Behind the numbers

Why ‘personalized learning’ advocates like Mark Zuckerberg keep citing a 1984 study — and why it might not say much about schools today

PHOTO: TechCrunch/Creative Commons
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made a bold statement in a recent essay: By giving students individual help, average students can be turned into exceptional ones.

“If a student is at the 50th percentile in their class and they receive effective one-on-one tutoring, they jump on average to the 98th percentile,” Zuckerberg wrote.

It’s a remarkable claim, one that strains the limits of belief. And for good reason: The results from the 1984 study underlying it have essentially never been seen in modern research on public schools.

Still, the results have become a popular talking point among those promoting the “personalized learning” approach that Zuckerberg’s philanthropy is advancing. One video created by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative features an illustration of a 50 on a graph zooming upward to hit 98. The New Schools Venture Fund, another influential education group that backs personalized learning, cites the same work by Benjamin Bloom.

But a close look at the study raises questions about its relevance to modern education debates and the ability of new buzzed-about programs to achieve remotely similar results.

“If you’re really going to make these huge investments and huge pushes [based on this study], you might want to be absolutely sure that the analysis of that research is solid,” said Ben Riley, head of the group Deans for Impact and a skeptic of personalized learning.

Jim Shelton, who heads CZI’s education work, said in an interview that the organization relies on a great deal of other research, but highlights Bloom to illustrate in the best case scenario for what schools might accomplish.

“It stands to reason that many kids that currently perform at levels that we consider average or even below average could be performing at levels that we would consider superlative,” he said.

Questions then and now about the meaning of Bloom’s work

The conclusions on the effects of tutoring from Bloom’s widely-cited paper are drawn from two studies conducted by University of Chicago graduate students.

One of those studies is available online, but reading the other requires some sleuthing. (We ended up paying for access through a service that compiles dissertations.)

In both studies, students were taught novel subject matter — probability or cartography — using different methods over the course of a few weeks. Some students were taught in a traditional lecture style, others received “mastery-based” teaching, and others received small group tutoring.

On a final test, students who were tutored one-on-one or in small groups came out far ahead, and in some cases the average tutored student beat 98 percent of those taught in the traditional way. Students who received the mastery-based teaching — which overlaps with modern conceptions of personalized learning — also did much better, though not as well as those tutored.

Jim Shelton of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in one of the organization’s video, saying that the average student will move to 98th percentile with one-on-one tutoring.

The applicability of these studies today is an open question. Combined, the studies focus on just three schools and a few hundred students. And since this was done more than 30 years ago, things like what traditional instruction looks like may have substantially changed.

The papers include little information about those final tests, but it appears they were designed by the researchers, unlike a traditional standardized test. Researcher-created assessments on subjects that are totally new to students — like cartography and probability, in this case — tend to see students make the largest gains.

Bloom’s work also doesn’t focus on technology-based tutoring, a point personalized learning advocates usually acknowledge. “If it supports anything, it supports one-on-one human tutoring,” Riley said.

But what earned the most attention, then and now, is how big of an impact tutoring had on students. The difference between tutoring and traditional instruction after just three weeks was two standard deviations — to researchers, a truly incredible result. It means bringing students from average to exceptional.

“I’ve never seen a study in education that found effects in the range of two standard deviations, so it’s remarkable for that reason,” said Jon Guryan, a Northwestern professor who has done research on tutoring.

Another researcher, Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University, logged concerns about Bloom’s outsize claims as early as 1987. Focusing on such unusually large gains, he wrote, “is misleading out of context and potentially damaging to educational research,” since it could lead researchers to “belittle” more realistic results.

Guryan’s recent work, on tutoring of struggling students in Chicago, found what would normally be considered fairly large gains: about a quarter of a standard deviation on math standardized tests. Other recent research on intensive tutoring in public schools looks similar, in some cases showing even smaller effects. Meanwhile, studies on computer-based personalized learning have shown a range of effects — but none comes close to two standard deviations.

Bror Saxberg, CZI’s vice president of learning science, acknowledged that Bloom’s findings are bigger than in other research. But he said human and computer tutoring can have a substantial impact, pointing to a 2011 overview of research where results come close to a full standard deviation. (This overview included studies in a variety of contexts, including outside K-12 education.)

