Dear Mark

Dear Mark,

You probably don’t remember me, but we were students together at Phillips Exeter Academy fifteen years ago. I was a lower (sophomore) when you were a senior, so our paths didn’t overlap much, but I do believe we had one class together – Latin with Mr. Morante.

I’m writing for two reasons: first, a quick thank you for Facebook. I’ve always enjoyed it as a social tool, but recently I have discovered how powerful it can be as networking tool to gather people around a common cause.  Lately, I’ve connected with parents, teachers, administrators, bloggers, and other activists around the country who are all working passionately toward one goal: getting our local schools back from the powerful corporate and political interests that now strangle them. We share notes and research, triumphs and setbacks, inspiration and outrage, and lately it seems – incrementally at least – that we may be getting somewhere.

A bit about me: after Exeter and college (Amherst ’07), I followed the two-year teaching-temp route through the New York City Teaching Fellows program. But, instead of going on to more “big time” things (as a fellow classmate once asked if I would), I discovered that I loved being in the classroom and working directly with kids so much that I became a career teacher, and now teach fourth grade in Maine. Would you believe that with a salary of 40k a year, a mortgage, a baby, a husband in law school – and, as a result, a net worth well in the negative numbers – I haven’t once regretted this decision?

But it hasn’t been easy. For the last eight years, I have witnessed and experienced the harm that reform efforts are inflicting on teachers and students alike. Much of this abuse is related to the testing mandates of No Child Left Behind, but there are also new, potentially even more harmful policies with which we are now contending. Recently, I have been using this blog, and yes, Facebook, to try my hand at being an outspoken advocate for our kids, parents, teachers, and local schools.

Which brings me to the second reason that I am writing.

Yesterday, I was alarmed when a friend of mine sent me a post from your own Facebook page endorsing “personalized” learning, as well as announcing your recent partnership with Summit Public Schools to promote this model.

I am quite certain that in doing so, you have genuinely good intentions. I also suspect that you have been heavily courted by reform-oriented groups and foundations, and that they have, through their carefully curated examples of “personalized learning,” presented nothing less than a miracle to you in hopes of gaining your support and endorsements.

“Corporate reformers,” as we call them on the ground, are very good at preying on our best intentions. I, myself, was once taken in by a school that promised it was “closing the achievement gap,” but whose practices were so appalling and abusive that I left within a year. Of course, I have never been to a Summit Public School, so I cannot speak about their system. I must confess, however, that when I see who else  is promoting this school, the hair on the back of my neck stands up.

Let me assure you that “personalized learning,” as it is being pushed by the Gates Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Digital Learning Now Council, as well as countless educational technology companies, start-ups, and venture capitalists who have invested millions into personalized learning experiments (they call them “innovations”), is a far, far cry from the type of education we got at Exeter.

At Exeter, we sat around shiny hardwood tables debating meaning buried within novels that were carefully selected by our teachers; we disagreed about interpretations of historical events, and were sometimes drowned out by the passion of Harkness Warriors (I was never one of those, were you?). Our teachers had ways of guiding us toward particular insights, but they never held us hostage to specific outcomes, or “competencies” as they are called now, before allowing us to move on.  (If you aren’t sure what I mean by “competencies” and the role they play in personalized learning models, please read more here.)  If an outside observer had come into one of our classrooms, as happens now in many public schools, to ask us “What is your learning target today, and how will you know if you have met it?” I’m quite sure not many of us would have been able to say.  Our teachers probably would have been appalled at such a question.

These are the constraints under which “personalized” learning models operate. Standards, competencies, learning targets and progressions, all of which must be tracked and monitored and controlled in order to work, are the ingredients of “personalized learning.”  Students may be in control of their “learning trajectory,” in such a model, but not of their own minds, as we were at Exeter.

In my humble opinion, this is a bastardization of true education.

Of course, you can see why venture capitalists, educational technology companies and their related foundations (yes, I do mean Gates) would see a prime opportunity for profit through this type of model. Computers can, indeed, do this type of work.

I encourage you to look more deeply into the  policies and practices  you are now advocating. Look beyond the carefully selected models you are presented, look beyond the well crafted and well financed PR campaigns, and reach out to the teachers, parents, and students whose local schools are being destroyed and remade according to the whims of corporate investors. You may be surprised, and saddened, by what you hear.

Sincerely,

Emily Talmage (formerly Kennedy), Exeter ‘03

P.S. I’m going to include your picture below, so that when I post this on Facebook, people see which Mark I mean.

