Late last month, the U.S. Department of Education announced its new criteria for Race to the Top. Whereas in the past only states could apply for federal RTT money, now the competition is open to “local educational agencies” (LEAs). Each applicant must demonstrate a commitment to “personalized learning”:
RTT-D will reward those LEAs that have the leadership and vision to implement the strategies, structures and systems of support to move beyond one-size–fits-all models of schooling, which have struggled to produce excellence and equity for all children, to personalized, student-focused approaches to teaching and learning that will use collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools to deliver instruction and supports tailored to the needs and goals of each student, with the goal of enabling all students to graduate college- and career-ready.
I have a visceral reaction to jargon such as “collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools.” Beyond that, I question the value of personalized learning, especially as described here. Accorded top priority, it will likely open the gates to fads and gimmicks: mandatory “individualized learning goals,” aggressively marketed learning software, and more. Personalized learning should be a means, not an end, and should be defined carefully. (I discuss “mass personalization” and its pitfalls in the eighth chapter of my book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.)
How could personalized learning not be good? some might ask. How could anything be better than a flexible curriculum tailored to the needs of each child?
Common subject matter, at its best, takes students beyond their current understanding and preferences. When I taught Book I of Plato’s Republic this year, I saw how it woke certain students up intellectually—students who, if given a tailored curriculum, might not have encountered the Republic at all. Who was to know that they were ready for it or would appreciate it? A good common curriculum offers students things that they would not necessarily choose on their own. Students should have opportunities to choose some of their readings, and courses, but common curriculum can open up a surprisingly individual experience.
What do U.S. Department of Education officials have in mind when they speak of “personalized learning”? Somehow I doubt that the Republic figures in their plans at all. They are more concerned with skills. In their ideal environment, teachers will meet frequently in “data teams,” analyze student work, and determine how to help each student progress. (We do this already, but they’d say we should do even more.) Since it is impossible for a teacher singlehandedly to address the needs of 100 or more students, schools will likely purchase products, such as software that captures and analyzes student discussion, producing graphs of students’ speaking patterns, or clickers with which students may answer multiple-choice questions. The use of such devices will count as personalized learning, simply because each student will have a progress chart.
Good software can help immensely with certain kinds of instruction. Online language laboratories, quizzes, and even lessons can supplement what students are learning in the classroom. The key word here is “supplement.” Students should use any and all tools that truly help (and not replace) their learning—so that they can come into the classroom fully prepared for the instruction and discussion. In other words, students, generally speaking, should take care of their own personalization, and teachers should take care of the common part. Yes, there is overlap, but it should not stretch too far.
Of course, teachers personalize the learning to a large degree. They review student work and adjust the lessons accordingly; offer choices on certain assignments; and provide additional help to those who need it. Such personalization, though, is subordinate to the larger goal of teaching something important, lasting, and beautiful. Subordinate it should remain.
Now, the grants are only for LEAs where at least forty percent of the participating students quality for free or reduced lunches. One might argue that disadvantaged students need a more highly individualized approach than others do. However, such an assumption has dangers. Schools with a moderate or high poverty rate (especially grant applicants) would likely focus on skills, whereas schools with more affluent students would be at liberty to teach substance. In addition, the high-poverty schools would endure clamor over personalization; it would come up in their meetings and memos and appear in large font on their websites. They would have to show evidence of personalization at all times, whether or not it made sense. We would see curricular bifurcation, as before.
What are we trying to do, ultimately? Have students create shiny portfolios? Data-driven “look how I’ve grown” slideshows? Or do we want to bring students into a larger conversation about something? Granted, this is a false opposition. The best education attends to the individual, but not at the expense of common learning. Latin might be an elective at a school, but everyone taking Latin will learn the same grammar and and read the same literature, for the most part. Otherwise it could not be taught in much depth. A composition course might indeed be tailored to the needs of those present, but other courses would require students to learn specific material. Any good course makes room for both the individual and the common, but not necessarily in obvious ways.
The most unsettling aspect of this call for “personalized learning” is its neglect of the subtly personal: the private encounter with subject matter. A student may be individually transformed by Augustine’s Confessions, but this doesn’t count; the individuality that matters here is the kind that looks like the others, the kind with buzzwords and graphs. In the name of personalized learning, the U.S. DOE rewards conformity of a sort. It favors schools that show off students’ growth charts and portfolios, like teenagers in a schoolyard sporting their brand-new clothes.