Month: May 2016

Humans on a Plane: Circa 2013: My First Encounter with Competency Based Education: a True Story

He sat next to me on a plane to Houston. He was a big man with a dark beard, and his name was Al. He worked for a company that tailored software to the needs of human beings, the end users of the software. His company specialized in what is called ‘human interface,’ a very mechanical term for a very human thing. He explained that his job was to interview people who were beta testing software and get their input so that the software could be reshaped to make it more useful to their jobs. I told him I was an educator, and he told me he had recently began working with NYC schools based on a multi-million dollar grant from Mayor Bloomberg (the guy who took over city schools).

“It’s been frustrating experience working in schools.”

“Why?” I asked.

“The software company that hired us doesn’t seem to want suggestions from teachers,” he said. “Last week I went to this school and met with some. Many of them had good suggestions on how to make the software more useful in the classroom, but the company rejected all of them. We had another meeting and this one teacher, a guy, made some wonderful suggestions to make the program more useful, yet the company told me not to pay attention to that guy. He was a ‘troublemaker.’”

Al ate a couple of pretzels and glanced out the window at the puffy clouds.Then he turned back to me and said.

“Then, they told me out straight out: We are not interested in changing the program for teachers. We want teachers to do what we tell them to do. Apparently, they did not want real feedback. My company was hired because it looked good on paper that they were listening to teachers. It was all window dressing.“

Al was puzzled. He had been successful working with all sorts of Fortune 500 corporations, and the key to making the software better was listening to the needs of its users. Why didn’t this education software company feel the same way?

“Welcome to the world of education reform,” I told Al as the flight attendant handed him a beer. “ Many of the people who seek to reform education have little or no respect for the work that the best teachers do.” I felt that familiar anger rising. “What is called education reform is built on a distrust of teachers and total trust in un-vetted digital technologies that in the mind of business leaders will will individualize learning electronically and somehow replace teachers and lower the per pupil cost. Teachers are now seen as lowly implementers of these wonderful advanced systems of “personalized” learning. In the mind of these companies teachers are now tech support for students interacting with the light screens of enlightenment. These new McDonalds of education need only compliant line cooks who follow orders, not artful chefs who create their own gourmet learning meals. “

He sipped on his beer and I continued.


“Teachers are now seen as the hand, patting the shoulder of students staring into computer screens. You see pictures like this on the websites of these software companies. The smiling teacher in the background, the delighted child gazing at the screen in wonder. This is also, of course, driven by the need of these companies to profit greatly off the trillions of public school tax dollars that could be better spent loweringclass size and investing in school libraries, librarians, arts programs, higher teacher salaries, buildings and professional development. Years of research show that funding these things results in real school improvement. You won’t find private prep schools using these lockstep programs for teaching and assessment.  They prefer the good old-fashioned, real, professional teachers; small classes and all the arts and sciences for their elite students. They have digital technology, but it is used as a tool in the classroom, not a way to replace real teaching, real thinking, and real learning. Programs like these are used in public and especially charter schools that teach the poor and rely on unskilled teachers who are easy to mold into the scheme.’

Al nodded as I spoke. We gathered our pretzel bags, and handed them to the almost smiling flight attendant. He thanked me for my insight.  It helped him to understand why his job in NYC schools was so frustrating and when the plane landed he looked at his smartphone and groaned.

“Oh damn,” he said as the plane lurched to a stop at the gate.

“They cancelled my meeting.”  He shook his head in disbelief.

“Al,” I said, “Your meeting was not cancelled.”

“What do you mean?”

I pointed to him and then back to me.

“This was your meeting.”

He smiled and we share a knowing look only humans who connect randomly on plane’s share.


Later I searched online for the education software company Al’s company had contracted with. I clicked on the about us button and saw a page full of grinning head shots of 30-somethings. The company was composed entirely of MBAs and a series of Teach for America graduates (Ivy League college students who took a 5 week mini-course in teaching and then became teachers in inner city schools). There was not a single professional teacher in the mix. Today this company is working in many states, not just New York.

Now, three years  after this meeting on a plane, we have the ESSA law which green lights “Competency Based Education” to replace testing and computer programs that “personalize” learning and assess students each day or week.  Entire school districts are buying into these un-vetted, expensive technologies because they promise “results” and a free pass on accountability. Fake graduates schools of education ,like Relay Graduate school, have been sanctioned by the ESSA law to support these systems with narrowly trained teachers ready to do what the program tells them.  The  year-end assessment is now replaced by the daily or weekly assessment of competency with no thought to all the interactive learning time or teacher agency lost to students plunked in front of computer screens.  Parents can go online  each day to see how their child is doing.  Parents will not be able to opt their children out of these programs (as they can with standardized tests) because a large part of their schooling will be based on this program.

Our only hope is that school districts  and parents are informed about what real teachers do and will use new technology to enhance learning, not replace it with these snake oil schemes.    Competency or proficiency measured by a machine, even one that promises to personalize learning, will never honor the unique mind and spirit of our children.  When we resist such programs, we are not taking a stand against progress or digital literacy. We are neither luddites nor dinosaurs, but rather human beings seeking genuine “human interface” for our human children and their human teachers.