Monday, June 12, 2017

NEA Whiffs Again

Back in the day, NEA leadership should have picked up a clue that they'd backed the wrong horse when they published this article in 2013. "10 Things You Should Know About the Common Core" included such notable observations as "Most NEA Members Support the Common Core," and while you might get a chuckle out of the rest of the list, the real harbinger is in the long, blistering comments section. The average NEA Today article does not exactly draw large or lively response, but this piece drew 325 rather angry comments asking what, exactly, that author was smoking. NEA was either ignorant of or deliberately trying to rope in the large number of anti-Core members.

The author was Tim Walker, and last week he offered a look at personalized learning, and once again NEA either doesn't get it or is trying to stick it to members.

As with NEA support for the Core, Walker starts the article by implicitly accepting that current schools (you know-- the ones where NEA members work) pretty much suck. Too many students sitting in regimented rows memorizing things and listening to teacher lecture. It's a simplistic and reality-impaired view of what's actually going on in classrooms, and it raises more questions than it addresses (e.g. If the classrooms are too full, why aren't we calling for smaller classrooms? Also, if Common Core was going to fix exactly these problems, why aren't they fixed?) He visits a happy personalizing school at East Pennsboro Area Middle School in Enola, PA.

Best of all, the lifeless classroom setups are gone, and learning spaces have been reconfigured with moveable furniture and walls so that when classroom subjects overlap, teachers can combine lessons. Students rotate through these areas, which fosters a more collaborative learning space.

Because only with personalized learning could you accomplish these things? Somehow?

Walker does give a quick look at the dark side, visiting teacher Paul Barnwell, whose Language Arts class now gets their reading instruction from the canned ReadingPlus program:

His students begin each class period by logging onto the program. They remain there for 20 minutes while Barnwell makes himself available for any questions or troubleshooting. But usually he finds himself—at least during this part of the class—feeling slightly marginalized. On one hand, ReadingPlus seems to be working—some struggling students are catching up to grade level. Still, Barnwell can’t shake the one nagging question that is likely on the minds of many educators minds: What comes next?

Walker's point is that "personalized learning" has a lot of different meanings, but if you think he's going to look at what those different meanings tell us about the huge corporate money-seeking drivers behind the rise of personalized learning-- well, not so much. He notes that PL is a rejection of the notion of fixed seat time, which is a fair characterization, then shifts unannounced to the idea that it is student-directed learning, which is not a fair characterization at all. But Walker quotes the National Education Technology Plan issued in 2010 which says that PL puts “students at the center and empowers them to take control of their own learning by providing flexibility on several dimensions.” This manner of framing personalized learning is a bit of a red flag because this "student-centered" (and institution degrading) model is a rhetorical favorite of Betsy DeVos.

Walker lets us know that there are big forces behind personalized learning, Zuckerberg-sized forces, though Walker offers a Zuckerberg quote that is reminiscent of Bill Gates in his Common Core salad days:

“We think personalized learning makes sense,” Zuckerberg told Education Week shortly after the announcement. “ We don’t know for certain that it’s going to work."

And Walker shows us a bad case scenario with Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School, a charter school in Yuma, AZ that uses the corporate cubicle model. But as he does throughout the piece, Walker shows the contrary side only so he can reassure us that things aren't really that bad.

Carpe Diem isn’t a typical model...

And then Walker ends the piece by circling back to the folks at East Pennsboro, using the last third of the article to talk about how awesome their experience has been, putting heavy emphasis on how their model is teacher-led, student-centered, and without so much as mentioning a software vendor benefiting. Nor mentioning any drawbacks or issues.

There's a way to construct an article so that it looks fair and balanced. Let's consider the controversial issue of cheese-straightening. Here's my pitch outline:

1) Open with vignette about successful, happy cheese-straighteners, then after creating the happy picture, note that some have misgivings.

2) Here are some concerns (though they could be nothing). Here's a critic (though his concerns are with little solid basis).

3) Here are some of the powerful drivers behind cheese-straightening (hard to resist).

4) Here's a bad example-- but it's an anomaly.

5) Let's go back to that happy picture and all the magical-- really, just magical-- details that go with it.

Missing from the piece- any substantive and detailed critique of the policy. In this case, Walker doesn't talk about any of the corporate connections to personalized learning or any of ways in which it fits in with and advances the privatization agenda. Walker barely acknowledges the ways in which personalized learning reduces teachers to computer program overseers.

Missing most of all-- the question of whether or not we should even be doing this. It is again reminiscent of NEA's Common Core stance under Dennis Van Roekel, which was "What is the alternative? What do you want?" In other words, "Of course we have to do this. That's a given, because we have terrible problems and this is a solution."

The several moments of Common Core nostalgia fit. I have the same sour feeling reading this piece that I had back when DVR and Tim Walker were telling us that Common Core was super duper. What I want from my union, from my professional association, is someone who will stand up for me, for my professional brethren and sistern and call threats to public education by their name. There are important, serious, even critical conversations to be had about personalized learning, and US teachers ought to be involved in those discussions. This piece, unfortunately, shows NEA trying to postpone and avoid the conversation instead of leading it. Feel free to stop by the website and add to another robust comments section.


  1. It looks like, instead of trying to get rid of public sector unions the way they did in the private sector, the Powers that Be have decided they just need to infiltrate and get the union brass to sell out to them. Unions that are directed the way the national AFT and NEA are, are worse than useless, they're counter-productive to their mission - kind of like most of Trump's Department Secretaries. Isn't there a way to recall the current presidents, or have local and state affiliates band together and form their own new national confederation?

  2. Firefox wouldn't take me to the article via your links to it - said it was unsecured - but I got there by going to the NEA site and putting Tim Walker personalized learning in the search function. One of the comments I liked best was someone asking if the idea of "personalized learning" is to prepare students for working in call centers.

  3. From the post: "Too many students sitting in regimented rows memorizing things and listening to teacher lecture."

    I'm always amazed that people still think most classrooms look like this. It's so far from reality. I teach in a large mixed socio-economic high school in an inner ring suburb of Detroit and we have one (ONE) teacher who still clings to that model. We have a veteran staff that has transformed how we teach and what we ask students to do. I teach history and I rarely provide more than 10 minutes of background notes. I have Chromebooks and Google Classroom and students analyze historical information from a variety of sources in group and paired discussions.

    I'm deeply offended when know-nothing outsiders (especially DeVos who thinks schools haven't changed since 1950) mis-characterize the current educational setting. It depicts teachers as little more than talking drones rather than the all-around work we do as teachers, mentors and support for children who come from increasingly disengaged homes.

  4. The characterization of teachers as idiot-box lecturers is not only deeply offensive, it's part of a vilification campaign to divert public money (all of it, My Pretty) to private pockets.

    Great comments!

  5. In science we are hearing the same completely unfounded types of criticism.


    So bellow the the Next-Gen Common Core science cheerleaders so they can sell us the solutions to the non-existing problems they have manufactured. Watch this latest SCAM as it predictably FAILS to deliver as promised.