Could the forces that fought the Common Core bring down personalized learning?

Major funders and the federal education department are promoting the idea.

Teachers are wary. Parents are perplexed.

Criticism is coming from both the political left and right.

It’s not the Common Core, though a few years ago, it would have been. Now, we’re talking about technology-based personalized learning, the latest, hottest, and best-funded idea to dominate the conversation about American schools.

The backlash to the Common Core standards, and their associated tests, was enough to get them revised or replaced in some states. Today, some teachers, political conservatives, and parents are beginning to mobilize against personalized learning, too. And in some cases, the very same people are taking up the fight.

Take Jane Robbins of the American Principles Project, a socially conservative group that vigorously opposed Common Core. One recent piece she co-authored: “The Same Folks Who Brought You Common Core Want You to Embrace ‘Personalized Learning.’”

What Common Core and personalized learning advocates certainly have in common are grand ambitions to reshape schools. That brings challenges, said Betheny Gross of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a University of Washington–based think tank.

“Once you start pushing for broader scale and scope, you leave the honeymoon phase pretty quickly,” Gross said. “Even Common Core had a honeymoon phase.” More schools and districts say they’re adopting personalized learning and more states are encouraging or even requiring the move.

It all suggests that personalized learning, whether or not it provokes a Common Core-sized debate, is entering the a boom-and-backlash cycle that often follows education trends.

The Common Core and personalized learning are different in key ways. The standards are a discrete list of what students should learn; personalized learning generally refers to allowing students to progress at their own pace, based in part on their own interests, often with technology.

Common Core was also aggressively pushed by the federal government, which allowed the standards to spread quickly. The feds have had a more modest role in backing personalized learning, which has entered classrooms in a piecemeal way.

Still, the nascent pushback to personalized learning has supporters mobilizing. Many have shifted their rhetoric to de-emphasize the role of technology, a key sticking point for many critics. They think they’re making headway.

“There’s an increased understanding that personalized learning is not about technology or increasing screen time,” said Maria Worthen, of iNACOL, a group that supports the idea.

Others aren’t so sure — including members of these three groups.

Emerging opposition group #1: Teachers and their unions, some of whom fear philanthropic overreach into schools

To Merrie Najimy, who heads the 110,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association, “personalized learning” is code for tech products whose spread is driven by unaccountable philanthropic organizations.

“It’s depersonalized learning,” she says.

She’s skeptical of those who are pushing the model, like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the organization founded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. They have spent hundreds of millions of dollars backing the approach to teaching, which they argue will help boost learning and engage students. (CZI is also a funder of Chalkbeat.)

“When you begin to bring in philanthropists in to give private money, public education is no longer public,” said Najimy. Her union put out a highly critical report focusing on CZI and other philanthropies supporting personalized learning and charter schools.

So far, national unions have been cautious but much more optimistic.

“Of course, it’s important that you adjust your teaching to the needs of individuals, and technology can be a real help in that,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. But she’s also worried that the idea is “being used by tech companies as a way of making money, and used by some of the powers that be as a management tool rather than a pedagogical tool.”

Weingarten, though, has kind words for CZI, which she said her union is “working more and more with.”

“I see Chan Zuckerberg approaching this work completely different than the way in which they approached the Newark work,” she said, referring to Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to revamp Newark’s schools in 2010.

(Asked if AFT has received grants from CZI, an AFT spokesperson would only point to the union’s tax disclosure forms. The most recent one does not indicate a donation from CZI.)

The National Education Association, the other large national teachers union, has also taken a moderate stance. Last year, it published an article featuring teachers praising personalized learning.

“I know within minutes that a student doesn’t understand a particular concept,” one teacher said.

More skeptical teachers complained about the piece. In some ways, though, it tracks with a report Gross recently co-authored, based in part on interviews and surveys of teachers in 39 schools that had won money from the Gates Foundation to introduce personalized learning. (The report was also funded by Gates, which is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

Gross found that teachers generally had positive things to say about the shift. She also found, though, that the teachers were getting limited support from their principals or colleagues.

“If teachers experience the difficulty and challenge around building from the ground up, not being supported to do this work, we are at risk of having them turn against it because they feel like it’s all being plopped in their lap,” Gross said.

It’s worth watching whether teachers elsewhere begin protesting the new programs. That could set up a repeat of a cycle the AFT got caught in several years ago, when the union took money from the Gates Foundation meant to support the Common Core but eventually cut ties after backlash from some members.

