Co-opting the Language of Authentic Education: The Competency Based Education Cuckoo






Such is the incessant cry of the hour from one of the most popular souvenirs of the black forest of Germany – the cuckoo clock.


Time is demarcated by the chirp of an 18th century animatronic bird jumping forward, moving a wing or even opening its beak before making its distinctive cry.


However, in nature the cuckoo has a more sinister reputation.


It’s one of the most common brood parasites.


Instead of investing all the time and energy necessary to raise its own young, many varieties of cuckoo sneak their eggs into the nests of other birds. When the baby cuckoos hatch, they demand an increasing amount of their clueless foster parents’ care often resulting in neglect of the birds’ own children.


Parental care is co-opted. The love and affection natural to raise parent birds’ own children are diverted to another source. And the more parent birds try to help the interloper’s child, the less they can help their own.


Corporate education reformers must be bird lovers. Or at very least they must enjoy antique cuckoo clocks.


In fact, one could describe the entire standardization and privatization movement as a Homo sapien version of brood parasitism.


Profiteers co-opt authentic education practices so that they no longer help students but instead serve to enrich private corporations.


When parents, teachers and administrators unwittingly engage in corporate school reform strategies to help students learn, they end up achieving the opposite while the testing industry and charter school operators rake in obscene profits.


But some of us have seen through the scam, and we think it’s cuckoo.


We’ve seen this kind of bait and switch for years in the language used by oligarchs to control education policy. For instance, the defunct federal No Child Left Behind legislation had nothing to do with making sure no kids got left behind. It was about focusing obsessively on test and punish even if that meant leaving poor kids in the rear view.


Likewise, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program has nothing to do with quickening the pace to academic excellence. It’s about glorifying competition among students while providing them inequitable resources. Teach for America has very little to do with teaching or America. It’s about underpreparing poor children with unqualified instructors and giving cover to privatization operatives. School Choice has nothing to do with giving parents educational alternatives. It’s about letting privatized schools choose which students they want to admit so they can go through the motions of educating them as cheaply as possible and maximize profits for shareholders.


And on and on.


The latest such scheme to hoodwink communities out of authentic learning for their children is Competency Based Education (CBE) a term used interchangeably with Proficiency Based Education (PBE). Whatever you call it, this comes out to the same thing.


Like so many failed policy initiatives that came before it offered by the same group of think tank sycophants, its name belies the truth. CBE and PBE have nothing to do with making children competent or proficient in anything except taking computer-based tests.


That’s what the whole program consists of – forcing children to sit in front of computers all day at school to take unending high stakes mini-tests. And somehow this is being sold as a reduction in testing when it’s exactly the opposite.


This new initiative is seen by many corporate school reformers as the brave new world of education policy. The public has soundly rejected standardized tests and Common Core. So this is the corporate response, a scheme they privately call stealth assessments. Students will take high stakes tests without even knowing they are doing it. They’ll be asked the same kinds of multiple-choice nonsense you’d find on state mandated standardized assessments but programmers will make it look like a game. The results will still be used to label schools “failing” regardless of how under-resourced they are or how students are suffering the effects of poverty. Mountains of data will still be collected on your children and sold to commercial interests to better market their products.


The only difference is they hope to trick you, to hide that it’s even happening at all. And like a cuckoo pushing its egg into your nest, they hope you’ll support what’s in THEIR best interests while working against what would really help your own children.


And the method used to achieve this deception is co-opting language. They’d never enact what real classroom teachers want in school, but they will take our language and use it to clothe their own sinister initiatives in doublespeak.


So we must pay attention to their words and tease out what they really mean.


For instance, they describe CBE as being “student-centered.” And it is – in that their profit-making machine is centered on students as the means of sucking up our tax dollars.


They talk about “community partnerships,” but they don’t mean inviting parents and community members into the decision making process at your local school. They mean working together with your local neighborhood privatization firm to make big bucks off your child. Apple, Microsoft, Walmart – whatever huge corporation can sell computers and iPads to facilitate testing every day.



They talk about “personalized instruction,” but there’s nothing personal in it. This just means not allowing students to progress on their computer programs until they have achieved “mastery” of terrible Common Core standards. If standardized testing is a poor form of assessment, these edu-programs are worse. They don’t measure understanding. They measure zombie cognitive processes – the most basic surface type of spit-it-back to me answers.


And if that isn’t bad enough, such an approach subtly suggests to kids that learning is only valuable extrinsically. We don’t learn for intrinsic reasons like curiosity. We lean to get badges on the program, to progress forward in the game and compulsively collect things – like any good consumer should.


Today’s children already have problems socializing. They can more easily navigate cyber relationships than real flesh-and-blood interactions. And CBE will only make this worse. Not only will children continue to spend hours of after-school time on-line, the majority of their school day will be spent seated at computer terminals, isolated from each other, eyes focused on screens. And every second they’ll be monitored by that machine – their keystrokes, even the direction their eyes are looking!


I’m not making this up! It shows engagement, tenacity, rigor – all measurable, quantifiable and useful to justify punishing your school.


They call it “one-to-one computer technology.” Yes, each child will be hooked up to one device. But how does that alone help them learn? If every child had a book, would we call it one-to-one book access? They call it “blended learning” because it mixes instruction from a living, breathing person with sit-and-stare computer time. It sounds like a recipe. I’ll blend the sugar and milk until I have a nice whipped cream. But it conceals how much time is spent on each.


