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In Defense of Reform, Personalized Learning, and Mastery

November 19, 2015

Today Diane Ravitch cross posted an excerpt from a blog written by ME 4th grade teacher Emily Talmage, who decries the reforms being introduced into her state, reforms funded by Bill Gates and the Nellie Mae Foundation. In her post, which is a letter to Mark Zuckerberg imploring him to dissociate himself from Bill Gates,  and in the comments that follow, there are several negative comments about “reform”, “personalized learning” and “mastery learning”—all terms that have been expropriated by those billionaires who see education as the next place to make even more money.

The term “reform” and all its variants, which I at one time associated with Ted Sizer and other progressive educators, is now used by profiteers and the neo-liberal politicians who take their money and promote their ideas.

“Personalized learning”, a term embraced by the technology-based crowd who want to disrupt education, has also lost its original intention which was brought to life in Vermont as part of the Education Quality Standards (EQS). In Vermont, the idea was that all seventh grade students would develop a personalized learning plan (PLP) that would be the basis for their course selection in high school as well as learning activities that would take place outside of school. The notion was that this plan would help bring purpose to the coursework in school and tie the students out-of-school learning and activities to those happening in school. While you might use a computer to write this plan down and modify it annually (or as needed), it had nothing to do with the kind of computer-driven instruction described in the Talmage’s post or the comments that followed.

I also find it maddening that “mastery learning” is being conflated with behaviorism, because boiling that concept down to answering a series of multiple choice questions will corrode that phrase as well. In my way of thinking, mastery learning requires benchmark assessments that are administered when the student is ready to demonstrate that they have mastered a skill. As noted in previous blog posts, the driver’s test is the paradigmatic mastery test: If you fail it the first time– or the first five times— once you demonstrate mastery you get the same “certificate” as an individual who passed it the first time. In mastery learning, time is the variable and content is constant.

In looking back on my 40+ year career in public education I can see the source of these ideas in my first assignment. As a rookie 8th grade math teacher in an overcrowded junior high school in Philadelphia in 1970 I was handed a schedule that assigned me to four sections of roughly 35 homogeneously grouped students who I taught in over 20 different “classrooms” that included a small gymnasium, a section of the cafeteria, and a science lab with 24 lab stools. The book I was issued matched the city’s 8th grade pre-algebra curriculum. Most of my students could not perform basic operations… and given that I had 8-24, 8-30, 8-34, and 8-36… all sections in the lowest 1/3 of the age cohort… this was not surprising. The mismatch between my student’s skills and the expectations of the text book was gaping. My solution– which it took me several months to stumble upon– was to borrow a 3rd grade book of mimeo masters from my father’s best friend, who sold textbooks in the suburbs, and integrate them into a mimeograph “textbook” I wrote and issued to one of my classes. The discipline problems in that class diminished markedly from that point forward… and I began using modifications of this in the other three sections to the same effect.

The name for that kind of approach in 1970 (according to the observation report that was written by an observer of that class) was “individualized instruction”. Today, with the data collection and analysis capabilities, “individualized instruction” has been renamed “personalized learning”. The application of this aspect of “personalized learning” is limited to curricula that are hierarchical in nature, requires adept and timely intervention by a teacher, and is not intended to replace school. It could be a means of getting students out of the lockstep age-based groupings that lead to 8th grade teachers being required to offer pre-algebra to students who have not learned the basic skills.

Mastery Learning, a concept that was taking root as I was in graduate school in the  early 1970s, has always seemed unattainable because of the massive amounts of paperwork required to track each student’s progress. By definition it requires a hierarchy of skill levels and focusses on the assessment of those skills… but hierarchical skills exist in virtually every area of learning and performance and assessing learning and performance is a skill that cannot be delegated to a computer… unless, that is, the goal of the school is to measure only easy-to-measure content.

When “reformers” who advocate “personalized learning” claim that computerized assessments measure “mastery” three terms lose their meaning… and the factory school model is reinforced because the effectiveness of all of this “reform” is determined by whether students progress at a uniform rate based on their age… they are widgets moving along an assembly line, not sentient beings who need connection with others.


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