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Don’t call schools outdated; call them inadequate.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

Indiana lawmakers are bringing back a plan to expand takeover for Gary and Muncie schools

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

It’s official: Lawmakers are planning to re-introduce a controversial plan to expand state takeover of the Gary and Muncie school districts when they come back May 14 for a one-day special session.

Indiana Republican leaders said they believe the plan, which would give control of Muncie schools to Ball State University and strip power from the Gary school board, creates opportunities for both districts to get on the right track after years of poor decision-making around finances.

“Two state entities year after year ignored requests from the legislature to get their fiscal health in order,” said Senate President David Long. “We understand there’s going to be some politics associated with it.”

But Indiana Democrats strongly oppose the takeovers, and House Minority Leader Terry Goodin, a Democrat from Austin, said bringing back the “heinous” takeover plan is too complicated to be dealt with in one day. Democrats had cheered when the bill unceremoniously died last month after lawmakers ran out of time during the regular session and lambasted Republican for calling for an extension to revisit it.

“This is not a thing that can be idly approved without full consideration,” Goodin said. “Because you are talking about the latest step to take the education of our children out of the hands of local school boards and parents and placing it under the control of Big Brother.”

But lawmakers’ push to expand district takeovers come as the state’s education officials are stepping back from taking control of individual schools. In this case, as with last year’s unprecedented bill that took over Gary schools, finances appear to be the driving motivation behind lawmakers’ actions, not academics. Typically, state takeover of schools has come as a consequence for years of failing state letter grades.

Gary schools have struggled for decades to deal with declining enrollment, poor financial management and poor academic performance. Although the Muncie district hasn’t seen the same kind of academic problems, it has been sharply criticized for mishandling a $10 million bond issue.

“All I had to hear is that a $10 million capital bond was used for operating expenses,” House Speaker Brian Bosma said, since those funds are intended to make improvements to buildings. “Fiscal irresponsibility is paramount, but also fiscal irresponsibility translates to educational irresponsibility as well.”

Bosma said that Ball State and Gary officials were on board with resurrecting House Bill 1315. Another part of the bill would develop an early warning system to identify districts in financial trouble.

The provisions in the bill would only apply to public school districts, but other types of schools, including online charter schools and private schools accepting taxpayer-funded vouchers, have had recent financial situations that have raised serious questions and even led to closure.

Bosma said those schools have their own fiscal accountability systems in place, but recent attempts to close gaps in state charter law and have private schools with voucher students submit annual reports to the state have gone mostly nowhere.

Both Bosma and Long said their plan to reconsider five bills during the special session, including House Bill 1315, had passed muster withGov. Eric Holcomb. But district takeover was not mentioned in Friday’s statement from Holcomb, nor did he say it was one of the urgent issues lawmakers should take up when he spoke to reporters in mid-March.

Instead, he reiterated his support for getting a $12 million loan from the state’s Common School Fund for Muncie schools and directing $10 million over the next two years to the state’s Secured School Fund. The money would allow districts to request dollars for new and improved school safety equipment and building improvements.

match day

On high school match day, two-thirds of Newark eighth graders want magnet schools — but far fewer will get them

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Keyon Lambert waited a long time for April 20th to arrive — the day when he and hundreds of other Newark students are discovering which high schools they’ve been matched with.

Long before this day, Keyon, an eighth-grader at Brick Avon Academy in the South Ward, spent hours poring over the test scores, class offerings, and graduation rates of the city’s high schools. As he awaited the results this week, he explained why he had invested so much time and thought into his application.

“If I went to a bad high school and got distracted — time flies by,” he said. “Senior year, I [might not] even know what I want to be, what college I want to go to. I probably miss out on a whole bunch of stuff. I’d probably be a dope by then.”

“But if I go to a good school,” he added, “I’ll be able to get my education and focus on the other things. Nothing, basically, will distract me.”

Newark students can apply to as many as eight high schools — traditional, magnet, or charter — through the district’s universal online application, and to the county-run vocational schools through a separate application. While the city has long offered competitive magnet schools alongside its traditional “comprehensive” high schools, the online system has made it easier for students to apply to multiple schools.

Still, each student only gets one match. And, as Keyon understood, some options are better than others. That leads many students to compete for the limited seats at the most selective schools, whose enrollments often do not match the overall demographic makeup of the district — a trend the school board has been probing.

Chalkbeat spoke to more than a dozen eighth-graders this week as high-school match day approached to understand their decisions. We’ll be checking back with some of them after they receive their matches Friday.

“There’s going to be a lot of tears,” said Jahida Gilbert, another Brick Avon eighth-grader, earlier this week.

The district’s six magnet high schools, which admit students based on their academic records or artistic talent, are by far the most popular option — and the most exclusive. Last year, more than two-thirds of incoming ninth-graders ranked a magnet school first on their applications, according to a new report on the city’s enrollment system. But just 31 percent of students across all grades who rank magnets first are actually admitted, and only 24 percent of Newark high schoolers wind up attending one of the coveted schools.

At the other end of the spectrum are the district’s eight comprehensive high schools. Unlike magnets, they cannot weed out students with low scores or poor attendance — they must admit anyone they have room for, or use a random lottery if they are oversubscribed. Partly as a result, they tend to serve far more students with disabilities, have many more students who are chronically absent, and post much lower test scores.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Brianna Padilla and Ahad Hall, eighth-graders at Hawthorne Avenue School.

