schools of the future

As ed reformers urge a ‘big bet’ on personalized learning, research points to potential rewards — and risks

Philanthropists and school leaders need to make a “big bet” on dramatically reshaping schools, according to the leaders behind last week’s major education conference.

Re-imagining learning, schools of tomorrow, personalized learning, jobs of the future — these were the watchwords at the New Schools Venture Fund Summit. Ideas about how to reinvent schooling were more prominent than even hot-button topics like school integration or vouchers.

“The world has changed dramatically … and our schools have struggled to keep up,” said New Schools CEO Stacey Childress at the summit’s opening session. “We just think it’s time to update the way schools work so they better prepare students for success in today’s world.”

The solution, according to some, is a focus on innovative school models — particularly ones that use technology to “personalize” teaching based on students’ needs, desires, strengths, and weaknesses.

The gathering was underwritten by deep-pocketed funders known for backing technology-based education initiatives, including the Gates Foundation and the relatively new Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. (Gates is a supporter of Chalkbeat, as are the Walton Family Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, which were also major sponsors of the event.)

Advocates are extremely optimistic about investing in this new breed of schools. A report released by New Schools at the end of last year made an aggressive call to direct $4 billion in philanthropy toward creating, studying, and promoting this sort of innovation. Doing so, the authors write, will produce an estimated 200 to 500 percent return on investment.

It’s a remarkable claim, but perhaps an overly rosy one: the author of the study that New Schools relied on to make such a strong assertion says it’s likely inflated. And although some studies point to the benefits of specific technology programs, the research about whole schools using these approaches remains in its infancy.

As the ideas gain prominence, skeptics fear that the push amounts to the latest fad in education.

“What I see … is people imagining that if we just design the school with new models we will be able to satisfy the needs of the future,” said Ben Riley, head of the group Deans for Impact and former New Schools staff member. “The graveyard of people thinking they could successfully predict the future and then finding out that they were wrong about that has a lot of tombstones.”

The appeal of innovative schools and a personalized approach

Amidst a sea of buzzwords, it can be hard to define school innovation or personalized learning. (Some even argue that trying to pin down a clear meaning is misguided.)

Roughly speaking, though, the idea epitomized at the New Schools summit focuses on expanding technology in schools to better tailor teaching to specific students’ needs and desires.

The New Schools report points to several traits of these schools: maximizing “time, pace, instructional methods and outside experiences”; using “an expanded definition of student success”; ensuring students “feel ownership of their learning”; more frequent use of technology; and ensuring students build trusting relationships.

Advocates often point to Summit Public Schools, a charter school network in California that embraces a technology-infused model. A favorable case study authored by David Osborne of the reform-oriented Progressive Policy Institute calls them “schools of the future.”

Students at Summit spend about 16 hours a week — half of their school time — learning via computer. As Osborne describes it: “Teachers were there to answer questions, make suggestions when kids got stuck, and check their progress, but students were in charge of their own learning. They worked at their own pace, and when they felt they had mastered a concept, they took a 10-question assessment. If they could answer eight of the questions correctly, they checked that off and moved on to the next topic.”

Supporters of that approach highlight an analysis released by the RAND Corporation and the Gates Foundation. The study, which looked at schools funded by Gates because of their “promising approaches to personalized learning,” found that students made much larger gains on standardized tests compared to peers with similar characteristics attending different schools.

There is broader evidence that specific technology programs can improve achievement. Studies of computer programs designed to help students with algebra and early literacy, as well as the math program used by the Rocketship charter network, have shown benefits for students.

“The findings in general are very positive, especially for math,” said Andre Nickow, a Northwestern graduate student who worked on an analysis of technology-based personalized learning that was recently presented at a research conference.

Proponents also say the push for personalized learning is based on a deeper understanding of how kids learn — and how they can benefit from individualized instruction.

“The evidence base for the benefits of 1:1 mastery-based instruction is quite strong,” said Debbie Veney, a spokesperson for New Schools, pointing to a 1984 analysis of individual tutoring by prominent educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom, creator of the well-known Bloom’s taxonomy.

But providing each student a personal tutor is prohibitively expensive; the idea is to use technology to provide that personalization at a fraction of the cost.

“The innovative schools we and others support are working to find ways to produce similar academic results for students by using a mix of instructional approaches,” Veney said. “The early results of schools working on this challenge are quite promising, including the schools in the RAND study.”

Students at University Prep, a Denver elementary charter school, work on a computer-based assignment .
PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

The concerns about existing research

Indeed, that RAND study of innovative schools using personalized learning is often cited in these conversations. But there are a few reasons to view the findings cautiously.

The first is how New Schools frames the results in its report. Based on the RAND analysis, New Schools estimates a 200–500 percent return on the $4 billion the group argues philanthropists should invest over 10 years. But John Pane, author of the RAND study, disputes those projections.

“I was not really keen on some of the leaps that they were making based off of our data,” he told Chalkbeat. Pane himself estimated a potential return on investment and said he found “vastly smaller numbers” than New Schools did. (He declined to share his exact figures because his results have not gone through peer review yet.)

Veney said that the method in the report — converting effects on test scores into days of learning — is common in education research, including the CREDO charter studies.