Emerging opposition group #2: Conservatives, who fear influence of big tech and top-down change

President Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos is an evangelist for personalized learning. So is Jeb Bush, an influential conservative voice in education, whose education nonprofit ExcelinEd backs the approach.

“We need to allow for individualization and customization, and I think a lot of the tasks and trends around personalized and customized learning are really promising,” DeVos has said.

But another conservative faction is deeply skeptical.

“Personalized learning is not good for genuine education,” says Jane Robbins of the American Principles Project, a socially conservative group. “If you’re trying to discuss Shakespeare … that’s not going to happen with a software program.”

Right-wing outlets like Townhall and Breitbart regularly feature articles critical of education technology, personalized learning, and the groups backing those ideas.

“‘Personalized learning’ is an edutech buzz phrase for hijacking the classroom and hooking students and teachers on branded software and hardware — iPads, smartboards, computerized portfolios, homework apps, you name it — without any evidence that such shiny objects improve academic performance,” conservative writer Michelle Malkin wrote earlier this year. This argument was quickly picked up by Breitbart.

(Does personalized learning improve academic performance? That remains up for debate. One prominent study looking at schools that won grants to add programs showed modest boosts to student test scores, but also found that students were less likely to say there was an adult at school who knew them well. Some specific online programs have shown promising results. But overall, the research base remains thin.)

Robbins and Malkin, incidentally, also led the charge against Common Core; Jeb Bush, meanwhile, was one of the standards’ top Republican backers.

These critics fear data-mining by technology companies, and a top-down approach to changing teaching that impedes local control. Others are focused on how personalized learning subverts teachers’ authority.

“Some of our strongest allies are members of right-wing groups,” said Leonie Haimson, cofounder of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy and a critic of digital learning programs.

Emerging opposition group #3: The parents and students who don’t get it or don’t like it

There’s no reliable gauge of parents and students think of personalized learning across the country. Chalkbeat’s unscientific approach — reaching out to supporters and critics of Summit, a personalized learning platform backed by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and used in nearly 400 schools — yielded an outpouring of positive and negative responses.

“The Summit platform was implemented last year and has been a nightmare for us,” wrote one New Jersey parent.

“As a parent, my son really flourished with Summit Learning,” wrote another from Washington state. “It let us see where he was in regard to his academic performance and the need to learn how to ‘self-pace’ his work.”

“Our superintendent and school board refuse to listen to parents like myself who prefer more traditional, low-screen options for students,” a parent from Wisconsin said.

“So many parents have assumed that with a technology platform the teacher interaction would wane or even disintegrate. We found the opposite to be true,” countered yet another parent.

There’s no sign the debate is dying down.

In one Brooklyn high school that adopted Summit students walked out of class in protest. “It’s annoying to just sit there staring at one screen for so long,” one said. Parents or students have raised concerns about Summit in Cincinnati, Connecticut, Milwaukee, and Pennsylvania.

There has been no outside research on the effectiveness of the Summit’s platform, though Summit says the approach was developed based on research.

Diane Tavenner, the founder of Summit, told Chalkbeat that tens of thousands of students have used the platform, and in most places, parents and students are happy with it. Tavenner, who met with some of the students at the Brooklyn school, said their frustration was about broader issues with the school.

“We have some partner schools that don’t really get what [Summit] is and they use the tool in the wrong way — they put kids on it and tell them, ‘Here, go learn,’” Tavenner said. “That is not what it is, and when that happens, of course parents and kids are not happy about that.”

Tavenner said Summit’s technology should be used to facilitate projects and as a tool for parents, teachers, and students to communicate, not as the center of a student’s learning experience.

“We’re trying to get them ready for the world that they’re going to live in where these tools are going to be in their world,” she said.

Other supporters of personalized learning also seem keenly aware of concerns about technology and students’ screen time. Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd and Education Elements, a personalized learning consulting company, recently distributed a messaging document urging advocates to downplay technology and the need for dramatic change.

CZI officials particular have said that they see personalized learning as encompassing student health and well-being, and that technology should serve as a tool for teachers, not replace them.

Tavenner isn’t sure the message is always reaching parents.

“What’s common is really not understanding what these things are, and schools in general doing a really bad job communicating with families,” she said about Common Core and personalized learning.

But messaging is likely to matter less than what parents, teachers, and students experience in real classrooms, particularly if technology really does end up playing an outsize role in some places.

“It could fail because parents and teachers and students just say forget about it, this is not what we want — just like what happened with Common Core testing,” said Weingarten.