Personalized Learning: How Big is the Beast?

If you’ve not yet heard, public education as we know it is on its way out.

While we toiled in the trenches under No Child Left Behind, a massive infrastructure was built to support a shift toward competency-based, “personalized learning” – just in time for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education (now called ESSA).

With its reliance on one-to-one digital devices, digital courseware, artificial intelligence, and massive data collection, personalized learning promises to reap big rewards for investors and corporate executives.

Just how big is the beast? Let’s take a look.

 Hydra Head #1: Digital Infrastructure

Remember PARCC and Smarter Balanced?   Those tests that were supposed to tell us whether or not our kids were “college and career ready”?

Here’s what they were actually intended to accomplish, according to the program from the 2012 National Conference on Student Assessment:

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.

This well hidden technology agenda is why, even if your state has pulled out of these consortia, it has been replaced by an assessment made by one of the companies contracted to build the PARCC and SBAC tests (Questar, Measured Progress, AIR, etc). It’s also why the new tests look remarkably similar to one another.

Another consortium, IMS Global, which includes most of the testing companies above as well as giant tech companies like Microsoft, Samsung, and Intel, also been busy building standard technology platforms to support the digital, personalized learning market.

Here’s how Rob Abel, CEO of IMS Global, explains it:

“When integrations cost time or money that nobody has, that stops progress from being made.  The theory is that if we take the friction out of going digital, that helps the market develop for everyone.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Education has teamed up with the Department of Defense to move the personalized learning market forward by creating a “Federal Learning Registry” of standards-aligned resources that will interact with the products the companies above plan to sell you.

“By making learning resources available within a common approach,” the Learning Registry website explains, “we may see more innovation in the marketplace because finding and assembling high quality solutions may be easier and cheaper.”

Even the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the Department of Defense is helping to build the infrastructure to support “personalized learning.”  A recent Request for Information from DARPA asked for submissions for possible “educational tools [that] would adapt to individuals over time” and would allow “student assessment [to] be embedded within the application as a seamless part of the overall instructional process.”

“An important aspect of this program is the development and integration of tools to monitor cognitive or physiological response of users while learning,” the DAPRA request states, and adds: “The system may monitor a variety of cues to determine the user’s attention and emotional states.”

(Does anyone else wonder what else the Department of Defense may want to do with this information?)

Hydra Head #2: Legal Infrastructure

Although we were assured that the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was intended to restore control to states and local districts, the truth is that much of the document was carefully crafted to enable a proliferation of “personalized learning.”

KnowledgeWorks highlights the many ways that  ESSA “opens the door” for personalized learning, including its Innovative Assessment Zones, resources for “21st Century Community Learning Centers,” and grant money for technology available in virtually every section of the document.

As for state and local policies, the Foundation for Excellence in Education and American Legislative Exchange Council have been busy meeting with politicians and executives from the testing and digital education companies to craft model bills that will move your state toward the competency-based framework that will support “personalized learning.”

Bellwether Education (where the wife of our newly minted secretary of education, John King, wife recently took a job) even has a  book of personalized learning “policy plays” for state policy makers.

As for ensuring that all the data that fuels the personalized learning machine can flow freely from one location to the next, privatizers made certain to revise the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) in 2011 to give third parties access to your child’s information.

 Hydra Head #3: Teacher Preparation

What do you do with teachers in a digital, “personalized” system where they are no longer needed?

Figuring that out has been one of Tom Carroll’s jobs at the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

“We’ve had a lot of talk lately about managing the human capital more effectively,” he explained at 2009 conference called Redefining Teacher Education for Digital Age Learners. “We need to move to a very different workforce model.”

Carroll’s solution?

“Schools of education [need to] get out of the preparation business, actually, and into the workforce development business in partnership with school districts.”

To help with the transition to “personalized learning,” KnowledgeWorks has prepared a document offering future job opportunities that displaced teachers may want to pursue, including “data tracker,” and “micro-credential” analyst.

Hydra Head #4: State-Based Non-Profits

These are the shepherds: the ones funded by corporate foundations, fueled with market research, and charged with orchestrating “will-building” campaigns to get the locals to think that competency-based, “personalized learning” is all a grand idea made just for them. Here in New England, the Nellie Mae and Gates Foundation have funded the Great Schools Partnership, Educate Maine, Voices for Vermont Children, the New England Secondary School Consortium, the Center for Collaborative Education, and others to help usher the masses toward this brave new world of schooling.  Have you looked to see who the shepherds are in your state?


