Nancy Flanagan notes her frustration this week with the continued complaints about public schools, about how they are an outmoded factory model producing students on an assembly line. And she correctly notes where that comes from, and where it's headed.
Public school has been under the most modern wave of attack since 1983's A Nation at Risk, with each new wave of reformsterism accompanied by renewed attacks on one of America's oldest institutions. And the criticism has always served a purpose for Reformsters. So when we hear a new shift in that same-old song, we need to pay attention-- something is coming.
"Fifty states are higgledy piggledy in what and when they teach" and "We need to be able to compare students from Idaho and Florida" paved the path for Common Core State [sic] Standards.
"Students are trapped in failing zip codes" and "rich people get to choose schools" and even "Freeeeeedom!" were to pave the way for unfettered charter schools and vouchers.
It's basic marketing. You need your product to fill a need, and if the need is slight, you expand it. If there is no need obviously begging to be filled, you create it. And whatever the need is, you frame it in a way that suggests your solution is the best one for the job.
So what's the current pitch? Well, we've been subjected to the observation that schools haven't changed in 100, 125, or 200 years (including pronouncements from the Department of Education). We see the traditional model referred to as a factory or assembly line. We even see criticism of the previously-beloved Big Standardized Test. For the last two decades, we've heard about how the BS Tests were our defense against everything bad in education, but now, within the last year, we see widespread agreement that they have added to the factory-esque student-smothering atmosphere of schools.
Meanwhile, out in the investment world, we have bulletins like this one:
Classroom Management Systems Market research report 2017 delivers a holistic vision of the global market also analyze the current industry state, demands, and the business strategies implemented by market players.
“About Classroom Management Systems,The classroom management systems market is significantly fragmented due to the presence of several international and regional players. Players in this classroom monitoring software market offer focus on differentiating their products mainly in terms of deployment and features. The increasing need for offering personalized learning experiences and the rising awareness will offer significant growth opportunities for players in this marketspace. The classroom management systems can be segmented into on-premise deployment and cloud-based deployment. Cloud-based classroom management systems market segment will account for the major share of the classroom monitoring software market by the end of the forecast period. Cloud-based deployment model enables students, teachers, and administrators to access the data anytime and from anywhere.”
The CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) is reported at a breathless 24.71%. Computer software used to run a classroom is being touted as a tremendous and wonderful investment.
Meanwhile, competency based education teamed up with personalized [sic] learning is the Next Big Thing. My google alerts send me a handful of items touting the awesomeness of personalized [sic] learning every day. Along with the occasional article mentioning how cool it would be to do away with grade levels.
Free your child from the tyranny of the 100-year-old factory school assembly line!
Why do this? Because the folks pushing Total Immersion Ed Tech Mass Customized Algorithm Driven Personalized [sic] Competency Proficiency Based Learning Stuff (incidentally, I don't think it's a mistake that this stuff doesn't have a clearly stated brand name-- one lesson of Common Core was that if you give a program a clear brand name, you make it easier for critics to attack it) have a problem. Several, actually.
First, they aren't pushing anything new. Mastery Learning is rooted in the 1920s, pushed in the 1960s, resurrected as Outcome Based Education in the 1990s. Education that is responsive to and aimed at the individual child is built into the dna of public ed; every teacher in the country already does it to some extent. They haven't even reinvented the wheel; they've just pulled old wheels, some broken and not actually round, out of the warehouse and repackaged them.
Second, some of their ideas have a bad track record. It's not like there haven't many attempts to have a software-directed personalized [sic] learning school. Rocketship Academies were going to change education-- by putting every student in a cubicle with a computer. It didn't go all that well. Summit, the Zuckerberg-backed competency based algorithm-based ed program has seen some pushback, generally from parents and students who object to sitting at a screen while not actually being taught. Therefor...
Third, they can't lean into the major feature of their idea. Promoters of personalized [sic] learning have learned to emphasize the warm fuzzy individualized part of their pitch and gloss over the technology as much as possible- and to call it "technology". The only phrase with less education marketing power than "We're going to teach your child the Common Core" is "Your child is going to be taught the Common Core by a computer."
So the rhetoric of reform has moved past "we need better teachers" or "we need a choice of schools" into "we need to blow up the schools and replace them with individualized mass customized programs." And a key part of that pitch is to keep conjuring up visions of students crammed into rows of desks in sterile classrooms, faceless children strapped onto an assembly line. Because children trapped on an assembly line are so much worse than children trapped in front of a cold computer screen.
My recommendation to teachers and schools across the US-- start publicizing, through whatever media avenues (social and otherwise) available to you, images of your classrooms, so that the public absorbs the images of the vibrant, differentiated, warm and very human classrooms across this country and stops imagining that schools are some sort of dim Dickensian hell holes. And if your classroom is a Dickensian hell hole, I suggest you make it clear that no amount of computer technology or mass customized software will make up for mold and drafty windows and crumbling walls, and that the taxpayers should think about what they really want to spend money on.