Lawmakers Still Pushing “Personalized Learning” Despite Huge Problems


The corporate technology push of machine-based skills training continues to march across the nation. This effort goes by the names such as “competency-based education” (CBE), “personalized learning,” and “mastery education.” It has been well described by Jane Robbins, Peter Greene, here and in this space.

The latest is a bill in Florida that seeks to expand what was supposed to be a five-year pilot project for four school districts and the University of Florida experimental school to all 67 Florida school districts after only two and a half years. This expansion is problematic, not only because of an absence of data showing its effectiveness in any of the pilot counties, but also because of the clear evidence that it failed in Lake County, one of the original pilot districts. Lake County experienced a significant drop in graduation rates, and the grade for the high school implementing the pilot dropped from a B to a D.

Bill Gates, who was funding Lake County’s CBE effort before it failed, has admitted that education technology has not improved academic performance in general. It should be noted that just about every Gates education venture has been a failure. In addition to Common Core and CBE, the teacher evaluation grants in Hillsborough County, Fla., cost that county’s taxpayers an extra $24 million and were a total failure. Even the smaller school-to-work learning communities which preceded Common Core also failed.

Parents, initially quite enthusiastic about the advertised glories of CBE, have quickly learned in most instances that these promises have all the substance of cotton candy in the rain. For example, 73 percent of middle school parents in the MacPherson, Kan., school district stated in a survey that they would prefer their students not be in a class using Summit Basecamp personalized learning (CBE) digital learning platform due to academic, privacy, physiological and psychological concerns. Parents in Cheshire, Conn., and Indiana, Pa., have been able to stop the use of the Summit in their school districts due to concerns about academic achievement and data privacy.

The Summit Basecamp platform is a joint venture between the Summit charter schools and the Chan-Zuckerburg Initiative founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg and his wife Priscilla Chan. There are many other instances of parental anger and removal of their children from schools using this platform, well explained by Leonie Haimson of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy. Interestingly, Summit boasts of a research collaboration with Harvard, but refused to be studied by Harvard researchers.

Data collection, including psychological data, in CBE is extensive, with the FBI issuing public service announcements warning of the privacy dangers related to education technology. One education technology company called Knewton brags about being able to collect 5-10 million actionable data points per student per day as they interact with Common Core curriculum and embedded assessments, and another called Dream Box boasts of collecting 100,000 data points per student per hour. These are the kinds of platforms commonly used in CBE.

There are many other CBE problems. These include:

  • The concern that this data will be used to pigeonhole children into careers not of their choosing — The algorithms associated with the various learning and data mining programs that are an integral part of CBE can steer children toward various career paths without the students, teachers or parents ever knowing what factors were used to develop those algorithms.
  • Harm to student-teacher interaction — Teachers, especially those using the Summit-type personalized learning platforms are reporting on a widespread basis that their jobs are becoming monitors and mentors instead of teachers.
  • High cost — Lake County, Fla., spent about $8 million of grant money trying to implement CBE with poor results. It was not feasible or sustainable to continue when the district was funding the costs.
  • Narrowing of curriculum to that which can be digitized — This is an expansion of the problem created by the high stakes testing craze of No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act.
  • Inability of parents or teachers to actually see the online curriculum or assessments — This is further erosion of parental autonomy and violation of the fundamental, inherent right of parents to be able to direct the education of their children.
  • Increased screen time for students, especially for younger students — The New York Times article about the families in the Kansas school districts rebelling against the Summit digital learning platform noted that one student with a seizure disorder experienced a much greater incidence of seizures with the increased screen time required by the platform. Parents also reported an increase in anxiety and social isolation of their children.

It is important to note that these concerns cross the political spectrum of experts, as noted in a 2017 article in Education Week. And as observed by J.W. Wilson at Truth in American Education, it is also important to note that in the push to expand CBE, school officials marginalize and minimize parental concerns as nostalgia wanting for the way things were when they were young. This is the same tactic used by reformers during the Common Core debate.

Florida should not be extending CBE statewide, both because there is only evidence of failure and because of all of its many problems. This should serve as a cautionary tale for the rest of the nation. CBE is not personalized learning that will help children succeed — it is the corporate education technology extension of Common Core, affective profiling, and constant assessment and data mining meant to benefit large companies. The parents resisting it across the nation should be supported and joined. Our children’s futures and freedoms demand it.

Karen R. Effrem, MD

Dr. Karen Effrem and her husband have three children. She is trained as a pediatrician and serves as national education issues chairman for Eagle Forum and president of Education Liberty Watch.

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