Friday, June 14, 2013

Does “Mass Customized Learning” Represent Real Education Change?

There are big changes taking place in some Maine school districts. These districts have joined a group called the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, and have embraced principles of what is called, “Mass Customized Learning” (MCL), or the Proficiency-Based System (PBS). 

What is the framework behind these changes? The excerpt, below, outlines the important points

Time is the Variable

  • Learners advance (progression) to the next performance level in a content area once proficiency or better has been achieved and validated.  There are no traditional grade levels.
  • Progression can occur at any point during the course of the year for any content area.
  • At the beginning of the traditional school year, learners resume their learning at the point where they left off the previous year (continuous flow). There is no social promotion.
  • Learners are typically in different performance levels for different content areas.
  • Multiage classrooms are the norm not the exception.

Learning is the Constant
  • Learners are placed at their appropriate developmental instructional level in each of ten content areas based on demonstrated performance.
  • Curriculum is “guaranteed and viable” where the standards and supporting materials are made explicit and available to teachers, students and parents.
  • Evidence toward proficiency for all learning targets is measured and recorded over time where the learner must score proficient or better prior to beginning the next performance level.
  • Learning progress is scored and reported on a proficiency scale from 0.0 through 4.0. There are no traditional letter grades.

Simply put, children can now grapple with the learning targets (curricula) developed by the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning (MCCL), and aligned to the Common Core, in their own way, and at their own pace.

Districts who have embraced this change have taken on a huge task. They have undertaken to change curricula, teaching methods, assessment, grading, and the reorganization of student levels, all in the interests of creating a system that  attempts to adapt to the learning needs of individual children and is wrapped around the Common Core State Standards.

For many, it is a purpose that seemed worth the disruption it would create in the districts that opted to go for it.  Some see the benefits taking place already...but in some school districts it has created turmoil, bitterness and mistrust among parents, teachers, school board members and administrators.


If this system is supposed to be a truly customized to each learner, why is it controversial? Personalized education; isn’t that what we want?

The Pros
Those who advocate for PBS claim that there will always be controversy when an institution is changed at its foundations. The advantages to be gained from this disruption outweigh the problems, say supporters. Kids would be released from “seat time,” opening up opportunities to learn and become involved in their interests and their passions; to take advantages of learning opportunities, instead of being stuck inside a curriculum that was fixed in time and space.  The choices they will be given in how they learn and at what pace will potentially put them in greater control of their learning.

The fact that a student, in pursuing interdisciplinary learning, can get credit for work done in both disciplines (i.e. music and physics) has the potential of breaking students out of the single-subject restriction.

When fully implemented and when teachers are trained and comfortable with the methods and techniques, struggling students will get the support they need, and more the advanced students will not have to be bored or frustrated. There will be a stamp of individuality about their learning. This is a positive advantage; there is no question.

The Cons
But for many around the State, PBS has turned out to lack the promise it advertised.

  • It is questionable that the progression of a student through predetermined learning targets will yield greater student achievement; it is still, in effect, as scripted as the old-school curricula. Student “voice and choice” over the least important parts of learning will have a nebulous impact on students’ long-term engagement;
  • The nature and quality of those learning targets, put together by MCCL, are the subject of debate;
  • It is questionable how the “unpacking” of a "measurement topic," the determination of how each child will learn that topic and of how the learning will be assessed, and the moving on to the next target once the learning has been measured will result in better, more valuable learning experiences for kids. Sometimes letting kids dive into material that is too advanced to completely grasp is a great way to motivate and engage them. But by following these measurement targets, one after another, kids are confined to baby-steps.
  • The focus on the ideas, interests and passions of children -- if they don’t happen to correspond with the learning targets -- is absent.
  • While the manner of the constant measurement of learning is different from the old way the impact is the same....or worse. “Will this be on the test?” has been replaced by, “Will this be part of my measurement target?” And in a system built around the possibility that EVERY aspect of their learning can be measured, there is no longer value for learning that is not. Does a child learn about musical dynamics so that they can better appreciate or even create more beautiful music....or because they can tick a word off a vocabulary list on the way to achieving a learning target?

