits perfectly with Dick DeVos’s plan to take education reform to the state level, with local advocates who know the political landscape.

In fact, KnowledgeWorks has a created a tracker to document future markets for personalized learning – thanks to the ESSA.

From Yahoo Finance:

The first federal deadline for Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) state plan submissions is quickly approaching, and a new KnowledgeWorks tool gives a comprehensive look at the ideas states are considering to personalize learning for their students.

A Nationwide Look at State Strategies to Advance Personalized Learning,” highlights the strategies that states are exploring in their draft ESSA plans to increase personalized learning opportunities for students. States are finalizing draft plans to submit to the United States Department of Education (USED) either on April 3, 2017 or Sept. 18, 2017.

As citizens who care about public education, we need to push past the feel-good sound bites when politicians make education policy proposals and really research what is going on below the surface.

Follow the money. Find out who profits or loses when these friendly sounding initiatives are made law. Details matter – now more than ever.

-Carolyn Leith


8 thoughts on “KnowledgeWorks, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the push for competency based learning

  1. Thank you for the excellent reporting and analyses of the language of educational reform. Lloyd added some other examples. The “21st Century Skills” frame came from the tech industry’s lobbyist Ken Kay who twice tried to get his list embedded in federal legislation. He failed but the phrase lives on. There is nothing there except for the IT. Kay’s marketing of “21st Century Skills” came along just as the Common Core was revving up, much to the consternation of the CCSS crowd. The double whammy came with a Time magizine article reporting on a multi-decade decline in Torrence Tests of Creativity. Because Kay had restored a reference to creativity in the midst of the standards onslaught the CCSS crowd — Achieve, Inc. and he Council of Chied State School Officers (CCSSO)– tried to coopt and quiet Ken Kay. They sent him off to help with some IT connections with the CCSS. Then the CCSSO and Achieve started a bizarre website called EdSteps claiming to develop and new and better test of creativity, also global awareness. I have not checked on the current operational status of EdSteps.
    I live in Cincinnati where in located. I have watched it evolve into the deep pockets operation pushing for education as school-and-teacher-free learning, a do-it-yourself process based on the expectaion that a host of people and institutions will provide play-lists and badges as indicators of learner competency.

  2. “big money is behind the push for students on devices, working their way through adaptive learning environments”

    Sounds like video games like all those very popular ones where the more creatures/humans you kill and the more destruction you spread, the more successful you are.

  3. Mis-appropriating terminology for profit or power is a classic propaganda tool. Like the WWII relabeling of aggression as “Peace through strength”. It’s happening now in every field from politics to education.

    “Personalized or individualized learning” is what we all want for our kids. So that’s how profiteers label the exact opposite – regimented computer activities.

    Conducting “scientific studies” of students while they do online classroom activities might sound noble. But really, kids become guinea pigs for refining commercial products. Never mind they are judged on the basis of materials still under development. Further, a significant priority of these “studies” is to mine data for resale and on-going profits. Students taking the SAT sign away their right to privacy so the SAT can resell their personal information for 42 cents apiece.

    Universities create standardized tests the community trusts are in kids’ best interests. But to help their bottom line, colleges resell the tests to corporations, having used kids without parents’ knowledge. The data also gets resold to military recruiters, companies peddling tutorials, etc.

    “21st Century Learning” sounds so modern. Really, it’s come to mean a new kind of industrialization of the classroom. People used to remark that showing up on time and sitting for hours at a desk was designed to prepare students for working at an assembly line. Now claims about “21st Century Learning” frequently mention preparing students for an IT job. Education has simply double-downed on an old theme.

    “College and Career Ready” is stamped on every half-ready product like Smarter Balanced and PARCC in order to gain public confidence, even though they offer disclaimers in fine print about their ability to judge whether students really are “College and Career Ready”. In fact, universities won’t accept either PARCC or SBAC scores for college admissions, because they are too unreliable.

    We should look askance at every catchy label and consider whether it might mean the exact opposite.

  4. Your insight that terminology pushed by Competency Based Education is “a clever strategy to introduce an idea the public would reject outright…” covers so much ground — the semantics game attached to long, long years of “accountability” and invasive school “reforms” has been an essential tool used by those who wish to bamboozle the public while secretly profiting from public money.

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