The Camel’s Nose of Competency Based Education

There is a fable in which an Arab miller reluctantly allows his camel to stick his nose under his tent on a cold night in the desert. This is quickly followed by other parts of his body entering the tent until the camel is completely inside the tent and refuses to leave. The moral of the fable is to illustrate that once the “camel” (New York State’s $2 billion Smart Schools Bond Act) gets his nose in the tent, his body (competency based education) will soon follow. This is what we have with the Questar testing company, for which the NYSED Commissioner, MaryEllen Elia signed a $44 million contract. The contract locks into place a five year deal and offers districts the “option to administer the tests on computers.” Isn’t that convenient.

As part of the NYSED press release, Elia is quoted as saying, “Questar, Inc. will also provide computer based testing platforms that will help reduce the need for stand-alone field tests, and more importantly, help make our assessments even better instructional tools.” For the sake of brevity, let’s forget about the fact that the contract with Pearson is still in effect for the 2015–2016 school year and the multi-billion dollar British conglomerate, Pearson, will still be producing the spring 2016 NYS ELA and math tests.

According to Questar’s April 1st publication (sadly, it is not an April fool’s prank), “Reimagining the Classroom Experience,” Eric Rohy, Questar’s Chief Services Officer, writes, “Most educators agree that the current LECTURE-STYLE (emphasis added) approach to teaching is flawed.” He further writes, “….this approach limits the teacher’s ability to adapt his or her classroom to meet a number of 21st century teaching needs such as INDIVIDUALIZED AND PERSONALIZED INSTRUCTION (emphasis added), personalized learning, competency-based grouping and progression, seamless blending of instruction and assessment, and timely impact of assessment results to affect instruction.” WOW! When was the last time Eric Rohy visited a classroom in the United States, the 1950's? Teachers do not use “lecture style” anymore, nor have they in several decades.

What does Mr. Rohy mean by “individualized and personalized instruction?” He writes about a four-part implementation. First, eliminate the lecture-style (“one-to-many teaching approach”) by “giving every student a TABLET DEVICE (think iPad) that WIRELESSLY CONNECTS to ADAPTIVE SOFTWARE in the cloud…. instruction tailored to their individual learning styles and capability levels; and LEARNING MODULES (emphasis added) presented just to them.” Rohy continues, “Seamlessly integrate assessment with the instruction presented to each student on his or her TABLET (emphasis added). Again, Rohy makes a false generalization of our teachers by writing, “…most teachers do not teach this way (checking for understanding on an ongoing basis throughout a lesson) for two reasons: pedagogical momentum and a lack of technology that integrates instruction and ASSESSMENT (emphasis added) seamlessly so it doesn’t disrupt the flow of the class. With TABLETS (emphasis added) and the RIGHT SOFTWARE (emphasis added), this approach is possible on an INDIVIDUALIZED basis: after every five minutes of INDIVIDUALIZED TABLET-BASED INSTRUCTION (emphasis added), students would be presented with a brief series of questions that adapt to their skill level…” He continues, “The student would then be reassessed and the cycle would continue. With both the instruction and the assessments integrated into the same software and presented as a continuous ‘flow’ to each student, there is almost NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN INSTRUCTION AND ASSESSMENT (emphasis added) in the mind of a child.” It appears that Mr. Rohy beleieves that teachers can be replaced with tablets and some nifty software.

Mr. Rohy also posits that grade levels could be ELIMINATED, “because students progress through subject material at their own pace…” He ends the publication with, “It would be naive to think that such a holistic change to classroom structure and pedagogy would be easy. A number of SIGNIFICANT FUNDING (i.e. — $2 billion Smart Schools Bond Act), process, training, and political challenges would need to be addressed. He ends with a paraphrased quote of Apple CEO Tim Cook: “we must be ‘willing to lose sight of the shore’ and make UNCOMFORTABLE changes to make a significant leap forward in education.”

The “reformers” of education want to replace “teachers” with “individualized instruction” and/or “tablet.” They believe that quality teachers can be seamlessly replaced by a tablet, some headphones, and WiFi. Let me show you a picture of what that means:

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The Smart Schools Bond Act is the camel’s nose; the rest of the camel is represented by Questar’s CBT program; Commissioner Elia and Governor Cuomo represent the Arab miller; and the tent is the metaphor for our public schools.

Would Bill Gates, President Obama, current US DOE Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, soon-to-be US Secretary John King, and Andrew Cuomo subject their own children to this education environment? No, nor should they and nor should we. I do not want my children to be connected to a tablet all day in the name of “individualized instruction.” I want a high quality teacher to teach my children.

If Commissioner Elia believes that the opt out movement will become a moot point due to competency based education and assessments, she had better re-think this. Opt out numbers could hit 500,000 this spring. When the 2016–2017 school year begins, opt outs may be close to 1,000,000.

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