Wednesday, June 21, 2017

How To Sell Personalized Learning

Competency based education, one of the major flavors of personalized learning, has a great number of problems. It's beloved by our Silicon Valley tech overlords, but it has a lousy history (if you a4e of a certain age, you may recall Outcome Based Education, CBE's older failed sibling).

CBE reduces education to a series of simple standardized tasks, the complexity and depth of rigorous intellectual study reduced to a checklist of items to be tagged "done." Tech overlords love it because the whole business can be reduced to software running on computers (with little or no dependency on actual meat-based teachers). Actual live students, however, aren't that impressed. Turns out sitting in a cubicle and running through exercises on a screen is not all that compelling. And that's before we get to the Big Brothery issues of a system that records and attempts to analyze every last student key stroke. If you want to dig at greater length, you can read at Emily Talmage's Save Maine Schools.

Talmage has spent time on CBE because CBE has been spending time on Maine. Proponents, investors and other folks hoping to make it big with CBE have been using Maine as a testing ground to work out the bugs.

And one of the bugs remains how to get people to actually want CBE/PL.

Here's one version of the marketing pitch, courtesy of Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee and Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, also on the Education Committee. It ran in the Bangor Daily News today [correction- I misread the BDN masthead-- this piece actually ran in February of 2016], but it's a pitch we can expect to hear many times. As often is the reform case, it involves connecting things that have nothing to do with each other.

We start with a statement of the challenge:

Maine’s future depends on educating students who can think for themselves, write and speak clearly, and work together to solve complex problems...We can no longer treat students like widgets moving through an assembly line as though they simply are amalgams of common academic content. Today’s students demand and deserve more customization.

What's the solution?

...we need better mapping of student achievement and clearly understood benchmarks — not just for schools but also for students, parents and our communities.

The Ed Committee plans to propose "broader credentials" and a "more meaningful transcript." As a side benefit, this system will also provide a more detailed accounting of what the school has taught, so accountability. And the new records will accommodate micro-credentials while allowing for students to meet academic requirements outside of school.

Under this model, student transcripts will show employers and college admission offices the subjects students have mastered. Schools will be required to give all students the opportunity via different pathways to become proficient in all subject areas described in state standards, not just the ones required for graduation.

Additionally, "schools also will certify each student’s college and career readiness by objective measures." Those objective measures will apparently be delivered by a squad of yeti riding on winged unicorns, because no such objective measures exist.

But Langley and Hubbell, or whoever wrote this for them, are aiming at transcripts instead of diplomas, a detailed inventory of micro-credentials, badges, and other competencies gathered from any place. Schools don't really factor into this system. What these guys are proposing is to end public school as we know it and replace it with a batch of online software and a detailed data portrait of untested and unsubstantiated standardized results that will follow students around forever. The article is loaded with gobbledeegook that sounds fancy--

More detailed credentials will allow students to distinguish themselves through their individual achievements. Transcripts benchmarked against learning results will allow students, parents, colleges and employers to understand with more certainty each student’s knowledge, skills and preparation for postsecondary education and careers.

Also, standards!!

With support from four governors and a dozen legislatures, Maine has led the nation in implementing learning standards, which encompass a core of knowledge and skills essential to prepare our students for college, citizenship and fulfilling careers.

But it's for a good purpose!

Requiring schools transparently to report on these credentials will allow Maine to ensure equity of opportunity. Without a big-picture perspective of what is going on in education, we can’t know what’s working and where we need to improve.

That's the sales pitch, and it's remarkable how much this pitch hasn't really changed since the first days of Common Core-- We will set some super-duper standards, and then we will deliver lots of standardized measuring instruments which will collect lots and lots of data, which will make students smarter and schools better. We will get a really good set of scales and we will measure that pig every five minutes every day and that will make the pig grow big and fat-- or tall, or whatever way we want the pig to grow this week. And it will all be managed by computer, so you know it will be awesome.

There are only a few problems with this plan. We don't know exactly how to measure college and career readiness. It's not possible to reduce complex thinking, writing, problem solving, or any other higher order operations to a simple series of standardized tasks and measures. We don't have a set of agreed-upon or proven standards on which we can base such a system. We have no answers for the kinds of privacy concerns created by putting a ten-year-old in front of a computer program and making the results follow that child around forever. We don't know how to truly personalize a standardized system. And then there's the question of who will profit from selling and running all these privatized school-replacing pieces.

Those are just for starters. This is the same old pig with a new shade of lipstick, which is unsurprising-- if you thought a pig could make you a gazillion dollars, you'd be happy to invest some up front money in many shades of lipstick. Shame on Langley and Hubbell and whoever wrote this piece of advertising copy for them.


  1. Also, do people not realize that public schools are also integral to establishing our culture? We all had similar experiences in schools, read some of the same books, did the same mitosis lab, cheered for our school teams on a Friday. Though details may change, public schools pretty much gave us all a similar experience. When we take these experiences away by placing students in pods in front of computer screens, we run the risk of losing that common ground, and our very culture.

    1. Culture - and citizenship -and physical, social, ethical, emotional, and intellectual growth - and essential yet intangible experiences - and the development of responsible young adults - and the hierarchy and structure of a lawful democracy -and the work habits required for success beyond school.

  2. Just FYI: Hubbell, although I disagree strongly with him on this issue, is an excellent writer. I have no doubt the words are his own.

    On a personal note, my three grandkids attend a Maine school system that is supposed to be using PBE extensively. I can't say whether or not that's true, but I can say my son and daughter-in-law (both college graduates) are not impressed with the lengthy written reports they receive. However, one of the grandkid's teachers summarized her progress as "all 4's", so the extensive reports really weren't necessary.

  3. Correction: It did not run "in the Bangor Daily News today." The article is dated February 23, 2016, but it's no more convincing 16 months later and Maine has yet to figure out how to offer a Competency-Based Education HS Diploma. The target date for all schools was 2017 and it keeps getting pushed into the future with the hope that some CBE/PBE wizard will figure it out. Except there's no one behind the curtain.

  4. I recently tweeted a series of quick question-and-answers on reformist / charter school education. One was

    Mother: I'd like my child to be in small group discussions.
    Charter School Person: Our software is personalized.