Why Are Common Core Critics Against Personalized Learning?

Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat asks whether opponents of Common Core will “bring down” personalized learning. I certainly hope so.

He writes:

Major funders and the federal education department are promoting the idea.

Teachers are wary. Parents are perplexed.

Criticism is coming from both the political left and right.

It’s not the Common Core, though a few years ago, it would have been. Now, we’re talking about technology-based personalized learning, the latest, hottest, and best-funded idea to dominate the conversation about American schools.

The backlash to the Common Core standards, and their associated tests, was enough to get them revised or replaced in some states. Today, some teachers, political conservatives, and parents are beginning to mobilize against personalized learning, too. And in some cases, the very same people are taking up the fight.

I’m glad he points out that personalized learning has critics on the right and the left and that teachers and parents are skeptical. Unfortunately, he provides a superficial overview of the opposition. This is not a right vs. left issue. Also many on the right and the left oppose personalized learning for the same reasons.

There are several reasons why Common Core opponents are taking up the fight against personalized learning. Here are seven primary reasons (not exhaustive) why I oppose personalized learning.

  1. It’s another dataless, top-down reform, a fad of which there is no evidence showing it will increase student achievement.
  2. Personalized learning is the natural progression of standards-based learning many schools implemented under Common Core which was also a top-down reform.
  3. It reduces the teacher’s role in the classroom to a facilitator.
  4. It gives tech companies far, far too much influence on education.
  5. The data privacy threats under personalized learning are immense. What data is collected? How is that data used? How is it being protected?
  6. The increase in screen time is simply unhealthy for kids, and unlike personalized learning, there is a wealth of evidence that demonstrates that.
  7. Personalized learning contradicts the “science of learning.”

Read the whole article and the comments.

Students Rebel Against Summit Education Program, Personalized Learning

John Jay Educational Campus in Brooklyn, New York City that houses the Secondary School of Journalism where the walkout was held.
Photo Credit: Beyond My Ken via Wikimedia Commons (CC-By-SA 4.0)

High school students in Brooklyn walked out in protest of the Summit Education Program, a personalized learning program, funded in part by Mark Zuckerberg. 

Read this excerpt from the New York Magazine piece on the walkouts:

Summit was designed roughly six years ago by a network of West Coast Charter schools, and developed later with software help from Facebook engineers. It’s now funded by Zuckerberg and several other billionaires and foundations. The idea is to help kids take charge of their own education, in part by working independently on the software instead of listening to teachers lecture. Some families love it, and the leadership says the dissenters make up a small minority, magnified by their presence on social media. It’s impossible to get an objective overall picture, because there are no empirical studies on satisfaction rates, and the data on outcomes is limited.

At SSJ in Park Slope, some of the students’ complaints echo those that have arisen in Cheshire and elsewhere. “I didn’t like that it was a more self-taught kind of thing,” said Akila Robinson, a senior who helped organize the protest last week. “A lot of kids are more comfortable learning the more traditional way.” Other students have said it leaves them feeling stranded and requires an uncomfortable amount of screen time.

One teacher, who asked to have her name withheld, said most kids using Summit clearly haven’t been able to concentrate. “I’m walking around thinking, This is absolutely insane. They’re not learning,” she said. “I tell the kids to come off that Walkman, tell them to come off the phone, tell them to come off the website they’re on and go back to their modules.”

It is insane. Kids are not learning under personalized learning. This trend is leading K-12 education in a troubling direction

Of course, the excuse in New York is that it was hastily implemented. That seems to be the standard excuse for any ill-advised education reform that goes badly. 

It can’t possibly be that it was a stupid idea to begin with.

Read the rest.

Ed Reformers Turn Against Testing, But For the Wrong Reason

Photo Credit: J. Sanna (CC-By-2.0)

Chalkbeat reports that education reformers turned against standardized testing, but not for the reason you and I are against standardized testing. 

They say standardized testing goes against personalized learning.

I say both are dateless examples of education reform that have turned K-12 education on its head with nothing to show for it.

Matt Barnum for Chalkbeat writes:

Those comments reflected the prevailing mood at the event, where testing was criticized for being at odds with the increasingly popular “personalized learning” models that allow students to progress through material at their own pace. Others, including Ferebee, complained that in their states, testing regimens have changed too frequently to be useful.

Such rumblings of discontent with testing are not entirely new among the education reform crowd. Free-market-oriented advocates like Betsy DeVos, for example, have downplayed test scores, suggesting the more important issue is whether parents are satisfied with a given school.

