John Thompson, retired teacher in Oklahoma, reads the Reformer press closely. He notices a change in tactics, a stubborn refusal to acknowledge failure, and a determination to adhere to privatization of public schools by any means necessary. He appreciates the journalism of Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat for reporting what the Reformers say to one another. They have not backed away one iota from their rock-solid belief that private management is the sure cure for low test scores, despite the failure of the Tennessee Achievement School District and the Michigan Education Achievement Authority and every similar program that claimed to bring in “high-performing seats” (one of my favorite Reformer phrases, as though the seats themselves are magical).

Stop the presses!

Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd has listened and it is rethinking its entire campaign to privatize public schools! The corporate reform group that helped give us Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education is acknowledging the harm done by test-driven, competition-driven reform. ExcelinEd is rethinking standardized testing, rapid transformative change and even the Billionaires Boys Club’s new panacea – “personalized learning!” Maybe the next step will be apologies for pushing the mass firing of teachers and Common Core!

Oops! ExcelinEd isn’t facing up to the failure of its education agenda. It is merely shifting its public relations spin!

Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum is illuminating efforts by ExcelinEd, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and other corporate reformers’ new campaign to “drum up support.” He explains how a new “messaging document” offers “a revealing look at how some backers are trying to sell their approach.”
Although ExcelinEd and others refuse to listen to educators and researchers on why their education experiments failed, the authors of their new document, Karla Phillips and Amy Jenkins, “have read the angry op-eds and watched tension-filled board meetings.” So they are rebranding personalized learning and other reforms as things that patrons don’t need to fear.

For instance, Barnum explains, “the report suggests telling parents that ‘personalized learning provides opportunities for increased interaction with teachers and peers and encourages higher levels of student engagement.’” He then fact checks that new talking point:

If anything, though, existing research suggests that certain personalized learning programs reduce student engagement. In a 2015 study by RAND, commissioned by the Gates Foundation, students in schools that have embraced technology-based personalized learning were somewhat less likely to say they felt engaged in and enjoyed school work. A 2017 RAND study found that students were 9 percentage points less likely to say there was an adult at school who knew them well.

Follow the link to the messaging document and it is clear that these ideology-driven corporate reformers are not stepping back from bubble-in accountability and other top-down mandates. They warn their troops, however, that the mere mention of testing drives down interest in personalized learning.

Click to access Communicating-Personalized-Learning-to-Families-and-Stakeholders.pdf

Real world, personalized learning is producing questionable results. It is clear that personalized learning can benefit some students, as it harms others. Underfunded schools and overworked teachers can’t magically implement the rushed plans for online learning and offer real, meaningful, individualized lessons. Often digital instruction devolves into dummied-down efforts to “pass kids on.” The dangers of too much screen time and the gathering of individual data by corporations are well documented.

So, the spin consultants urge caution when “answering these questions without fueling opposition.” Corporate reformers are not necessarily backing off from their gamble in hurriedly imposing radical transformations. Instead, they realize that, “In attempting to generate excitement, we inadvertently scared the public,” So, reformers must “steer clear” of “talking up the potential for dramatic changes to the way school looks and feels.” They are also offering “preferred messaging” to district leaders for their staff and principals.

If anyone believes that the Billionaires Boys Club’s new messaging means they have really listened, they merely need to click on ExcelinEd’s web site. For instance, they haven’t even rejected the failed turnaround strategies that they and the federal government imposed on high-poverty schools. They still promote agendas like the mass replacement of staff in district schools. Then their new report, School Interventions Under ESSA: Harnessing High-Performing Charter Operators, emphasizes:

In districts where schools fail to turn around – or have already been failing for multiple years – states should consider the one option that can give students languishing in low-performing schools a higher quality option: bringing in high-performing charter schools.

It must be emphasized that this new advice on a more personal message for personalized learning and the kinder and gentler presentation of reward and punish policies does not mean that corporate reformers have checked their hubris.

They still plan to “go big, be bold, and be impatient.”

Barnum has been good at shining a light on the ways that reformers are reworking their message, but these social engineers are trying to improve their PR, and hiding their antagonism towards educators. The Fordham Institute has been especially open about their movement’s “internecine feud,” that some call “the end of education policy,” while not hiding their anger towards practitioners. For instance, Dale Chu wrote:

If 2018 marks the end of education policy, whatever comes next has gotten off to an inauspicious start for reformers and stand-patters alike.

Follow his second link to read Robin Lake’s full twitter statement which concludes:

There are certainly “stand-patters”: people who don’t believe any structural/policy changes are needed in public ed. I have little to discuss w them.

And please don’t forget the ways that Chu characterizes those of us who oppose their theories based on research and our classroom experiences. He labels us as “forces of resistance,” “their ilk,” those whose actions are inimical to improvement, and “hyperbolic at best.” He praises Howard Fuller’s “prescient warning” that “too many reformers had mistaken what was a street fight for a college debate.”

As the corporate reformers air their dirty laundry, the observations of conservative Little “r” reformer Rick Hess are especially illustrative. Hess spoofs the Big “R” Reformers’ new message, “we’re ready to listen.” He explains why this new tactic “feels like performance art.”

Hess explains, “If one is emotionally invested in a bold sweeping agenda to ‘fix’ American education, it’s tough to regard disagreement, dissent or skepticism as anything other than a moral failure.” He concludes, “for those invested in Big ‘R’ Reform, listening is mostly a stratagem.” It is a self-reinforcing insular dogma.” Changing their mindset is “quite a challenge when the mantra is ‘go big, be bold, and be impatient.’”

In Oklahoma, this pattern is being displayed by Epic Charter, as well as ExcelinEd, but the same story is being told across the nation.

Student needs matter more than school delivery model.