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To Mark Zuckerberg from a former classmate: Why I’m ‘alarmed’ by your new school reform effort

Facebook chief executive and founder Mark Zuckerberg speaks during a ‘town-hall’ meeting at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in New Delhi on October 28, 2015. Speaking to about 900 students at New Delhi’s Indian Institute of Technology, Zuckerberg said broadening Internet access was vital to economic development in a country where a billion people are still not online. (AFP PHOTO / Getty Images)

Emily Talmage is an elementary school teacher in Lewiston, Maine, who happened to be a classmate of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg when they both attended Phillips Exeter Academy as teenagers.  In the education world, Zuckerberg is known for his $100 million gift to Newark Schools, money that was largely wasted, as told in a recent book by Dale Russakoff,  a former Washington Post reporter, titled “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?”  Here’s an open letter to Zuckerberg from Talmage about one of his latest education reform efforts. Talmage has seven years of teaching experience in New York City and Maine, as well as a masters degree in urban education from Mercy College and a masters degree in developmental psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University.

[Why Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to Newark schools was announced on Oprah’s show]

Here’s the letter, which originally appeared on

Dear Mark,
You probably don’t remember me, but we were students together at Phillips Exeter Academy 15 years ago. I was a lower (sophomore) when you were a senior, so our paths didn’t overlap much, but I do believe we had one class together — Latin with Mr. Morante.
I’m writing for two reasons: first, a quick thank you for Facebook. I’ve always enjoyed it as a social tool, but recently I have discovered how powerful it can be as networking tool to gather people around a common cause. Lately, I’ve connected with parents, teachers, administrators, bloggers, and other activists around the country who are all working passionately toward one goal: getting our local schools back from the powerful corporate and political interests that now strangle them. We share notes and research, triumphs and setbacks, inspiration and outrage, and lately it seems — incrementally at least — that we may be getting somewhere.
A bit about me: after Exeter and college (Amherst ’07), I followed the two-year teaching-temp route through the New York City Teaching Fellows program. But, instead of going on to more “big time” things (as a fellow classmate once asked if I would), I discovered that I loved being in the classroom and working directly with kids so much that I became a career teacher, and now teach fourth grade in Maine. Would you believe that with a salary of $40k a year, a mortgage, a baby, a husband in law school — and, as a result, a net worth well in the negative numbers — I haven’t once regretted this decision?
But it hasn’t been easy. For the last eight years, I have witnessed and experienced the harm that reform efforts are inflicting on teachers and students alike. Much of this abuse is related to the testing mandates of No Child Left Behind, but there are also new, potentially even more harmful policies with which we are now contending. Recently, I have been using this blog, and yes, Facebook, to try my hand at being an outspoken advocate for our kids, parents, teachers, and local schools.
Which brings me to the second reason that I am writing.
Last week, I was alarmed when a friend of mine sent me a post from your own Facebook page endorsing “personalized” learning, as well as announcing your recent partnership with Summit Public Schools to promote this model.
I am quite certain that in doing so, you have genuinely good intentions. I also suspect that you have been heavily courted by reform-oriented groups and foundations, and that they have, through their carefully curated examples of “personalized learning,” presented nothing less than a miracle to you in hopes of gaining your support and endorsements.
“Corporate reformers,” as we call them on the ground, are very good at preying on our best intentions. I, myself, was once taken in by a school that promised it was “closing the achievement gap,” but whose practices were so appalling and abusive that I left within a year. Of course, I have never been to a Summit Public School, so I cannot speak about their system. I must confess, however, that when I see who else is promoting this school, the hair on the back of my neck stands up.
Let me assure you that “personalized learning,” as it is being pushed by the Gates Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Digital Learning Now Council, as well as countless educational technology companies, start-ups, and venture capitalists who have invested millions into personalized learning experiments (they call them “innovations”), is a far, far cry from the type of education we got at Exeter.
At Exeter, we sat around shiny hardwood tables debating meaning buried within novels that were carefully selected by our teachers; we disagreed about interpretations of historical events, and were sometimes drowned out by the passion of Harkness Warriors (I was never one of those, were you?). Our teachers had ways of guiding us toward particular insights, but they never held us hostage to specific outcomes, or “competencies” as they are called now, before allowing us to move on. (If you aren’t sure what I mean by “competencies” and the role they play in personalized learning models, please read more here.)
If an outside observer had come into one of our classrooms, as happens now in many public schools, to ask us, “What is your learning target today, and how will you know if you have met it?” I don’t think many of us would have been able to say. Our teachers probably would have been appalled at such a question.
These are the constraints under which “personalized” learning models operate. Standards, competencies, learning targets and progressions, all of which must be tracked and monitored and controlled in order to work, are the ingredients of “personalized learning.” Students may be in control of their “learning trajectory,” in such a model, but not of their own minds, as we were at Exeter.
In my humble opinion, this is a bastardization of true education.
Of course, you can see why venture capitalists, educational technology companies and their related foundations (yes, I do mean Gates) would see a prime opportunity for profit through this type of model. Computers can, indeed, do this type of work.
I encourage you to look more deeply into the policies and practices you are now advocating. Look beyond the carefully selected models you are presented, look beyond the well-crafted and well-financed PR campaigns, and reach out to the teachers, parents, and students whose local schools are being destroyed and remade according to the whims of corporate investors. You may be surprised, and saddened, by what you hear.
Emily Talmage (formerly Kennedy), Exeter ’03