CPS' newly posted job, Executive Director of Personalized Learning, comes with a dire warning

Chicago LinkdIn users found a surprising job posting for a new executive-level position in CPS last week.

This is actually much bigger news than it at first appears. Its importance, however, has been almost entirely eclipsed by our governor's foolish comments that CPS schools are crumbling prisons. We'll get back to those comments another day. But for now: the job posting.

CPS is hiring a six-figure Executive Director of Personalized Learning, even though CPS cries broke and has such bad credit they may not open schools next fall at all. Seems a little goofy, doesn't it? Maybe a little irresponsible?

It could be much, much worse than that. I shared the job posting and got a dire message from across the miles. An alert Baltimore reader reached out to me with a warning: when "personalized learning" comes to your district, watch out.

It turns out Baltimore County is the nation's capital when it comes to "personalized," "blended," or "online" learning. Through their STAT program (Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow) (yes, that's really what it's called), Baltimore County Public Schools have dumped massive resources into this particular ed-tech sphere and have been lauded from many quarters, receiving awards for innovation and apparently modeling what we should all aspire to.

But apparently, all that glitters is not gold.

A Baltimore County reader and BCPS parent writes: "We have a school (currently in use) in our system which is quite literally sinking backward into a lake. We have schools that have brown drinking water, asbestos, structural issues and bursting pipes.  One teacher has a beach umbrella over her desk due to a leak! Yet Pearson, Intel, Hewlett Packard, McGraw Hill, Digital Promise, iNACOL (The International Association for K-12 Online and Blended Learning) and school systems across the country (and world!) have visited some of our shiny new STAT schools to watch our little children demonstrate what the 'future of 21st century' and personalized learning  look like. The truth is not being shown here."

She shares her experiences--anonymously--with a stern warning for CPS parents to get ready. Because to ed reformers, right now "personalized learning" is the golden-haired child, and of all ed reform snake oil and nonsense, the rhetoric and the money connected to this scam are hardest to combat. Here she writes to all of us and begins by saying that when she saw the LinkdIn posting for a CPS Executive Director of Personalized Learning, she could scarcely believe her eyes.

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I could not have predicted that the “personalized learning” craze would be coming to Chicago. After everything that you have been through--just over the past three years--I could not believe that the edtech industry and your school system would try this there as well. Was it not enough that CPS closed nearly 50 schools, had toilet paper fundraisers to pay for necessities that the school system would not cover, and yet had the funds for $20-million no-bid contracts like SUPES Academy?

And now, “personalized learning” has reared its head in your city and it will not be cheap--at all. It will cost you dearly and in multiple ways.

I am here to tell you to get ready, get educated and prepare yourselves--now! I tell you this as a parent and as someone who has watched my school system lead the way for the nation and the world with our digital program, all without a proven track record of success. I tell you this as someone who has watched the process become the theater of the absurd, as our school systems’ vendors, Hewlett Packard, Intel, and Discovery Education, fawn over our school administration and shower them with awards for being visionaries, illuminating the way for others.

Nevertheless BCPS has managed to push forward with plans, despite the lack of data to support this learning model.

Let me briefly summarize what has occurred (and not occurred) here in BCPS regarding our personalized learning initiative, STAT. It has gone from a highly publicized and strongly marketed “strategic plan” to a full blown “success” overnight with zero data to suggest that kids benefit from laptop learning and digital curriculum.  A mere nine weeks after 1st through 3rd graders in 10 pilot schools (“Lighthouse” Schools) received their devices, our Hewlett Packard sales representative, Gus Schmedlen, appeared before Baltimore County Public Schools’ Board of Education to slobber over our "unbelievable success."  Mentioning that the United Nations General Assembly, Rwanda, Oman, Paris, The World Economic Forum, Croatia and Ireland were given our STAT strategic plan due to our “unbelievable success” captures the essence of the spectacular “pretendathon” going on here.

Chicago, this is what you should know. These are the brass tacks:

What is personalized learning? In BCPS this is defined as as students having  “the opportunity to make choices in how they learn, what they learn, and how they demonstrate what they've learned.” The way (they say) that personalized learning is implemented in the classroom is that customized lessons are directed at three or more levels. (Note: I learned this not from my own school system, but from a conference I attended at which our school officials were teaching others about BCPS’s STAT initiative.) Students are given a specific lesson based on their specific “level." They are then given a choice of three or more options of how to complete that lesson. Students can also choose if they want their earphones on or off, and where to sit in the room--whether it be at desk, a rug, or  a beanbag chair--“student choice” being the operative words, and individual laptops being the (only?) means through which this personalized learning can occur.

The problem is that personalized learning is a movement touted solely by the edtech industry and philanthropists--period. These ideas and descriptions sound nice in theory. Yet all of these programs, games, and videos make personalized learning “student centered” at the cost of being teacher-guided. It is a model that is not proven, an experiment that has relegated students to becoming software beta-testing lab rats.

