A New Role for the U.S. Department of Education

serlioPresident Trump suggested during his campaign that he would get rid of the U.S. Department of Education. His nominee for secretary of education, Betsy Devos, calls for more “local control,” charters, and vouchers; in addition, she intends to end the Common Core initiative.

I have criticized Obama’s “Race to the Top” program and many aspects of the Common Core–but I see a different and more promising role for the Department of Education. Here are some things that it can do if it stays intact.

First, it can seek out, vet, and publish the best curricular materials from schools and colleges around the country–so that, for instance, someone teaching Aeschylus’s Oresteia, or someone introducing students to statistics, can easily access a curriculum map, texts, questions, problems, and more. The schools and teachers whose work was published would be duly acknowledged and honored.

Second, it can initiate nationwide discussions that cut through typical ideological divides. Regardless of where people stand on issues such as charters, unions, testing, and “grit,” they can come together to discuss, for instance, the teaching of algebra or medieval history. These discussions would kindle public interest and stimulate additional dialogues.

Third, it can do its usual work: conduct, analyze, and disseminate research; oversee and award grants; and support the implementation of federal education law. This work would be substantial and ongoing–but the curricular work and the nationwide discussions would illuminate and elevate the rest.

Why bother?  someone might ask. Why not leave it to local entities to figure out their own curricula? Surely there’s enough published online that they won’t have trouble gathering resources.

Well, a lot of the material currently online is junk. Also, a lot of good work never gets posted publicly online, as schools see no benefit in posting it. Many curricula exist just as rough drafts (at best), since people are too busy during the year to revise them. Also, a curriculum does not tell you much, unless you know the subject matter. Since schools have such different bases of knowledge, one school’s curriculum might not even make sense to others.

By honoring schools with outstanding curricula, the Department of Education could create an incentive for them to polish and develop their  work. In addition, it could help supplement and interpret such curricula. It could work with education schools to include some of the works and topics in their education courses. Some items in the curricula could become topics of nationwide conversation.

What do you mean by “outstanding”? someone else might ask. Your idea of “outstanding” might differ from other people’s.

Yes, but I see ways to cut through these shells of opinion. By “outstanding” I mean, in this context, intellectually sound and rich. An outstanding curriculum honors the subject matter, considers it from different angles, and helps students understand, interpret, and question it.

I have been in the room when a colleague taught memorable lessons on Hamlet. They stood out for their close attention to Shakespeare’s language, the subtle combination of exposition and open discussion, and the quality of questions. Such lessons, if published, would inspire others; before long, there would be not only a repository of excellent Hamlet materials, but a lively nationwide discussion of Hamlet itself.

Yet another person might comment: “The idea of nationwide discussion sounds great, of course, but is this really the government’s business?” To this I answer: Why should a federal department (especially a department of education) not initiate lively and vigorous public discussion? Doesn’t that enhance democracy itself? It would not be the sole locus of such discussion, but it would set an example.

In short, the U.S. Department of Education could help promote intellectual vitality in the schools and beyond. Some may say, “This will never happen.” Well, it probably won’t happen in the next four years, but that does not render it impossible for all time. With all the talk of educational innovation, why not try the most interesting of all: the public study and discussion of works and ideas?

Image credit: Frontispiece for Sebastiano Serlio’s Book of Antiquities.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

Is Personalized Learning a Good in Itself?

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.