boom and backlash

Could the forces that fought the Common Core bring down personalized learning?

PHOTO: Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post

Major funders and the federal education department are promoting the idea.

Teachers are wary. Parents are perplexed.

Criticism is coming from both the political left and right.

It’s not the Common Core, though a few years ago, it would have been. Now, we’re talking about technology-based personalized learning, the latest, hottest, and best-funded idea to dominate the conversation about American schools.

The backlash to the Common Core standards, and their associated tests, was enough to get them revised or replaced in some states. Today, some teachers, political conservatives, and parents are beginning to mobilize against personalized learning, too. And in some cases, the very same people are taking up the fight.

Take Jane Robbins of the American Principles Project, a socially conservative group that vigorously opposed Common Core. One recent piece she co-authored: “The Same Folks Who Brought You Common Core Want You to Embrace ‘Personalized Learning.’”

What Common Core and personalized learning advocates certainly have in common are grand ambitions to reshape schools. That brings challenges, said Betheny Gross of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a University of Washington–based think tank.

“Once you start pushing for broader scale and scope, you leave the honeymoon phase pretty quickly,” Gross said. “Even Common Core had a honeymoon phase.” More schools and districts say they’re adopting personalized learning and more states are encouraging or even requiring the move.

It all suggests that personalized learning, whether or not it provokes a Common Core-sized debate, is entering the a boom-and-backlash cycle that often follows education trends.

The Common Core and personalized learning are different in key ways. The standards are a discrete list of what students should learn; personalized learning generally refers to allowing students to progress at their own pace, based in part on their own interests, often with technology.

Common Core was also aggressively pushed by the federal government, which allowed the standards to spread quickly. The feds have had a more modest role in backing personalized learning, which has entered classrooms in a piecemeal way.

Still, the nascent pushback to personalized learning has supporters mobilizing. Many have shifted their rhetoric to de-emphasize the role of technology, a key sticking point for many critics. They think they’re making headway.

“There’s an increased understanding that personalized learning is not about technology or increasing screen time,” said Maria Worthen, of iNACOL, a group that supports the idea.

Others aren’t so sure — including members of these three groups.

Emerging opposition group #1: Teachers and their unions, some of whom fear philanthropic overreach into schools

To Merrie Najimy, who heads the 110,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association, “personalized learning” is code for tech products whose spread is driven by unaccountable philanthropic organizations.

“It’s depersonalized learning,” she says.

She’s skeptical of those who are pushing the model, like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the organization founded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. They have spent hundreds of millions of dollars backing the approach to teaching, which they argue will help boost learning and engage students. (CZI is also a funder of Chalkbeat.)

“When you begin to bring in philanthropists in to give private money, public education is no longer public,” said Najimy. Her union put out a highly critical report focusing on CZI and other philanthropies supporting personalized learning and charter schools.

So far, national unions have been cautious but much more optimistic.

“Of course, it’s important that you adjust your teaching to the needs of individuals, and technology can be a real help in that,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. But she’s also worried that the idea is “being used by tech companies as a way of making money, and used by some of the powers that be as a management tool rather than a pedagogical tool.”

Weingarten, though, has kind words for CZI, which she said her union is “working more and more with.”

“I see Chan Zuckerberg approaching this work completely different than the way in which they approached the Newark work,” she said, referring to Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to revamp Newark’s schools in 2010.

(Asked if AFT has received grants from CZI, an AFT spokesperson would only point to the union’s tax disclosure forms. The most recent one does not indicate a donation from CZI.)

The National Education Association, the other large national teachers union, has also taken a moderate stance. Last year, it published an article featuring teachers praising personalized learning.

“I know within minutes that a student doesn’t understand a particular concept,” one teacher said.

More skeptical teachers complained about the piece. In some ways, though, it tracks with a report Gross recently co-authored, based in part on interviews and surveys of teachers in 39 schools that had won money from the Gates Foundation to introduce personalized learning. (The report was also funded by Gates, which is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

Gross found that teachers generally had positive things to say about the shift. She also found, though, that the teachers were getting limited support from their principals or colleagues.

“If teachers experience the difficulty and challenge around building from the ground up, not being supported to do this work, we are at risk of having them turn against it because they feel like it’s all being plopped in their lap,” Gross said.

It’s worth watching whether teachers elsewhere begin protesting the new programs. That could set up a repeat of a cycle the AFT got caught in several years ago, when the union took money from the Gates Foundation meant to support the Common Core but eventually cut ties after backlash from some members.

