personalized persuasion

Don’t just talk about tech: How ‘personalized learning’ advocates are honing their messaging

A student takes part in an after-school program at Ashley Elementary School in Denver last spring. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

Don’t call schools outdated; call them inadequate. Don’t focus on technology; emphasize the benefits for teachers. And try not to talk about testing too much.

That’s some of the advice advocates of “personalized learning” offer in a recent messaging document meant to help school leaders and others drum up support.

It’s a revealing look at how some backers are trying to sell their approach and define a slippery term — while also trying to nip nascent backlash in the bud.

“We have read the angry op-eds and watched tension-filled board meetings,” authors Karla Phillips and Amy Jenkins write. “In response, we have looked for ways to address the challenge of effectively communicating about personalized learning so it becomes something families demand, not something they fear.”

The document is the latest effort to define “personalized learning,” a nebulous concept with powerful supporters, including Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) Typically, the phrase means using data and technology to try to tailor instruction to individual students, and allowing them to advance to new topics when they’ve mastered previous ones.

But those ideas have begun to encounter opposition from some parents and teachers frustrated with specific digital programs, and from conservative commentators and privacy advocates who worry about technology companies’ access to students’ data.

The messaging document was put together by two groups with a strong interest in maintaining the momentum behind personalized learning: ExcelinEd, the Jeb Bush-founded advocacy group that DeVos used to sit on the board of, and Education Elements, a consulting firm that contracts with districts to help them offer personalized learning programs.

Its suggested rhetoric may become increasingly common. Phillips says she had presented these ideas to the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers.

“We want to pave the pathway for districts to move forward faster and easier and with greater support,” the report says says.

What not to say

The analysis, based on polls and focus groups, lists a bevy of ideas that advocates should generally avoid or at least approach cautiously.

They shouldn’t talk about standardized testing, or even “more innocuous-sounding statements such as, ‘student mastery will be determined through frequent assessments.’” They shouldn’t use the phrase “student agency, voice, and choice,” which “can send the message that students can do what they want.”

Another thing to steer clear of: talking up the potential for dramatic changes to the way school looks and feels.

“In attempting to generate excitement, we inadvertently scared the public,” the report says.

That also means not discussing specific changes — like new bell schedules or grading systems — that schools might see as a result of adopting a personalized learning approach.

“Even though some of the potentially big changes … may be true, experience tells us that very few of these changes will occur in the first few years of implementation,” the report says. “For that reason, there is little reason to raise hackles in the earliest phases of discussion.”

And then there’s technology. Many of the most visible examples of personalized learning are computer programs that help students learn new concepts and track their progress in some way. That connection can be a problem, the report acknowledges, since advocates want personalized learning to be seen as a broader philosophy.

“There is indeed great risk of these misunderstandings developing if personalized learning is perceived to be predominantly digital, especially when families add their concerns about screen time and what students will be able to access online,” the report says.

Instead, personalized learning evangelists should tell families that “their children are unique and special”; rely on teachers as the “best messengers”; and emphasize purported benefits for students, like working at a flexible pace, and for teachers, like new tools to monitor students’ learning.

“Rhetorically, it’s fascinating,” said Doug Levin, a longtime observer of education technology who used to head the State Education Technology Directors Association. “You have a movement in many respects which is predicated on technology to collect information about student learning, if not then to also deliver instruction. That … movement then is trying to, in some respects, forsake its roots to convince people to go down that path.”

It’s not just EdElements and ExcelinED. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is also trying to expand the definition of personalized learning by including its efforts to offer eyeglasses to students who need them, for example. Other CZI education efforts have focused on technology, like the Summit learning platform, an online program that CZI says helps students “learn at their own pace,” and a partnership with MIT and Harvard to create an online tool intended to promote literacy in early grades.

In an interview, Karla Phillips, one of the authors of the report, said she didn’t want to define the concept too narrowly or even point to specific models.

“If you look at the pilot [programs] we’re working with, this is going to look dramatically different” from place to place, she said.

Assumed benefits, but limited research

The report operates under the assumption that personalized learning approaches are successful, in high demand, and here to stay. “This is something most families want,” it says. “It is not, in fact, ‘another reform.’”

But these remain relatively open questions. For instance, the report suggests telling parents that “personalized learning provides opportunities for increased interaction with teachers and peers and encourages higher levels of student engagement.”

If anything, though, existing research suggests that certain personalized learning programs reduce student engagement. In a 2015 study by RAND, commissioned by the Gates Foundation, students in schools that have embraced technology-based personalized learning were somewhat less likely to say they felt engaged in and enjoyed school work. A 2017 RAND study found that students were 9 percentage points less likely to say there was an adult at school who knew them well.