Hydra Head #5: Consultants

Someone must have given Dr. Marzano the heads up, because he now offers consulting services to move districts toward “competency-based,” personalized learning models. Here in Maine, we are home to the Great School Partnership, which also promises to teach your district how to implement a competency-based system. No doubt there are others, waiting for you state to pass the right ALEC model bill so that they can swoop in and offer their snake-oil services.


There is more, of course – so much more – to the hydra.

But what’s missing?

Research. Proof that this will actually be good for your kids. Transparency.  Parental consent.  Sound pedagogy.

The question is: can we conquer it?




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.

20 thoughts on “Personalized Learning: How Big is the Beast?”

  1. Just want you to know that we at the Avalon Initiative deeply appreciate your blogs. I share them widely on facebook here in New York State. We have a conference coming up on April 30 called “Enough Already! Saving the Soul of Education.” We specialize in public,private, home school dialogue about what matters the most, the students. We would be happy to have you as a guest at our conferences, if you are ever in our neck of the woods, the Hudson Valley area. Blessings on your work.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. As with the mythical Hydra, when one head is lopped off more pop up…this is an ever increasing problem as more and more opportunists look to make a financial killing on the back of we the tax payers….children be-damned.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The beast survives because we keep feeding it what it needs…..our children. Take away the children the beast dies. It is not rocket science. We can sit back and continue to talk about the problems in the fundamental transformation from education to indoctrination until the cows come home. We know what is going on but continue to talk but take no action. There is only ONE action that will stop this beast and that is to take as many kids out of the system as we possibly can and believe me there are a lot of kids that can get out if parents would re-prioritize and think outside the box. I am sick of these articles that continuously tell us what is wrong as if we didn’t already know something is very wrong. We cry, ring our hands and drop to our knees begging our elected to stop it while all the time they are the very people committing these acts against our children. WE have the power to stop it and WE have the power to stop it NOW. But it has been my experience over the past 4 years that most parents know the problem, know the answer but do not really want to actually do anything. They want to pack their kids off and get them out of their hair. Most are not willing to make the sacrifice of getting their kids out of the system. I have heard every excuse from I am a single parent and have no alternative to I just plain don’t want my kids around. And they are all just that……excuses. My response: If you really want to make it happen you will, if not you will make excuses.


  3. Greetings from Hawai’i!
    The key, I believe, is to create technology that supports and enhances the student-teacher relationship. Most educational technology is designed, as you note, to supplant the teacher and undermine the institution of public education. We need to stop penalizing teachers for failing to correct those social ills that undermine our children before they are old enough to benefit from public education. I hope we can build tools that support parents to help their children arrive at school ready to learn.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What we need are parents to step up and be parents. STARVE THE BEAST is the only solution at this point. This beast has its fangs dug in so deep the only way to get them out is to starve the beast. That will require parents to do their job and get their kids out of the system. Not that easy you say?? Sorry but it is easy.


    1. Sheila, the answer is very easy but most parents do not really want to solve the problem. Parents have the power to starve this beast because this beast only survives because we keep feeding it our children. Remove our children from the system and the beast dies. Refuse to do it and you in the end only have yourself to blame for the outcome.


  4. So many teachers in Maine are completely unaware of the inner workings and machinations of the corporate education deform movement. It’s so disheartening to talk about these issues with fellow teachers who look at you like you’re wearing a tinfoil hat.


    1. Thanks Emily. You are a gift to the profession. All this nonsense is built on a view of children that ignores development psychology and has not been proven with an ounce of research. These are like Basal programs on steroids and the price paid for it will take real resources, like librarians from schools. Worse, this will be much harder to fight than the testing. It will require opting out of the entire curriculum.


  5. This is dismaying. This is another example of great marketing on the part of the Deformers. Now they have made personalized (individualized) learning a bad thing. An IEP, for example, is personalized learning for students with special needs. Good teachers K-12 have always known how to personalize learning to help students use their strengths to overcome their weaknesses.

    Lets refrain from attacking personalized learning because they usurped our language once again. Lets attack up front the real culprits: Digitalized robotic computer/software company created profit making education!


  6. Reblogged this on asulli1066 and commented:
    It ironic how they want to move the teacher to become “data tracker,” and “micro-credential” analysts effectively reducing students to data points. Seems eerily familiar with the failed standardized testing procedures that so many people have turned against now, and that most research has found highly ineffective.


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