Thursday, February 26, 2015

De-Testing and De-Grading Schools recognized as Outstanding Academic Title

I'm pleased to announce that my book De-Testing and De-Grading Schools: Authentic Alternatives to Standardization and Accountability, that I co-edited with Paul Thomas, was awarded an Outstanding Academic 2014 title by Choice magazine.

Each January, Choice publishes a prestigious list of the best in scholarly titles reviewed during the previous calendar year. Bower and Thomas’s book was chosen based on overall excellence in presentation and scholarship, importance relative to other literature in the field, distinction as a first treatment of a given subject in book or electronic form, originality or uniqueness of treatment, value to undergraduate students and importance in building undergraduate library collections.

De-Testing and De-Grading is Bower's first book and was co-edited by American educator Paul Thomas and published by Peter Lang USA.

A.L. Hsu, chair of the Childhood Education and Literacy Department at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury, described the book:
"Bower and Thomas have edited a powerful volume that criticizes testing and the quantification of education. A selection of contributors with wide-ranging experiences in both K-12 and higher education settings offer diverse perspectives on the dangers of standardized testing and the utilization of grades to sort, classify, and compare students. The varied accounts push readers to reconsider the purpose of giving grades and reflect upon the difference between assessment and measurement. With the increasing number of state assessments and the elaborate systems of accountability in education, this volume inspires readers to focus on the primary goal of learning and how that can be achieved, beginning in kindergarten and going all the way through graduate school studies. Contributors offer alternatives to traditional assessments in the form of authentic tasks where the emphasis is on learning and recognizing growth and development. A must read for anyone in the field of education, including parents, teachers, administrators, and policy makers. Recommended for general readers, undergraduates, graduate students, and professionals.  
--A. L. Hsu, State University of New York College at Old Westbury

Four Reasons to Worry About "Personalized Learning"

This was written by Alfie Kohn who writes and speaks on parenting and education. Kohn tweets here and his website is here. This post was originally found here.

by Alfie Kohn

Tocqueville’s observations about the curious version of democracy that Americans were cultivating in the 1830s have served as a touchstone for social scientists ever since. One sociologist writes about the continued relevance of what Tocqueville noticed way back then, particularly the odd fact that we cherish our commitment to individualism yet experience a “relentless pressure to conform.” Each of us can do what he likes as long as he ends up fundamentally similar to everyone else: You’re “free to expand as a standardized individual.”[1]

A couple of decades ago, that last phrase reminded me of how our pitiful individuality was screwed to the backs of our cars in the form of customized license plates. Today it brings to mind what goes by the name “personalized learning.”

A suffix can change everything. When you attach -ality to sentiment, for example, you end up with what Wallace Stevens called a failure of feeling. When -ized is added topersonal, again, the original idea has been not merely changed but corrupted — and even worse is something we might call Personalized Learning, Inc. (PLI), in which companies sell us digital products to monitor students while purporting to respond to the differences among them.

Personal learning entails working with each child to create projects of intellectual discovery that reflect his or her unique needs and interests. It requires the presence of a caring teacher who knows each child well.

Personalized learning entails adjusting the difficulty level of prefabricated skills-based exercises based on students’ test scores. It requires the purchase of software from one of those companies that can afford full-page ads in Education Week.

For some time, corporations have sold mass-produced commodities of questionable value and then permitted us to customize peripheral details to suit our “preferences.” In the 1970s, Burger King rolled out its “Have it your way!” campaign, announcing that we were now empowered to request a recently thawed slab of factory-produced ground meat without the usual pickle — or even with extra lettuce! In America, I can be me!

A couple of decades later, the production company that created Barney, the alarmingly friendly purple dinosaur, sold personalized videos called “My Party with Barney.” You mailed them a photo of your kid’s face and they digitally attached it to a generic animated child’s body that “plays” with Barney in the video. Your kid’s name is also inserted into the soundtrack every so often to complete the customization, with Barney enthusing: “Have a balloon … Abigail!”[2] The result may have delighted, or even fooled, some three year olds. But why in god’s name are adult educators buying the equivalent of My Party with Barney in order to boost their students’ reading scores?