But the pervasiveness of the complaints about testing was striking, given that many education reform advocates have long championed using test scores to measure schools and teachers and then push them to improve.

It would be great to see they are wisening up to the foolishness of the testing and accountability method of education reform, but, unfortunately, they are jumping to another top-down education reform which is just as foolish since it’s the shiny new thing in the education reform universe.

A Robot at the Head of the Class?

Ulrick Juul Christensen, CEO of Area9 Lyceum, an ed tech company that specializes in personalized learning, wrote an op-ed at The Hill that pushes ed tech and personalized learning.

Shocker. The Hill should have been paid for what is essentially an advertorial. 

He says teachers should embrace the change that is coming, even if it means a robot at the head of the classroom:

At the center of this discussion is the most valuable asset in the classroom: teachers. At the same time, educators should not fear a technology intrusion, with visions of robots instead of humans at the head of the class.

Advanced tools such as adaptive learning platforms are highly effective for providing individualized instruction to students, while freeing up teachers to do what they do best to encourage more collaboration and creativity in the classroom.

Why in the world wouldn’t teachers fear a takeover of their primary role?

Then he promotes the “flipped classroom,” an educational fad with no data backing it up, that is common among those who have bought in (sold out?) to personalized learning.

So how can learners at all levels enhance their knowledge and master the Four Cs? One compelling but surprisingly effective way is the flipped classroom, which literally reverses the typical instructional approach.

Students access online learning and interactive lessons at home, which allows them to come to class prepared to put that newly acquired knowledge into practice. The technology delivers the instruction, but the teacher determines the content and sequencing and develops classroom lesson plans.

And here’s the push behind this nonsense.

As the focus on worker readiness and training for the AI-enabled workplace intensifies, there is a greater mandate to view K-12 education through the same lens. Teachers will be a huge part of the solution, with technology tools to make them even better at teaching students with a personalized approach.

It’s all about getting kids ready for the workforce, in this case, the AI-enabled workplace.

There may not be a robot at the head of the class, but under this model of education teachers will no longer teach. The technology, not the teacher, will drive instruction.

A Peek at a “Mastery-Based Classroom”

As part of their “Future of Learning” newsletter, The Hechinger Report‘s Tara Garcia Mathewson gives us a peek inside a “mastery-based classroom” of fourth-graders learning math at Piney Grove Elementary School in Charlotte, NC.

“Mastery-Based” is just another phrase for “standards-based learning” and both rely upon “personalized learning.”  This trend is all about students working at their own pace with teachers providing support. A student does not move on until they have “mastered” the content which is determined, in this case, through a quarterly assessment.

Mathewson writes:

Every 12 weeks during the school year, students here take assessments to gauge their progress toward mastering all of the standards in the fourth-grade curriculum. While all students take these tests, Nealeigh’s pay more attention to the results than average. For her fourth graders, the test results offer a picture of their strengths and weaknesses, revealing specific skills they need to sharpen.

(Molly) Nealeigh (their teacher) helps them glean this understanding. She makes a chart, listing each test question under the standard it relates to (like “use place value understanding to round multi-digit whole numbers to any place”). Students calculate a percentage for each standard based on how many related questions they got right or wrong. When students get 80 to 100 percent of questions related to a given standard correct, Nealeigh considers that mastery, and the students don’t have to do any review. Less than that and students either have to work on the skills by themselves or, if they got fewer than 60 percent of the questions correct, with a teacher.

“The mindset is ‘Give students their own data and let them choose what to work on themselves,’” Nealeigh said.

We’ve written about (or pointed out articles about) where this trend is headed. The future looks disturbing. Teachers become facilitators of learning instead of teaching.  Much of personalized learning is not actually personal

Jane Robbins, when writing about what is wrong with the personalized learning approach, hit the nail on the head:

In her valuable book Seven Myths About Education, Daisy Christodoulou makes the same point about the necessity of committing knowledge to long-term memory. Everything the progressive educators say they want – including education as “problem-solving” – depends on deeply embedded knowledge: “When we try to solve any problem,” Christodoulou writes, “we draw on all the knowledge that we have committed to long-term memory. The more knowledge we have, the more types of problems we are able to solve.” And the stubborn fact is that (personalized learning) makes it much harder for students to increase their long-term knowledge.


In short, cognitive science confirms what all veteran teachers know: True learning requires structure, repetition, and work, not just ability to mimic something that pops up once on a screen before moving on to the next.

