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OPINION

The Same Folks Who Brought You Common Core Want You to Embrace “Personalized Learning”

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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Editor's Note: This column was co-authored by Jane Robbins.

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Mark Twain enjoyed repeating the observation that Richard Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. Early in the Common Core controversy, the national standards’ proponents made similar claims about the quality and effects of the standards. Ignore what you’re seeing with your own eyes – the standards are better than they seem!

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History repeats itself with the subject of “personalized learning” (PL), better described as “depersonalized training.” As with Common Core, parents are discovering that PL – which involves putting children on computer screens and using sophisticated software to track their thought processes and create algorithms to predict their future lives – might not be the way to go. So now the same people who created Common Core propaganda are putting their marketing skills to work for PL.

A new “messaging document” has arrived from organizations called ExcelinEd and Education Elements. The former is the new name for Jeb Bush’s outfit in Florida, which is all in on replacing teachers with machines; the latter is a consulting firm that helps schools do this. These organizations are trying to avoid the mistake they made with Common Core – allowing the truth to seep out and prompt a parent backlash.

They may be a little late. The backlash has begun, both from parents who object to specific PL schemes such as Chan Zuckerberg’s Summit charter schools, and from observers who warn about the Orwellian mindset and data-crunching dystopia connected with machine-driven education (see here and here). But the authors aim to head off opposition with well-chosen language.

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The report replicates the condescending theme of the Common Core campaign: that parents are either too ignorant or, frankly, too stupid to see that this scheme will be wonderful, so as experts we must explain it in single-syllable words they can understand. “A lack of understanding, alongside a lack of knowledge of the benefits of personalized learning,” the report intones, “remain (sic) a consistent barrier to large-scale systemic change and support.”

The report also annoyingly suggests (as does standard commentary on any opposition to progressive schemes) that the opposition is motivated by “fear” of anything different. It doesn’t occur to these people that “disagreement with” doesn’t constitute fear. But it’s a good motivator nevertheless.

Anyway, in keeping with these themes, the report suggests that the PL pushers shouldn’t make PL sound like a dramatic change. The ed-tech crowd does tend to get excited about the “transformational” benefits of machine training, but according to the authors, they should tone it down a bit to keep from alarming those ever-fearful parents. 

The report advises: “A helpful guideline is to convey that change is required but that it will be more of an evolution than a revolution. . . . Even though some of the potentially big changes . . . may be true, experience tells us that very few . . . will occur in the first few years of implementation. For that reason, there is little reason to raise hackles in the earliest phases of discussion.”

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In other words, keep the public in the dark until so much money has been spent that it’s too late to reverse course. Brings back fond memories of Common Core.

PL proponents should also deny that PL technology will reduce interaction with teachers, isolate kids from their peers, and expose them to the dangers of screen time. But although the report links to a couple of articles arguing that PL is possible without large doses of technology, let’s not kid ourselves. The PL utopia envisioned by these organizations and their allied tech corporations is basically all tech, all the time. Simply denying the concerns, without explaining why they’re misplaced, won’t work.

As for the report’s insistence that PL won’t replace teachers, tell that to “innovation” guru and PL proponent Tom Vander Ark, who warned school administrators that PL would require a “different staffing model” and a “tough set of conversations at your next (teacher) bargaining.” 

The report doesn’t address the question whether PL actually improves academic achievement. Chalkbeat reports some of the evidence that any improvement is meager – and some research actually shows a decrease in “student engagement” with PL, contrary to what the pushers are instructed to proclaim to skeptical parents. But it’s still early enough for Jeb and his minions to make rosy predictions, and this report tells them exactly how to do it.

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After experiencing the duplicity of Common Core, though, parents may be less trusting of this next great thing emanating from the experts. It will take more than a shiny marketing campaign to make this music sound good.

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