Tuesday, December 16, 2014

6 Lessons from Pearson's Assessment Renaissance

I have plowed through Pearson's massive "Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment" because these are the people that the reformsters listen to. The paper itself is an 88-page monster; if you would like me to walk you through it, you can start with this post.

But for this post, let me just try to distill some of the big takeaways from Peter Hill and Michael Barber's essay. Here are some important things to know about what Pearson's brave new future education world would look like.

Welcome to the matrix: students will be plugged in

Pearson does not aspire to simply administer a high stakes test or two a couple of times a year. Think of every sort of assessment you do, from unit tests to small check quizzes to daily exercises for understanding. Pearson wants all of that. All. Of. That. Every single bit of assessment will generate data which will go straight into the Big Data Bank so that a complete picture of the individual student can be created and stored. I once noted that the Common Core standards make more sense if viewed as data tags. I wrote that last March, but it still looks correct to me.

The point of having everything done via internet-linked device is not just to deliver instruction and assessment to the student-- it's to be able to collect every bit of data that the student generates.

Through the use of rubrics, which will define performance in terms of a hierarchically ordered set of levels representing increasing quality of responses to specific tasks, and a common set of curriculum identifiers, it will be possible to not only provide immediate feedback to guide learning and teaching but also to build a digital record of achievement that can be interrogated for patterns and used to  generate individualised and pictorial achievement maps or profiles

And Pearson is completely comfortable with assessment and instruction centered on character traits, developing grit and tenacity and prudence and the ability to work well with others. So their system will hoover all that info up as well. By the time your child is eighteen, there will be a complete profile, covering every aspect of her intellectual and personal development. I wonder if Pearson would be able to make any money selling that database to potential employers or to government agencies. Hmmm...

Teachers will not be teachers

Pearson doesn't much like the teaching profession as it currently stands. They believe that teaching must be transformed from a "largely under-qualified and trained, heavily unionized, bureaucratically controlled semi-profession into a true profession with a distinctive knowledge base, framework for teaching, well-defined common terms for describing and analyzing teaching at a level of specificity and strict control."

"Learning systems of the future will free up teacher time currently spent on preparation, marking and record-keeping and allow a greater focus on the professional roles of diagnosis, personalized instruction, scaffolding deep learning, motivation, guidance and care." The system will do all the planning and implementing, and the system will put all the necessary technology at hand. "But without such a systematic, data-driven approach to instruction, teaching remains an imprecise and somewhat idiosyncratic process that is too dependent on the personal intuition and competence of individual teachers."

All educational decisions will be made by the software and the system. Teachers will just be needed as a sort of stewardess. We will teacher-proof the classroom, so that any nasty individuality cannot mess up the system.

Personalized learning won't be

Pearson's concept of personalized learning is really about personalized pacing. The framework for learning starts with "validated maps of the sequence in which students typically learn a given curriculum outcome." So-- like railroad tracks. Personalized does not mean wandering all over a variety of possible learning paths. It means adjusting to move slower or faster while pausing for review when there's a need to fill in holes.

Pearson does not offer an answer to the age-old question, "How do all students move at their own paces but still cross the finish line in time?"  They do suggest that we give up the old age-grade progression, and they believe that high expectations fix everything, but they do not directly explain if that's enough to keep some students from being stuck in school until they're twenty-nine years old.

Character may be important, but humanity, not so much

One of the odd disconnects in Pearson's vision is that they value (enough to plan measuring) social skills and character, but they do not pause to consider how their system might affect or be affected by the development of these qualities.

What does it do to the development of a child to be in groups that change regularly because of differing educational pace. What will happen when an eight year old must leave her best friend behind because she is being moved up? What will happen to the very bright twelve-year-old grouped with a bunch of fairly slow seventeen-year-olds?

Pearson lists a wide variety of possible obstacles to this system's emergence, but they assume that students will simply fall in line and take the system seriously, feeling some sort of accountability to the device screen that delivers their instruction and assessment. Teachers no longer automatically receive the trust and respect of our students--we have to earn it. Pearson assumes that because they think they're important, students will, too. That's a bad assumption.

