The Myth of “Personalized Instruction” in North Carolina – Invest in PEOPLE

“At DPI, we want to transform our education system to one that uses 21st century best practices so students and educators have access to unique learning experiences personalized for their individual needs and aspirations.” – Mark Johnson from “North Carolina Public Schools Accelerating into 2018” in (

The term “personalized learning” has become a bit of a buzzword in North Carolina – a fashionable way to veil an educational reform under the guise of something altruistic.

In its literal and denotative form, “personalized learning” is a rather noble concept. It would allow students to receive tailored-made lessons that match their learning styles, needs, and interests.

It also requires a great amount of time, resources, and PERSONAL attention from instructors.

Time, resources, classroom space, and opportunities to give each student personalized instruction are not items being afforded to North Carolina’s public school teachers. In fact, as state superintendent, Mark Johnson has never really advocated for those things in schools. Actually, he has passively allowed for the class size mandate to proceed without a fight, has never fought against the massive cuts to the Department of Public Instruction, and devotes more time hiring only loyalists and spending taxpayer money to fight against the state board.

This past November, Benjamin Herold of Education Week wrote an investigative article entitled “The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning.” It is a straightforward look at how the amorphous term of “personalized learning” has been used to actually advance agendas that really are not good for enhancing instruction ( Specifically, he uses three arguments against “personalized learning.” They are:

  • “Argument#1: The Hype Outweighs the Research”
  • “Argument #2: Personalized Learning is Bad for Teachers and Students”
  • “Argument #3: Big Tech + Big Data= Big Problems”

If what Mark Johnson is trying to accomplish with his version of “personalized learning,” then does it not make sense that he would have to counter the arguments laid forth by Herold?

And why specifically counter those arguments now?

  • Because there has been nothing from Johnson’s office or even his own mouth to offer the research for his claims.
  • Because Johnson has been more concerned with rushing in technology for “technology’s sake”.
  • Because Johnson has not explained how personalized learning in his version will actually allow more teachers to spend more time with individual students.

One of the many people whom Herold refers to is Alfie Kohn, a heavy-hitter in the world of educational thought. He quotes Kohn from his book, Schools Beyond Measure.


With a “revamped” website controlled by a software company like SAS that uses secret algorithms to show how well schools are performing on standardized tests which teachers don’t even help to write, Johnson’s idea of “personalized learning” in a state that still has a very low per-pupil expenditure lacks credibility.

Alfie Kohn’s work as an author and critic is known the world over. In fact, his book The Homework Myth is one of the choice reads for my AP English Language and Composition classes (which ironically argues against the veracity of AP classes in general).

In February of 2015, Kohn wrote an entry in his blog entitled “Four Reasons to Worry About ‘Personalized Learning.’” In it he outlined four warning signs:

“1. The tasks have been personalized for kids, not created by them.
2. Education is about the transmission of bits of information, not the construction of meaning.
3. The main objective is just to raise test scores.
4. It’s all about the tech.”

I believe Kohn more than I believe Johnson. In fact, Kohn actually shows his research if you look at the actual post ( Footnotes galore and a bibliography at the conclusion.


Until Mark Johnson is able to communicate clearly, candidly, and convincingly how his vision and/or version of “personalized instruction” is going to allow teachers to give all students more individualized attention, then what he is selling is nothing more than a scheme to make a profit for someone else.

Johnson states further in his op-ed in,

“Our society uses technology to personalize our news, social media, entertainment options, and even fast-food orders.”

The fact that Johnson equates the use of technology in the classroom with the use of technology in these other venues already shows his huge disconnect with the learning process.

We live in a country where we have a president who trashes most news outlets, where social media companies seem to be more concerned with accruing data to sell for a profit, where entertainment makes us question what actually is reality, and where fast food offers cheap non-alternatives for substantial dietary options from a prefab menu.

And Johnson wants us to rely on their examples to personalize how we teach our students?

Kohn also uses a fast-food reference in his post on personalized learning. But Kohn makes a better choice for the palate of the American education system.

“For some time, corporations have sold mass-produced commodities of questionable value and then permitted us to customize peripheral details to suit our “preferences.” In the 1970s, Burger King rolled out its “Have it your way!” campaign, announcing that we were now empowered to request a recently thawed slab of factory-produced ground meat without the usual pickle — or even with extra lettuce! In America, I can be me!”

I guess Johnson would like to “supersize” that.

4 thoughts on “The Myth of “Personalized Instruction” in North Carolina – Invest in PEOPLE

  1. Pingback: Stuart Egan: The Hoax of “Personalized Learning” in North Carolina | Diane Ravitch's blog

  2. Pingback: Stuart Egan: The Hoax of “Personalized Learning” in North Carolina | Diane Ravitch's blog

  3. In corroboration, I’d like to share comments from 2014 by Robert D. Shepherd–literacy, curriculum development, and assessment expert extraordinaire:
    “It’s extremely important that people understand WHY the Common [sic] Core [sic] was created.
    It was created because a few people have a particular vision for the future of education: we are to experience a computer-based learning revolution. There is to be a single bullet list of tags to correlate all learning to.
    That’s why Bill Gates and Pearson paid to have these standards created.
    Few have understood this.
    Here’s the problem: These people talk all the time about “personalized learning” and “individual learning paths.” But what they are talking about is plopping kids down into a predetermined maze. The learning is individualized to the extent that the program tells you where to put the kid in the predetermined matrix. This rat has already learned to turn left at the first T, so we can put her down in the maze at some point beyond that.
    Why is this happening now?
    Well, Gates has long had this vision for education. It’s one he articulated many years ago in his autobiographical The Road Ahead.
    Pearson and the other big ed book publishers see that Open Source online texts have the potential of completely undermining their business model. Pixels are cheap. There are now hundreds of excellent FREE online textbooks in hundreds of subjects. The BIG DATA model provides the “value-add” that distinguishes will distinguish their products from others and so will keep them alive. They don’t want to go the way of typewriters and telephone booths.
    The whole notion of creating a single national database of student responses and test scores was to ensure a single, controllable gateway for this computer-adaptive curricula, again in response to the challenge presented by Open Source to the publishing monopolists’ business model.


Comments are closed.