Don’t get me wrong. There are effective uses of technology in schools. But this is not one of them.


Students can make Keynote presentations, record movies, design graphics, write programs, etc. But taking endless testing disguised as a video game adds nothing but boredom to their day. A few years ago, I was forced by administrators to put my own students on iStation twice a week. (I’ve since convinced them to let us be.) In any case, when we used the program, it would have been more effective had we called it nap time. At least then my kids wouldn’t have felt guilty about sleeping through it.


The corporate education reformers are trying to sneak all of this under our noses. They don’t want us to notice. And they want to make it harder to actually oppose them by stealing our words.


When public school advocates demand individualized learning for their children, the testocracy offers us this sinister CBE project. When we decry annual testing, they offer us stealth assessment instead.


We must continue to advocate for learning practices that work. We can’t let them steal our language, because if we do, they’ll steal our ability to engage in authentic learning.


And to do that, we must understand the con. We have to deny the technocrats their secrecy, deny them access to our children as sources of profit.


We must guard our nests like watchful mama birds.


The cuckoos are out there.


They are chirping in the darkness all around us.


Don’t let them in.

37 thoughts on “Co-opting the Language of Authentic Education: The Competency Based Education Cuckoo

  1. Thank you for this well supported and vitally important analysis. Co-opted language and double speak are the order of the day. I would also recommend this article, focusing on the use of “algorithms” to “personalize” education. Here’s an excerpt:

    “Some of the buzziest of buzzwords in ed-tech currently involve data collection and analysis: “personalization,” “adaptive learning,” “learning analytics,” “predictive analytics.” These all involve algorithms — almost to a tee, algorithms that are proprietary and opaque.

    “As with Twitter’s promise that an algorithmic timeline will surface Tweets that are more meaningful and relevant to users, we are told that algorithmic ed-tech will offer instruction and assessment and administrative decision-making that is more efficient and “personalized.” But we must ask more about why efficiency is a goal — this is, after all, the application of business criteria to education — and how that goal of efficiency shapes an algorithmic education. (How, for example, is “engagement” in ed-tech shaped by Web analytics; that is, “engagement” has become a measure of clicks and “time on page.”) And we must ask “personalized” how and for whom? Who benefits from algorithmic education technology? How?”

    View at

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Nice rant, Steve. Now, let’s talk about how we use technology authentically in education. Statements like “Students can make Keynote presentations, record movies, design graphics, write programs, etc” is not going to cut it. We all must become better at articulating how we use new technology tools effectively and authentically for all aspects of education including how to report what student’s are learning.

    I’ve had an exchange with Anthony Cody and Peter Greene about this. Here’s a link to part of our exchange.


    • I do like my rants, Dan. First, let’s define terms. You’re talking about Learning Management Systems which are defined by wikipedia as “a software application for the administration, documentation, tracking, reporting and delivery of electronic educational technology (also called e-learning) courses or training programs.” As you imply in the linked article, this may include applications as innocuous as computerized gradebooks. If so, I doubt many teachers would be against LMSs wholesale. I love my computerized gradebook. As you noted, some teachers keep their grades in a physical book and then transfer them into the computer. And if any of my readers do that, good luck to you. Personally, I think that’s a terrible waste of time. I’m not giving up my computerized gradebook. I love it and even printout the results weekly in case of glitches – which do happen.

      However, there’s a huge leap between that and CBE. In my school, no one has access to my gradebook except me. I have to open a very limited window for anyone else to see what’s in there. My administrator can’t go in and look at student’s grades. I hold the key. Why would I want to open that information and so much more to various influences far from the school? Why would I want to open my students up to that kind of scrutiny from people whose interests may or may not be friendly to them? I am not just a teacher. I’m a father, too, and I don’t want corporate drones accessing my daughter’s grades. And let’s be clear – we’re talking about much more than the final results of assignments. We’re talking about every step of the way to achieving that final score. Giving access to that information for a slew of people unknown to us would be educational malpractice.

      Finally, let’s talk about technology providing the content of a lesson. I’ve had my students use iStation, IXL and a host of other such programs. They stink. These are a waste of class time. Students learn best from real live people, not software. However, using technology as a tool to achieve that learning can be very powerful. I went to Carnegie Mellon University and learned how to use their ALice program as a tool to teach computer programming. I’ve had my students use the program to make animations and even create their own video games. The results were astounding. They learned a tremendous amount – not just about computer usage, but about problem solving. THIS is the kind of learning that can be facilitated with technology. CBE is a Trojan horse. It’s a bad idea that has little to do with what’s best for students. Thanks for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Good food for thought–

    Note to author: In the first portion of your editorial the sentence ends are covered by the right banner.


  4. Reblogged this on Politicians Are Poody Heads and commented:
    Yes, indeed, just as the cuckoos are parasites on other birds, the stealth assessments are parasites on real students, real education, real teachers. Same with the Common Core and the rest of the required standardized testing mantras.
    If they can’t get achieve their goals one way, they will use another.
    And make no mistake about it, their goals are not to improve education for all children. Their goals are to enrich EduBusiness and produce unquestioning, compliant cogs in the corporate machine.


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