In sum, a number of studies suggest that Bloom’s huge results are not plausible to expect in public schools today, and they have rarely been seen in other research. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg, Shelton, and CZI’s public statements imply that, with the right tools, students could see similar off-the-charts improvements.

Can ‘personalized learning’ drive huge gains? Advocates hope so.

Shelton analogized Bloom’s work to the human quest to run a four-minute mile: a crazy-seeming goal that was eventually attained by a small number of elite runners.

“Everyone said it was impossible to break the four-minute mile, until somebody broke the four-minute mile,” Shelton said. “Someone has broken the four-minute and its equivalent and we need to figure out how to do it and how to get a lot more people to be able to do it.”

Many others also see Bloom’s research less as a precise accounting of the results of tutoring and more as a call to action. Indeed, most of Bloom’s paper amounts to him pondering a question philanthropists are grappling with today: How can schools get the benefits of individual tutoring without the prohibitive expense of actually hiring each student their own tutor?

“If the takeaway from Bloom is that by doing tutoring and mastery you’re going to get two [standard deviation] gains — I don’t think that’s the right takeaway,” said Todd Rose, a Harvard professor who has argued that schools need greater customization. (CZI has funded some of Rose’s work.)

The value of the study, he says, is that “it speaks to a very different view of human potential than is embedded in our current system.”

Debbie Veney, a spokesperson for New Schools Venture Fund, which is supported by CZI, had a similar take: “[Bloom’s results] inspired and challenged many to figure how to achieve similar conditions in a more cost-effective way — which spawned many creative concepts and efforts to scale similar results.”

That’s in line with CZI’s sweeping ambitions — “empower every teacher everywhere,” as described in one CZI video — and deep pockets.

Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have pledged to donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares — worth an estimated $45 billion in late 2015 — to CZI over their lifetime. The organization — which also focuses on criminal justice, immigration, and economic policy — is expected to give “hundreds of millions of dollars” per year to education causes.

The group has already supported a number of tech-based approaches to school, including the Summit learning platform, a computer program created by a charter network to help teachers personalize learning. CZI has also tried to broaden the definition of personalized learning, funding organizations that offer free eye exams and small-group, in-person tutoring.

A spokesperson pointed to other research CZI relies on, including psychological studies from Rose and others on how children learn and develop and the work of Stanford professor Carol Dweck, which suggests that people with a “growth mindset” are more likely to succeed.

But Sarah Reckhow, who studies education philanthropy at Michigan State University, suggests that CZI’s ambitious goals will meet the hard realities of the classroom and fall far short of Bloom’s results.

“I do think they’re setting themselves up to fail,” she said. “If you look at educational research, if you look at what will most definitely vary once you to put something into practice … those effect sizes won’t be replicated, but also there will probably be some cases where it will not turn out well or there will be unintended consequences.”

Asked about his benchmarks for success, Shelton said it’s not clear yet what is possible.

“We’re at the beginning of our journey, not the end of our journey,” he said. “We are in the business of trying to figure out how to solve this problem that has never been solved before.”

new schools

Denver approves more schools that will wait ‘on the shelf’ to open, despite pushback

PHOTO: Photo By Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Grant Beacon Middle School student Jeriah Garcia works out an algebra problem on his school-supplied tablet in 2012.

In a split vote, the Denver school board last week approved three more middle schools — but none will open right away.

Though they are modeled after successful existing schools, and though district officials feel an urgency to improve school quality districtwide, the three will wait with more than 20 others until a school building becomes available.

That could happen if the district closes a struggling school or builds a brand new one. But slowing enrollment growth means it will likely not build many schools in the coming years.

The number of approved schools on hold until they find a campus has grown over the years, even as the school board adopted a policy in 2015 that calls for replacing chronically low-performing schools with new ones deemed more likely to succeed.

This approach earned Denver a national reputation in education reform circles, but the growing backlog of schools with no clear path to opening has led to frustration among charter school operators and questions from some supporters about how committed Denver is to this model.

The makeup of Denver’s school board has changed, and not all of the new members believe closing struggling schools is good for students. In voting on the three new middle schools, three of the seven board members expressed concerns about the concept of keeping approved schools “on the shelf” because it presupposes existing schools will be shuttered.

Carrie Olson, a former Denver teacher, campaigned last year for a seat on the board on a platform of opposing school closures. Her candidacy was backed by the Denver teachers union, which also supported board member Jennifer Bacon, another former teacher.