Rigorous research on the academic benefits also don’t offer definitive answers. Some studies have shown real gains, particularly for math-focused technology tutoring programs; a few others have shown no effects; and many programs and schools have never been carefully studied.

Phillips of ExcelinEd says that the RAND work is the top research in the field. That latest study found that schools that adopted technology-based personalized learning approaches, with the support of the Gates Foundation, had modest positive effects on test scores. The average student moved up roughly 3 percentile points in math and reading, though the reading impact was not statistically significant.

Philips says these findings should lead to optimism, but suggests there are limitations to studying such an all-encompassing idea.

“I do feel strongly it shouldn’t be an ‘it’ or a thing — it’s not a curriculum, it’s not a textbook that you buy,” she said. “It’s about broadening schools’ ability to meet the needs of students.”

Future of Schools

Ogden school staffer arrested after 12-year-old student is hurt

PHOTO: Chicago Public Building Commission

A 12-year-old student at William B. Ogden Elementary School on the Near North Side suffered a sprained wrist this week in a physical altercation with a school employee, according to the Chicago Police Department.

The employee, Marvin Allen, was arrested and charged with aggravated battery of a child. He has been removed from the school pending an investigation, according to an email to parents from Acting Principal Rebecca Bancroft and two other administrators.

Chicago Public Schools’ payroll records list Allen as a student special services advocate and full-time employee at the school. Student special services advocates are responsible for working with at-risk children and connecting them and their families with social services, according to district job descriptions.

An email to parents Thursday night from school leaders said an incident had occurred earlier this week “that resulted in a “physical student injury.”

“While limited in what I can share, the incident took place earlier this week between a student and staff member off school grounds after dismissal,” read the message. “The employee involved has been removed from school while a CPS investigation by the Law Department takes place.”

District spokeswoman Emily Bolton confirmed that the employee had been removed pending a district investigation.

“Student safety is the district’s top priority and we immediately removed the employee from his position upon learning of a deeply concerning altercation that took place off of school grounds,” Bolton said.

The exact circumstances behind the incident are still unclear.

The altercation happened Monday morning outside the school’s Jenner Campus, which used to be Jenner Elementary School before Ogden and Jenner merged last year. The Jenner campus serves grades 5-8.

At recent Local School Council meetings, Bancroft, the acting principal, acknowledged a “fractured community” at the school in the aftermath of the merger, which joined two different schools — Ogden, a diverse school with a large white population and many middle-class families, and Jenner, a predominately black school where most students come from low-income households. At the January meeting, parents complained of student disciplinary problems at the Jenner campus. Jenner parents have also expressed concerns about inclusiveness at the school.

The school has also experienced leadership turnover. One of the principals who helped engineer the merger died last March after an illness. And in November, the district placed Ogden Principal Michael Beyer on leave after he was accused of falsifying attendance records.

The incident also comes on the heels of a video released in early February that shows a school police officer using a taser on a female Marshall High School student.

On the hunt

Want a say in the next IPS superintendent? Here’s your chance.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat

Parents, teachers, and neighbors will have a chance to weigh in on what they hope to see in the next Indianapolis Public Schools superintendent and the future of the district at three community meetings in the coming weeks.

The meetings, which will be facilitated by Herd Strategies at three sites across the city, will gather feedback before the school board begins the search for a new superintendent. The school board is expected to select the next superintendent in May.

Board President Michael O’Connor said the meetings are designed to get input on what the public values in the next superintendent. But they will also play another role, allowing community members to reflect and give feedback on the district’s embrace of innovation schools, one of the most controversial strategies rolled out during former Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration.

“As we look for the next superintendent, it’s perfect for us to take input on that path that we’ve taken and then hear what [community members] think is working well and maybe what they think we could do better,” O’Connor said, noting that the administration and board are often criticized for failing to engage the public.

Innovation schools are run by outside charter or nonprofit managers, but they are still considered part of the district. Indianapolis Public Schools gets credit from the state for their test scores, enrollment, and other data. The model is lauded by charter school advocates across the country, and it helped Ferebee gain national prominence.

Ferebee left Indianapolis in January after he was tapped to lead the Washington, D.C., school system. Indianapolis Public Schools is being led by interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson, who was formerly the deputy superintendent and is seen as a leading candidate to fill the position permanently.

Here is information about the three scheduled community input sessions:

Feb. 27, Hawthorne Community Center, 1-3 p.m.

March 7, Arsenal Technical High School in the Anderson Auditorium, 6-8 p.m.

March 13, George Washington Carver Montessori School 87 in the gymnasium, 6-8 p.m.