How can we tell when the lovely idea of personal learning has been co-opted[3] and then twisted into PLI? Here are four warning signs:

1. The tasks have been personalized for kids, not created by them. With PLI, the center of gravity is outside the students (as Dewey once put it), and their choices arelimited to when — or maybe, if they’re lucky, how – they’ll master a set of skills mandated by people who have never met them. In the words of education author Will Richardson, “’Personalized’ learning is something that we do to kids; ‘personal’ learning is something they do for themselves.”[4]

Sometimes one of the corporate folks will let slip an acknowledgment of just how student-centered their programs aren’t. “In education,” a publishing executive explained to a reporter, personalization is “not about giving students what they want, it’s about a recommended learning path just for them.”[5] A term like “mass customized learning,” meanwhile, may sound Orwellian but it’s not really an oxymoron because what’s customized is mass-produced – which is to say, standardized. Authentic personal learning isn’t.[6]

2. Education is about the transmission of bits of information, not the construction of meaning. Closely related to the pseudochoice provided to students is the underlying model of learning. Behaviorism, the beast that just won’t die, lurks at the core of PLI just as it animates “competency-based progression,” “mastery learning,” and programs that tweak the “delivery of instruction.” (Hint: Unless someone is sending out for pizza at a faculty meeting, the word delivery is always troubling in the context of schooling.)

In fact, the perceived need to personalize probably comes from this way of thinking about education in the first place. If the point is to dump a load of facts into children, then it may be necessary to adjust the style and rate of dumping – and to help teachers become more efficient at it. But if the point is to help kids understand ideas from the inside out and answer their own questions about the world, then what they’re doing is already personal (and varied). It doesn’t have to be artificially personalized.

3. The main objective is just to raise test scores. This explains PLI’s constant use of instruments that resemble standardized tests. When we hear a phrase like “monitor students’ progress,” we should immediately ask, “What do you mean by progress?” That word, like achievement, often refers to nothing more than results on dreadful tests. And here’s the next logical question when something is described as a way of “personalizing” instruction: What’s the effect of this on kids’ interest in reading or math or writing – or in school itself? Personal learning tends to nourish kids’ curiosity and deepen their enthusiasm. “Personalized” or “customized” learning – not so much.

But the red light flashes here not just because of the focus on standardized tests but because of the larger preoccupation with data data data data data. Elsewhere, I’ve written about the folly of believing that everything can and should be reduced to numbers.[7] PLI shamelessly clings to this myopic and outdated worldview. One of those ads in Education Week not long ago featured a comically enthusiastic cartoon owl in a tuxedo wearing an “I [heart] Data” button. This drawing was followed by boasts about the company’s “computer-adaptive assessments and instruction” that “constantly generate data to personalize learning.” (Honest — it appeared in Ed. Week, not in The Onion.)

The assumption here is that curriculum can be broken into little pieces, that skills are acquired sequentially and can be assessed with discrete, contrived tests and reductive rubrics. Tracking kids’ “progress” with digital profiles and predictive algorithms paints a 21st-century gloss on a very-early-20th-century theory of learning. It not only assumes but perpetuates a bunch-o’-facts approach because it counts only what lends itself to being counted – namely, the number of facts and skills memorized or the percentage of coursework completed.

4. It’s all about the tech. Two overlapping groups of educators seem particularly enamored of PLI: (1) those who are awed by anything that emanates from the private sector, including books about leadership whose examples are drawn from Fortune 500 companies and filled with declarations about the need to “leverage strategic cultures for transformational disruption”[8]; and (2) those who experience excitement that borders on sexual arousal from anything involving technology – even though much of what falls under the heading “ed tech” is, to put it charitably, of scant educational value.[9]

“Follow the money” is apt advice in many sectors of education — for example, in language arts, where millions are made selling leveled “guided reading” systems, skills-based literacy workbooks, and the like. Simpler strategies, such as having kids choose, read, and discuss real books from the library may be more effective, but, as reading expert Dick Allington asks drily, “Who promotes a research-based practice that seems an unlikely profit center? No one.”[10] Personalization is an even more disturbing example of this phenomenon because the word has come to be equated with technology – perhaps because it’s far more profitable for the purveyors that way and, at the same time, “It’s so much cheaper to buy a new computer than to pay a teacher’s salary year after year.”[10]

