June 10, 2023

Thomas Ultican: ETS and Carnegie Team Up for ‘Zombie’ Ed Policy

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The Carnegie Foundation and Educational Testing Services have decided to set the Wayback Machine to the days of competency-based education. Thomas Ultican looks at this zombie policy that just won’t go away. Reposted with permission. 

Educational Testing Service (ETS) and Carnegie Foundation are partnering to create assessments for competency-based education, claiming it will revive the zombie education policy tainted by a five decade record of failure. The joint announcement was made at the April 2023 ASU+GSV conference in San Diego with Bill Gates as the keynote speaker. Ultimately, it was to make the Orwellian-named “personalized learning” viable for issuing digitally earned certifications.

ASU is Arizona State University and GSV is the private equity firm, Global Silicon Valley. GSV advertises “The sector’s preeminent collection of talent & experience—uniquely qualified to partner with, and to elevate, EdTech’s most important companies.” It profits from the corporate education ideology that holds job training as the purpose of public education.

Unfortunately, the US Department of Education is on board with digital learning and competency based education claiming,

“Digital tools can shift the focus of learning environments away from traditional metrics of progress — such as the number of hours spent in a classroom—toward more meaningful indicators of learning.”

“Digital learning can support competency-based education, in which students advance after demonstrating mastery of a key skill or concept. In a competency-based system, students work individually and in teams to continuously learn content and develop skills (e.g., communication, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity) and receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual needs. In this sense, competency-based education enables personalization and learning continuity, regardless of location.”

The 1970’s “mastery learning” was detested and renamed “outcome based education” in the 1990s. It is now called “competency based education” (CBE). The name changes were due to a five-decade long record of failure. CBE is a move to use “mastery leaning” techniques to create individualized certification paths. However it is still the same mind-numbing approach that the 1970s teachers began calling “seats and sheets.”

In the book A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire explain, “Because learning is deeply rooted in relationships, it can’t be farmed out to robots or time-saving devices.”

Unfortunately the potential for large profits is huge and serially failed education policies are zombies that will not die.

Selling CBE and Testing

‘The 74’ is an oligarch funded online, daily education publication, promoting the neoliberal agenda. Their cheerleading article about the Carnegie-ETS proposal had no pushback when quoting Carnegie President Timothy Knowles’ unlikely to be true statement,

“We’re in a position to do something that we hadn’t before. Unlike 20 years ago, we can actually reliably measure the skills that we know are predictive of success in postsecondary education and work”

Closest thing to any questioning of this came when the author quoted Michael Horn, a co-founder of Harvard’s Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Education. This loud voice advocating the destruction of public education through privatization said,

“This part, from my reading of the literature on assessment, is both unproven and underdeveloped. So the how is going to be very important. I’m going to be very curious to see what the investments look like as they go forward, and I hope they don’t overpromise.”

‘The 74’ post also claims, “Competency-based learning and assessment has long been theorized as a preferable alternative to existing educational models.” These theories come from a range of philanthropic foundations and education-focused companies, many in attendance at ASU+GSV. Education professionals, not on some billionaire’s payroll, have completely different opinions.

Renewed neoliberal effort to revive CBE now has new players seeking to be big contributors while old hands are filling leadership roles. For example, at the best-known new group called Mastery Transcript Consortium, board member, Tom Vander Ark, the former education director at the Gates Foundation 1999-2006 remains engaged in pushing edtech.

There is very little real change. CBE continues to put kids at computers learning scripted chunks of information and testing for mastery, promising to increase edtech profits and reduce education costs especially teacher salaries. It is awful education and the children hate it.

Guys like Carnegie’s President Tim Knowles and ETS’s CEO Amit Sevak must justify 7 figure salaries by creating new tools and revenue streams for their benefactors. This begs the question, “How can an organization like Carnegie (TIN: 13-1628151) and ETS (TIN: 21-0634479) that pay salaries of more than $1,000,000 a year still be called non-profits?”

The Big Push for CBE

Former reporter for Inside Higher Ed, Paul Fain, shares insights into the new push for CBE. He wrote,

Skills were a hot item at the summit in San Diego, particularly tech-enabled tools that seek to measure the knowledge and abilities of learners, and to convey them to employers. These discussions are drawing energy from the campaign led by Opportunity@Work and the Ad Council, which calls for employers to drop four-year degree requirements and to move toward skills-based hiring.”

Much of the momentum behind this thinking is the move toward a belief that the preeminent purpose of education is employment readiness. Philosophy, literature, art etc. are possibly only meaningful for children of the wealthy. The new push for CBE is toward a skills based education which wastes no time on useless frills. It is a system where children study in isolation at digital screens and earn skills badges at their own pace as they move through the menu driven learning units.

The big obstacle for this system of education is that testing has not proven reliable. Not only has it struggled to assess skills mastery it has not been proficient at predicting future success. This of course completely ignores the reality that CBE is a god awful theory of pedagogy.

In 1906, the Carnegie foundation developed the Carnegie Unit as a measure of student progress. For example, a student attending a class meeting one hour a day 3 times a week for 40 weeks earns one “unit” of high school credit for that 120 hours in class. Based on this, schools all over America pay attention to how many instructional minutes they schedule for every class.

In 2015, Carnegie completed a two-year study of the Carnegie Unit and proposals to revise the unit-based competency established on time. They concluded, “The Carnegie Unit continues to play a vital administrative function in education, organizing the work of students and faculty in a vast array of schools or colleges.” The report did not embrace competency-based standards. Now, Carnegie Foundation President Tim Knowles is calling for just such a change.

Education writer Derek Newton in an article for Forbes says he is hostile to the Carnegie-EST idea for a host of reasons but the major one is cheating. He shares,

“Cheating, academic misconduct as the insiders know it, is so pervasive and so easy that it makes a complete mockery of any effort to build an entire education system around testing. From middle school to grad school, from admissions tests to professional certifications, cheating is the bus-sized hole in the hull of assessment that renders any real voyage implausible. Right now, anyone can pretty easily buy a test-based credential without knowing anything at all. Just pay the fee, get the credential. And people do, every day.

“I am not talking about fake credentials. They are real, provided by the certifiers themselves. The sellers use software to take remote control of a test-taker’s computer and have a ringer take the exam for them.”

It is easy to cheat with rampant digitally enhanced systems. Newton observed, “But because of the credit hour system, which is designed to measure classroom instruction time, it’s still relatively hard to cheat your way to a full college degree.”


Derek Newton’s concern about cheating, difficult and expensive to combat, is valid.

To me, the biggest problem is that “mastery learning” is proven lousy pedagogy that is unaligned with how learning happens.

In his book Soka Education, Daisaku Ikeda writes,

“Recognizing each student as a unique personality and transmitting something through contacts between that personality and the personality of the instructor is more than a way of implanting knowledge: it is the essence of education.”

Socrates likened this education process to being “kindled by a leaping spark” between teacher and student. CBE, “mastery learning,” “outcome based education” or whatever name is given to teaching students in isolation is bad pedagogy, bordering on child abuse.

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