The Myth of the Buzzwords – About “Personalized Instruction” in North Carolina and the Need to 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.

2 thoughts on “The Myth of the Buzzwords – About “Personalized Instruction” in North Carolina and the Need to Invest in PEOPLE

  1. Personalized Instruction? What does this really mean? Who benefits, what and where will the staffing, supplies, space and assessments come from? We speak of all things in the education world being researched based etc., but, if personalized to you/me/my student(s) where and who are the others to make this researched based?

    Also, as a Special Education Teacher I ask myself many questions surrounding this type of conversation when we are expected to teach and work with up to 35 students ! Average general education teachers have way under that number of students and man have assistants to support them in the classroom. Again, as a special education teacher working in both the general education classroom, “push-in” or in the resource classroom, “pull-out” style we need to work with our students to support them in meeting their IEP goals. This is more personalized as per need (area of weakness) in an effort to help them become more successful in the classrooms. There is a lot of “catch phrases” in the education world and what really needs to happen is that we as professionals in our fields of study should be encouraged and supported in making decisions for OUR STUDENTS based on what data, assessments and needs they have and not from others who know nothing of the student or their personal lives, or needs. We are professionals and should be treated as such. Let us do our jobs! If you want to help Support is, rather then knocking us down or looking at what is being done and make no changes based on political gains instead of what’s in the best interest of the students.


  2. The truth of my classroom is that I rarely employ commercially produced lesson materials. Invariably, the pedagogy is presented at a much lower level than the that which I produce.

    For instance, assessment from the online programs are uniformly objective featuring multiple choice. Fill-in-the Blank, and marching. At best, these questions represent formative rather than summarize assessment and do truly require a student to demonstrate critical thinking skills that demonstrate true mastery and comprehension.

    Worse, the year-end assessments are routinely objective. In other words, my “added value” as a teacher is being measured by weak assessment instrument. What is the sense in rating teachers and schools with tests that do not measure the depth of student achievement and subject matter comprehension as presented by demonstration of student critical thinking skills. Such a measurement requires extended written response.


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