Software will be magical

Pearson knows that trying to test any higher levels of cognition with bubble test questions is doomed to failure. Their solution is magical software. Software can ask questions that will delve deep, and software can read and assess the answers to open-ended essay questions. Software can suss out a student's intelligence so well that it can then create more test items that will be perfect for that student. Software can unerringly crunch all the data to create a perfect profile of the student. Software can do all of these things better than live human beings (even though software is written by live human beings).

And if you believe all that, I would like to sell you some software that controls the Brooklyn Bridge.

Important people are listening to these guys

You cannot read a page of this essay without encountering familiar references. New tests that move beyond the old bubble tests. High expectations can bring all students up to excellence. Enhanced data collection will lead to better learning. The job of teaching needs to be changed. We've heard it all from various bureaucrats, reformster leaders, and US Secretaries of Education.

Important people pay attention to Pearson, even though most of their ideas are rather dumb and self-serving. We all need to be paying attention to Pearson as well, because back behind the Gatesian money and the policies of Arne Duncan we find these guys, generating and articulating the ideas that become foundational to the reformsters.

It would be easy to dismiss Pearson as simple money-grubbing corporatists, to lump them together with the goofy amateurism of a Duncan or a Coleman. But they are rich, they are polished, they are powerful, and they are, I believe, driven. I have never read work by Michael Barber in which he does not note that changing the global face of education is a moral imperative, a job that he must do because he knows what must be done to improve mankind. For me, that takes this all to a new level of scary.


  1. Excellent, thank you. Just re-shared on the Testing, Testing, 1,2,3... collection: http://bit.ly/testing_testing. For the Pearson-related subset, check out: http://www.scoop.it/t/testing-testing/?q=pearson

  2. We are the Borg. Resistance is futile.

  3. I have not yet broached the monster in its den (though I did download it!) Thanks for your trenchant and bracing preview. You are the best.

  4. Michael Barber claims to work on "Deliverology".

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  6. Pearson and Michael Barber's ambitions for standardizing and corporatizing education are world-wide. As the US market stagnates and increasing pushback announces perhaps some difficult timess ahead, Pearson/Barber have their sights on all the development assistance money that will go into reaching the UN's sustainable development goals (2015 to 2030), including education. Check out Brookings Learning Metrics Task Force, co-chaired by Michael Barber that thinks it important to "establish a baseline for measuring learning or measur(ing) progress over time on a global scale" and that has set forth the template for doing just that. Check out the fact that with Pearson as a partner, Pisa 2015 "... test will feature significant new elements: A new Collaborative Problem Solving assessment will be added, in recognition of the ways young people will have to learn and work throughout their lives. Pearson will develop this new domain for PISA. (and) Greater use of computer-based testing". And of course, if the rest of the world gets with the program, possibilities are limitless, including of course positive loop back to the US system.

  7. "All educational decisions will be made by the software and the system. Teachers will just be needed as a sort of stewardess. We will teacher-proof the classroom, so that any nasty individuality cannot mess up the system."

    I've been saying this for 3 years.
    The teachers I told this to laughed at me at the time...

  8. It's like this quote on "personal learning" as compared to Pearson's version of "personalized" learning --

    "Personal learning entails working with each child to create projects of intellectual discovery that reflect his or her unique needs and interests. It requires the presence of a caring teacher who knows each child well.

    Personalized learning entails adjusting the difficulty level of prefabricated skills-based exercises based on students’ test scores. It requires the purchase of software from one of those companies that can afford full-page ads in Education Week."

    Follow this link to read the rest of it -- http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/02/24/four-reasons-to-seriously-worry-about-personalized-learning/

  9. Good God, what a nightmare. How glad am I to be teaching outside of any formalized institution now? Incredibly glad! I lucked out when I had to leave for health reasons. Now I can teach in the moment with each struggling reader, and we both enjoy it. Freedom!