Personalized Learning Poised to Take Center Stage

As new state education plans are unveiled, the ed-tech sector is positioning itself to take full advantage of the ESSA’s ample provisions for innovation / entrepreneurial experimentation on public school children. Language in Title lV-21st Century Schools Part F, Subpart 1 of the Every Student Succeeds Act allocates $200 million+ annually in fiscal years 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 to “create, develop, implement, replicate, or take to scale entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated innovations to improve student achievement and attainment for high-need students.” Any state educational agency, local educational agency, consortium of such agencies, or the Bureau of Indian Education may partner with a non-profit organization, business, educational service agency or institution of higher education to develop these “innovative” products.

The New Schools Venture Fund Summit 2017, an invitation-only event, expects over 1,000 entrepreneurs, funders, policy makers, educators, and community leaders to converge on the Hyatt Regency in Burlingame, CA next week to “reimagine education.” Technology features prominently with sessions on rigor in personalized learning, tech in special education, tech as an equity issue, and developing a robust R&D program to “drive the kinds of technological breakthroughs we need in education.” Platinum level event sponsors include the Gates and Walton Family Foundations, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative-all forces behind the Ed Reform 2.0 digital curriculum agenda. According to EdWeek, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative recently teamed up with Chiefs for Change (CFC) to establish a “Transforming Schools and Systems Workgroup.”

Platinum sponsors

Their partnership will promote adoption of “Personalized Learning” at state and local levels, building on efforts underway in states like Rhode Island where Chan Zuckerberg funds are being used to pilotLighthouse Schools” that have adopted online learning platforms developed by the Facebook-affiliated Summit Learning. Diane Tavenner, CEO of Summit Public Schools, is slated to speak at the New Schools Venture Fund conference referenced above.

With backing from Zuckerberg, the company’s “free” Summit Basecamp has expanded its reach from ten bricks and mortar charter schools to over one hundred public schools nationally. The Gates Foundation helped underwrite this expansion via two grants totaling nearly $3.5 million and funded a white paper documenting the program prepared by FSG, a social impact consulting firm. Facebook provided technical support to develop Summit Learning’s “Personalized Learning Platform” that embraces Ed Reform 2.0 principles of competency based education and playlist modules. A New York Times article from August 2016 contrasts Zuckerberg’s current approach to education reform with earlier top-down efforts in Newark, noting this time around he plans to employ “a ground-up effort to create a national demand for student-driven learning in schools.” The Chan Zuckerberg/CFC collaboration appears to be part of that plan.

Established as a program of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education in 2010, Chiefs for Change spun off in 2015, expanding its mission to include city school districts as well as state departments of education as targets for their bi-partisan ed-reform strategies. Though the group at one point had dwindled to four members, it’s growing again and currently numbers twenty-six, seventeen of whom joined in 2016. The four newest members are: William Hite, Superintendent of Philadelphia Public Schools; Kunjan Narechania, Superintendent of the Recovery School District Louisiana; Paymon Rouhanifard, Superintendent of the Camden City School District; and Candice MacQueen, Commissioner of Education for Tennessee. As of now, seven state departments of education are represented in addition to eighteen school districts. You can find information on members of CFC here.

Chiefs Map

In 2015 CFC received $500,000 in support from the Walton Family Foundation and $250,000 from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation that manages Mark Zuckerberg’s donor-advised fund. Board members listed on the organization’s 2015 990 tax filing included: Hanna Skandera, New Mexico Secretary of Education and CCSSO board member; Mark Murphy, former Secretary of Education for Delaware and now CEO of Griptape and member of America Achieves; Deborah Gist, former Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education in Rhode Island and now Superintendent of the Tulsa School District; and John White, State Superintendent of Louisiana. Michael Magee, founder of the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies and Walton Family Foundation “Educator to Watch,” is both CEO and a board member.

Over the past year CFC has produced numerous policy papers detailing how to dovetail ESSA implementation with choice initiatives and school redesign efforts. While charters remain a key element in the privatization picture, increasingly reformers are pursuing “Third-Way,” cyber colonization tactics (like Summit Basecamp) that are imposed on neighborhood schools via turnaround protocols. In the coming year we are likely to see how the tech industry’s push for innovation, flexibility, growth, and multiple measures in assessment will play out in classrooms. My guess is Silicon Valley’s online-embedded assessment / data-dashboard / competency-based framework is not what alternative assessment advocates had in mind when fighting punitive end of year testing. Adopting growth measures means non-stop data collection yielding “efficacy” metrics that will likely set the stage for public-private partnerships and impact-investing down the road.

Summit PLP

So where will Chan Zuckerberg / CFC be focusing their efforts? As I discussed in a previous post, reformers in Rhode Island seem intent on making theirs the first “personalized learning state.” Officially there are no CFC members from Rhode Island, but the organization’s CEO, Mike Magee, co-founder of Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, and COO, Julia Rafal-Baer, are both based out of Providence according to their LinkedIn profiles. This article from Wired notes that ten percent of Summit Basecamp’s schools are in Rhode Island, right behind the much larger states of California, Texas, and Illinois.