Emerging opposition group #2: Conservatives, who fear influence of big tech and top-down change

President Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos is an evangelist for personalized learning. So is Jeb Bush, an influential conservative voice in education, whose education nonprofit ExcelinEd backs the approach.

“We need to allow for individualization and customization, and I think a lot of the tasks and trends around personalized and customized learning are really promising,” DeVos has said.

But another conservative faction is deeply skeptical.

“Personalized learning is not good for genuine education,” says Jane Robbins of the American Principles Project, a socially conservative group. “If you’re trying to discuss Shakespeare … that’s not going to happen with a software program.”

Right-wing outlets like Townhall and Breitbart regularly feature articles critical of education technology, personalized learning, and the groups backing those ideas.

“‘Personalized learning’ is an edutech buzz phrase for hijacking the classroom and hooking students and teachers on branded software and hardware — iPads, smartboards, computerized portfolios, homework apps, you name it — without any evidence that such shiny objects improve academic performance,” conservative writer Michelle Malkin wrote earlier this year. This argument was quickly picked up by Breitbart.

(Does personalized learning improve academic performance? That remains up for debate. One prominent study looking at schools that won grants to add programs showed modest boosts to student test scores, but also found that students were less likely to say there was an adult at school who knew them well. Some specific online programs have shown promising results. But overall, the research base remains thin.)

Robbins and Malkin, incidentally, also led the charge against Common Core; Jeb Bush, meanwhile, was one of the standards’ top Republican backers.

These critics fear data-mining by technology companies, and a top-down approach to changing teaching that impedes local control. Others are focused on how personalized learning subverts teachers’ authority.

“Some of our strongest allies are members of right-wing groups,” said Leonie Haimson, cofounder of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy and a critic of digital learning programs.

Emerging opposition group #3: The parents and students who don’t get it or don’t like it

There’s no reliable gauge of parents and students think of personalized learning across the country. Chalkbeat’s unscientific approach — reaching out to supporters and critics of Summit, a personalized learning platform backed by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and used in nearly 400 schools — yielded an outpouring of positive and negative responses.

“The Summit platform was implemented last year and has been a nightmare for us,” wrote one New Jersey parent.

“As a parent, my son really flourished with Summit Learning,” wrote another from Washington state. “It let us see where he was in regard to his academic performance and the need to learn how to ‘self-pace’ his work.”

“Our superintendent and school board refuse to listen to parents like myself who prefer more traditional, low-screen options for students,” a parent from Wisconsin said.

“So many parents have assumed that with a technology platform the teacher interaction would wane or even disintegrate. We found the opposite to be true,” countered yet another parent.

There’s no sign the debate is dying down.

In one Brooklyn high school that adopted Summit students walked out of class in protest. “It’s annoying to just sit there staring at one screen for so long,” one said. Parents or students have raised concerns about Summit in Cincinnati, Connecticut, Milwaukee, and Pennsylvania.

There has been no outside research on the effectiveness of the Summit’s platform, though Summit says the approach was developed based on research.

Diane Tavenner, the founder of Summit, told Chalkbeat that tens of thousands of students have used the platform, and in most places, parents and students are happy with it. Tavenner, who met with some of the students at the Brooklyn school, said their frustration was about broader issues with the school.

“We have some partner schools that don’t really get what [Summit] is and they use the tool in the wrong way — they put kids on it and tell them, ‘Here, go learn,’” Tavenner said. “That is not what it is, and when that happens, of course parents and kids are not happy about that.”

Tavenner said Summit’s technology should be used to facilitate projects and as a tool for parents, teachers, and students to communicate, not as the center of a student’s learning experience.

“We’re trying to get them ready for the world that they’re going to live in where these tools are going to be in their world,” she said.

Other supporters of personalized learning also seem keenly aware of concerns about technology and students’ screen time. Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd and Education Elements, a personalized learning consulting company, recently distributed a messaging document urging advocates to downplay technology and the need for dramatic change.

CZI officials particular have said that they see personalized learning as encompassing student health and well-being, and that technology should serve as a tool for teachers, not replace them.

Tavenner isn’t sure the message is always reaching parents.

“What’s common is really not understanding what these things are, and schools in general doing a really bad job communicating with families,” she said about Common Core and personalized learning.

But messaging is likely to matter less than what parents, teachers, and students experience in real classrooms, particularly if technology really does end up playing an outsize role in some places.

