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.”

choice for most

Chalkbeat explains: When can private schools discriminate against students?

PHOTO: Julia Donheiser

Over $16 million of public funds went to Indiana private schools with anti-LGBT policies last year, a recent Chalkbeat investigation found.

You might be asking: Is it legal to discriminate against those students?

The answer is yes, and that’s become a focus of the national debate about school choice. (U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fanned the flames on this one when she offered ambiguous answers about whether all students would be welcome in schools that participated in a potential national voucher program.)

But the rules are tricky when it comes to private schools, especially religious ones. Here’s your guide to understanding when, why and how private schools can say no to certain students.

Are there laws in place that prevent discrimination against LGBT students?

There is no federal legislation explicitly protecting LGBT students from discrimination in schools. That means when it comes to gender and sexuality, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act — which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex — is the main piece of legislation in play.

Title IX applies to private schools that accept federal funds — and many private schools do, usually through school breakfast or lunch programs, grants, or funding for low-income students.

However, some schools qualify for exemptions. All-boys or all-girls schools are allowed to restrict their admissions accordingly, for example.

Most important to the discussion of LGBT students: Private schools run by religious organizations are exempt “to the extent that application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.” A majority of private schools in the U.S. are religious, which means that most private schools are free to discriminate against LGBT students on religious grounds.

In Indiana, Chalkbeat found that at least 27 schools that accept vouchers have policies that suggest or declare that LGBT students are unwelcome.

What about private schools that aren’t religious?

At non-religious private schools, Title IX’s nondiscrimination rules do apply. But a change in interpretation means the law offers fewer protections to transgender students than it has in the past.

Under the Obama administration, the ban on discriminating on the basis of sex was interpreted as related either to biological sex or to gender identity. However, the Trump administration rescinded guidance on that front — meaning the federal government considers Title IX to only bar discrimination based on a student’s biological sex.

Do any states have laws that prevent discrimination against LGBT students?

Many states have implemented their own nondiscrimination policies regarding sexual orientation and gender identity — in the world of public education. But no voucher programs have such policies in place, research shows.

As a result, private schools are free to turn away LGBT students while still receiving public funding for accepting vouchers.

What about other forms of discrimination?

Private schools can’t discriminate on the basis of race if they want tax-exempt status. The executive director of the Council for American Private Education, Joe McTighe, said he wasn’t “familiar with any nonprofit private schools that elect against tax-exempt status.”

If private schools accept federal funds, they are also bound to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.

When it comes to students with disabilities, private schools have more leeway to turn students away.

This is partly because students who choose to attend a private school — including through a voucher program — forfeit their right to a “free appropriate public education” that they are otherwise guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Another law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, bars discrimination on the basis of disability and requires private schools to accept students so long as only “minor adjustments” are needed to accommodate them. But it exempts religiously run private schools.

Under a third law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, those protections apply to religious schools, too — if the school receives federal funds.

choice for most

Choice for most: In nation’s largest voucher program, $16 million went to schools with anti-LGBT policies

PHOTO: Julia Donheiser

When it comes to school choice, options are more limited for Indiana’s LGBT students.

Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington recently made headlines for promising students an excellent, “biblically integrated” education — unless they identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The school also received more than $650,000 in public funds last year through the state’s voucher program.

The school’s admissions policy has made Lighthouse the focus of an intensifying national debate: whether private schools that discriminate against students on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity should be able to receive taxpayer dollars.

But as that debate heats up, it’s been unclear how many schools have policies like Lighthouse’s.

Chalkbeat tried to find out. In Indiana, over 34,299 students used vouchers to attend a private school last fall, making it the largest such program in the country. It’s also a program that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has applauded — which means Indiana offers a helpful glimpse at how a DeVos-led national expansion of vouchers might shape up.

Our investigation found that roughly one in 10 of Indiana’s voucher schools publicly shares a policy suggesting or declaring that LGBT students are not welcome. Together, the 27 schools received over $16 million in public funds for participating last year.