Just because students scored 80-100 percent on one assessment does not mean they don’t need review. As far as letting students choose what they want to work on, gee, what could possibly go wrong there? 

Where Personalized Learning and Competency-Based Learning Are Headed

Northern Cass 97 School District

If you want to know where personalized learning and competency-based learning is headed just look at Northern Cass 97 School District in North Dakota where the future is now. The elimination of grades, self-guided education, and teachers no longer teach but advise and facilitate.

Chris Berdik writing for The Hechinger Report calls this a “bold experiment.” He’s half-right.

It is an experiment as all of the latest education fads are. It isn’t particularly bold when this is where personalized learning and competency-based education does by design, and this is what the education reform group think cheerleads.

Berdik writes:

One recent spring afternoon, about a dozen Northern Cass students working on laptops made themselves comfortable in a large classroom with mobile furniture, beanbag pillows and a plush blue couch.

The kids were rounding out eighth or ninth grade, but that had little to do with their choices of self-paced lessons in several subjects. Some had finished all the material pegged to their grade level months ago and had moved on, while others were taking more time.

Two teachers, known as “academic advisors,” were on call to field questions and ensure everybody stayed on task (the teachers also lead weekly seminars or labs to bolster the computer work).

Read the rest.

Is American Government Rejecting Capitalism & Embracing a Managed Economy?

While skilled workers are needed to build new infrastructure and for our expanding economy after the tax cuts, the reauthorization of the Carl Perkins Career and Technical Education (CTE) Act of 2006 tries to accomplish those goals via the wrong method – replacing capitalism with central planning. The new bill, called The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, HR 2353, just passed Congress on voice votes and signed yesterday.

The increasingly centralized federal education and workforce system, of which Perkins is a part, is multifaceted: the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), the proposed merger of the Departments of Labor and Education, Common Core for use with digital badges,  computerized  “personalized” learning (PL)/competency-based education (CBE), and older laws like No Child Left Behind, Goals 2000, and School to Work. 

This longstanding, unconstitutional federal interference in education and labor markets, picking winners and losers, has not improved and will not improve academic or economic outcomes. Even worse, Perkins is the latest example of racing away from capitalism to embrace principles of government/corporate control found in European social democracies and failed command-and-control economies littering the 20th century.

The Perkins reauthorization contains multiple passages embracing central economic planning. The bill requires the use of “State, regional, or local labor market data to determine alignment of eligible recipients’ programs of study to the needs of the State, regional, or local economy, including in-demand industry sectors and occupations identified by the State board, and to align career and technical education with such needs… What happened to individual students and free markets making those decisions? 

The “State board” refers to government-appointed bureaucrats, including corporate bigwigs, on state workforce boards set up under the Workforce Investment Act (predecessor to WIOA) signed by President Clinton. This scheme elevates the needs of business over student desires, while playing Carnac to predict economic trends. 

These boards were essential to Marc Tucker’s plan to centralize the entire U.S. education and workforce system, outlined in his now infamous 1992 letter to the Clintons. It was and remains Tucker’s plan to “to remold the entire American system” into “a seamless web that literally extends from cradle to grave and is the same system for everyone,” coordinated by “a system of labor market boards at the local, state and federal levels” where curriculum, including “national standards” and “job matching,” will be handled by counselors “accessing the integrated computer-based program.”

In 2001, former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and policy analyst Michael Chapman described key components of Tucker’s system implemented via three federal laws signed by Clinton, including:

  • Public/private [unaccountable] non-profits provide design, policy, and seed money as a catalyst for systemic change.
  • The Federal Department of Labor chooses which private industry sectors are promoted in each state. 
  • K-12 and state colleges dump academics for job training in local “targeted” industries. 

They used the following diagram to illustrate the system, which served as the foundation leading to the various other programs listed above. These others could then be added on appropriate sides of this triangle:

Billionaire busybodies like Bill Gates adopted the Tucker/Clinton vision, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on programs like Smaller Learning Communities that required students to choose career paths in eighth grade, Common Core, and other education/workforce/data mining debacles. 

In Tucker’s recent letter to Secretary of Education DeVos praising Europe’s managed education-workforce systems, he continues the theme of government/business control of CTE, believing “business and labor” should “own it, period.” He giddily describes the Swiss system, in which business and labor “set the standards” for various system components, “define the progressions,” and “even examine the candidates seeking credentials.” 

This idea of corporations examining candidates underlies Tucker’s 1992 desire for national standards that became Common Core. The Common Core standards are used as data tags to hold everyone accountable to the government system, including expansion of social-emotional learning.  This concept also inspired Big Data’s push for constant assessment, data mining, and psychological profiling in PL/CBE, including use of Facebook-style student personality profiling being pushed globally. 