This version of “personalized learning” actually began 60 years ago when B.F. Skinner proposed setting each child before a teaching machine, an idea rooted in “measurability, uniformity, and control of the student,” according to Canadian educator Philip McRae. Today’s

adaptive learning systems still promote the notion of the isolated individual. . .being delivered concrete and sequential content for mastery. However, the re-branding is that of personalization. . . [with a] customized technology platform delivering 21st century competencies. . . .At its most innocent, it is a renewed attempt at bringing back behaviourism and operant conditioning to make learning more efficient. At its most sinister, it establishes children as measurable commodities to be cataloged and capitalized upon by corporations.[11]

Certain forms of technology can be used to support progressive education, but meaningful (and truly personal) learning never requires technology. Therefore, if an idea like personalization is presented from the start as entailing software or a screen, we ought to be extremely skeptical about who really benefits.

One final caveat: in the best student-centered, project-based education, kids spend much of their time learning with and from one another. Thus, while making sense of ideas is surely personal, it is not exclusively individual because it involves collaboration and takes place in a community. Even proponents of personal learning may sometimes forget that fact, but it’s a fact that was never learned by supporters of personalized learning.


1. John W. Meyer, “Myths of Socialization and of Personality,” in Reconstructing Individualism, ed. by T. C. Heller et al. (Stanford University Press, 1986), p. 211.

2. Recommended only for those with strong stomachs.

3. I wrote about this general phenomenon in “Progressive Labels for Regressive Practices,” blog post, January 31, 2015.

4. Will Richardson, “Personalizing Flipped Engagement,” blog post, July 2, 2012.

5. Vikram Savkar, a senior vice president at the Nature Publishing Group, is quoted in Michelle R. Davis, “Moving Beyond One-Size-Fits-All,” Education Week Technology Counts, March 17, 2011, pp. 10-11. This special insert was devoted to the theme of “individualized digital learning.”

6. See Maja Wilson, “Personalization: It’s Anything But Personal,” Educational Leadership, March 2014: 73-77.

7. Alfie Kohn, “Schooling Beyond Measure,” Education Week, September 19, 2012; and“Turning Children into Data,” Education Week, August 25, 2010.

8. Or is it “disrupt leveraged strategies for cultural transformation”? I may have nodded off there for a few minutes.

9. See under: “SMART Boards, dumb curriculum.” Similarly, “innovation” in some districts consists of taking the usual menu of forgettable facts, isolated skills, grades, tests, textbooks, and homework — and slapping it onto an iPad. Other educators, meanwhile, radiate self-satisfaction because they assign their students to watch online lectures at home, as if flipping the place and time in which dubious pedagogical practices take place – while continuing to make students work a second shift after they get home from school – constituted a daring pedagogical advance. For a thoughtful discussion of useful and useless uses of technology, see Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager, Invent to Learn (Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, 2013).

10. Richard L. Allington, “Proven Programs, Profits, and Practice,” in Reading for Profit:How the Bottom Line Leaves Kids Behind, ed. by Bess Altwerger (Heinemann, 2005), p. 226.

11. Lizanne Foster, “Personalized Learning Means Kids with Computers, not Teachers,”Huffington Post, November 28, 2014.

12. Philip McRae, “Rebirth of the Teaching Machine through the Seduction of Data Analytics: This Time It’s Personal,” blog post, April 14, 2013. Italics omitted.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Classroom Technology: Nightmare or Dream?

Technological advances in our schools in the last 10 years have been remarkable, and there is no doubt that technology will continue to disrupt our schools in both helpful and harmful ways. To be clear, I love technology and use it every single day. I teach with it and learn with it. It's important to remember, however, that technology cannot be allowed to have a monopoly on innovation in our schools. If public education is to survive the next 10 years, we need to see how technology and personalization can be read as either a dream or a nightmare, depending on who is writing the story.

If Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, Arne Duncan, and Michelle Rhee are writing the plot, then personalization in learning is about using technology for union busting, test score analytics and the marketization of our children's minds. In this story, the rich get a computer and a teacher but the poor get just a computer. Herein, technology and personalization isn't about learning – it’s about money. In this story’s final chapter technology functions as a Trojan horse, sneakily shouldering an army of economists and shadow industries that have been stalking public education for a very long time, waiting for an in.

