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

geek-computer-hand-of-god-sistine-chapelHe 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 lowering class 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 with computer curriculum 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.


True Argument is Never About Winning

Nothing can change unless we can have a civil conversation.

—Grace Shoshana Lane

Those who know only their side of an argument know little of that.

—John Stuart Mill


     Awhile back, I received an email from an acquaintance in serious trouble.

Hello Barry,

Just hoping this email has reached you well, I’m sorry for this emergency and for not informing you about my urgent trip to Manila, Philippines but I just have to let you know my present predicament.

Everything was fine until I was attacked on my way back to the hotel, I wasn’t hurt but I lost my money, bank cards, mobile phone and my bag in the course of this attack. I immediately contacted my bank in other to block my cards and i also made a report at the nearest police station.

I’ve been to the embassy and they are helping me with my documentation so i can y out but I’m urgently in need of some money to pay for my hotel bills and my ight ticket home. I will de nitely REFUND you as soon as i get back home.

Kindly let me know if you would be able to help me out so I can forward you the details required for you to get the funds to me.

Waiting to hear back from you.

Thanks, Janet

Most of the time, I ignore such emails for what they are, attempts to steal money from innocent people who believe in the fake story—a con job. But this day, I was in a strange, playful mood, and I decided I would see what would happen if I pretended to believe in the story. I wrote back the following email:

Wow, Janet,

What terrible luck. I don’t usually give money to people but your story was so compelling I feel I need to give something. There are so many great people in the world but you are one of the best I know. You are so kind and giving and would give your shirt to a stranger. How much do you need?


     Five minutes later, I received this reply.


I am glad you responded. I am really freaked out here. As soon as I am back home tomor- row, I would definitely refund the money. All I need now is $1,900.00 USD but i will really ap- preciate any amount you can afford to loan me for now. I will like you to have it sent through western union to my information below.

Receiver’s Name: JANET xxxxxxxxx
Location: xxxxx xxxxxxx, Manila City, 1008 Philippines

As soon as it is done, kindly get back to me with the con rmation number and all the western union details given to you including the amount sent.

Let me know how soon you can get this done.

Respond soon. Janet

      I wrote back again, this time getting a bit imaginative.

This is an amazing coincidence, Janet.

My brother, Isaac, works for the U.S. State Department in Manila City. I have e-mailed him and he says he can deliver you the money in cash and in person. Give me your exact ad- dress and a time for the cash delivery.


Thanks for your effort, but at the moment i cannot leave where i am. I want the money trans- ferred to me here via western union. Let me know how soon you can get that done.


Not to worry, Janet.

I have forwarded this note to the authorities at the embassy, and they are tracing the IP ad- dress as we speak.

Rest assured someone will be at your door within the next hour or so with the money. Please show them your identi cation.


    A few minutes later came the final response.


I wrote back:

Life is too short. We are here for such a brief moment. Don’t steal.

No reply.


After this exchange, I had a strange sense of accomplishment and also a feeling of failure and sadness. I had fooled the fooler, tricked the trickster. But to do so, I had lied. Was this really a victory or some pointless exercise? My preacher self felt that I was leading the fraudster to see the folly of his ways. My lesser self was just playing around, not much better than the fraudster. Do two wrongs ever make a right?

Lawyer Alan Dershowitz says that if you truly win an argument you don’t win: both sides win because both sides are led to a greater truth. He also says you can’t argue with knuckleheads or ideologues who refuse to see anything but their own point of view or with people who are basically deceitful in their intent. It strikes me that much of what we call debate on television is knuckleheads yelling at each other, and what we call debate competition in high school and college is simply a more refined version of the same game. Like the perpetrator of a fraud, a person who argues, no matter how rationally, practices some form of deceit if the argument doesn’t seek a deeper understanding of a shared reality. An ideologue is the enemy of democracy because, like the fraudster, he only pretends to listen while always pursuing his own personal gains. He perceives argument as a con game to win and not an inquiry into what is true for all.

As we engage in spirited debate on Facebook during this election season it is important to remember that Democracy depends on people who can listen with their hearts and minds and who genuinely seek common ground.  Arguing is a life skill on which depends the future of civilization. Like the protagonist of a dystopian novel living in a post-information age where people grasp for simplistic answers to complex problems, language arts teachers have the power to elevate the discourse and tune students’ minds to complexity. Argument, then, becomes an inquiry into what is real, a search for Truth,  not just an attempt to win.