Olson and Bacon voiced the strongest reservations about approving the three schools, temporarily called Beacon Network Middle Schools 3, 4, and 5. The schools would be run by the same administrators who oversee Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon middle schools.

Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon are “innovation schools,” which means they have more financial and programmatic freedom than traditional district-run schools but not as much independence as charter schools. The two schools focus on personalized learning, partly by giving students access to technology that allows them to learn at their own pace. Each is rated “green,” the second-highest rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale.

Olson and Bacon said they don’t doubt additional Beacon schools would serve students well. Rather, Bacon said, she’s concerned about having too many of the same type of school and about the length of time schools should be allowed to wait before opening. Being approved by the school board doesn’t guarantee that a school will open.

In the end, the three Beacon schools were approved to open in the fall of 2019 or thereafter. Olson voted no on all three. Bacon voted no on two of them and yes on the third.

Board president Anne Rowe, vice president Barbara O’Brien, and members Lisa Flores and Happy Haynes voted yes on all three. Angela Cobián, who was elected last fall along with Olson and Bacon, voted yes on two schools and abstained from voting on the third.

Cobián said her votes were meant to reflect that she supports the Beacon schools but shares her fellow board members’ concerns. She said she’s committed to making sure the district supports existing schools so they don’t get to the point of closure or replacement.

There are at least 24 schools already waiting for a campus in Denver. Nineteen of them were proposed by four homegrown, high-performing charter school networks. The district’s largest charter school network, DSST, has eight middle and high schools waiting to open.

District officials said they plan to spend time over the summer thinking through these concerns.

Jennifer Holladay, who leads the department that oversees charter and innovation schools, said staff will develop recommendations for how long schools should be allowed to sit on the shelf and whether the district should continue to accept “batch applications” for more than one school at a time, which has been common practice among the homegrown networks.

Payment dispute

Disputes with Tennessee testmakers aren’t new. Here’s an update on the state’s lawsuit with Measurement Inc.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The testing company fired by Tennessee’s education department two years ago may have to wait until 2019 to settle the case, according to documents recently obtained by Chalkbeat.

As the future of the state’s current testing company, Questar, remains uncertain after a series of testing snafus this year, Tennessee continues to build a case against the first company it hired to usher in online testing three years ago.

The $25.3 million lawsuit, filed by Measurement Inc. of North Carolina, says the state owes about a quarter of the company’s five-year, $108 million contract, which Tennessee officials canceled after technical problems roiled the test’s 2016 rollout. So far, the state has paid the company $545,000.

The 2016 test was meant to showcase TNReady, the state’s new, rigorous, online testing program. But the online exam crashed, and the state abandoned it, asking Measurement Inc. to pivot to paper tests. After numerous delays in delivering the paper tests, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen fired the company.

Measurement Inc. filed a lawsuit last June, and the state Department of Education responded in January with a counterclaim saying the company did not fulfill its duties. Now, the state and the company have through spring 2019 to build their cases and call witnesses. (You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim below).

The company argues that the state’s decision to cancel online testing and switch to paper was a series of “unrealistic, arbitrary, and changing demands,” and therefore, the state shares blame for the canceled test.

But the state department countered in its January response that Measurement Inc. breached its contract and didn’t communicate truthfully about the status of the online exam.

After Measurement Inc., Tennessee entered into a two-year contract with Minnesota-based Questar to revive the TNReady online exam. In 2017, the state opted to only use paper exams, and testing went smoothly for the most part, outside of delays in returning test results.

But things didn’t go well this spring, when Tennessee tried to return to online testing under Questar. The reasons for the complications are numerous — but different from issues that ruined the online test’s 2016 debut.

Although Tennessee completed its online testing this spring,  it was beset with technological glitches, a reported cyber attack on the testing system, and poor internet connectivity. Many districts are not planning to use the scores in student grading, and teachers can opt out of using the scores in their evaluations.

The state is negotiating with Questar about its $30 million-a-year contract and also is asking Questar’s parent company, Educational Testing Services, to take on the design work of TNReady. McQueen did not offer specifics about either, but any changes must be approved by the legislature’s fiscal review committee.

Questar’s two-year contract ends Nov. 30, and the state either will stick with the company or find its third testing vendor in four years.

You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim, in full below:

Measurement Inc.’s June 2017 claim:

The Department of Education’s January response:

Measurement Inc.’s February response: