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Can pumpkin spice lattes* end the achievement plateau?
*with oat milk, two pumps of vanilla, sugar in the raw, mocha sauce, cinnamon sweat cream cold foam, and cinnamon dolce sprinkles
According to a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article, there are over 380 billion ways to customize your Starbucks latte. Yes, 380 billion.
The customization craze has dedicated TikTok pages that teach Starbucks fanatics how to optimize their customizations and create unique “coffee” drinks (on this, dear reader, I must stand my ground — most of these are not coffee!).
The customization craze has also led to decreased worker productivity and increased worker stress at Starbucks. Baristas, according to the article, are struggling to keep up with the demands of hyper-personalized “coffee” drinks.
This got me thinking about the increasing demand for more “customized” learning and the challenges it levies on teachers. In education, “customization” takes three main forms: differentiation, personalized learning, and individualized education plans (IEPs).
Differentiation is generally used to describe how a teacher takes a standard lesson and “customizes” it for the needs of groups of learners within a class. We might differentiate a lesson on multiplication by using manipulatives for students who struggle with numeracy, and by incorporating advanced word problems for savvy mathematicians. Teachers are expected to differentiate nearly all their lessons.
Personalized learning typically refers to, ironically, computer programs (not persons!) that adapt lessons to students strengths and weaknesses. Software like iReady, for example, will adjust its math lessons to target a student’s area of growth regardless of their grade level — say a 6th grade student still needing extra practice with long division. Nearly every classroom utilizes some form of personalized learning software, and teachers are expected to analyze the resulting data and adjust their teaching accordingly.
Individualized education plans, or IEPs, are typically used for students with an identified learning disability. We broadly call this “special education,” and roughly 15% of students have some form of an IEP. Teachers are legally obligated to follow a child’s IEP.
If teaching reading is rocket science (it is!), which subject is an apt metaphor for teaching a differentiated reading lesson to a class of 30 students, incorporating data from the personalized learning software to customize it even more all while further customizing the lesson for the 5 students with individualized education plans each with 6 different accommodations? Theoretical physics? Quantum mechanics? My 7th grade PE class that had us run a mile and then tested me on the number of pull-ups I could do while the entire class watched? (It was zero, in case you’re wondering.)
I’m not sure if there are 380 billion ways a lesson might be customized for students, but I do know that teaching multiplication is more complex than making a Frappucino. Regardless, the rise of customization in education requires teachers to do more at a time when we know they’re already experiencing burnout at record levels. According to a recent study of 490 special education teachers, those for whom customization is the core of their job, “Over 60% scored at the dangerous level in emotional exhaustion (i.e., burnout).” That’s concerning.
Customizing instruction according to IEPs is often a teacher’s biggest challenge — the documents themselves are long, the suggested accommodations overgeneralized, and teachers rarely have enough planning time or instructional time to make the necessary adjustments. In that sense, the implementation of IEPs can often feel ceremonial. The challenge of customization via IEPs will likely increase as more districts push for inclusion models, where students with IEPs spend the majority of their time in “general” education classrooms alongside their neurotypical peers.
Starbucks is responding to the customization crisis by incorporating more technology to automate drink preparation and speed up service: the Clover Vertica, which can produce a cup of coffee in 30 seconds, and portable cold foam blenders. But innovation at Starbucks comes with a profit motive. Executives estimate that “serving just five extra customers a day in every store could boost annual revenue by more than $900 million.”
Public education isn’t driven by that same profit motive, and innovations have done little to make work easier for teachers and other school employees. What’s clear is that more is needed. Perhaps AI can be leveraged to write lesson plans or adapt IEPs into straightforward instructional moves. Or maybe we just need smaller classrooms or more teachers. As New York City Starbucks barista Zoe Custer said, “It’s like, ‘Oh, you need to be more personable, more this, more that. Well, we’re already stretching ourselves, because we don’t have enough people.”
A final note: Starbucks surged into U.S. pop culture as a fascimile of Italian espresso bar culture: come in, order a coffee, and stick around to read the newspaper and chat with friends or strangers. Now, though, “74% of orders are drive-thru, mobile or delivery.” Is this further evidence of our increasing disconnection as a society as we shop online, work from home, order delivery, stream new movies, spend less time in church, and ride our Pelotons? I’ve been increasingly wondering (over my morning cup of homebrewed coffee) if schools may be the last hope for building community in our society.
Thanks for reading. Have a great week.