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Is Personalization in Education About Students or Profit?

We graft the free market model onto a wholly incompatible field of ideas in education—markets are driven by profit, not learning.

This is the fourth post (read part one, part two, and part three) in a series on the purpose of education.

The end-run of the logic of the "free market model" of education—and its application to schools—is simple: the repudiation of schools as we have come to know them; the abandonment of democratic principles on which they are based; and the service of a technocratic vision of education as matrix of individual relationships with private providers. In recent years, this vision takes the form of crude assertions that online learning platforms might not only extend or enrich the learning that takes place in schools, but might obviate the need for the "school" as we know it.

This claim is supported by politicians, pundits, and policy wonks—the vast majority of whom would make vitally different decisions for their own children's education, than they might for yours or mine. It's obvious to educators that we should embrace the opportunities provided by digital tools, services, and platforms to supplement and to inform the learning that takes place in a school, but we should beware the growing and disturbing focus on the replacement of the school by those technologies.

We have known for many decades in schools that differentiation, individuation, and responsiveness to student voice and choice are hallmarks of effective schools’ support of each learner in a school community. Now, however, the discussion of vaguely related imperatives is dressed in the language of "personalization" of products, content, and services, as though this represents a new-found metaphor for redefining education as we know it. We lay faith—lazily, or purposefully, and even in the most sophisticated and insightful writing about mutations in 21st century capitalism—in the promises of private corporations that mimic this language, extolling selfless commitments to service our individual needs.

We want to believe that corporate providers and "education entrepreneurs" are driven by a commitment to democratic principles, rather than the profit margin. We trust the pizza chef offers us our choice of toppings solely to warm his heart, and not at all to line his pockets. "Personalization" hasn't become popular in the education business because a democratic revolution took place in the boardroom; personalization became plausible because it generates profit.

We graft the free market model onto a wholly incompatible field of ideas in education—markets are driven by profit; schools are not—and wonder why so many "innovations" and "disruptions" have provided so little to respond to our pressing, real concerns about the future of our schools and our citizens. This is primarily because the "free market model," to which we have turned for educational solutions, is precisely responsible for the economic problems that have forced our most pressing questions to a crisis. Perhaps this most savage irony of all is manifest when the ‘free market model’ is foisted not only on the discourse of education innovation, but shamelessly proffered as the solution to deeper problems still: sweeping systemic inequities in educational access, opportunity, and attainment for which the free market ‘itself’ is largely responsible.

To wit, Thomas Friedman's recent outline of the "natural order" of technocratic possibilities for one and all:

The combination of these tools of connectivity and creativity has created a global education, commercial, communication and innovation platform on which more people can start stuff, collaborate on stuff, learn stuff, make stuff (and destroy stuff) with more other people than ever before…This huge expansion in an individual’s ability to do all these things comes with one big difference: more now rests on you.

If you are self-motivated, wow, this world is tailored for you. The boundaries are all gone. But if you’re not self-motivated, this world will be a challenge because the walls, ceilings, and floors that protected people are also disappearing.


The free market model normalizes self-motivation as the defining criterion for educational, social, and economic mobility in abject repudiation of all we've come to know about systemic inequities in American society: though we know "the boundaries" are not "all gone," we pretend otherwise. But the logic of "If you don't make it, you ain't got it" just doesn’t cut it, either in our schools or in our society. Make no mistake: this delusional portrait of America as a meritocracy based on the competition of equally empowered agents in a ‘free market’ of ideas and aspirations is not an oversight or abstract commitment: it is the intentional anchor of the neoliberal project to change our society and our schools.

From the neoliberally pornographic pen of John Chubb, for example, comes this vision of the future of schooling in Philadelphia:

Rasheed began school with the academic disadvantages of so many children in his neighborhood. His home had few books and he had little experience with them. His family was not well schooled, and communicated with a limited vocabulary and imperfect grammar. He would struggle to learn how to read. But Rasheed had something his mother did not have as a child. His family owned a computer. . .

All kinds of kids were flocking to online high schools: kids with jobs, kids who had been bullied, kids who were bored by the slow pace of traditional schools, kids with special needs, all types. The exodus to online schools only accelerated in the ensuing years, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, as the schools gained acceptance and the technology and online teaching advanced.


Such racist and classist visions are haunting, whether in their myopia or their sociopathy, and we must keep them from being reproduced in the cultural norms of our schools, our households, and our communities.

The logic of the free market model emerges from a blind allegiance to a profit motive in free markets. It seeks to reproduce itself in cultural norms within our schools and households. It emerges from a discourse that has itself accounted for the cultural and socioeconomic marginalization of millions of people. And yet it is foisted on the discourses of systemic educational reform, and educational innovation, as a framework to design solutions to the sweeping inequities it creates.

In the context of my effort to explore the "purpose of schools" in this series of posts, though, there are two specific dangers of the free-market model of schools against which we must guard as pundits, politicians, and policy wonks continue to devalue the learning, the communities, and the learning communities we help to sustain. The first is the model's distorted valuation of self-interest at the expense of the community. The second is the conception of the school as a delivery system for cognitive content. These are the notions that we must challenge as the neoliberal threat to the very existence of our schools persists. As Carla Rinaldi reminds us:

School is a place of culture–that is, a place where a personal and collective culture is developed that influences the social, political, and values context and, in turn, is influenced by this context in a relationship of deep and authentic reciprocity.

We must not forget how closely the school is connected to the society in which it is situated. The recurring question is whether school is limited to transmitting culture or can be…a place where culture is constructed and democracy is put into practice.


Our classrooms, our schools, and our policy must prioritize purposeful and inclusive collaboration, cultural competency, conflict resolution, careful critical thought about current orthodoxies, the creative generation of new ideas, and so much more that characterize the vital skills necessary for humans to function in relationships, and citizens to function in a society—not because they prepare a student to service the economy, but because they are necessary for all of us thoughtfully to balance the needs of the one and the many, and thus to heal and sustain a democracy.

The "school" must be defended. And by "school," I am referring both to the physical facility in which, and the human community with which, we congregate—and not the online learning platforms that presume to provide a more efficient system for the provision of personalized content. There is a difference between creating and sustaining cultures of continuous improvement in our schools, and submitting to a siege mentality propagated by the pirates of politics, punditry, and private enterprise who are, as Naomi Klein warns, "part of a movement that prays for crisis the way that drought-struck farmers pray for rain."

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