(adapted for the book After THE END: Teaching and Learning creative Revision, Heinemann 2016)

More Than a Number: A Test Week Reality Check



I wrote this song for you and your students and parents during test week. It reminds those students  who haven’t opted out of the test that they are much more than a number.     I will sing it to your class via skype this week if you message me on twitter or Facebook or Skype.  My Skype is barrylane55.  

You can buy the album for any price this week at


Life’s Not Fair, Don’t Get Used to It

(Excerpt from the new preface to After THE END )

A while back, there was a list referred to as “Rules Kids Won’t Learn in School,” which was attributed to Bill Gates and went viral on the Internet. The list contained homespun edicts, like Rule 5: “Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping. They called it opportunity.” Or Rule 6: “If you think your teacher’s tough, wait ’til you get a boss.”

The whole point of this list of rules was to show that kids today are somehow spoiled and that their generation has a false feeling of entitlement that will be cor- rected when they face the “real world.” I did some research and found that the list was not written by Bill Gates but by a journalist named Charles Sykes and was taken from his book called Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves but Can’t Read, Write, or Add. The subtitle of Sykes’ 1995 diatribe could be seen as the moniker of the current education reform movement, which began in earnest with the No Child Left Behind law several years later. Sykes uses the same international test score data cited by Congress to pass the No Child Left Behind law to say that our children have fallen behind the world and that our schools are more concerned with self-esteem than with learning.

Since then, these same data were used to pass Race to the Top and mandate more standardized tests than at any time in the history of civilization. Many of our schools are now test-prep academies whose survival depends on test scores. (You can read educational historian Diane Ravitch’s book Reign of Error [2013] if you want to under- stand how test scores mislead and serve the testing industry more than children.)


  George didn’t get used to it.

 But my concern here, is Sykes’ very first rule on his list for college graduates, the rule that, ironically, went viral under education-reform funder Bill Gates’ name, the rule that seems to sum up the last fifteen years of school reform and its view of children and schools.

Rule 1: “Life’s not fair. Get used to it.”

I sometimes project this statement to teachers on a blank screen and ask them to reflect in writing what it means to them. Most take the view of Sykes and say that children must be hardened off and learn to face life with grit, resilience, and determi- nation—favorite terms used today in inner-city charter schools, where severe poverty shapes the culture. Everything in life won’t always turn out your way, so you have to be prepared for that. I wait a minute and then ask, “Is that all that this quote is saying?”

Then, slowly, using the miracle of technology, I insert photos of Rosa Parks, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Helen Keller, César Chavez, Gloria Steinem, Billie Jean King.

“Aren’t you glad these folks didn’t get used to the unfairness of life?” I ask.

Suddenly, the quote is not about having grit and resilience; instead, the quote is about being told to put up and shut up. The teachers experience a full-scale sea change of what that quote actually means.

These kind of aha moments are what excite me as a teacher, as a writer, and as a thinker and why I wrote After THE END: Teaching and Learning Creative Revision,  back in 1993. I wanted students to see that, given the right tools, writers can grasp new possibilities and not accept writing or even life at face value. Revision is more than a writing tool. Revision is a way of seeing new realities, both in a piece of writing and also in the world. To that end, let’s give that a whirl, right now.

Rule 5: “Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping. They called it opportunity.”

Revised Response:
You are right. The dead-end, minimum wage job that you mention could be an opportunity, if we could unionize the workforce and raise the minimum wage to $18 per hour. Shareholders might make less money, but the employees would at least have a living wage, and perhaps we could narrow the widening income gap and lower the employee turnover rate. How can we be a healthy society and tolerate the working poor? What’s more, poor and middle-class people tend to spend their money and support the service economy while tax breaks for the rich send our money to off- shore tax-free accounts in the Cayman Islands.

Rule 4: “If you think your teacher’s tough, wait ’til you get a boss.”

