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Don’t call schools outdated; call them inadequate.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.”

Who's leaving?

63 teachers are leaving Detroit’s main district. Here’s a list of their names and former schools.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Is your child’s favorite teacher saying goodbye to the Detroit Public Schools Community District?

Last week, Detroit’s main district released the names of 63 teachers and 55 building staff members who retired or resigned by the end of June. We have a list of their names and the schools where they worked.

Rather than leave classrooms during the school year, teachers typically choose to retire or switch school districts while students are on break. This is only the first wave of departures expected this summer — one reason schools in Detroit are racing to hire certified teachers by the fall.

But for Detroit families, the teachers on this list are more than a number. Scroll down to see if an educator who made a difference in your child’s life — or your own — is leaving the district.

Teacher and staff separations in June 2018. Source: Detroit Public Schools Community District

Gifted gap

To integrate specialized high schools, are gifted programs part of the problem or the solution?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry, the first citywide gifted and talented program to join the city's diversity efforts, learn how to read a number line in Nov. 2016.

As debate has erupted in recent weeks over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to overhaul admissions to the city’s most prestigious specialized high schools, another set of New York City schools are coming under new scrutiny: those that offer gifted and talented programs.

Much like specialized high schools, most gifted and talented programs use only a single test to determine admissions, and black and Hispanic students are starkly underrepresented. The crucial difference is that New York City’s gifted programs begin sorting students when they are as young as 4 years old, paving a reliable path to the city’s most coveted middle and high schools.

Some opponents of the mayor’s plan to scrap the specialized high school admissions exam say the city’s effort to integrate should actually start with gifted and talented programs. But while these parents and alumni groups have lobbied fiercely to keep the specialized high school exam in place, they are calling for a new approach to determining who is “gifted.” 

“This is common sense: How can we compare children who have every advantage to those who are born into the world with severe disadvantages?” a group of black specialized high school alumni recently wrote in an open letter to the chancellor. “The goal should be to make sure that children in every city neighborhood have the same access to the type of education that will prepare them for admission to specialized high schools.”

Many integration advocates similarly take issue with how the city identifies children for gifted and talented programs — but their proposed solution is dramatically different. Rather than an expansion of programs or overhaul of admissions standards, some say gifted programs should be eliminated in favor of classrooms that mix students with varying academic abilities.

“We have to question: What are the educational benefits of these programs? I don’t think there is one, other than to maintain a stratified system,” said Matt Gonzales, an integration advocate who is part of a citywide coalition calling for an end to gifted programs.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who has stepped headfirst into the integration debate since arriving in New York in April, seems willing to consider changes to the gifted and talented program. In a recent report, he pinpointed gifted and talented programs as one of the challenges to “advancing equity and inclusion” in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated.

“We’re working to raise the bar for all kids,” Carranza said in a statement to Chalkbeat. “We also have to think about access and barriers to entry, and that includes whether we’re creating unnecessary barriers by tracking students at the age of 4 or 5 years old based on a single test.”

Changing the program in any significant way is sure to create outrage mirroring the controversy that now surrounds specialized high schools. Gifted and talented offerings are often seen as a way to keep middle-class families in public schools, and past attempts to change tests or criteria have led to an outcry.

Any reforms to gifted and talented in the name of equity are also likely to stir complicated arguments around race and class, much like the specialized high school debate has. A disproportionate number of gifted and specialized high school students are Asian, many of whom come from low-income families. Citywide, 16 percent of students are Asian, but they comprise 40 percent of those in gifted programs.

“True inclusion, and true equality, means no one is denied,” said Assemblyman Ron Kim, whose district includes heavily Asian neighborhoods in Queens such as Flushing. “I hope the mayor and the public don’t make the mistake of [confusing] the racially balancing of a few schools with racial equality.”

Getting into gifted

Gifted and talented programs in New York date back to the 1920s, and have long been controversial. Some states have laws requiring schools to provide accelerated classrooms for quick learners. New York does not, but gifted and talented programs proliferated under previous Mayor Michael Bloomberg, partly in an attempt to provide access to more students.

