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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Does ‘Personalized’ Learning Exacerbate Inequity?

By Paul Emerich France — November 20, 2019 7 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by Paul Emerich France, a national-board-certified teacher and the author of Reclaiming Personalized Learning.

There’s been a resurgence in the personalized learning conversation recently, with new reports of teachers’ perspectives on personalized learning. The results are mixed, to say the least, providing even more evidence that the mainstream assumptions surrounding personalized learning are weak.

Among these mainstream assumptions are the notion that adaptive technology is necessary to personalize learning and the misconception that curriculum must be individualized in order to provide a personalized experience. Alyson Klein reported that 72 percent of teachers interviewed feel concerns about increased screen time, 48 percent of them think students are working alone too often, and 47 percent of educators are worried that big tech has too much influence over education.

I share these concerns, too, and more—all of which come from my time working for an education technology startup company and network of microschools in Silicon Valley.

Why I Left Silicon Valley, EdTech, and Personalized Learning
The truth is, I didn’t always have these concerns. I used to welcome technology’s influence over my pedagogy, the increased screen time, and the time where my students were working on their own.

I worked for the aforementioned company for about three years, helping to open three microschools, serving as a public advocate for the company’s mission and vision in prominent outlets like the New Yorker, and otherwise attempting to personalize learning for groups of students preschool through 5th grade using digital technology.

It didn’t take me long to see the challenges associated with this brand of personalized learning. I tried to persist through the immense workload; I chomped at the bit to come up with “passion projects” for my students so that they felt their curriculum catered to their interests; I assessed rigorously and regularly to populate the platform’s data reservoirs, in hopes that the data visualizations would eventually match what I knew to be true about my students.

I don’t need to belabor this story to tell you that this vision never became a reality. With time, I not only began to realize that the tools we were building were no more effective than the outdated practices of the one-size-fits-all education characteristic of the NCLB era. But I learned far more important lessons than that. Most importantly, I learned about the role these misguided personalized learning efforts play in preserving and promulgating privilege in our education system, causing me to leave education technology and personalized learning altogether.

Systemic Privilege in Education
It’s no secret that our education system is littered with privilege. Schools are naturally segregated based on socioeconomic status, with certain ZIP codes receiving more funding simply because of home values and the wealth that residents bring into neighborhoods. This inevitably correlates with race, as we know the average white family to have 10 times more wealth than the average black family, grounded in systemic racism that dates back to colonial times and black enslavement. Because the starting lines are so vastly different and because black families and families of color have fewer opportunities to grow wealth, it comes as no surprise that schools that serve students of color and working-class folks are disproportionately underfunded.

Over the past 20 years, we’ve only added insult to injury. The rigid standards of the NCLB era have only victimized schools that come to the table with less privilege. According to the tests used to measure the “effectiveness” of schools, schools that predominantly serve students of color and working-class students are not up to snuff. Put simply, the assets that these students bring into classrooms around the country are simply not valued in the same way that cold, hard academic knowledge is. This heightened value and prioritization of academic and content knowledge over the many funds of knowledge (Moll, Amanti, Neff & Gonzalez, 1992) that students of color and working-class students bring into our classrooms only widens opportunity gaps, because students experience a disproportionate number of perceived failures in schools, creating a cycle of increased opportunity gaps over time.

What Does This Have to Do With Personalized Learning?
The brand of personalized learning that has been promoted by technology providers is just the latest initiative intended to address the challenges created by an inequitable school system that punishes students for opportunity gaps beyond their control. And when we examine the problems lying at the foundation of our school system, we unearth a few reasons why mainstream definitions of personalized learning, grounded in the aforementioned flawed assumptions about personalization, are not going to make the changes we need to create a more equitable system.

First and foremost, the sheer expense of these tools either limit access to schools or, in the event that they choose to appropriate funds toward digital tools, hemorrhage funds from the schools that could be directed toward facilities improvements, retaining quality teachers, or even programming that could help offset the opportunity gaps that students in underfunded schools are subject to.

Second, technology-driven personalized learning is only treating a symptom of the problems plaguing our education system. It is attempting to fill “knowledge gaps,” when in reality, solutions to healing our education system need to address opportunity gaps and appreciate the diverse funds of knowledge all students bring into the classrooms. Simple pedagogical shifts including complex instruction (Cohen and Lotan, 1997), culturally responsive assessment practices, and increased representation in literature are a few practical places to begin in meeting all students where they are in the classroom.

Finally, mainstream personalized learning tools foster dependence in learners who actually need to be liberated by their own independence. Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain differentiates between dependent and independent learners. Dependent learners, she says, are over-reliant on adults in their learning environments, while independent learners are able to problem-solve, think critically, and otherwise connect with their agency and autonomy. Digitally-driven automated personalized learning tools foster dependence in students and dehumanize the learning process, asking them to rely on a computer to individualize learning on their behalf.

It’s startling, but when we examine personalized learning in the context of the true challenges that are plaguing our schools, we begin to see that mainstream personalized learning is yet another racist and classist means for treating the symptoms of education’s core challenges because it is only exacerbating the racist and classist tendencies of the American school system.

Personalizing Learning Through Systemic Change
To reach all students, we need not individualize curriculum through digital means to make up for presupposed knowledge gaps. We need to, instead, attack the problem at its foundation. So infrequently do we discuss identity when talking about personalization. We get so caught up in learning-style myths and learning preferences that we forget the color of one’s skin, a child’s gender identity, a student’s sexual orientation, or a child’s access to wealth and resources can most dramatically impact their ability to access an education that is inherently meaningful, relevant, and personal to them.

Sure, degrees of individualization are helpful within the classroom. As a national-board-certified teacher of 10 years, I make sure to differentiate my instruction, pull small groups, conference with students individually, and create interventions for students with skill deficits. I’m not saying that we can’t create opportunities for individualization within our curriculum. But what I am saying is that individualizing learning through digital means will not resolve the storied inequities that have been ubiquitous in our education system for decades.

All students deserve an education that is within their reach—one that is meaningful and personal. And this begins with building an equitable system where all students have the same opportunity to succeed. If systemic racism, classism, and discrimination sit at the foundation of our education system, then only anti-racist, anti-classist, and inclusive education will begin to heal these deep intergenerational wounds.

And I hate to break it to you, but investing in computers won’t get us there.

Paul Emerich France is a national-board-certified teacher, keynote speaker, and the author of Reclaiming Personalized Learning: A Pedagogy for Restoring Equity and Humanity in Our Classrooms. He currently teaches 3rd grade in Chicago, and you can find more about him on Twitter, Instagram, and his website.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.