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$1.6 million for personalized learning not the answer

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News-Miner Community Perspective: 

The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District has recently adopted a new learning initiative sold by a company called Education Elements, located in Atlanta, GA. Recent directives and a Community Perspective published in the News-Miner Jan. 8 from the school superintendent, Dr. Karen Gaborik, have made it clear that, ready or not, we are going to embrace this new, unproven technology with open arms. First reported in the News-Miner on Dec. 3, 2016, the school district will begin training its teachers in this new fad in January 2017. According to the same News-Miner article, an initial investment of $1.6 million will be paid to Education Elements to train our teachers. This $1.6 million price tag does not include the cost of laptops, computers, printers and tablets, which the same article touts as necessary to the implementation of personalized learning. Further, in her recent editorial, Dr. Gaborik neglects to address the fact that hundreds of our students and teachers still do not have access to reliable internet at home, a necessary corollary to personalized learning. In fact, my family is on a data plan with a total limit of less than 1 GB per day. Research I have done also notes that many school districts that adopted personalized learning programs significantly underestimated the costs of such comprehensive overhauls.

A brief review of the literature in published education journals shows that some reviewers are less than enthusiastic in their praise of personalized learning. Ben Herold, writing for Education Week in October 2016, noted that the U.S. Department of Education has given more than half a billion dollars to districts across the U.S. to study or implement personalized learning despite a lack of solid evidence that personalized learning works. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a strong proponent of personalized learning, has spent $300 million to study the effects of personalized learning. The results are mixed.

Studies done by the companies themselves, or results based on non-random sampling, are not backed up by empirical results. When the methodology of some of these glowing reports is examined against scientific evidence, reviewers point out the use of anecdotal evidence such as that the students “felt” that they learned more, rather than actual hard evidence such as improved test scores. In fact, unbiased reports from independent sources note flawed statistics and non-randomized studies proliferate regarding personalized learning. M. Bulger, writing for Data and Society Research Institute (online at www.datasociety.net), noted that independent evaluations of learning outcomes are rare.

The Dec. 3, 2016, News-Miner article about personalized learning cited three school districts as evidence that personalized learning was working. However, it is important that we look at what the statistics actually tell us rather than what the advertisers are trying to sell us. For example, Juab School District in Utah was mentioned as improving graduation rates from 80 percent in 2009, to 96 percent in 2015. What is omitted is that the entire district only graduated 176 students in 2012. This means, in real numbers, that only 28 students improved. Westside High School, cited in the same article, has a student-teacher ratio of around 15-1 (see www.usnews.com/education to compare data for U.S. high schools). Is personalized learning the reason students are improving, or is it because of more teacher interactions? Even those studies that quote big gains are cherry-picking their results. Herold cited a recent RAND study with results claiming to show growth in students who experienced personalized learning practices. What the RAND study failed to point out is that many of these schools were charter schools which received grant money to fully implement the programs.

While computers are capable of providing options for students, most computer-based learning is not the adaptive process promised through personalized learning. A live, personal tutor (a teacher) can adapt to an individual’s goals and competencies to shift instruction as needed. Personalized learning, though, as Bulger explained — and as it is marketed to the public — is simply a responsive computer-generated approach including menus and digital links. Personalized learning systems are not about tailoring education, but really just about recommending content. Further, computers isolate students. In a future that depends on collaboration and communication, Bulger noted than not a single personalized learning model she reviewed addressed students’ needs for personal interaction and oral communication.

Education Week reviewed dozens of studies and found no solid evidence of improvement. Herold’s conclusion: “Don’t believe the hype.” Unlike the personalized learning studies, there are plenty of scientifically based studies that show teaching methods which have proven gains in learning: for example, smaller class sizes that allow for more teacher-student contact. This $1.6 million being paid to an Outside company could be used to hire an additional 25-30 teachers — teachers who would do what they do best: explain complex concepts using a variety of techniques with care and compassion for how children learn.

In short, while there are many companies trying to sell personalized learning to us, we should not rush to embrace the latest education fad. Teachers across our district and in our schools have been using their own brand of personalized learning for 20-plus years. Our teachers already spend hours of their own time helping students with personalized learning activities: Think of a high school studio art class, an elementary science fair project or the high schools’ History Day competition. Teachers do provide quality, personalized learning now and will continue to do so in the future. Save our taxpayer money. Don’t throw it away on clever advertising. Let’s focus on a resource that truly cares about our students’ success: our teachers.

Gregory Kahoe is a longtime Fairbanks educator and Interior resident. He teaches at West Valley High School.

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