Revised Response:
Toughness is not the only quality a good boss or a good teacher possesses. What about empathy, team spirit, and a willingness to fail boldly? The boss you describe would not be a very effective leader in a company today. If you don’t believe me, read Daniel Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2011), to find examples of bosses who are more than just tough guys. Furthermore, toughness does not motivate workers in the same way that rigor does not motivate students. There needs to be passion and engagement. Why work hard for someone just because he or she tells you to? That is the kind of leadership exemplified by Egyptian Pharaohs. What a limited and obsolete way of seeing both education and business.

These responses reflect the real revision qualities and the new paradigm thinking needed for young people growing up in a world with many problems that were created by status quo thinking embodied in Sykes’ rules. The United States Senate has recently voted that global warming is not caused by humans, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. Our children live in a world where politicians are voting against scientific evidence that will affect future generations simply because it might affect business as usual. Never has there been a more important time for teaching students to talk truth to power.

Life is not fair. Teach them never to get used to it.

The Sad Art of Closed Reading

by Barry Lane

Closed reading, not to be confused with close reading, is the essence of most reading tests and a big reason literacy curriculum is boring to students and teachers. To assess reading comprehension, well-meaning (and even more well-funded) reading experts devise various schemes for measuring a student’s ability to think exactly like themselves. These experts think they are measuring comprehension, but they are re- ally measuring a sort of tactical compliance. I learned this from my friend Kenny.

Young Kenny

        Kenny at 10 years old                                                     

Today Kenny is a lawyer, but in sixth grade Kenny took a reading test and found himself getting angry at the way some test questions were worded. He especially hated the question “What’s the best title for this story?” He decided to write a letter of inquiry to the testing company. He told them in his letter that questions like those are opinion questions and are no different from asking, “What’s the best soft drink, Coke or Pepsi?” Students have the right to pick any of the four multiple-choice answers because they are being asked their opinion. Kenny went on to say, “I am not stupid. I know the answer that you want me to choose. I just want to know why your opinion needs to be my truth. If you were honest, you would pose the question this way: What do you think we think the best title for this story is?”

The testing company replied with a six-page letter complete with graphs, charts, and data refuting Kenny’s point. Kenny was surprised and little puzzled at how seri- ously they took a challenge from a ten-year-old. It appears the testing world has a lot invested in proving there is one way to comprehend a text. And that was decades ago, when high-stakes tests were not mandated and most schools used achievement tests as a low-stakes assessment to evaluate schools and students in a general way. Kenny is now a deputy attorney general in the state of New Jersey, and his job is to protect the rights of abused children. I believe he started training for this job in sixth grade.

Closed reading is a type of subtle bullying, which only the most precocious children, like Kenny, seem to understand. To most children, it is simply following the rules and doing what you are told to find the correct answer. The work of Louise Rosenblatt and others has proven that reading is interactive, that twenty students will draw twenty different subtle meanings from the same text. Though there may be a central idea to glean from a piece of writing, how each reader does this is unique and complex—and not the simple act of extraction that test-prep culture promotes. Students must connect personally with what they are reading. That connection does not come after they have read, but rather it is ongoing. It begins the moment a student reads the first sentence.

When children are drilled from an early age into thinking all reading is just about searching for the author’s main ideas inside the four corners of the text, they stop trusting their own instincts—their curiosity shuts down. They become “closed readers” who shrug their shoulders when asked for their opinion or ask shyly, “Do you want me to look in the book?”

The Cure
The only cure for closed reading is to create choice-based reading programs in our schools, where students can find their passion as readers. Professional books like Donalynn Miller’s The Book Whisperer (2009), Penny Kittle’s Book Love (2012), Jennifer Serravallo’s The Reading Strategies Book (2015), or Nancie Atwell’s classic In the Middle (2014) are great places to start. Turning kids into avid readers awakens their instincts and tunes them into the multifaceted meaning. These readers will excel on the monolithic test without being swallowed whole by its limited worldview. In the words of Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris from their book Reading Wellness: Lessons in Independence and Proficiency (2014), children can “lean in to the text on the page” and lean out to find their own perceptions Reading is unique and complex—and not the simple act of extraction that test-prep culture promotes.

Real reading assessment cannot be standardized because it involves close observation from a knowledgeable and caring teacher who knows what reading is. Read Thomas Newkirk’s classic, The Art of Slow Reading to find the antidote to the Sad Art of Closed Reading.

(from After THE END   Second Edition)