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.”

Charter schism

Independent charter schools look to raise their profile, apart from networks and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Coalition of Community Charter Schools
Veter education journalist John Merrow moderates a panel at the Independent Charter School Symposium.

Stand-alone charter schools say they’re often overlooked in favor of big-name networks like KIPP — while at the same time being unfairly tied to Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

At a symposium last week, a number of school leaders agreed to try to change that by launching a new national organization dedicated to independent, or “mom-and-pop,” charters.

“When people think of charters, they do not think of us,” said Steve Zimmerman, an organizer of the conference and founder of two independent charter schools.

In a hotel conference room in Queens, leaders from nearly 200 schools across 20 states unanimously called for the group’s creation. They also adopted a progressive manifesto that tried to separate the members from the Trump administration and common criticisms of the charter schools.

It marks yet another fissure in the nation’s charter school movement, which has seen political and philosophical divides open up in the wake of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment.

And while the loose group of independent charters does not yet have a name or a clear funding plan, its leaders believe they can provide a louder, more democratic voice for their concerns than existing charter advocacy groups, which they say are too focused on expanding networks.

“The National Alliance [for Public Charter Schools] truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools. And to some degree they do,” said Zimmerman, referring to the country’s top national charter advocacy group. “The truth is, though, that they can’t really represent the real interests of independent charter schools because their funders really believe in the network model.”

National Alliance spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said the group supports independent charters.

“Advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA,” she said. “Where folks feel we could do more, we look forward to continued discussion and seeking solutions together.”

A response to testing, and to Trump

Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization for independent charters based in New York City that co-sponsored last week’s conference. That symposium, he said, came out of a desire to shift the discussion around measuring schools away from just test scores.

“We felt that there was too much thinking of outcomes as being the bottom line of the enterprise … and that was keeping our schools from being innovative,” he said. “It felt like a zero sum pissing game of comparing test scores all the time.”

When the Trump administration took office, a new set of concerns arose for many leaders of schools like his. In Zimmerman’s telling, there was “too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration.”

He declined to offer specifics. But Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy network in New York, met with Trump soon after he was elected, and the National Alliance initially praised a Trump budget proposal featuring deep cuts to education spending but an increase for charter schools. Both have since distanced themselves further from the administration.

“To have in any way the charter world associated with that felt that it was really going to hurt our message,” Zimmerman said.

A distinct approach to judging charter schools

The manifesto adopted at the conference emphasizes a community-oriented vision for charter schooling — and a response to many common criticisms of charter schools.

Charters should be “laboratories of innovation” that seek to collaborate with districts, it says. Charter schools should serve “students who reflect our communities and neighborhoods, particularly students with the greatest educational needs,” and their leaders should create workplaces that are “collaborative, not adversarial” for teachers.

And while the group calls for schools to be held accountable for results, the mission statement says “real accountability must be rooted in the development of the whole child and the needs of society.” That’s a different emphasis from advocates who promote charter schools because they are more effective, as measured by test score gains.

In some ways that philosophy is more aligned with that of more conservative charter school supporters, including DeVos, who have argued for more innovation and less emphasis on test results.

“Some of these folks really feel like [charter] authorization has gotten too strict and has cut back innovation,” Zimmerman said. “And I believe so too.”

But Zimmerman distanced the group from a free-market approach. He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers, though said that’s not a stance the new organization has codified in its manifesto.

Zimmerman also points to issues with the Trump administration more broadly. The new group’s manifesto offers thinly veiled criticism: “We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community.”

A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

There is evidence that nonprofit charter networks do a slightly better job, on average, boosting test scores than independent charter schools. Those findings may explain, in part, why independent charter school leaders bristle at focusing on those metrics.

Zimmerman offered raised specific concerns about the National Alliance, which is funded by philanthropies including the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. (Chalkbeat is also supported by the Gates and Walton foundations.) Those funders are focused on the replication of networks with high test scores, making the Alliance limited in its ability to represent independent schools, he said.

Christopher Norwood, who runs Florida’s independent charter school group, agreed that the networks exert outsized influence. He pointed to his state, where a recently passed bill to support the creation of new charters in areas where traditional public schools are struggling was limited to networks already operating at least three schools.

“There’s no charter management association of America because their interests are being promoted through the charter associations,” said Norwood, who along with Zimmerman, emphasized that he is not opposed to networks of charters.

Descalzi disputed that characterization of the Alliance.

“The National Alliance represents all public charter schools — including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites — and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she said.

Challenges await a new national organization

The top challenge for any nonprofit getting started is garnering funding. That will be amplified for the independent charters seeking to offer an alternative to charter school establishment — and the groups that financially supported them.

“It’s a huge hurdle,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter sector’s largest benefactors turned down requests to sponsor last week’s conference. “They don’t necessarily see how we fit into their strategic vision, but I’m hoping they will,” he said.

Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s education program director, disputed the idea that the philanthropy is focused on replicating existing schools, saying they support “all types of schools,” including both “proven charter management organizations” and single schools. In the past eight years, nearly half of the schools funded by Walton’s charter start-up grant program were independent charters, according to the foundation.

Norwood says the new group for independent charters will look into funding itself through membership dues and from sponsorships. (The symposium was supported by a number of businesses that work with charters.)

It’s also unclear how much interest there truly is among the diffuse independent charters across the country for an alternative membership group. The conference brought together a few hundred leaders of the many thousands of such schools.

For now, the organization is its infancy, and Zimmerman says the next step will be creating a national advisory committee to craft a strategic plan.

The work is necessary, he said, if independent charters want to sidestep the problems of the broader sector, which has seen its popularity drop.

“They win battles but they’re losing the war, if the war is hearts and minds of people,”  Zimmerman said, referring to existing charter school advocacy groups and their funders. “We really have to separate ourselves from them as a matter of definition.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.