Many private, religious schools are also accredited by a group that provides advice about how to turn away LGBT students. Given that nearly 20 percent of schools do not publicize their admissions policies, the true number of schools with anti-LGBT policies is unclear.

“These findings are likely an understatement,” said Steve Suitts, a professor who has researched discrimination against LGBT students in Georgia’s voucher program.

However, Chalkbeat did not find public, discriminatory policies at the vast majority of schools. In fact, many had rules in place to protect students from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Legally speaking, private schools are allowed to turn away LGBT students — and many voucher proponents say it’s important to provide families with the option to attend schools that can instill students with their religious values.

There is no federal legislation explicitly protecting LGBT students from discrimination in schools, and no statewide voucher programs offer their own protections based on sexual orientation. (Students are typically protected from discrimination based on race and national origin.)

But as DeVos pushes for a national expansion of voucher programs, she’s sent mixed messages about discrimination. It’s wrong “in any form,” she’s said. But when grilled by senators on the issue in June, she used the same response 14 times: “Schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law.”

By the numbers

As of May, 302 schools are eligible to accept vouchers in Indiana. Of the 27 schools that have anti-LGBT policies, 19 state that they can either refuse to admit or expel students because of their sexual orientation or gender identity on religious grounds.

Six schools require parents to affirm that “homosexual behavior,” among other items, “is sinful and offensive to God,” and two schools limited students’ bathroom use to their biological sex.

The vast majority of Indiana’s private schools accepting vouchers do not mention gender or sexuality in their school policies or handbooks. For over 60 schools that don’t share either of those documents online, Chalkbeat reached out to discuss their policies.

Another 27 schools offer specific protections for LGBT students. (Explore policies by school, county and city here.)

Policies in practice

Victory Christian Academy in Northwest Indiana is among the schools that publicly shares an explicitly discriminatory admissions policy. It received $630,000 for enrolling 160 students using vouchers last school year.

The school’s handbook states that it reserves the right to refuse admission to or remove a student “if the atmosphere or the conduct within a particular home or the activities of the student” crosses certain lines, including LGBT activity.

However, a former administrator at Victory said that no students had ever been turned away because of their sexuality. He described the policy as a warning meant to reduce conflict.

“We’re not trying to block anyone from our school,” said Tony Clymer. “We’re just trying to stay in the affirmative what kind of school we are, what we hold to be near and dear.”

“If that doesn’t match with your family,” he added, “we’d rather know up front rather than for your student to be here or you to be here and find out later.”

Administrators at Lakeland Christian Academy, which has a policy similar to Victory’s, told Chalkbeat — and Lighthouse previously told the Indianapolis Star — that their school had never refused admission to a student because they identified as LGBT.

Enrollment at these institutions is often framed as entering into a mutual agreement, such that the students attending them are on board with every aspect of the school’s mission.

“It’s our role to work in conjunction with the home to mold students to be Christ-like. If your goal is not to become more Christ-like, this school doesn’t make sense,” Clymer said. “It would be like sending your child to a magnet school for the arts when your child has no desire to be in the arts.”

What happens if a student who is already enrolled begins to question their sexuality or gender?

Joy Lavender, an administrator at Lakeland last year, said a guidance counselor would talk with the student and that the school would contact their parents to determine a course of action.

“Our goal here at Lakeland is not necessarily, ‘You do something wrong, you’re kicked out,’” Lavender said. “Our reason for expulsion for any kind of infraction is because we feel like that student is not able to be restored or that they’re not salvageable or they’re very negative about the things we believe in.”

Lavender noted that students at Lakeland have questioned their sexuality, but “it never became an issue, so they graduated from here.”

The mentality is the same at Victory, where Clymer said students question their sexuality “every year, all the time.” The school’s response is to encourage students to take on their role found in the Bible, which is defined as as entering into a marriage between a man and a woman.

Guiding principles

Lakeland, Lighthouse and Victory Christian Academies have something else in common: their accreditation.