“It could fail because parents and teachers and students just say forget about it, this is not what we want — just like what happened with Common Core testing,” said Weingarten.

where's the research

Summit Learning declined to be studied, then cited collaboration with Harvard researchers anyway

English teacher Adelaide Giornelli works with ninth grade students on computers at Shasta charter public high school, part of the Summit public school system. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

Summit Learning, a fast-growing “personalized learning” system, touts a partnership with Harvard researchers even though Summit actually turned down their proposal to study the model.

The online platform is backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy and is now being used in 380 schools across the U.S.

The program “is based on collaborations with nationally acclaimed learning scientists, researchers and academics from institutions including the Harvard Center for Education Policy Research,” Summit’s website says. “Summit’s research-backed approach leads to better student outcomes.” Schools have used that seeming endorsement to back up their decision to adopt the model.

In fact, though, there is no academic research on whether Summit’s specific model is effective. And while Summit helped fund a study proposal crafted by Harvard researchers, it ultimately turned them down.

“They didn’t tell us explicitly why,” said Tom Kane, a Harvard education professor and faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research. “All I can say is that the work that we did for Summit involved planning an evaluation; we have not measured impacts on student outcomes.”

Summit’s founder Diane Tavenner said the organization had a number of reasons for not moving forward with the proposed study, including its potential to burden teachers and to limit the platform’s ability to change or grow. Their general approach is backed by other research, she said, and their track record as a charter network.

As to the mention of the Harvard center on Summit’s website, Tavenner said the organization had learned a lot from the process of developing a potential study. Tavenner said that, after Chalkbeat began reporting this story, she offered to change the website’s language, but said Kane had not asked her to do so.

More broadly, Tavenner says she is skeptical of the usefulness of large-scale research of the sort the Harvard team proposed, saying the conclusions might be of interest to journalists and philanthropists, not schools.

“I’m not willing to give up what’s best for kids for those two audiences,” Tavenner told Chalkbeat last month.

It’s a notable stance for Summit, given its ambitious claims and the platform’s wide reach.

As “personalized learning” becomes a more popular idea among those trying to improve America’s schools, Summit’s platform has been adopted for free by schools across the country. That’s thanks largely to the backing of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropy poised to receive Zuckerberg’s billions. Summit’s model has drawn praise from parents and teachers in some schools, but proven controversial in others.

Regardless, CZI’s support means Summit could continue to grow rapidly — which has some observers wondering when its backers will show that what it’s offering is particularly effective.

“I do think that there is an obligation to provide credible evidence to schools when you’re trying to convince them to adopt things,” said John Pane, a researcher at the RAND Corporation who has extensively studied personalized learning initiatives.

Summit spreads, but research talks with Harvard team fizzle

Summit’s claims about a Harvard collaboration have their roots in conversations that began in  late 2016.

Zuckerberg’s wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, took a fateful tour of a school in the Summit Public Schools charter network two years earlier. The network soon began working with a Facebook engineering team to build out its technology.

Summit’s model has a number of components: a curriculum in core subjects for grades four through 12; weeks scheduled for students to deeply examine a topic of interest; long-term mentors for students; and a technology platform, which serves as the approach’s organizing structure. The goal is to better engage students and to give them more control over what and how they learn, Summit says.

By the 2016-17 school year, Summit had rolled out its program to more than 100 schools outside its own network. That’s also about when Summit started talks with Harvard professors Marty West and Kane.

An ideal study might have randomly assigned schools or students to use the learning platform, creating two groups that could be compared. That was a non-starter for Tavenner, as it would limit schools’ access to the platform. If 250 schools were assigned to use it, and another 250 expressed interest but were not, for example, that would be bad for students, she said last month while discussing the organization’s approach to research.

“Am I really going to say to 250 people, ‘You know what, we’re not going to actually help you, even though we actually could right now?’” she said.

Kane says they came up with a few alternatives: comparing students using Summit to others not using it in the same school or comparing schools that had adopted Summit to similar schools that hadn’t. They suggested tracking test scores as well as suspensions and attendance, measuring the effectiveness of the support offered to teachers, and using surveys to measure concepts important to Summit, like whether students felt in control of their schoolwork.

But Summit passed on an evaluation. “After many conversations with Harvard and the exploration of multiple options, we came to recognize that external research would need to meet certain baseline criteria in order for us to uphold in good faith our partnership with schools, students, and parents,” Tavenner said.