Stakeholder buy-in. Critical to the plans of personalized learning proponents, "stakeholder buy-in" begins before the public has the time to digest what is occurring. Astonishingly, in our case it was the kids themselves who were targeted early on.  Our superintendent and top administrators have said in numerous public forums that they intentionally sent “talking points” home for the kids so that they could “sell it to their parents and grandparents."  One consequence of using kids in this way is that they are then trotted out to Board of Education meetings, begging “please do not take our laptops away,” cleverly pitting children as one group of stakeholders against parents as another. Parents, of course, have begged just the opposite of the Board, pleading for research, complaining of poor quality apps and programs, worrying about too much screen time and vendor access to our kids’ data.  Parents have complained to no avail about the “gamification” of education (as with DreamBox). But the Board heeds the children who tout their tech, and who wouldn't listen to a little child begging to keep their laptop?

Another stakeholder group is the STAT teachers, responsible for implementing personalized learning throughout the school system. In other districts they've been referred to as a “Vanguard Team” charged with "rallying the troops" and getting the rest of the staff on board. The plan was intentional and it divided the community of teachers and parents.  A final subgroup went unacknowledged for a long time: parents. Even iNACOL admitted parents were woefully ignored, which has led to disruption in digital plans across the country.  Be prepared for the campaign!

Government and the Media.  While these are technically also stakeholder groups, they are far more powerful since they sway public opinion or hold the wallet and laws that control any publicly funded initiative.  Elected officials and major media already enjoyed a good working relationship with our superintendent and they were given a thorough (mis)understanding of the personalized learning initiative well before the public knew of it. The consequence of this has been that complaints to our elected officials fall on deaf ears. Additionally, a bill was proposed this year at the Maryland General Assembly to replicate a STAT-like initiative across Maryland--without a single data point from our own school system to suggest that the pilot schools were successful.

An argument about inequality/inequity. Simply put, inequity been used extensively in BCPS as the reason for this initiative.  The problem is that the personalized/blended/online learning model is not a proven model for education and actually has failed miserably in many school systems across the country.  It also has the potential of putting those with greater academic need at risk of falling backward, due to these kids essentially being used as guinea pigs.  It is important to intuit the difference between equal opportunity and resources for all students, versus digital curriculum and learning through gaming, videos, or virtual teachers--when teachers are expected to be “guides on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage," an antiquated model according to personalized learning proponents.

“Student Engagement." In the stark absence of actual quantitative data about academics, this is a term that has been used as the BCPS primary “data point” to suggest that our personalized learning initiative is working. BCPS measures this by how students look while interacting with the computers, how happy they are, the number of clicks on the keyboard, and where their eyes are focused while online. Another "data point" BCPS cites is a decrease in disciplinary issues because of "student engagement" while on their devices. The same could be said about Super Mario Bros.!

Buzzwords. It is imperative to know the many buzzwords and phrases that come along with “personalized learning” and to understand what they really mean. Pearson, iNACOL, Clayton Christensen, Tom Vander Ark and others seem to have great influence over a particular “21st Century Learning” digital vernacular.  Some favorites: “student voice and choice," “time, path, place and space," "competency- based," "personalized-performance-based," “21st Century Skills," “21st Century Learner," “Globally Competitive Students," “Students being leaders of their own learning," “deeper learning," “student centered learning," “student agency," and “innovation change culture." New on the scene are “micro-credentials," “badges," and  “digital portfolio."  It is truly endless. If you see these words anywhere, you know personalized learning is near.

“This is not about technology, this is about teaching and learning." Technically, this should go under the category of buzzwords and phrases. But it is so special, that it deserves to be all by itself. This is a rampant theme used in my school systems and even, curiously, by technology companies. “This is not about the laptop” has been a brilliant and repetitive distraction from the obvious irony.

So, there you have it. Now learn. Learn as much as you can. Learn the buzzwords and the companies that produce them, and, of course, follow the money. Notice how many non-educators are experts in the personalized learning craze. Learn about how technology can be well used in the classroom to prepare students, but not as a means to takeover the teaching and learning process. Learn how student privacy concerns will never be addressed with the current adaptive software and embedded assessments. Learn also about who else is doing this and how, based on real data and not celebratory announcements and awards!

But whatever you do, Chicago, do not look at STAT and Baltimore County Public Schools for how to do it. Instead, look to your talented teachers and inspiring principals for guidance on how to personalize a lesson. Our teachers are fabulous. We love them. That is what makes us great and what I suspect is the heart of your school system, too.

Nothing, and I mean nothing--not a tablet, a laptop, an app or software--can replace your teachers. Invest in them. That is where the money should go--and not to the edtech industry.

If you want a better Chicago Public Schools system please like my Facebook page and join me there for more discussion. You can also follow me on twitter @foolforcps.

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