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Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

18 thoughts on “Dear Mark”

  1. Thank you for sharing this. Fighting the power which stands against the best interest of children is very difficult, and I commend you. I have been teaching for 28 years, and find it more exhausting each year to teach my students what they need while keeping the useless paperwork from them as much as possible. They have to know the standards they are using, but can’t remember how to use a subordinate clause. They must track their own testing trajectory, but can’t focus on a debate about Columbus’ mistreatment of indigenous people. They can draw math pictures that show how to divide numbers, but aren’t allowed to use short division to save steps because standardized testing counts it wrong. Their natural curiosity and love of learning is pulverized daily by testing, lack of recess, RIT, and so many things that do not fit their growth and development. Humans need fun, novelty, and a variety of approaches to help them remember things. Children need movement to keep their minds from being exhausted. In education today, we are being forced to train corporate drones who are too exhausted or frustrated to think for themselves or to create original things that will change the world. Ultimately, we are heading toward a terrible repression of too much of the population who cannot afford private schools which are not run by dictatorial corporations and teachers who flee if they can and try to help society from the outside. No one but the wealthy wins, and in the long run, the country will lose far too much innovation. We are supposed to want better than we had for our children. We must make certain that “reformers” see that we are making far worse for them, and that it weakens our country every day.

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  2. As a teacher, a child of teachers, and a product of Catholic school education, I’ll keep this short and sweet. The biggest problem I’ve seen with all the testing and corporate intervention is now students can regurgitate concepts on to paper without true understanding and they lack critical thinking. Learning how these concepts connect with the world as well as knowing how to decipher an answer from know information is much more important and useful throughout life then having a bunch of memorized facts without true understanding. Our next generation of workers is going to have absolutely no creativity not decision making skills. It is going to be a much more dismal world than we currently live in and I forsee many more jobs going overseas as our workforce will not have the knowledge to perform them. As much as I at one time loved teaching, I have left the classroom mainly due to these so called reforms.

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  3. In order to be successful, students need to know that they are supported and respected. They must have the freedom to explore their own creativity, ideas, and thoughts. They need to learn at their own pace, which for some is faster than others. The idea of pacing guides and data driven instruction are in direct conflict with individual differentiation, yet many of today’s reforms require us to do both. As a classroom teacher, if I do one, I cannot do the other, and am therefore considered lacking since I the two tasks ar mutually exclusive for the top and bottom quarters of my classes. No one understands “normal” like a good classroom teacher with years of experience, yet the reforms and requirements a driving them out of education, because with the lower ratings comes feelings of inadequacy and resentment towards the “system.” Individualized education is a great idea, but needs to be supported. Teachers need to have the freedom to educate students to think critically, but also support students’ emotional needs and work with the parents to ensure that students receive the proper support — academic, physical, and emotional– there needs to be mechanisms in place so that students leave schools with the social, emotional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal skills necessary to survive in today’s society as a positive contributing member.

    Politicians and corporate do-gooders need to understand all of the roles of professional educators…not just focus on one or two aspects of their profession. We are creating citizens…not widgets or light bulbs. Each person is a representation of multiple talents and deficiencies…no two people are alike, and teachers need to deal with all of them, in an attempt to improve every single one of them. These cannot be measured on a test or in a classroom observation. They can only be assessed years ahead when the children become adults. This does not fit any corporate model, and I do not see how any model can be made to assess a quality educator aor educational system in this manner.

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  4. Personalized leaning is a good thought but is being hijacked. yes kids learn at different rates and in different ways but they also have different hopes and dreams.

    With critical thinking as an outcome some problems won’t fit into neat packages. and 1st class achievement. meaning whole child must be the standard.

    You are leaning in the right direction. think a little deeper

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  5. Emily, my poor dear, you have NO IDEA what personalized learning is! Before you go ranting about a topic, please do your research! Personalize Learning is embraced by many, many classroom educators. STOP trying to turn any concept into a political battlefield – the does a HUGE disservice to our students, our schools, and our nation!

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    1. I wonder, Cynthia, if you could tell me what “personalized learning” means to you. Are you a teacher? “Personalized” does not mean differentiation, nor does it mean “personal.” I assure you that I have researched this in depth, and from many angles. I am wondering if, perhaps, it is the term “personalized” that we are not seeing eye to eye on. You may want to read this document on “personalized learning” from Bellwether Education: http://bellwethereducation.org/sites/default/files/PolicyPlays_Final.pdf and then look at their client list. This is not a teacher-led initiative. Also, if and when you write again, I hope that you can refrain from condescending terms like “poor dear.”

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      1. I’m also wondering if you are the same Cynthia Dunlap who works for the International Society for Technology in Education, whose sponsors include Microsoft and Samsung, and which has received well over a million dollars in grants from the Gates Foundation?

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    2. Cynthia, my poor dear, you have NO IDEA what real learning is! Before you go ranting to bloggers who actually KNOW what they are talking about, maybe you should get off of the payroll of ISTE which has gotten well over a million dollars in grants from Gates and is sponsored by Microsoft.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Emily Talmage, thank you for your articulate and informed open letter to Zuckerberg. You make perfectly clear the damage being caused by uninformed, self-serving billionaires who pretend to know what teaching and learning in the public sector require.

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  7. Emily, can you please explain in greater depth which part of the actual PLP model you speak against? The Summit schools have had very high graduation rates and their mixed-income students have a good chance of completing a 4-year college. Those outcomes seem very positive. What would you change about the program?

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