Five years ago, the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education (now called Educate Maine) sent a copy of “Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning” to all superintendents in the state.
In Auburn, Superintendent Katy Grondin urged all citizens in her community to also read the book. Grondin’s school district had recently partnered with the Gates and Nellie Mae-funded Reinventing Schools Coalition (RISC), becoming one of a handful of districts around the country at Ground Zero for what is now a nationwide push toward the experimental, profit-driven model of education known more commonly as “personalized” learning.
As part of the district reforms, students in Auburn received iPads, and teachers, monitored closely by the Marzano teacher evaluation system, were encouraged to upload, administer, and track lessons and assessments with a program called Empower that students would use to work “at their own pace.”
Now, as districts around the country prepare to jump on board with similar “personalized learning” reforms, all eyes ought to be on Auburn. Has their experiment worked?
The answer is a resounding no.
Test scores have not budged and many teachers are at their wits’ end.
In a recent survey conducted by local union leadership, teachers lamented the rigidity of the system they are implementing.
“The RISC and Marzano direction are creating target-spouting robots that cannot think or be creative,” wrote one teacher.
“When we can only teach students something attached to a “target,” we will never be headed in the right direction. All spontaneity and passion is being removed from teaching, and we are being asked to be more ‘technicians’ than professional teachers,” said another.
One teacher wrote: “For a district supposedly doing ‘customized learning,’ we are getting more and more standardized.”
Teachers also expressed their sense of being silenced or dismissed by district administrators.
“They don’t want to hear opinion because they have their ‘orders’ and they have to carry them out,” said one.
Another wrote: “I am not comfortable sharing my opinions with district level administrators. They constantly tell us, that if we don’t agree with their policies or opinions, then we are working for the wrong school system.”
A few teachers, however, are finding it impossible to stay silent.
Along with seven others, Karen Letourneau, a fifteen-year teaching veteran, recently addressed the local school board about her concerns.
“I stand here tonight, terrified, both because you are all looking at me and for fear that my message be misunderstood in any way,” she said. “But I’m here because I care deeply about students and their learning.”
Letourneau told the board about her own struggles as a child, the way school became a haven for her, and how she decided to become a teacher to give students the same experiences she had gotten in school.
“When I began my teaching career at Walton School in January of 2000, I was with the kids I wanted to be with, kids like me, and I was doing for them what my teachers had done for me – creating a fun, safe place to learn and want to be every day,” she said.
She then expressed her concerns with the direction the school district had been heading.
“Change for the proper reason is good. Change made because it sounds good in theory or made solely for financial reasons are questionable,” she told the school board.
(One day later, school board chair Thomas Kendall, managing partner at Technology Capital Corporation, said that the teachers who had spoken were “misinformed.”)
There is no question that proponents of these reforms will argue that the problem is not with personalized learning, but with the district-level “implementation” of these practices.
But compare what is happening in Auburn with others also at Ground Zero– including Baltimore County, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Adams 50 Colorado – and you will see the same themes cropping up again and again: corrupt politicians and overzealous district administrators lapping up hollow corporate sales pitches; demoralized teachers fearful of retribution for speaking up; parents left mostly in the dark or dismissed for their concerns; and glassy-eyed kids hooked into devices that collect data on their every move.
No – the problem is not “implementation.”
The problem is predatory, corporate-driven education policies that are sweeping our country like a plague.
Will more teachers have the courage to break the silence like those in Auburn?