MTA vs. Personalized Learning: “We Can Fight This”

This May, the Massachusetts Teacher Association (MTA) broke from national union leadership by taking a bold stance against “personalized learning” initiatives.

In an email to members, president of the MTA, Barbara Mandeloni, announced the union’s opposition to a public-private partnership between the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and LearnLaunch, whose mission is to “catalyze personalized learning enabled by technology in K-12 public education.” The partnership, known best by its acronym, MAPLE, was established with seed money from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, whose influence in New England is hard to overestimate.

The unprecedented move also calls for the creation of a web page to to combat the harmful effects of unvalidated ed tech products on students and to “defend teachers’ professional judgment and standards against interference by business interests.” It also issues a call for the MTA to update its 2016 report, Threat to Public Education Now Centers on Massachusetts, to include a section on corporate support for personalized learning.

The announcement stands in stark opposition to recent moves made by leadership of the National Education Association, who have pledged to advance the tech-driven personalized learning industry nationwide.

“Personalized” or “blended” learning and its policy conduits such as “competency-based” or “proficiency-based” education have virtually no research base to support their implementation. The New York Timesrecently referred to the Silicon Valley-driven reforms as “a singular experiment in education, with millions of students serving as de facto beta testers.”

While ed-tech and data-mining companies see the personalized learning agenda as a potential cash cow, it has parents fearful over their children’s privacy and teachers concerned about the future of their profession.

Yet the agenda has been moving forward at warp speed, and until the MTA’s recent announcement, there has been almost no organized opposition.

“The blended learning support comes directly from the NEA,” said Mary Porter, who wrote the proposal for the MTA to formally oppose the MAPLE initiative.  “There are lots of little perks are tied in if you go along.”

In Massachusetts, she said, people “want to fight it, but the pressure is tremendous in target districts not to speak out.”

Porter’s comments echo those of her neighbors to the north.

In Auburn, Maine, where the public school district has also partnered with a private, Nellie Mae-funded organization to implement personalized (called “customized” in Auburn) learning, teachers reportedbeing unable to voice their concerns or objections to district reforms.

“They constantly tell us that if we don’t agree with their policies or opinions, then we are working for the wrong school system,” one teacher said.

“There is tremendous intimidation,” Porter explained.  “People are afraid of losing their jobs. There is a climate of fear imposed on teachers.”

Yet there is an even bigger obstacle facing those fighting the “personalization” agenda: money.

Nationwide, groups long known for their support of school privatization such as the Gates Foundation and Carnegie Corporation, and newer organizations like the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, are pouring millions into the effort to bring “personalized” learning to America’s schools. Behind their grants stand millions of dollars in private ed-tech investments.

In New England, most of the money flows from Nellie Mae – a foundation with direct ties to the student loan industry. Their grants fuel an ecosystem of initiatives, ranging from grants made directly to school districts, to funding for non-profit organizations that lobby for policy change while consulting districts on their implementation, to full-time reporting positions at public broadcasting networks.

Many of their initiatives are designed to keep their influence unseen by the public.  In Vermont, for example, a communications plan from the Nellie-Mae funded Partnership for Change outlined the use of strategic messaging – including sample talking points, opinion editorials, PowerPoint presentations, letters to the editor, and even a template sermon for the faith community –  so that their message “eventually becomes second nature to the citizens of Winooski-Burlington.”

Meanwhile, in Maine, the Nellie Mae-funded “Educate Maine” non-profit took hold the the Maine State Teacher of the Year program in 2012, and then sent a letter on behalf of such teachers lobbying for the implementation of a proficiency-based diploma mandate – a policy serving as a “leverage point” for bringing personalized learning to school districts.

“It’s everywhere – entangling and threatening, confusing and compromising people,” Porter said of the money pouring into the personalized learning agenda.

But she is confident that teachers and community members can build a strong opposition.

“People are sick of dark money, and sick of profiteers bleeding our education budgets,” she said. “My hope is that every district and school in the country can pass resolutions opposing them, and turn the narrative around.”

“We can fight it,” she said.

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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.

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