More than half of schools — 14 out of 27 — with anti-LGBT policies were accredited by Association of Christian Schools International, which has more than 3,000 member schools in the U.S. The pro school-choice group provides its members with a handbook titled “Steps Your School Can Take When Dealing With Homosexual Issues.”

See for yourself: A side-by-side comparison of ACSI’s suggested policy and one of its member schools’ policy on LGBT students.

The book suggests that schools say they may refuse admissions to or expel a student for “participating in, supporting, or condoning sexual immorality, homosexual activity, or bisexual activity.” In most cases, ACSI member schools used the same wording.

The handbook also recommends that schools ask for a reference from a pastor. If “a parent of a young child indicates that he or she is in a homosexual lifestyle,” it advises school officials to tell the parent that their child will be denied admission.

If a school and a student reach an “impasse” regarding sexual orientation or gender identity issues, the handbook recommends the school “disenroll,” rather than expel, the student to avoid legal problems.

Despite the book’s advice, ACSI’s director of legal and legislative issues said he hoped schools are a safe place for kids questioning their sexuality.

“We’d want them to know that they could talk to their teachers or their school leaders about these things and they would be able to help them,” said Tom Cathey.

Thirty-three of ACSI’s member schools are eligible to receive vouchers next fall, making it the second-largest religious accrediting group among schools in Indiana’s voucher program. The largest religious accreditor in Indiana is the National Catholic Education Association, with 110 schools — and the group takes a different approach when it comes to LGBT students.

None of NCEA’s member schools shared anti-LGBT policies on their websites, and 12 of its schools offered protections for LGBT students in the form of anti-bullying or anti-harassment policies. (The group’s director of public relations, Margaret Kaplow, said the NCEA “does not lobby for or against policy of any kind.”)

Roncalli High School is one of NCEA’s schools to offer its LGBT students protections. The Indianapolis Catholic school’s anti-harassment policy states, “No racist, sexist or homophobic expression, language or behavior will be tolerated.”

Its co-director of guidance, Shelly Fitzgerald, said Roncalli aims to provide a positive environment for all students, including those who identify as LGBT.

“We counsel all kids the same, in terms of relationships, things that they go through — heterosexual or bisexual or questioning,” Fitzgerald said. If students aren’t comfortable talking with guidance counselors, she said, they can be referred to the school’s social worker or outside support groups, such as Indiana Youth Group.

Still, there are restrictions at some of NCEA’s member schools on how open students can be about their sexual orientation. Three define students’ dates as members of the opposite sex when they discuss school dances or prom in their handbooks.

Ambiguity and politics

The vast majority of schools in Indiana don’t mention LGBT students in their policies.

Suitts said he thinks recent media focus has pushed headmasters and school boards to be less clear on this front.

“Before, there was a greater tendency of headmasters to be verbal or forthcoming even if they didn’t have an explicit policy about whether they would accept gay students,” Suitts said. “But the Supreme Court decision and litigation, the whole discussion that’s going on, has made them much more obtuse on this issue publicly.”

However, supporters of school choice say that different belief systems are what make school choice important — even if some students are left out.

“I find it abhorrent that there are schools that say that children who themselves are gay are not welcome there,” said Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which advocates for school choice. “But if we believe in a pluralist system, then there’s got to be room — again, for what I may find abhorrent — to be a part of that, if we believe it’s important for parents, especially low-income and working class parents, to get to have a choice.”

Suzanne Eckes, a professor who has researched discrimination in private school voucher programs, said that allowing some schools to discriminate against LGBT students on the basis of religion is no different than racial discrimination.

“People say just don’t apply to one of those schools,” Eckes said. “And that doesn’t sit well with me, because we made the same argument in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s about black kids.”

Although DeVos has promised to unveil a national school choice initiative, it falls on states to decide whether private schools receiving public funds can discriminate based on sexual orientation — a decision, the education secretary has argued, that should continue to be made at the local level.