Ed Reform Groundhog Day

During a conversation about education reform at a holiday party I attended last week, a long-time high school teacher said to me, “You’ll see as you get more years of experience.  You start to feel like: haven’t we seen this already?”

I laughed and said it’s like that cliché you always hear about insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

When it comes to ed reform, of course, it’s really not a cliché. It’s par for the course.

Check out the quote below, and see if you can guess the year it was written:

 …schools will offer a common core of learning and, at the same time, provide diversity and choice. In short, individualized education implies the personalization of the entire educational process.

If you guessed 1974, you were right.

This was written by Robert G. Scanlon, former Pennsylvania Education Secretary, in an article called: “A Curriculum for Personalized Education.”

Recently, with endorsements and investments from Mark Zuckerberg, the U.S. Department of Education, and members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, personalized learning has been heralded as the latest, greatest “innovation” to hit our reform-battered schools.

But a close look into the internet archives of educational history reveals that there is nothing innovative about this idea at all.

In “A Curriculum for Personalized Education,” Scanlon describes a curriculum that “permits student mastery of instructional content at individual learning rates,” “encourage[s] student evaluation of progress toward mastery,” and includes “a variety of paths for mastery of any given objective.”

Flash forward forty years to a portion of a document published by the Gates Foundation titled “Proficiency-Based Pathways”:

“Learning solutions—units, courses, and subjects—should have clear progress trajectories from novice through apprentice to mastery. Students should understand how to advance from one level to the next.”

The Gates Document boasts in its introduction: “We have been thinking in very nontraditional ways.”  But compare the two quotes above, and you’ll see that the Gates Foundation is calling for the very same reform ideas that have been planned and attempted for decades.

Now check out this quote from Scanlon in 1974:

“The objectives of individualized instruction can be used as a basis for designing educational technology. How these devices will be made more cost- effective by new miniaturizations and transistors remains a question, but plans for their utilization must begin now.

Can you imagine Scanlon’s delight at the invention of Chromebooks and iPads?  And is it any wonder why reformers like Gates are so optimistic that the time has finally come to bring about the dream of personalized learning?  See Gates below:

“Conditions are ripe for creating personalized learning opportunities beyond school—in an anytime, anywhere fashion…We believe it’s possible with the convergence of the Common Core State Standards, the work on new standards-based assessments, the development of new data systems, and the rapid growth of technology-enabled learning experiences.”

It also sheds new light on the borderline desperation found in this quote from Tom Vander Ark, who cannot bear the thought of having to wait any longer for the competency-based restructuring of our schools:

 “New tests will hinder rather than help competency-based models…In short, I don’t want one big cheap end of year test used for more than it should be…I don’t want it to lock in the teacher-centric age cohort model for another decade. I don’t want simple assessments…I want a system that will incorporate all the performance feedback that students will be receiving a few years from now.”

And it reveals why Jeb Bush and Bob Wise called their council “Digital Learning Now!” Reformers have been waiting for this for decades and are losing their patience!

If you’re beginning to wonder if perhaps I’m giving these guys too much credit for their ability to plan, check out this quote below, again from 1974, this time from Harold E. Mitzel in an article called “Computer Technology: The Key to the Future?”

“Education is so decentralized that it seems unlikely that individual school organizations will be able to afford the development of their own computer-based curriculum. Statewide or regional consortia seem to be the best bet for actually putting programs together…Even if states or regions can mount the necessary curriculum initiative, it will probably be up to the federal government to provide the financial resources for massive program development.

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post arguing that the one of the hidden reasons behind the formation of the Smarter Balanced and PARCC consortia was the opportunity for IT and assessment vendors to collaborate on “interoperability frameworks” – or common coding languages.  See this quote below from the 2012 National Conference on Student Assessment program:

 The Federal Government’s strategy to transform the Education Assessment industry by investing in standard technology platforms led by multi-state consortia such as Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) has required unprecedented collaboration among consortia members, SEA and LEA representatives, assessment companies and the greater IT vendor community.

Voila!  Precisely what Mitzel called for back in 1974!

Here’s another quote from Mitzel:

These applications of the computer depend neither on new technological developments nor on new pedagogical concepts. The major restraints lie within the social institutions responsible for education.

And here is the U.S. Department of Education in its latest technology plan arguing the very same thing:

“The roles of PK–12 classroom teachers and post-secondary instructors, librarians, families, and learners all will need to shift as technology enables new types of learning experiences.”

The fact is, the reason these reform ideas keep coming back, decade after decade, is that they never really die.  The planners retreat but come back swinging, because at the end of the day, they can’t seem to shake this sentiment, uttered recently by the CEO of Exxon Mobile:

“I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer…What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation…Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested?”

Of course, what they don’t seem to understand is that we don’t want to turn our schools into human capital factories.

But this seems to be the fundamental misunderstanding that keeps us locked in this never-ending cycle, where “innovative” always means same-old same-old, and our schools are constantly under attack by bad ideas that just won’t go away.

I say keep opting out. It may be the only way to escape Ed Reform Groundhog Day.

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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.

6 thoughts on “Ed Reform Groundhog Day”

  1. Before being a teacher, I worked as a researcher in magnetic recording in Silicon Valley. By the time I got tired of that career, I was quite certain that technology was important for education and I think it still is. The problem is that technology is the tool we teach students to use. It is not the tool for delivering education. Education is too personal, too dependent on human intercourse to be successfully delivered by machines.

    Roger Schank the cognitive scientist who has developed computer based learning systems that work notes that those systems only work with small ratios of students to instructors. He says class size still matters and the relationship with the teacher is still a paramount component of successful learning.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this post !!!!!!
    Question- What good will feedback to the teacher be when the teacher has been replaced by an “instructor” ? It needs no answer !!
    I cannot wait to see how “they” turn the “newish math” approach of the CCSSM into bite sized, forgettable chunks of master-able material. Looks like BYE-BYE to the Standards for Mathematical Practice, actually the best part.

    Like

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