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“Reform” and “Personalization” Now Code Words for Privatization

December 23, 2018

Several years ago I read Shopping Mall High School, the second book in a series overseen by Ted Sizer, who in the mid-1980s was called a “school reformer”. To jog my memory, I entered the term “shopping mall high school” into google and found this overview in Wikipedia:

The concept of a shopping mall high school was first introduced in the best-selling 1985 book, The Shopping Mall High School : Winners and Losers in the Educational Marketplace by authors Arthur G. Powell, Eleanor Farrar, and David K. Cohen. The book is the second report from “A Study of High Schools,” and is the successor volume to education reform leader Theodore Sizer‘s Horace’s Compromise. Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, called The Shopping Mall High School “a sobering analysis of current conditions in our secondary schools and how they got that way.” In The Shopping Mall High School, the authors argue that high schools have come to resemble shopping malls in terms of variety, choice and neutrality.The book, often required reading for education majors in the 1980s and 1990s, exposed the realities of the comprehensive high school and set off a debate that would later incorporate themes about school vouchers and the marketplace.[2]

I was ten years out of graduate school when the book came out, but I made it required reading for the high school administrators in the district I led at that time and used a punchy alliterative phrase from that book to frame the ways I hoped to see high schools change. That phrase was “purpose, push, and personalization“.

In the estimate of the authors, and in my own personal experience as a high school administrator, I found that students who gained the most from high school entered with a purpose in mind. In some cases the purpose was clear: to be valedictorian, or make first chair in the band or orchestra, or make the variety team, or join the FFA to prepare to follow in a parent’s footsteps. In other cases it was more nebulous: to get into college or to work part-time to earn enough money for a car. When I conferred with entering freshmen to schedule their classes and develop their four year plans, I observed that students who knew what they wanted to get out of high school invariably performed better than those who had no idea what they intended to do for the coming four years. Without a clear “purpose”, the authors believed students found themselves drifting through high school the way aimless teens wandered shopping malls in the 1980s.

Once students were in high school, though, they often found the work to be more challenging than they imagined and— no surprise— found themselves districted from their purpose by socializing and the many temptations that present themselves in adolescence in America. To stay on course, then, students needed a push from a caring adult. Depending on the student’s life circumstances or motivation the push might be a nudge or might require more intense intervention… but there are very few students who can stay focussed on their purpose without requiring some kind of support from an adult.

The last point, “personalization”, meant that students needed to have someone in the school know them, connect with them in a deep way so that they could help aimless students find their purpose, provide the appropriate push to keep them focused on their ultimate goals, and serve as a mentor for them.

As one who hoped to transform secondary schools by injecting purpose, push, and personalization, I advocated for more counseling at the elementary level, interdisciplinary team organization at the middle school level, and the development and continual review of four year plans for all students at the high school– which required the creation of mentoring systems or the expansion of counselors. Each of these initiatives, though, required more funding… and in many years “new money” was not available. Each of these initiatives required varying degrees of “buy in” by the administrators and teachers in the district as well as some school board members… but most people found it difficult to argue against additional counseling, more “face time” between students and teachers, and more coordination among staff members.

The “shopping mall” model for high schools has not changed since the 1980s. What HAS changed is the taxpayer’s appetite for more spending, especially spending on “failing government schools”. This has set the stage for technology to “come to the rescue”. If Amazon Prime can figure out what movies you like and products you “need” and Spotify can develop play lists based on the songs you’ve liked, and Google can feed you articles you want to read, and FaceBook can provide you with social contacts… why not apply these algorithms to school… especially if the application of these new technologies does not require the hiring of new staff members who require benefits, leave time, and ever increasing wages.

“Now what are we going to call this idea”, ask the profiteers? “Well, we expropriated the term “reform”, let’s expropriate the term “personalization”… after all, several states have adopted the idea of “personalization” but they haven’t had the time or money to roll out the programming to support the concept. The door is now open for US to flesh out the idea and we can offer a fast, cheap, and cost-effective means to do so!”

My hunch is that somewhere in Silicon Valley a bunch of guys sitting around a table had a conversation like this and they’ve used their foundations and connections to promote the idea. This is not what states like Vermont meant when they adopted personalization… but the “reform” that swept the country is not what REAL reformers wanted either.

 

 

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