Until about 10 years ago, every school district within the city system ran its own gifted and talented programs, each with its own entry criteria. That changed under Bloomberg, who established a common admission standard based on an exam. Officials hoped — despite warnings from some quarters — that holding every student to the same bar would actually promote diversity.

Instead, gifted programs started to disappear in districts where not enough students qualified to fill a classroom.

Today, about 16,000 students citywide attend one of more than 100 gifted programs. While about 70 percent of New York City students are black and Hispanic, those students make up less than a third of enrollment in gifted programs. Specialized high schools are even less representative: only about 10 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

Typically, gifted offerings are housed in separate classrooms within a school, in some cases dividing an otherwise diverse student body along racial and economic lines. Other schools exclusively serve children who have been identified as gifted.

Most children enter gifted programs when they start kindergarten, and admission hinges on the results of a two-part standardized exam. That means many children take the test when they are about four years old. (There is one notable exception: A handful of programs in the city’s neediest districts don’t use the exam, and don’t admit students until third grade.)

As with the specialized high schools, an industry of tutors and test prep have evolved around this admissions process, as parents have learned how to angle for a limited number of spots for their children.

Bright Kids in Manhattan, for example, works with hundreds of families who hope to enroll their children in gifted and talented schools or tracks. Danielle Kelly, director of education for the center, said parents who come to them are often unhappy with their neighborhood school options.

At Bright Kids, practice for the gifted test usually starts the summer during which a child turns 3 years old. The center takes a play-based approach and eases into teaching very young children what to expect come test time: How to sit still, focus for a long period, and listen to directions given by a stranger.

“Kids will come in, they’ll be a little more unsure or hesitant going into our first session, but that does not mean they’re not capable,” Kelly said. “Just that little extra bit of exposure in this type of environment can make a huge difference for kids.”

The gifted and talented test consists of two parts and is meant to gauge verbal and nonverbal skills. To determine how well students follow directions, a child might be given a set of multiple cues, like “point to the square between the circle and the triangle,” Kelly said. There are “very early math skills” that are also evaluated, she added, such as understanding when a value is greater than, less than, or equal to another.

“It’s really not anything they may have seen in school before,” Kelly said, referring to pre-school.

Just as some say about  specialized high schools, many gifted critics say that segregation within these programs can be traced back to the single entrance exam. Rather than selecting for intelligence or ability, the test effectively screens for families who have the time, resources, and know-how to prepare their children and navigate the admissions system, said Allison Roda, a professor of education at Molloy College who has studied New York City’s gifted programs extensively. Only 34 percent of students in gifted programs come from low-income families, compared with 74 percent citywide.

“We’re not identifying gifted students,” Roda said. “We’re identifying advantaged students, based on their parents’ education levels, their income levels, their access to information and what they’ve been exposed to with preschools and test prep.”

In fact, some private schools have scrapped their entrance exams, saying that extensive prepping had made them meaningless. Roda’s research suggests that some parents of color are similarly skeptical about test prep. In conversations with 50 public school parents, Roda found that black and Hispanic families saw test prep as “gaming” the system. Having to prepare for the exam meant your child wasn’t really gifted, they explained.

On the other hand, white families saw such efforts as a mark of good parenting. For them, getting into gifted programs paved the way to an elite education.

“They saw it was putting their child on a path — the right path — for the better middle schools, and high schools, and colleges,” Roda said.

The gifted pipeline 

Specialized high school alumni recognize this pipeline of feeder schools and have latched onto it to fight against de Blasio’s plan. Advocates such as members of the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative, a group of specialized high school graduates pushing for more student diversity, say that integration efforts should start as early as possible. That means taking a critical look at selective “screened” programs such as gifted and talented, they argue, which are in short supply in some of the city’s neediest neighborhoods.