I go to educator Gary Stager for my final word on the impact of assessment on learning:

“Assessment has nothing to do with learning. Without a school system, the term assessment would never be used. It would have no meaning. Indeed, assessment is something done to others. Learners learn, think -- perhaps even reflect, but they don’t assess themselves UNLESS coerced to do so. Learning is a natural act. Assessment is not.”

In a system that values student learning over the documentation of a student’s long-march through standards, assessment is invisible; hardly seen, embedded in student accomplishments.

Most critical of all is that MCL falls far short of its name: if all children are expected to master the same measurement topics, then the system is not customized. Nor is it personalized, or individualized, or any other kind of -ized.

The change that has the greatest potential for changing student lives moves away from a system that pushes content and measurement, and toward the support and encouragement of student passions and interests; individual students derive their curriculum from their goals.

We need to create the change that gives students the best chance of success by allowing them to determine their own direction.

But those tests!
Changing from one test-based system to another, while having a potentially positive effect on students in some senses, will not change the most critical factors in the work of school districts:

  • that the assessment of learning is the most important part of the work of a classroom;
  • that standards like the Common Core are the basis for student learning;
  • that state standardized testing will continue to be the yardstick by which a school’s value is determined.

There are many reasons why the industrial model of top-down teaching and learning no longer serves our kids well. The PBS system understands to a degree that children have to construct their own learning; but this philosophy can’t truly succeed if it is superimposed upon a system that teaches standards instead of students; and is evaluated through high-stakes testing.

One big leap forward for the PBS system would be to institute a system which allows students to determine their learning direction, and choose their own learning targets according to their interests. This would still not be ideal; a system like that, while possible under the Common Core standards, is definitely better off without it.

And there will still be those tests.

A little history always helps
Public education has been so manipulated by political winds, corporate greed, and the quest for power and influence that we hardly know what it really looks like. It’s as if the institution is functioning in a deep fog; we know life is difficult and we might even think we know why, but we can only see ten feet in any direction.

When the No Child Left Behind law first attached school funding to the results of testing, public education took a dive. There are few educators, politicians and education profiteers who would deny it in the face of overwhelming evidence. The curriculum contracted and narrowed; test results reigned supreme, and Campbell’s Law came into action:

"The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."

According to education historian and activist Diane Ravitch: “Campbell’s Law explains why high-stakes testing promotes cheating, narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test, and other negative behaviors.” The culture of schools changed radically in the ten years that followed, and the cry-out for change to a broken system increased. But the testing was the baseball bat that broke the system!

For many players in this public education game, the era of high-stakes testing and the cry-out about those broken schools opened up a world of opportunity. Our schools are doing badly, they said, for lack of Real Good Rigorous Standards. Bill Gates gave several million on pocket change to the National Governor’s Association, and the Association of Chief State Education Officers, and under their wing, the Common Core State Standards were born. Now we have a real national curriculum that will raise the bar and make sure our country Stays Competitive.  The Smarter Balanced assessments, aligned to these Standards are coming next.

“But! But! But!” splutter those who have been following along, “It’s the tests that broke the system in the first place!”

So what ought Maine to do?
The high-minded claims of the proponents of  PBS just don’t matter. They are swimming in deep waters.  The "old model," since NCLB is governed by testing; so is the "new model."

It is, in the most critical senses, the same model. PBS districts are taking a different path at a different pace to the same destination. We can’t look for real change that charges up kids’ interest in learning -- because that begins with who they are and what they love. We can’t allow kids to explore, to discover, to create, to change the world, if tests loom over them. “Rigor” (even in kindergarten!) will continue to be a word that means, “To make harder for no apparent reason,” rather than, the production of high-quality work that can be expected when kids are excited to learn; when they are engaged and passionate.

Look at it this way. A guy is in a prison cell. Ratty blanket and flat mattress. Someone decides to make this guy happier by replacing it with a Sealy Posturepedic mattress, sheets with bajillion thread counts and goose down pillows. The guy sleeps great. But when he wakes up, he is still in prison.

I leave it up to you to decide if you think the chance of a more comfortable prison cell will really happen under PBS, and also, whether it is change worth fighting for; or if we’d serve our children better if we stand up and insist that the Common Core State Standards and the associated high-stakes testing be removed from the Maine landscape completely.


