Personalized Learning

Teachers’ Union Faces Backlash Over Publication on Personalized Learning

By Benjamin Herold — June 13, 2017 3 min read
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Well, this is something to watch.

The country’s largest teachers’ union, the 3-million member National Education Association, is being accused by some teachers and activists of endorsing the replacement of teachers with computers following publication of a magazine article titled “As More Schools Look to Personalized Learning, Teaching May Be About to Change.”

The backlash echoes previous battles among various teachers’ union factions over highly politicized issues such as the Common Core State Standards and standardized testing.

Here’s the basic gist of the article, published Friday in NEA Today, the official magazine of the National Education Association:

The general idea behind personalized learning is that the fixed time, place, and curriculum of traditional classrooms is ill-suited to meet the demands of a diverse student population that has a wide range of learning needs. Many schools have leveraged sophisticated software programs that allow students to set their own pace and delve more deeply into specific interests, often in a blended learning setting, or—as the cliche goes—one that “meets them where they are...” Greater student agency over their learning inevitably means at least a redefined role for the teacher. This is what has many educators like Paul Barnwell feeling apprehensive—not because they cling to the status quo or fear innovation, but out of serious concern about what this potential sea change in education could mean for students.

Now, that might not seem particularly inflammatory. The whole notion of personalized learning has lots of backers, from technology-and-philanthropy giants such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to a wide range of educator and advocacy groups. And NEA President Lily Eskelson and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten are both signatories to an effort dubbed Education:Reimagined that sought to “create a vision for a new future of learning” that leans on many of the precepts of personalized learning.

But reaction to the NEA Today story from many teachers and advocates—in the story’s comments, on the education blogosphere, and on social media—has been fierce.

Here’s a sampling from Twitter:

This is from a blog post titled “National Education Association Seems to Endorse Replacing Teachers With Computers,” written by activist-teacher Steven Singer:

Make no mistake. This is not merely an examination of changing teaching practices. It is a movement by tech giants to further standardize and privatize America’s public schools. This isn’t to say that technology can’t enhance learning. But classroom teachers with any kind of experience know that simply plopping a child in front of a computer screen is a terrible way to do it. It’s the equivalent of having all your questions answered by an automated voice on the telephone versus being able to ask questions of a living, breathing person. And they have the gall to call it “personalized learning” as if it were meeting all the needs of students one-on-one. It isn’t.

And Chris Cerrone, a teacher, parent, and school board member in Western New York, left some of the more mild comments on the NEA story.

Cerrone elaborated on his thoughts in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“I was a little surprised that the NEA would be promoting something that really takes away from genuine teaching and human-to-human contact,” he said in an interview. “If we really want to make learning personal for kids, it should be based on what’s interesting to them and what drives their interests, as opposed to what a computer algorithm says they should learn.”

The National Education Association did not immediately provide a response with the union’s formal stance on personalized learning or its reaction to the kerfuffle. The NEA’s formal stance on digital learning is generally positive, saying the organization “embraces this new environment and these new technologies to better prepare our students for college and for 21st century careers.” The position statement also includes a focus on equity and enhancing “educator professionalism.”

In the past, NEA Today has published articles with a more skeptical stance on related issues, including a 2015 piece titled “Technology in the Classroom: Don’t Believe the Hype.

Still, there’s reason to believe the debate over personalized learning will continue to be a live issue for the NEA. In an interview, Marla Kilfoyle, the executive director of the Badass Teachers Association, a national network of teachers focused on social-justice issues, said her members would be raising the topic within the NEA at the union’s annual meeting this summer.

“We see [personalized learning] as way in which Gates and Zuckerberg and the people pushing online learning are going to reduce the teaching force and the power of our union,” Kilfoyle said.

“It’s obviously concerning when it’s also coming from your union.”

Photo: National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen Garcia answers questions during a 2014 interview with The Associated Press.--J. David Ake/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.