“We believe that academic talent exists in every community in the city, and we want to see the [Department of Education] take responsibility for identifying and nurturing it,” members wrote in a recent open letter to the new chancellor.

Gifted programs feed into specialized schools in a few ways. Technically the city doesn’t have gifted programs in middle schools. But some elementary schools that serve exclusively gifted children run through the eighth grade — or even high school. This creates a de facto gifted middle school, since once enrolled, families can then choose to remain (and many do). Other middle schools enjoy a reputation for being akin to gifted and talented offerings because they have strict entrance criteria, sometimes requiring a top score on their own tests.

These middle schools, in turn, feed an outsized share of their students into the specialized high schools.

At the Anderson School in Manhattan, all but one eighth-grade student took the specialized high school entrance exam this year, and 76 percent of these test-takers were offered admission. At the 30th Avenue School in northwest Queens, more than 63 percent of eighth-graders received an acceptance offer. Both schools have Gifted and Talented programs in the lower grades that are among the most selective. Students from across the city can apply, but since demand is so high, typically only those who score in the top 1 percent on the standard gifted exam are admitted.

Knowing this, alumni groups representing the specialized high schools and some elected officials say the best way to integrate the city’s selective high schools is to focus on enrolling more black and Hispanic students in gifted and talented programs at an earlier stage.

“That’s where we begin the segregation, because we’re not giving those academically talented kids the opportunity to grow,” said Samuel Adewumi, an alum of Brooklyn Technical, a specialized high school where he now teaches. He also runs a test prep company that helps students of color get into the city’s specialized high schools.  

Along with a dramatic expansion, Adewumi and other alumni say the city needs to overhaul admissions. They say the city should consider going back to an approach that resembles the old model, where bright kids in every community are offered an advanced course of study — without having to compete against a citywide norm.

“Kids who are in accelerated programs will ultimately do better than kids who are not in accelerated programs,” Adewumi said.

The city has taken some steps in that direction, opening new gifted programs in districts that had gone years without. Those programs start in third grade, and admission is based on a combination of teacher recommendations and report card grades. In those classes, 85 percent of next year’s students will be black or Hispanic, according to the education department.

Other efforts, however, have focused on expanding access to the gifted and talented test. In some of the city’s poorest districts, which also enroll the most black and Hispanic students, the number of children taking the exam is miniscule.

In District 32, for example, only 75 students took the gifted test this year, even though 700 kindergarteners were enrolled there last year. From this tiny subset of students, only seven scored high enough to earn a spot in a gifted and talented program. The district spans Bushwick and the tip of Bedford-Stuyvesant and is about 95 percent black and Hispanic.

Many elected officials, including the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, and borough presidents Eric Adams and Ruben Diaz, have called on the education department to administer the gifted test to all pre-K students. It’s an expensive tactic, but it has shown promise elsewhere: When schools in Broward County, Florida, offered universal testing, the share of black and Hispanic students identified as gifted tripled.

An alternative: scrapping gifted

Faced with such dismal numbers year after year, some integration advocates have called on the city to end gifted and talented programs entirely. They point to research that shows mixing students by academic ability generally benefits all involved (though some studies on that issue are mixed.)

What is more clear in the research: Racial and economic integration can boost critical thinking, help raise more tolerant students, and produce academic gains for students most likely to be harmed by segregation.

Armed with such findings, some integration advocates have called on the city to explicitly focus on mixing students with different academic abilities, and not just based on race or income status. That was the kind of thinking that contributed to a recent integration plan for middle schools in District 3, which spans the Upper West Side and part of Harlem. Starting next year, the district’s schools will seek to enroll a mix of students based, in part, on their report card grades and student test scores. And in District 15, which includes Park Slope and Sunset Park in Brooklyn, community members have recommended eliminating selective screening entirely from the middle school admissions process.

Some say it’s time to take a similar approach to gifted programs.

“It always goes back to: We’re separating kids,” Roda said. “Is that what we want to do, especially when our schools are segregated?”