  1. I do not understand how PBL is any different than traditional ed systems, except maybe kids won't know who is valedictorian. I am glad that grades are phasing out. Other than that, I am flummoxed. Please explain why 'learner' is better a better term than 'student.' Sounds like marketing.

  2. It isn't different, IMHO, in the sense that content is pushed at kids without reference to interests. As advertised, it creates choice in HOW and AT WHAT PACE students (learners?) learn. But again IMHO, those are the least important parts of learning.

    As to "student" v. "learner"...dag. Who knows. I like to think of people in school as learners, because "student" puts them below other people in a caste system. But that's just me...its' definitely been co-opted by the pseudo-reformers.

  3. Apprentice is a great word. I don't get why learner is better than student.

  4. student has the connotation of something being done to you (a student will be taught) while learner is more active participant

    1. Student, around our house, has always implied, one who studies, as opposed to pupil, one who shows up at school.

      Learner is the noun-ification of a perfectly good verb. Hate it, no matter who uses it.

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  6. I still think MCL can embody the ideals you want to see in schools, or at the very least move schools towards what you want. A few things are key though: 1) The teachers need to worry about making sure the kids are interested and learning, and not teaching towards the test. 2) The standards need to stay ambiguous enough that students can explore what interests them while also simple enough that they know what is expected of them. And 3) the "pathway" needs to not be clearly defined. (Which is why in my most recent committee meeting I pushed for and got our social studies standards to not be linked in a lockstep fashion.)

    1. I would also disagree that the standards represent "baby steps." Assessments my students did this year included: Creating a budget and reflecting on the importance of spending & saving, tracing the changes in an aspect of pop culture that interested them and explained how it changed our country, examining why reasons for going to war were both good and bad, and trying to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. And these were kids in grades 7/8.

      We also set aside time to work on "inquiry" projects multiple times so if there was something a student didn't dive in to during the course of meeting or exceeding the standard, they could.

  7. Perhaps the big question then is if MCL was being introduced pre-NCLB, before standardized tests took a stranglehold on our educational system, would it be a good idea (especially when compared to the "traditional" model)?

  8. You simply can't carry out the work of a system by going against its foundations. You can't say "these are not baby steps" when the teaching progression goes in baby steps. You can try to manipulate it and be as creative as possible, and clearly you are doing that. But the framework is still governing what you are doing, and from what you say, "passion" is something that is pursued only when there is time left over. Too bad for the kids who struggle and never have "time left over."

    Also, you skate over the assessment issue. When you measure every work product, that measure becomes the critical voice of approval.

    And even when you are allowing your kids to determine how they learn and what will be assessed, you are still dictating what they are supposed to feel excited about. Even if they found something to their interest, it's an imposition that teaches kids that what they view as irresistibly interesting isn't important till some figure of authority gives it the stamp of approval.

    The simple expedient of finding out who kids are and what makes them tick is missing. Identity and passion are important...possibly...but only in a secondary position to pushing content.

    Yes, tests have distorted our system, but before we had tests we had standards. In the 1990s, there was a huge debate over the imposition of standards, and I do not think the good guy one. It's worth a look at Susan Ohanian's book about standards -- written pre-NCLB, it lays out all the problems before public education got politicized and vilified to the extent that it happened in the 00s. And her arguments are potent.

    I'm not indifferent to the advances that you say exist between this system, and public education without it. But like I said above, it is so hard to view education clearly that it's almost like it takes a monk's discipline to visualize it. That's why we have to have a guiding principle that we believe in: that kids come first, and all else has to wait in line. I don't know where I'd be if I hadn't worked out for myself a simple faith in that as a divining rod. Kids' happiness matters. Start with what produces it. I know lots of people who will say kids' happiness is really rather beside the point; maybe that's why I constantly bring it up.

  9. (I realize that I just brought up the huge Trojan horse of "what constitutes happiness?" Call it instead, empowerment, agency, enfranchisement, autonomy, self-determination, and that really awful-sounding, "self-actualization.") (No thesauruses were injured in the making of this comment.)

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  11. If you think your child will be more prepared for the world by sitting behind a computer screen solving game problems then just let them play computer games at home. "Learning" is more than answering questions correctly. "Learning" is part of the social interaction between the fellow humans you will spend the rest of your life with. I cannot make a better soldier by simply having him play war games. I can only make him more numb to the atrocities of war.

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