Wednesday Reading List: Predictions, Retrospectives, Conflicts of Interest, and Personalization

As we creep closer to inauguration day, the bulk of the education news continues to focus on either retro- or pro-spective views on federal education policy. While President Obama delivered his farewell address last night, Alyson Klein at Education Week looks back at his education legacy and sees a pastiche of progress, stagnation, and backlash:

Eight years after Obama took office, it's easy to see his fingerprints on elementary and secondary policy. Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia have hung on to the common-core standards, even in the face of strong political opposition. Forty states now require some objective measure of student growth to be included in educator evaluations, compared with 15 in 2009, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. And thanks in part to federal funding and encouragement, states and districts are rethinking how they educate and assess students in special education and English-language learners.The picture on student outcomes is mixed. Graduation rates are at an all-time high of 83.2 percent, and graduation gaps are closing between white and minority students. But in 2015, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation's report card, fell in math and reading for the first time in more than two decades.

Mine is an unpopular perspective, but I remain convinced that the framework of the common core standards will survive and become embedded in the culture of American schooling. If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: every country IN THE WORLD with high performing schools has uniform, internationally-benchmarked education standards. Given the shifting politics of the country, it's unlikely that the fervor around common core will be sustainable, which should be an opportunity for advocates to assure its survival.

Looking forward, Emily Richmond is in The Atlantic with predictions about the priorities of president-elect Trump's selection for education secretary, Betsy DeVos. Here's Richmond on higher education:

While he hasn’t laid out a detailed blueprint for college affordability, Trump said in a September speech that universities with large endowments should be required to spend more on student scholarships or risk losing their tax-exempt status. Trump has signaled his support for a free-market approach to public education with the nomination of Betsy DeVos. He’s also said the federal government shouldn’t profit from making college loans to students and that there should be an increased role for private lenders. How these issues will play out in actual presidential policy remains to be seen. But it’s worth noting one potential harbinger: For-profit colleges saw their stock prices surge on November 9.

It's seemingly impossible to predict anything vis-a-vis Trump these days, but I'm using a three-dimensional matrix to surmise which policy proposals will get the most traction. Ideas that maximize:

  1. populist appeal,
  2. market-based choice, and
  3. private sector involvement

seem to be the things that receive the most traction in the Trump worldview.

Trumpian education predictions tend to assume that DeVos will survive her confirmation hearing. The New York Times editorial board scratches the record:

As the Senate races forward with confirmation hearings this week, the spottiest disclosures have come from wealthy private-sector nominees with no governing experience and many potential conflicts. In other words, the people most in need of a complete ethics review. Exhibit A is Betsy DeVos, a billionaire and education lobbyist who is President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary. Ms. DeVos’s finances are a tangle that could take weeks to investigate ... People who have seen her financial disclosures so far say that Ms. DeVos and her husband, Dick DeVos, have investments in some 250 companies registered to a single Grand Rapids, Mich., address, entities whose investments could take weeks for the ethics office to research. Already, though, there are reports that the DeVoses are indirect investors in Social Finance Inc., a private company that refinances student loans.

This 👏🏻 is 👏🏻 why 👏🏻 ethics 👏🏻 rules 👏🏻 matter.

I'm not saying that DeVos definitely has conflicts of interest, but there's enough smoke that there could be fire. Citizens deserve to know whether the incoming secretary of education would benefit financially from propagating the kind of student lending that keeps people in debt for decades. Moreover, given Trump's position that MORE of the student loan industry should be privatized, investments like these require significant scrutiny.

Finally, Nichole Dobo at The Hechinger Report situates the current trend toward greater classroom "personalization" in a historical context:

Personalized learning dates back to a Chicago lab school at the turn of the 20th century, but the concept is having a renaissance because of today’s more sophisticated technology — and the excitement and investment the technology has inspired. Last year, the founder of Facebook pledged to donate $45 billion to social causes, one of them personalized learning. And various technology companies — from no-name startups to behemoths like Pearson — boast of new programs meant to facilitate this style of education ... Some education technology developers, such as Knewton, say machines can figure out what students need to know and how best to deliver it ... But for that concept to work, a child must spend a lot of time on the computer, feeding the system with data that the software uses to improve itself. “You want to extend and maximize their time in the system,” said Jose Ferreira, Knewton’s founder and CEO. There’s the rub: The idea of students, especially younger children, spending a lot of time on a computer worries some people.

I would go back further than the beginning of the 20th century to find the antecedents to personalized learning. At the risk of being too philosophical, the idea of the institutional classroom is relatively new, in the sweep of world history. Child labor was basically the norm for most children until the nineteenth century, and to the extent that formalized "education" occurred before that, at least in the sense that we understand literacy and numeracy instruction today, it was for the elites. When formal education did happen, it was usually one-on-one, delivered by a tutor or mentor, and with an emphasis on the specific skills that a child needed, depending on his or her station in life. That's about as personalized as it gets!

What IS new is the idea of aggregating a bunch of kids in a contemporary classroom, and THEN disaggregating their abilities and needs to personalize instruction. It's a very square-peg, round-hole sort of ordeal, to be perfectly honest, wherein educators are shoehorning new technology into the contemporary classroom paradigm. My bet is that home-schooling and micro-schooling become much more prevalent as personalization improves. Stay tuned for my much longer take on that idea, which should be published soon!