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In Education "Reform" Nothing Means What You Think It Does

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In the world of Education reform, nothing means what you think it will. We learned that the hard way with No Child Left Behind. I mean, of course we don't want a child left behind! Why would we want a child left behind? Sign the bill! Stamp the approval! All kids succeed!

But it didn't really pan out that way. Instead it was more like, no school left unpunished. As the clock wound down to the point where ALL schools were supposedly passing ALL kids or else ALL would be failing, a feat that educational experts new from the beginning was impossible, we abandoned NCLB and moved to Race to the Top. Again, who doesn't want to be on top? Who wants their state, their kids, their neighborhood to be on a school that is losing? No one! Let's all Race to the Top.

Amidst the many demands states were expected to comply with in order to receive race to the top funding, was merit pay. When normal working Americans hear the words merit pay, they often equate it to bonuses. But at least in the state of Georgia, merit pay actually means you get to keep 100% of the paycheck you already get if you do really well. And accountability doesn't mean making sure everyone is doing what they are supposed to, it just means more testing. Accountability, in education reform world always and only means tests.

A few months back,President Obama killed NCLB forever by signing the "Every Student Succeeds Act" and again, who wouldn't want that? Of course we want every student to succeed. Especially teachers, no teacher goes into her job every day thinking "how can I get one more kid to fail." But like the other education reform speak, this will not bring us what it promises. Among many troubling aspects of this bill is the point that only 1 percent of students will be allowed to take an alternative to the mandated standardized tests. So, by definition of the bill every student will succeed by not allowing most students with protected accommodations use those accommodations in order to pass the class. This make no sense and is troublesome to most teachers, but especially those teaching special ed.

One big part of the Every Student Succeeds Act is a push for "personalized learning," in fact personalized learning is so hot right now billionaire Mark Zuckerberg has agreed to invest billions of dollars into the initiative. But much like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Merit Pay didn't actually mean that. Personalized learning is simply not what you imagine.

You imagine a classroom full of students independently working on things that interest them. They feel special and noticed and cared for. They understand how what they are learning will apply to them later. That sounds awesome and that isn't personalized learning in education reform. Nope, not even close. When people talk about personalized learning, what they are actually talking about are pre-packaged, pre-scripted modules that a kid must get through. Perhaps, they test out of the first two, or do them in a different order but they all land on the same test and take it. Maybe they do it at a different pace, but that doesn't mean this is personalized.

Why would they do this? Well, we stopped buying textbooks. The textbook companies had to come up with the next big thing and they did. They now sell "personalized learning" platforms that schools can buy, but a child jumping through these computerized hoops is about as personalized as a kid working through the textbook at their own pace, silently, in a class with their peers.

It isn't an accident tech billionaires are benevolently funding tech based initiatives. Maybe these men do actually believe that they hold the solution to the future, because the computer programmed learning would have worked for them, just like arts based education is what worked for so many of our famous musicians, and sports programs worked for our athletes. I have no doubt that Facebook style learning on a computer that Bill Gates invented are exactly what these two gentlemen would have loved in High school, but the fact is not all of our students learn that way.

The other troubling thing about tech billionaires backing personalized learning (again read, pod people computer lessons) is how much they stand to gain. Pardon me if I don't find it benevolent when Mark Zuckerberg, who knows more about personalization of internet experience than anyone else, pushes a style of learning that he will likely be able to profit from. Of course he wants more computers to be a necessity for all classrooms. He pedals computer related goods. Meanwhile, Microsoft has a deal where they collect massive amounts of data from the schools while the kids work on the computers that were gifted the under the guise of charity.

As a teacher, this is so frustrating. It is so much harder to explain what is actually happening when everything has cute names. It is also terrifying. I am not allowed to give my students so much as an aspirin without parental permission. I wanted to read a book with a couple of swear words that wasn't on the automatic approve list and I had to painstakingly collect permission slips for a week. Meanwhile a company can collect all the information they want about what our kids click on, how fast they answer questions, what may hold their attention, and who knows what else. No parental permission is needed. As the parent of a kindergartener I think I should have the right to decide, or at the very least know who is keeping tabs on my daughter's brain.

I too want every student to succeed. I too want personalized learning, but I want those things for real, and not some cheap version of these promises that people stand to make a lot of money on. I think our kids are worth more than cute slogans and money making schemes they don't actually benefit from. Perhaps it is the English teacher in me. I just want people to say what they mean.