Would You Bet on This ‘Next Big Thing’ in Education Reform?

Would You Bet on This ‘Next Big Thing’ in Education Reform?
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Many parents and community leaders might have enjoyed attending a May 17th summit in Burlingame, California on “reimagining” pre-K–12 education, where attendees brainstormed “the next big thing” in school reform. Sitting in and maybe even asking a few questions might have improved parents’ chances of not being blindsided by some transformational scheme developed behind closed doors, as happened with the Common Core standards and assessments.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that commoners could have snagged seats at this New Schools Venture Fund (NSVF) summit, which was by invitation only and expressly for “education innovation thought leaders.” The online journal Chalkbeat reported the conference’s bankrollers were “deep-pocketed funders known for backing technology-based initiatives,” notably including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s freshly-minted Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. 

Although Bill Gates financially supports Chalkbeat, a healthy degree of editorial independence was on display in reporter Matt Barnum’s article, in which Barnum commendably included in his account a few skeptical slants related to the efficacy of the supposedly innovative model touted the most at the summit.

That preferred model debuted in a December 2016 NSVF report titled Reimagining Learning: A Big Bet on the Future of American Education. The new paradigm would rely on technology to personalize learning. Students would proceed at their own pace via computer keystrokes, and they would master sets of programmed competencies while also sharing information about their feelings and concerns. (To traditionalists, all that smacks of de-personalization. Technocrats disagree.)

This “next big thing” is already a “pretty big thing” in the education realm; it goes under such labels as personalized learning (PL) and competency-based education (CBE), with a side of social-emotional learning. It is virtually impossible to pick up an education journal without encountering tributes to technology-directed PL systems that reduce teachers to mere facilitators, as progressive education theorists have advocated since John Dewey’s heyday. However, just several hundred of the nation’s 100,000 schools are so far fully on board with PL. Under NSVF’s proposal, $4 billion in philanthropy would go over the next 10 years to convert 7 percent of U.S. schools (serving 3.5 million children) to this model of innovation. 

Some elements of the new CBE are similar to the old (and failed) outcome-based education (OBE) of the 1990s. OBE placed heavy emphasis on the affective domain—feelings, attitudes, and emotions. Computerized CBE would have students master such competencies as “self-management, social awareness, growth mindset, and perseverance”—sometimes called “grit.” One of the objectives is for students to build “deep, trusting, sustained relationships with each other, their teachers, and other adults who care about them.”  Using the generic “other adults” is dismissive of parents, who are, of course, the adults who care most about their children and who have the right (under Supreme Court precedents) to direct their upbringing and education.

Self-styled innovators with “next big things” they wish to implement in education will ignore parents at their peril. The Common Core push (lavishly funded by Gates and the federal government) bypassed parents, millions of whom remain hopping mad that such radical changes occurred in their kids’ classrooms without their informed consent. Many of these parents remain alarmed about the collection and storage of personal information about their students under the Common Core testing regime and are alert to new privacy threats in the social-emotional learning favored by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Ah, but surprise, surprise! The “Reimagining” opus does conclude with a recognition that past attempts at large-scale reshaping of K–12 education have focused on “top-down methods for getting people to do what experts think they should do,” usually boiling down to mandated “uniformity, standardization, and compliance.” That reference could be a dig at Common Core or a mea culpa from its powerful backers. 

In any event, the authors state they are “recommending a different approach,” one that recognizes that parents and teachers “have great ideas” and that pledges to work with them collaboratively on innovation. But the authors continue by asserting “most parents and teachers already agree” that schools should go beyond academics and help students “develop additional mindsets, habits, and skills that help them reach their full potential.”

These change agents evidently assume relatively few parents need be sold on introducing psychosocial elements to “next big thing” classrooms. As dangerous as this all is, at least—for the moment, anyway—they currently are confining their ambitions to seven percent of schools instead of the 100 percent the Common Core cabal coveted. But will families be persuaded, conscripted or gulled into populating this big new wave of PL schools? Will parents be free to bail and transfer their children elsewhere if this experiment becomes the “next failed fad,” as it almost certainly will? After all, even the masterminds call it a “Big Bet,” and Las Vegas depends on most bets being losers.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow for education with The Heartland Institute.

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