Perkins contains numerous references to CBE, data collection, and the manipulative Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (a system of universal student behavioral screening and potential psychological modification). All this can ultimately feed into subjective, murky algorithms that will channel children into government/corporate-desired societal roles. 

Yet – as history shows — government is utterly incapable of predicting economic trends and workforce needs. Five-year plans have failed spectacularly. Even Tucker, when recently discussing CTE, admitted his scheme’s great danger is to “condemn a large fraction of our youth to narrowly conceived training programs at the very time that advances in artificial intelligence and related disciplines are on the verge of wiping out entire industries…” 

Although Tucker and colleagues tout European education-workforce systems, none have produced or will produce American levels of freedom and prosperity. Will America choose the Tucker/Gates/Clinton failed methods that view “human value only in terms of productive capability” or our children as “products” (per Rex Tillerson)? Or will we return to promoting, as framed by C.S. Lewis, education over training so that American civilization continues to produce the freedom, prosperity and generosity that have made it the greatest civilization in human history?

DeVos Speaks to Conservative High School Students

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke at the Turning Point USA High School Leadership Summit on Thursday in Washington, DC.

I wanted to highlight a couple of excerpts of her speech.

She first addressed educational freedom:

Way too many in the education world believe they need more involvement, more intrusion, more mandates, more money, more government.

But what do we believe? We believe in more freedom!

We are committed to expanding education freedom for all families across America. You’ve probably heard me described as “pro-school choice.” Well, I am, but choice in education is not defined by picking this building or that school, using this voucher or that scholarship. And it’s not public versus private. Parochial versus charter. Homeschool versus virtual.

It shouldn’t be “versus” anything, because choice in education is bigger than that.

Choice is really about freedom! Freedom to learn, and to learn differently. Freedom to explore. Freedom to fail, to learn from falling and to get back up and try again. It’s freedom to find the best way for you to learn and grow…to find the engaging combination that unleashes your curiosity and unlocks your individual potential.

You and your families already exercise freedom when you make choices about next steps for education after high school. I suspect many of you are going through this process right now.

You compare options, and make an informed decision.

If you choose to go to Georgetown, are you somehow against the Wolverines or the Fighting Irish? Well, you’re not — except when they’re on the basketball court.

If you decide to go to George Washington University, are you somehow against public universities? Of course not!

No one criticizes those choices. No one thinks choice in higher education is wrong. So why is it wrong in elementary school, middle school, or high school?

Truth is: there is nothing wrong with that! There is nothing wrong with wanting to pursue the education that’s right for you!

First, how about educational choice within public schools? She talks a lot about freedom from mandates and flexibility, but we are still waiting to see something, anything tangible headed in that direction from the Trump administration.

States still have to play “Mother, May I?” Utah had a request for flexibility denied. Schools still face top-down mandates. Parents still face difficulty in many school districts and states when attempting to opt their students out of assessments.

When are going to see real freedom from centralized control?

Secondly, federal programs can never truly expand freedom; they can only ultimately restrict it. Have we ever seen federal money come without strings attached? No. I favor school choice, but it should not come from the federal level. DeVos highlights choices that students have in college, but she neglects to mention all of the federal regulations colleges face from allowing federal student aid.

No thanks.

She then gives a nod to workforce development and personalized learning, she said:

It’s time to reorient our approach to education. We need a paradigm shift. A rethink.

“Rethink” means we question everything to ensure nothing limits you from pursuing your passion, and achieving your potential.

You – and all students – deserve learning environments that are agile, relevant, exciting. You should be able to pursue customized, self-paced, and challenging life-long learning journeys.

I recently visited a SkillsUSA conference where students competed with each other in a wide range of activities they had learned about: developing computer games, building homes, welding, baking, graphic design – to name just a few. They were all clearly excited about what they were doing!

And last week, I met a 70-year-old man who was in his fourth career. His first was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He went on to work in the defense contracting industry, followed by another career in banking. He found retirement to be quite boring, so he learned the necessary skills to drive big rigs across the country. And he said his fourth career is his best one yet!

So be open to possibilities that aren’t pre-planned. I suspect some – or maybe many — of you feel like your life thus far has been ordered for you. Class to class, grade to grade, graduation to graduation. But you will find that nothing – not your families, your careers, your faith journeys — is as predictable as it seems.

