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At the moment, one of the hot education terms is “personalized learning”. It sounds pretty good, maybe something that we should be doing in schools. As opposed to all that unpersonalized learning currently happening in classrooms.

The problem is that no one is clear about what “personalized” learning really is, a point clearly illustrated by a writer in The New Yorker1 who says the concept is messy.

Danusis [principal at the school profiled in the first part of the article] and her teaching staff practice personalized learning, an individual-comes-first approach, usually aided by laptops, that has become a reformist calling card in education.

Personalized learning argues that the entrepreneurial nature of the knowledge economy and the gaping need, diversity, and unmanageable size of a typical public-school classroom are ill-served by the usual arrangement of a teacher lecturing at a blackboard.

Advocates of personalized learning say that the approach has been unfairly conflated with teacherless, online-only education. They invoke Dewey and Freire and Montessori as guiding lights and take pains to emphasize, in almost liturgical unison, that personalized learning is not about tech—and that “tech is just a tool.”

No, it’s not about the tech. Which is interesting since much of the push for personalized learning is coming from edtech companies. Walk the vendor floor at ISTE or any of the other over-sized tech conferences and count the number products that promise to personalize learning for your kids.

Anyway, two other parts of the personalized learning hype that should raise concerns comes from it’s intersections with the charter business and the usual cast of tech billionaires who believe their software is the magic key to fixing schools.

Charter schools are the bluntest incarnation of education reform and have long enjoyed bipartisan support. Last year’s wave of teachers’ strikes, though, popularized the critique that charters divert funding from traditional public schools and undercut union standards. Personalized learning, meanwhile, is as ascendant a reform as ever, boosted by many of the same philanthropic entities that have promoted charters: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Intermediary funders and education-policy groups that depend on their grant dollars—including iNACOL, Excel in Ed, the Learning Accelerator, Big Picture Learning, and Jobs for the Future—have, in turn, made personalized learning a priority. Karla Phillips, a policy director at Excel in Ed, told me that both personalized learning and charter schools have “flexibility” as their aim.

Personalized learning systems have been adopted by many of the major charter companies as a way to reduce the number of teachers needed, often in the name of making them more “productive”, as well as flexible. Many of the Rhode Island schools visited by the writer were using personalization systems from Summit Learning, developed, in part, by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

None of those somewhat suspicious connections would matter if personalized learning actually “worked”. So, where’s the evidence?

Yet the academic and policy research behind it is thin. A few local pilot programs have been shown to slightly improve test scores and teacher satisfaction, but a 2017 study by RAND, commissioned by the Gates Foundation to study forty Gates-funded schools, reads like a shrug. “Although advocates and reformers have developed PL models,” the RAND authors observed, “many of the component practices are relatively common nationally, making it difficult to clearly identify what makes a school a PL school.”

Of course, this study (and the vast major of other education research) assumes that student scores on standardized tests is a valid measure of “learning”. And that the tests themselves are valid.

And that highlights one of the major problems with “personalized” learning systems.

The question of what kids should be learning in K12 should be the starting point. Instead developers at the tech companies like Summit, along with the school administrators who sign the contracts to buy their products, assume that the curriculum and assessments already in place are credible and will best serve student needs.

That hardware and software by itself will transform learning.

Image by Brad Flickinger, posted to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. Trying to access the article can be a little messy in itself since the website really, REALLY wants you to register. I recommend saving it to a read-later service (like Instapaper), which makes it much easier to read.

2. The writer includes a disclaimer noting that the Gates and Hewlett Foundations and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are among the many funders of The Hechinger Report which partnered on this story.