Another candidate may be neighboring Massachusetts. Given its proximity to Rhode Island there would certainly be synergy in developing the two states in tandem. Massachusetts has recently set up a Personalized Learning Network via the Center for Collaborative Education; Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (performance-based assessments are part of the Summit Basecamp program); and Massachusetts Personalized Learning Ed-Tech Consortium (MAPLE). Given that organizational capacity, the presence of ed-tech incubator LearnLaunch (that recently set up a satellite in RI), a growing ed-tech workforce of 6,000+, and keen interest from Boston-Based impact investors like New Profit, the Commonwealth seems a logical place to center a personalized-learning campaign of the type Chan Zuckerberg and Chiefs for Change are contemplating.

Springfield Innovation

Mitchell Chester, Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education in Massachusetts, may have tipped his hand in a March 7, 2017 op-ed in the Washington Post “Radical Change for Struggling Schools? It’s reliably doable.” The piece was co-written with John White, Superintendent of Education for Louisiana. Both are members of Chiefs for Change. The piece calls for radical interventions in schools that put in place new leaders, autonomy, flexibility, and the involvement of third party non-profit entities. This rhetoric is consistent with legislation now under consideration that would establish “innovation partnership zones.” The Massachusetts Teachers Association provides background on these bills here. They have issued a statement of opposition to the bills here.

Even with substantial flexibility built into the ESSA, reformers are still pushing deregulation and waivers to speed ed-tech implementation. Innovation zones carve out spaces to pilot and develop proof points to advance the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda. In March 2016 iNACOL (International K12 Association for Online Learning) created an issue brief “Innovation Zones: Creating Policy Flexibility for Personalized Learning.” The brief offers sample language from Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky, Mississippi and New York that allow for implementation of competency-based education models. In the past year Districts of Innovation have also appeared in Texas, and model legislation for innovative districts is now available through ALEC. Note their emphasis on adopting plans that “try new ways of delivering instruction and/or allocating resources.”

ALEC Innovation Zone

Which brings me to the new Massachusetts state education plan. In preparing to write this piece, I spent some time with it and pulled a few excerpts to share below. Read between the lines and see if you draw the same conclusion I do.

Page 11: Massachusetts will continue our commitment to transforming the lowest performing schools and districts through a strategy that includes state/local partnerships, empowering school and district innovation focused on student success, and aggressive intervention authority.

Page 12: The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education employs five overarching strategies to advance the goal of success after high school for all students:

  • Strengthen standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessments
  • Promote educator development
  • Support social-emotional learning, health, and safety
  • Turn around the lowest performing districts and schools
  • Use technology and data to support student learning

Page 18: Supporting high-quality professional development for educators to personalize learning and improve academic achievement through technology. Through a public-private partnership, we will catalyze personalized learning in the Commonwealth to better prepare students for their future. Among other activities, the partnership will help schools pilot projects that allow students to progress through the curriculum based on demonstrated competency on the expectations set forth in the curriculum frameworks.

Page 22: In an era of increasing demands for public services as the state’s population ages, the education sector will be competing with other public services for financial resources. Districts must continue to find ways to get more out of the people, time, and fiscal resources they already have to help improve outcomes for students, including by reducing inequities in the allocation of resources to different types of students. To this end, the state has created a new Office of Resource Allocation Strategy and Planning to develop new tools and supports for districts to rethink how they use their resources.

Consider the ALEC innovation legislation as it applies to the following scenario. The commonwealth attempts to establish a position that additional resources for public education funding are not possible and should not be expected. However recognizing the importance of every child having a “quality” education they will employ data and technology via “personalized learning” and competency-based education to attempt to achieve that goal cheaply and efficiently. Schools will be scrutinized regarding their use of the limited resources provided to them. Those that do not meet required outcomes or use their resources “wisely” can expect aggressive intervention, likely involving some sort of outside partnership arrangement. Autonomy and flexibility will be offered under the guise of helpfulness, but in reality it will be used to remove existing contractual protections from teachers and recuse the Commonwealth from its responsibility to fully and adequately fund public education. Does that sound about right?

Massachusetts  teachers will be gathering with educators from across the nation a few months from now as Boston hosts the 2017 NEA Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly in late June and early July. It is imperative that rank and file educators raise concerns and begin to organize NOW around the threats ed-tech and personalized learning pose to their profession. In Arizona, pretty much any “warm body” is allowed to teach due to the state’s dire teacher shortage. A few years from now, who knows, they may not even require human teachers, or at least face-to-face teachers as cyber instruction becomes the norm. Don’t let that happen. Children are counting on adults to pay attention and act on their behalf.

Reasoning Mind

1 thought on “Personalized Learning Poised to Take Center Stage”

  1. The essential conclusion that “Children are counting on adults to pay attention and act on their behalf…” is poignantly saddest when recognizing that over the past years bent to NCLB/R2T invasions, it has been our nation’s poorest children with the least amount of adult advocacy who have been most aggressively used as guinea pigs to “vet” school reforms….and who will continue to be most helpless against any new educational profiteering whim.

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