If Sir Ken Robinson, Pasi Sahlberg, Alfie Kohn, Yong Zhao, Linda Darling-Hammond, Will Richardson and Diane Ravitch are writing the plot, then personalization is about student excitement, creativity, intrinsic motivation, curiosity and citizenship. In this story, all children are given computers and teachers, even when it’s cheaper to deny some students the latter. Herein, personalization and technology is used for the purposes of universal education not subordinated to the interests of big business.

Personalization and technology can be about collaborating to discover our passions (the dream) but it can also be about competing over profits (the nightmare). Worse still, personalization can turn into a kind of hyper-personalization, where computers are given to students with zero facilitation from real life teachers. This is akin to pilotless flying and surgeonless surgery and yet this is precisely the vision of many in power, a vision where technology uses the learner, instead of the learner using the technology. However, this can only become a reality if good people remain silent. Classroom innovators and public educators must speak out against the nightmare narrative of technological implementation (of Gates and Murdoch) so that technology and personalization can assist the dream of learning for all.

Diane Ravitch's Forward for Finnish Lessons 2.0

This was written by Diane Ravitch as the forward to Pasi Sahlberg's Finnish Lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?

by Diane Ravitch

Pasi Sahlberg's Finnish Lessons was published exactly when it was most needed. When it appeared, the so-called education "reform" movement was ascendant in the United States and elsewhere and growing stronger.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan were enthusiastic supporters of "reform." Their program, called Race to the Top, was launched in 2009, and it contained the key ingredients of the reform paradigm: testing, accountability and choice. Educators were caught by surprise, as they had been led to expect that President Obama would end President George W. Bush's much-hated No Child Left Behind (NCLB). But the Obama program was built directly on the shaky foundation of NCLB. Instead of jettisoning high stakes testing, Race to the Top increased the importance of testing. Now, not only would students and schools be held accountable for student test scores, but teachers would be given a bonus or fired based on test scores.

The reform movement moved into high gear in 2010. Newsweek magazine ran a cover story that spring declaring "we must fire bad teachers," as though schools were overrun by "bad" teachers. That fall, the film Waiting for "Superman" was released with massive publicity. Its message: our public schools are failing, and the only hop for children stuck in "failing" public school sis to escape to a privately managed charter school. The then-chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools, Michelle Rhee, became a media sensation, with her tough talk about the schools and the pleasure she took in firing teachers and principals.

Some of the nation's richest foundations -- the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and many others -- poured millions into this reform movement, encouraging high-stakes testing, Teach for America, charter schools, and even (in the case of the Walton Foundation) vouchers for religious schools.

Several states, including Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana, rolled back collective bargaining rights, and teachers' unions became scapegoats, blamed for low test scores and for driving up the cost of education because of their health care and pensions. Surveys showed that teachers were demoralized -- as well they should be -- by the attacks upon them and upon their profession.

Thus it was that when Pasi Sahlberg's Finnish Lessons was published, it injected a new dimension into education debates. Finland had high test scores in international student assessments, and it was not doing anything that our American reformers demanded. It had a strong public school system. It did not have charters or vouchers. It had very high standards for entry into teaching; there was no such thing as Teach for Finland that would allow inexperienced young college graduates to teach in Finnish schools. Sahlberg described a 5-year teacher preparation program that all teachers must complete to teach in Finnish schools.

Teachers and principals belong to the same union, which not only negotiates wages and working conditions, but advocates on behalf of children and schools. Although Finland has a national curriculum, teachers have wide latitude to shape it to their own needs and strengths. Best of all, Finland does not subject students to standardized tests until the end of their high school years. As Sahlberg writes, the schools are a standardized testing-free zone.

What many American educators loved about Finnish Lessons is that it portrays an alternative universe, one that respects educators and enables them to do their best work, one that recognizes that society has an obligation to ensure the health and well-being of children. Sahlberg knew that the Finnish story stoop in sharp contrast with what was happening in the United States and other countries. He refers to this movement for testing and choice as GERM: the Global Educational Reform Movement.

Yes, indeed, the United States, Britain, and many other countries are infected with GERM. Finnish Lessons 2.0 is a disinfectant. It reminds us that nation can consciously build an admirable school system if it pays close attention to the needs of children, if it selects and prepares its educators well, and if it builds educational communities that are not only physically attractive but conducive to the joys of teaching and learning.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Whom is the Alberta Government for?

