A timely new report, “A Path to the Future: Creating Accountability for Personalized Learning,” by Anne Hyslop and Sara Mead of Bellwether Education Partners argues that federal policymakers ought to rethink accountability provisions in a new ESEA in light of innovations in personalized learning – a concept that the authors themselves (to their credit) describe as “complicated to explain” (p. 11), “conflated with other, related efforts” (p.13), and for which “most approaches are nascent, relatively uncommon, and lack evidence” (p. 14).
Color me unpersuaded in terms of both the diagnosis of the policy issue at hand and the proposed remedies.
I’m inclined to be sympathetic. Really, I am. Despite the diversity of this great nation, there is a stultifying sameness to the American educational experience, constrained as it is by a panoply of laws and regulations, by the training and certification programs that produce professional educators and education leaders, and by parent and community expectations. In the main, public education has worked pretty ok for some people, but not at all for some and still others leave school woefully unprepared for the dramatic shifts underway in the economy and society. I certainly believe that we need to pursue and even nurture new models for the organization of schools and learning (in and out of school) that work better for more families and that it would be healthy and appropriate for multiple models to co-exist in harmony in a system of increased choices.
I do not believe, however, that just because technology may allow us to reorganize labor and work within schools and build more personalized, customized pathways for students that (a) the goals we maintain for public education have somehow been obviated (or that personalized learning is now the goal vs. student achievement and attainment); (b) that personalized learning will be the one best model for all students and families or their preference – at least anytime in the foreseeable future; and (c) that this obviates the need for external accountability for the use of public tax dollars and to protect the interests of those who are at-risk or who have been historically underserved. In fact, it seems eminently sensible (to me, at least) for the federal government to hold the standards-based, grade-based line on accountability provisions while ensuring the eligibility of these programs for other federal dollars and supporting R&D to build a pre-competitive evidence base for personalized learning. Loose on means, tight on ends, right?
The personalized learning community has made important critiques of our education system and is working hard to try to remedy the ills they’ve identified. The work deserves our support, but not at the risk of doing harm to those they have set out to serve. The fox must earn our trust before he can guard the hen house and even still it’s probably not an idea I’d support.