About 10 percent of Newark students opt into one of the four technical-vocational schools run by Essex County, where they can join peers from other towns and study trades ranging from culinary arts to engineering while also earning a high-school diploma. Like the magnets, the “vo-tech” schools screen applicants. They look at students’ grades, test scores, disciplinary and attendance records, and the results of an entrance essay and interview.

Keyon ruled out the comprehensive high schools. But he did go for an interview at a vocational school, where the interviewer tried to assess Keyon’s personality by asking whether he’d rather be a lion or a bear. “I picked a lion because you could set a good example for others,” he explained.

He also explored a third category — charter high schools. Publicly funded but independently operated, those schools cannot screen applicants. However, several are affiliated with lower-grade charter schools that act as feeder schools, leaving few spots for other incoming ninth-graders. The charter high school Keyon applied to, Great Oaks Legacy, which includes pre-kindergarten to 12th-grade, reported having no available seats for students entering ninth-grade last year.

During his search, Keyon consulted his parents, who told him: “Be mature and pick the wise decision,” he said. Finally, he decided to apply to the vocational school (Essex County Newark Tech), along with two magnet schools (Science Park and American History) and two charter schools (KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy, in addition to Great Oaks Legacy).

Noon on April 20 was this year’s appointed hour, when families could start viewing their children’s matches — for elementary as well as high schools — on the enrollment website. The district also sends letters to students’ homes and gives copies to schools to hand out. Last school year, 41 percent of incoming ninth-graders were matched to their first choice, while 70 percent got one of their top three picks.

Brick Avon’s principal, Charity Haygood, said students shouldn’t despair if they don’t get into one of the most competitive schools. Some high-achieving students flourish at the city’s comprehensive schools, which also boast impressive sports teams and arts programs.

Still, Haygood is troubled by the knowledge that some of her students will be shut out of the selective schools where they applied. She hates to think that a less-than-stellar report card one year or a poor showing on the state tests — perhaps because of an upheaval at home — can determine the course of a student’s high-school career, and maybe well beyond that.

“The idea that we — at the age of 12 or 13 — tell a child their destiny. How dare we?” she said. “That’s devastating.”

Out of about 14,400 students who attended a public high school in Newark this school year, 45 percent go to one of the district’s traditional high schools and 24 percent attend a magnet school. Another 21 percent are enrolled in one of the city’s seven charter schools with high-school grades.

While each high school has its strengths and weaknesses, academic performance varies sharply across sectors, with the magnet sector on average outscoring the charter sector on state exams — and both sectors outperforming the comprehensive schools. One factor that impacts their performance is the share of students with disabilities they serve.

Among comprehensive high schools, 22 percent of incoming ninth-graders require special-education services, compared to 13 percent in magnet schools and 15 percent in charter schools, according to the new report on the city’s enrollment system by the Center for Public Research and Leadership at Columbia University and MarGrady Research.

One exception is People’s Preparatory Charter School, where 33 percent of ninth-graders have disabilities, according to founder and co-director Jessica Rooney.

“Our whole job is to make sure that we’re decreasing or eliminating barriers to a high-quality education,” she said.

Haneefah Webster with her daughter, Samiyah, an eighth-grader at George Washington Carver School.

To help families sort through all the options each year, the district publishes a 115-page guidebook, hosts two school fairs each year, and created an informational video on the website where families can apply to most district or charter schools using a single application. (The vo-tech schools use a separate system.)

Students also lean heavily on their teachers and guidance counselors to make sense of all the options. At Sussex Avenue School in the Central Ward, seventh-grade teacher Amanda Grossi prints out the guidebook and goes through it page-by-page with students, helping them interpret the schools’ academic data and acceptance rates. She brings in former students to talk about the process and where they landed, and hosts a family night where parents can fill out the application.

While Grossi tries to help students make informed decisions, she worries about hardworking but middling students who fall into the “big divide” between magnet and comprehensive schools — and who, for all the dizzying options, have limited choices.

“There’s really no in-between,” she said.

For many parents, the solution is to push their children toward the magnets. Haneefah Webster encouraged her daughter, Samiyah, an eighth-grader at George Washington Carver School, to apply to Bard Early College High School, a magnet where students can earn two-year college degrees by graduation.

When she was her daughter’s age, Webster attended one of Newark’s traditional high schools, where she said she was a “math genius” and a “super honor roll student.” But when she entered a public college to study accounting, she soon found huge gaps in the math education she’d received. Before long, she switched her major to literature.

“That’s why I picked Bard” for Samiyah, she said. “So when she gets to college, she won’t have that struggle.”

Below are some of the eighth-graders we spoke with:

Valencia McDonald
Age: 13
Current school: Sussex Avenue
Top choice: Bard Early College High School (magnet school)
Advice to next year’s eighth-graders: “Go to a school that you like, especially if they have a club day you want to go to — so you can enjoy your time there, and also learn.”

Jahida Gilbert
Age: 14
Current school: Brick Avon Academy
Top choice: Science Park High School (magnet school)
Advice: “Go beyond where you want to go — not what level your teachers say you’re at. [But] also, don’t choose too high, to where all the ones you choose you don’t get accepted so then you have to wait until they put you in one. Be reasonable with your grades — but try to go big too.”

Brianna Padilla
Age: 13
Current school: Hawthorne Avenue
Top choice: Essex County Newark Tech (vocational-technical school)
Advice: “Don’t let no one doubt you, whatever high school you want to go to. If you feel you want to go there, then go there.”

Jordan King
Age: 15
Current school: Hawthorne Avenue
Top choice: Science Park High School (magnet)
Observation: “The one thing I hate is the waiting part. Life is all about waiting.”