Alberta's public schools are expected to be
everything to everyone with less and less.
In Alberta, a dependency on oil and gas has left us grossly susceptible to excessive revenue volatility -- things are glorious in the booms but down-right scary in the busts. Thus, Alberta has come to be defined as much by our advantages as our disadvantages.

Today, Alberta is busting under a 40+ year old government now led by Jim Prentice who is yet again looking to balance the budget by cutting hard working Albertans and public goods such as health and education.

No one in their right mind would ask Jim Prentice to Be Like Ralph had the PCs learned anything in the 25 years since Ralph Klein took an axe to Alberta's schools and hospitals.

Alberta isn't broke, but Jim Prentice and the PCs' priorities are.

Hard working Albertans get upset when the government demands "burden sharing" during the tough times but ignores "profit sharing" during the good times. It takes zero courage to make hard working Albertans pay for the bad times while PC MLAs mismanage the good times in their own favour.

It's nearly impossible to believe that Alberta's oil belongs to Albertans when we have the second lowest oil and gas royalty regime in the world -- only Yemen has a lower royalty rate for oil. But, it's like they say, if it's good enough for Yemen, it's good enough for us... (wait, no one says that!)

Hard working Albertans get frustrated when "everything is on the table" means that public goods for all like schools and hospitals will be sacrificed to save private interests for the privileged few. In other words, austerity is when people who have the least give up the most, so that people who have the most don't have to give up anything. Cutting expenditures while ignoring revenues is like building a house with only a saw.

Webber Academy is an elite private school in Calgary
that has select admissions, annual tuition ranging from $10-20
thousand and is subsidized by Alberta taxpayers.
In 2013, any Albertan who made more than $17,593 paid the same percentage (10%) of Alberta tax regardless of their income. Alberta could raise its taxes by $11 billion a year and remain the lowest taxed province in Canada. When public services don't keep up with the wealthy's demands for things like health and education, they pay for it out of pocket -- while everyone else likely goes without. Need proof? Keep in mind that 1 in 7 children in Alberta live in poverty while you watch this powerful 9 minute video on the difference between an affluent private school and a poor public school in Calgary.

Cutting expenditures can not be the only solution. Prentice has said that, "I could terminate the employment of every single employee of the Government of Alberta, leaving aside healthcare, and it would not fill a six- to seven-billion-dollar hole." This isn't an argument for cutting healthcare or education -- it's an argument that says if your only tool is a saw, you will cut everything.

Alberta teachers are in the middle of a collectively bargained contract that has me get 0%, 0% and 0% pay increases over three years. I already have 30+ children in my grade 6 and 8 classes, and I teach 120+ students everyday. In 2013, Alberta schools added 11,000 more students, but the PCs cut 14.5 million. How many students will I have after Prentice and the PCs cut even more? How much more of the burden do children, teachers and schools have to pay?

Trickle-Down Economics or Flood-Up Economics?
If everything is honestly on the table, however, then Alberta needs to address our revenue problem by raising Alberta's corporate tax, oil royalties and moving to a progressive tax. We also need to take the Heritage Savings Trust Fund seriously.

The size of the Alberta government is not our primary problem -- our primary problem is figuring out whom the government is for. For too long, the so-called "Alberta Advantage" has been built on corporate welfare, crony capitalism and PC privilege which has led to socialism for the rich and capitalism for the middle class and poor. If the "Alberta Advantage" is truly for everyone, then Albertans need a government who will build this province with more than a saw.

Albertans don't need an early and illegal election that will cost them $20 million, but Prentice and the PCs do if they want to deliver a budget that will likely double down on four decades of PC failure, mismanagement and squandering. Alison Redford had no-meet committees while Prentice has why-meet committees, both are an assault on our budget and democracy. When crisis hits Alberta, and democracy seems a practical impossibility, we need a government that is for Main Street, not Wall Street.

As long as Albertans continue to vote the way they have always voted, Albertans will continue to get what they have always gotten. It's time Albertans stopped choosing between being healthy and wealthy, when we so obviously need both.

If Jim Prentice and the PCs are to receive this message loud and clear, most Albertans need to find a new political home and vote for someone and something different.

I know I am.
There was an error in this gadget

Follow by Email