U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos pronounced Common Core “dead” last week, but that’s far from the whole truth.

During a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, DeVos rebuked the educational initiatives of previous administrations and stated that the Trump administration is headed in a new direction regarding education.

“I don’t think there is much we can hold onto, from a federal level, that we can say was a real success,” DeVos said to the conservative group on Jan. 16.

As usual, when it comes to federal pronouncements, the devil is in the details. Despite public pronouncements to the contrary, the spirit of Common Core will likely live on. Digging deeper into her statements, we find DeVos is apparently encouraging personalized learning (PL) as an alternative to Common Core.

“We need to allow for individualization and customization, and I think a lot of the tasks and trends around personalized and customized learning are really promising,” DeVos said. “I am very hopeful that more schools go in that direction.”

PL is a euphemism to describe computer-based software being used to personalize the educational experiences of students. It is being pushed and funded by the federal government, yet another unconstitutional intrusion into the country’s education system.

In a Sept. 2017 blog post for Truth in American Education, Jane Robbins, an education expert at the American Principles Project, explained how this approach will effectively keep the worst provisions of Common Core in place, particularly the massive data collection aspects of the program. She noted that author Benjamin Riley admitted this in an edition of Educational Leadership, the flagship publication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). He confessed PL was completely unproven and acts in direct contradiction to proven methods of learning that work for children:

Riley defines PL as a system in which the student has greater control over the content and the pace at which he learns, with some use of technology to customize learning. He begins by reviewing the research about PL’s effectiveness. Asking what evidence there is that PL works, he answers his own question: “Virtually none.” The U.S. Department of Education has funded PL in 21 school districts to the tune of half a billion dollars, but two research studies have shown no significant effect on student outcomes…

As Riley explains, cognitive science teaches that, in any area of study, learning depends on committing certain facts to long-term memory. Once that occurs, the student’s brain is freed to use what’s called “working memory” – actively thinking about something – to solve problems and otherwise build on the knowledge that’s now embedded in the brain. In contrast to our limited working memories, Riley says, “long-term memory refers to facts that you have memorized, and no longer need to consciously think about to access.” An example would be multiplication tables – you needn’t stop to calculate 8 x 5, because you’ve memorized the answer. “The expansion of long-term memory gives students more space for active thinking.”

With no empirical data proving the efficacy of PL, the reason it is likely being pushed on students is that these sophisticated computer programs gather an incredible amount of personally-identifiable information on students. This information is immensely valuable to government and corporate interests alike, who feel they can use it to make a more pliable and controllable workforce. Robbins explained how this will dumb children down while putting their privacy at risk to the Kansas state legislature in 2014:

[A] USED report that came out… focused on the enormous windfall of student data that will result from digital-learning technologies and digital assessment. This report was authored primarily by Karen Cator, who now heads up another federal data development project. The type of digital learning that the Cator report promotes is not simply an alternative means of accessing text or lectures. Rather, it’s the type of computerized products that work by stimulus-response – the student sees something on the screen and has to choose a response, which leads to another prompt, and so on. Think Pavlov. This type of technological interplay generates enormous amounts of data on each student’s behaviors and dispositions; the term for it is “data exhaust.”

The Cator report urges that this data exhaust be used to develop individual profiles on students, that it be shared with various institutions and other stakeholders who may have an interest, and that it be used “for studying the noncognitive aspects of 21st-century skills, namely, interpersonal skills (such as communication, collaboration, and leadership) and intrapersonal skills (such as persistence and self-regulation).” The Department also emphasizes that the gathering of this “extremely fine-grained information” on students will help with the implementation of the Common Core Standards, which promote “deeper learning objectives” rather than acquisition of academic knowledge.

With DeVos and the Trump administration promoting the idea of PL based on the computerized teaching of students, the same perverted incentives of Common Core remain in place. It appears government officials are essentially just re-branding Common Core and keeping the same overall federal agenda in place. It features the same federal data collection, the same federal “incentives” and the same federal oversight.

It is incumbent upon education activists to rebuke the talking points coming out of Washington D.C., and remain active at the state and local levels working to repeal Common Core. The battle is being waged at those levels, and federal bureaucrats cannot be trusted to do anything except devise sneaky ways to maintain the status quo.

DeVos image via Gage Skidmore, Flickr


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