Will Congress Spend Big on This Failed Education Program in 2018?

December 28, 2017

by Karen R. Effrem, MD


The corporations, foundations, investors, and politicians funded by them have been working hard this year to promote competency-based education (CBE), also called personalized learning, as well as its evil sibling, social emotional learning (SEL). CBE, although poorly defined by proponents, is essentially machine-based learning with constant assessment, including SEL assessment and profiling, to track students into higher education and workforce futures by inaccurate and inhuman computer-generated algorithms. Unfortunately, that also includes the Higher Education Act, now called the PROSPER Act, discussed in last week’s article. Here is the promised review of the CBE aspects of that bill.

The term “competency” appears 23 times in PROSPER. Competency is defined as:

…the knowledge, skill, or characteristic demonstrated by a student in a subject area.

CBE is defined in the bill as education that:

(i) measures academic progress and attainment-

(I) by direct assessment of a student’s level of mastery of competencies;

(II) by expressing a student’s level of mastery of competencies in terms of equivalent credit or clock hours; or

(III) by a combination of the methods described in subclauses (I) or (II) and credit or clock hours; and (ii) provides the educational content, activities, and resources, including substantive instructional interaction, including by faculty, and regular support by the institution, necessary to enable students to learn or develop what is required to demonstrate and attain mastery of such competencies, as assessed by the accrediting agency or association of the institution of higher education.

The bill includes in its definition of a CBE program the following aspects:

(i) [a postsecondary program that] provides competency-based education, which upon a student’s demonstration or mastery of a set of competencies identified and required by the institution, leads to or results in the award of a certificate, degree, or other recognized educational credential;

(ii) has a method to differentiate between knowledge that a student acquired prior to enrollment in the competency-based education program and knowledge that the student acquired as a result of enrollment in such program

These definitions are good as far as definitions go. However, the bill writers were obviously unaware of or ignoring the fact that major proponents are still struggling to define what CBE is. A recent article from the Getting Smart website stated:

These pioneer schools, districts and programs have been given the opportunity to study the optimal learning progressions for students. We can learn what lessons have the greatest impact on students and whether social-emotional skills correspond with academic achievement. Because personalized learning organizations are gaining the ability to ask and answer these questions, we are closer to being able to adjust our learning models to support more students and various skill levels. [Emphasis added]

If this website, founded by Tom Vander Ark, a former Gates Foundation education director and a national leader of CBE that has been heavily promoting this type of education for years, is still doing research and asking questions about how CBE and SEL work for K-12 students, why in the world is CBE being put into federal law for higher education and funded by American taxpayers?

The same questions must be asked about the effectiveness of CBE programs at the postsecondary level when there is little to no evidence of effectiveness in K-12. While the PROSPER Act contains language trying to add some level of quality control for these programs by requiring that they are evaluated and approved by “a [recognized] accrediting agency or association,” there are already numerous instances of ineffectiveness and parent rebellion at the K-12 level:

  • The Lake County, Fla., school district that had been receiving Gates Foundation grant money for several years before it was included in an ill-advised 2016 CBE pilot program has pulled out because all of the pilot schools had worse academic performance than the non-pilot schools. The high school went from a B to a D in Florida’s school grading system and graduation rates dropped.
  • Parents in Cheshire, Conn., and Indiana, Pa., have been able to stop the use of the Summit Basecamp digital personalized (CBE) learning platform due to concerns about academic achievement and data privacy. This platform is a joint venture between the Summit charter schools and the Chan Zuckerburg Initiative founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg and his wife Priscilla Chan. There are many other instances of parental anger and removal of their children from schools using this platform, well explained by Leonie Haimson of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy.

Parent and blogger Carolyn Leith put it well when she said:

Parents are tired of ed-tech entrepreneurs who think they can use our public schools as product development laboratories, our kids as guinea pigs, and our teachers as market research assistants.

It makes little sense to use hard-earned taxpayer funds to have the federal government — which has no constitutional authority to be involved in education anyway — participate in this education-destroying, privacy-invading experimentation on our students. Please speak out and be prepared to fight against CBE in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act as it is taken up by Congress in 2018.


Dr. Karen Effrem is trained as a pediatrician and serves as president of Education Liberty Watch and the executive director of the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition.

Archive: Karen R. Effrem, MD

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