The report has another major limitation, which Pane acknowledges: the schools in the study had to go through a rigorous application process in order to receive funding. That means the academic gains described in the study may not be the result of the schools’ use of personalized learning per se, but simply the possibility that only high-performing schools were examined.

“For me, the headline was good schools do good things,” said Alex Hernandez, a partner at the Charter School Growth Fund, which invests in new school models.

Regarding the two leading “pioneers” identified by New Schools, the research is also limited. Studies of the New Classrooms model, a personalized learning program that began in New York City known as Teach to One, have found mixed results. There does not appear to be any external empirical research on Summit Public Schools, though an internal analysis says students in the schools make large gains on standardized tests.

Skeptics say that the theory behind personalized learning has some inherent flaws, too.

For instance, Diane Tavenner, Summit’s CEO, previously said, “Look at the economy: it’s not about concrete knowledge, it’s about higher-order thinking skills, and the ability to perpetually learn and grow.”

Sentiments like that worry Ben Riley, who argues that the best way to train students for the jobs of tomorrow is to “provide them with a really rich, broad comprehensive education that gives them the knowledge base that allows them to adapt to those new jobs.”

“If there’s one thing that cognitive science has shown over and over again, it’s that our ability to understand new ideas depends on what ideas we already know,” said Riley, whose group released a report compiling research on the science of learning.

Meanwhile, unmentioned in New Schools’ report is research on fully virtual schools, in which instruction is delivered exclusively online. Although supporters might not categorize this approach as personalized learning, the schools are certainly different from traditional schools in their reliance on technology. And yet the results to date have been abysmal — students have generally seen large drops in test scores relative to those in brick-and-mortar schools. This suggests that expanding technology in education can come with significant risks.

If it fails, move on — but who is left behind?

New Schools acknowledges that these innovative schools aren’t a sure thing. (It is calling the plan a “big bet,” after all.) But trying out new structures for schools is necessary to prepare more students to succeed in college, especially the black, Hispanic, and low-income students who haven’t been served well by typical schools, they argue.

“If after several years this approach isn’t living up to the potential we imagine, let’s change course,” the report states. “But let’s also evaluate every other idea for how to direct the $20 billion in education philanthropy over the next 10 years based on concrete estimates of the improved outcomes we should expect for students.”

As schools experiment, “We will fail,” said Derwin Sisnett, cofounder of the Gestalt Community Schools charter network, at the summit.

But critics of the approach say such failure could lead to collateral damage.

“Should philanthropists scrap the initiative after five years, 1,700 schools will be left to deal with the aftermath and lost funding despite the many constraints they face,” wrote Jeffrey Snyder of Cleveland State University in a critical review of the New Schools report for the National Education Policy Center, which is partially funded by teachers unions.

Veney of New Schools said the group’s vision is to use philanthropic funds temporarily to jumpstart innovation. “Our proposal is to support educators who want to make the shifts with the resources they need to do it well,” she said, “and to ensure that the designs and practices they are adopting are sustainable with public funding after the first few years.”

Snyder, though, writes that the risks extend beyond the financial considerations. “Especially concerning should be the potential for this philanthropic shift to continue (and exacerbate) reform churn — the process where schools move quickly among reforms, never allowing any to take root.”

school choice word choice

The ‘V’ word: Why school choice advocates avoid the term ‘vouchers’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students, parents and activists against vouchers fill a committee room at the Tennessee State Capitol.

A new poll by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children is meant to illustrate Americans’ support for school choice. But it also offers some insight about how advocates choose how to talk about hot-button education issues.

What caught our eye was something buried in the polling memo: Voters said they narrowly opposed school vouchers, 47 to 49 percent, even though similar approaches like “education saving accounts” and “scholarship tax credits” garnered much more support.

These findings help explain why advocates of programs that allow families to use public money to pay private school tuition often avoid the word “voucher.” The website of National School Week, for instance, doesn’t feature the term, referring instead to “opportunity scholarships.” (Notably, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who led AFC before joining the cabinet, herself has been less shy about saying “vouchers.)

The debate on how to brand “school choice” — or to critics, “privatization” — has been long running, and Republican pollsters have advised advocates to avoid the word “voucher.”

This phenomenon may help explain the national rise of tax credit programs, which function like vouchers but usually go by a different name and have a distinct funding source. It also makes it quite difficult to accurately gauge public opinion on the policy, as small tweaks in how a question is worded can lead to very different results.

The recent AFC poll points to substantial support for “school choice,” with 63 percent of respondents supporting that concept. That’s in response to a question with very favorable wording — defining school choice as giving a parent the ability to “send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.”

Still, support for school choice dropped several percentage points from last year. That’s consistent with a poll from August that found support for charter schools was falling, too.

Showing how wording can matter, a 2017 survey from the American Federation of Teachers asked parents their view of “shifting funding away from regular public schools in order to fund charter schools and private school vouchers.” The vast majority were skeptical.

When school vouchers have been put up for a vote, they’ve almost always lost, including in DeVos’s home state of Michigan. Supporters and critics may get another shot this year in Arizona, where the fate of a recently passed voucher program will be on the ballot in November, barring a successful lawsuit by voucher advocates.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.