So what you learn is about much more than just acquiring “skills” or diplomas. You are your most important resource. Your education is about you. It’s about your aspirations and abilities. Your passions and pursuits. Your ingenuity and what you do with it is what gives life to your education.

We’ve had too much “rethink(ing)” in education circles, we need to go back to basics. Schools need to address classical education. It’s not just about a student’s interest. It’s not about skills. Kids need content, and the pendulum is swinging wildly away from that.

Personalized Learning Is Not Personal

Photo credit: Brad Flickinger (CC-By-2.0)

Paul Emerich France wrote an op/ed for EdSurge about personalized learning that I thought had some good points. It’s entitled “Why Are We Still Personalizing Learning If It’s Not Personal?

Here’s the good stuff:

Because “personalization” emphasizes focusing on the needs of each individual, we sometimes assume that to mean that a child’s education should then be individualized. It is this assumption that has given us the many web-based, adaptive technologies that individualize curriculum on our kids’ behalf. That can result in teachers putting tablets in front of kids, letting the technology do the work, and meanwhile calling it “personalized learning” when it’s anything but that.

What we fail to realize is that individualization actually has diminishing returns. As individualization increases, so does the potential for isolation. In classrooms where the primary mode of personalization is hyper-individualized, technology-driven curriculum, we find our children siphoned off into silos, taking away valuable points of convergence.

Here the wheels fall off:

When we take away points of convergence, we take away opportunities for our children to learn from, through, and with each other. We rob them of opportunities for social-emotional learning through serendipitous and spontaneous interactions. We limit the amount of time children can learn through meaningful dialogue and discourse. In essence, we take away the very things that make the human condition of learning utterly personal in the first place.

Gosh, what do you do when two to three education trends are at conflict with one another?

He uses a litmus test for education tech so that he can find his happy balance between personalized learning and social-emotional learning, here are questions he asks:

  1. Does the technology help to minimize complexity?
  2. Does the technology help to maximize the individual power and potential of all learners in the room?
  3. Will the technology help us to do something previously unimaginable?
  4. Will the technology preserve or enhance human connection in the classroom?

I appreciate that he recognizes the flaws with personalized learning and its use of education tech, but it just seems to me that he’s caught between two competing education trends.

Read the whole piece.

Five Problems With Shifting to Competency Based Education

Photo credit: Bartmoni (CC-By-SA 3.0)

Former executive director for the Gates Foundation, Tom Vander Ark, wrote a piece for Forbes that plugged both competency-based education (CBE) and personalized learning.

Here’s an excerpt:

There are two big ideas behind the shift to competence in formal education. First, students should show what they know. It’s not about turning work in, earning points, or showing up to class, they should demonstrate in several ways that they have mastered important knowledge, skills, and abilities. Assessments in a competency-based system inform student learning as well as teacher judgments about concept mastery.

Second, students should progress when ready–after they’ve demonstrated mastery of important concepts that build a platform for future learning. For the system to promote equitable outcomes, it’s important that students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs. The “move on when ready” commitment prevents passing learners along with a weak foundation which could prevent them from achieving higher level knowledge and skills.

Vander Ark noted that “it’s important that competencies not be a checklist of low-level skills.”

That’s all well and good, but the problems with this approach go beyond that. Here are five problems that came to mind as I read through his piece.

First, Vander Ark suggests that CBE is this brand-shiny new thing that has never been tried. That simply is not the case. CBE is just a repackaging of Outcome-Based Education (OBE), an education fad that was tried and found wanting by parents in the 90s.  No thanks.

Second, boiling education down to a list of competencies will diminish how much students actually know, not increase it. CBE is the enemy of a well-rounded education. What will get missed? Anything that is not assessed will be fair game for exclusion. Who decides what is essential in this system? Not the teacher. I shudder to think how this approach will hurt a student’s ability to grasp classic literature or their understanding of civics.

Third, is competency the sole goal for students? I suppose if you want to boil education down to learning skills instead of acquiring knowledge it would be, but for most parents “competency” is likely not at the top of their list.

Fourth, Vander Ark asserts that assessments are the only true measure of whether a student is competent. I would argue that is not the case.

Fifth, personalized learning the way Vander Ark promotes it can only be accomplished by sitting kids in front of computers for their instruction. Teachers will no longer teach, they will be facilitators instead. There are all sorts of problems with putting kids in front of a screen all day from limited social interaction to a diminished attention span.

No thanks.

I understand there are better ways to approach classroom instruction, but let’s consider ways that will benefit students not education tech companies.