Metrics were a particular concern. “Standardized tests are not good measures of the cognitive skills,” a Summit spokesperson said, saying the organization had developed better alternatives. “Attendance and discipline are not measures of habits of success, full stop.” Tavenner said she feared that a study could stop Summit from being able to make changes to the program or that it might stop participating schools from adding new grades. (Kane and West say their plan wouldn’t have limited growth or changes.)

Tavenner told Chalkbeat that research of the kind the Harvard team was offering isn’t needed to validate their approach. Summit is based on decades of research on ideas like project-based learning, she said, citing the organization’s report titled “The Science of Summit.”

Dan Willingham, a University of Virginia educational psychologist, said that’s useful, but not the same as knowing whether a specific program helps students.

“You take a noticeable step down in confidence when something is not research-based but rather research-inspired,” he said, while noting that many education initiatives lack hard evidence of success. “There’s a hell of a lot going on in education that’s not being evaluated.”

What about Summit’s original charter network, now 11 schools? Summit cites internal data showing its graduates have success being accepted to college. But outside research is limited. A 2017 study by the Stanford-based group CREDO found that attending Summit led to modest declines in students’ reading scores and had no clear effect in math, though it looked at only a small portion of the network’s students.

The Summit charter schools are also part of an ongoing study of economically integrated charter schools, and a few were included in two widely cited RAND studies looking at personalized learning, though they didn’t report any Summit-specific information. California’s notoriously limited education data access has stymied more research, Tavenner said.

What does philanthropy owe the public?

Today, Summit’s learning platform has far outpaced its charter network. About 380 schools, with over 72,000 students, use the platform; the national charter network KIPP, by comparison, runs 224 schools serving around 100,000 students.

Summit now gets its engineering help from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, not Facebook. That philanthropic partnership has fueled its growth: While CZI has not disclosed how much it’s given to Summit, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation — through which CZI funnels much of its education giving — lists grants to Summit totalling over $70 million in 2016 and 2017.

Summit has also netted $2.3 million for the platform from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2016, and another $10 million in 2017. (CZI, the Gates Foundation, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation are all funders of Chalkbeat.)

Some major foundations regularly invest in research to better understand whether their gifts are doing good, noted Sarah Reckhow, a Michigan State professor who studies education philanthropy. In a number of instances, that research comes to unfavorable conclusions, like a Gates-funded study on its teacher evaluation initiative or a Walton Family Foundation-backed evaluation of charter schools’ propensity to screen out students with disabilities. (A Gates spokesperson said that part of its $10 million to Summit was set aside for “measurement and evaluation.”)

Reckhow said she hasn’t yet seen that same inclination from CZI. And she worries that school districts might be less likely to carefully examine programs that are offered free of charge, like Summit.

“If you reduce that barrier, you’re making it potentially more likely to adopt something without as much scrutiny as they otherwise might do,” she said. “That increases the obligation of Summit and CZI to evaluate the work.”

CZI spokesperson Dakarai Aarons said the organization is committed to research and to Summit, and pointed to a number of schools and districts that saw academic improvements after introducing Summit’s platform. “As the program grows, we look forward to expanded research to help measure its long-term impact,” he said.

Tavenner said Summit is exploring other options to prove its approach is working, including talking to researchers who study continuous improvement. “We can’t just keep saying no to [randomized studies],” she said. “We’ve got to have another way, but I don’t have another way yet.”

Researchers Kane and West, for their part, say Summit’s concerns about evaluating its evolving model should also raise questions about Summit’s swift spread.

“The evaluation we proposed would have assessed the impact of the model at that point in time, even if the model continued to evolve,” they wrote in an email. “When a model is still changing so radically that a point in time estimate is irrelevant, it is too early to be operating in hundreds of schools.”

“Unfortunately, Summit is closer to the rule than the exception,” they said.

Chicago mayor's race

Students quiz mayoral candidates about schools and police at Whitney Young High School forum

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Mayoral candidates attended a student-organized forum at Whitney Young High School on Thursday.

The teenage moderators of a Thursday forum at Whitney Young High School may have been inexperienced, but they didn’t go soft on the 11 Chicago mayoral hopefuls who attended, quizzing them on everything from marijuana legalization to school closings and teacher union negotiations.

In particular, students honed in on policing in their communities and schools, something moderator and event organizer Caleb Dunson said reflected their experiences and concerns.

To repeated questions about a proposed $95 million police academy that Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to build on the West Side, most of the candidates said they would oppose it — even former police chief Garry McCarthy, who called it “political spending.” The only clear supporters of the academy were Bill Daley and Mendoza, although Mendoza said she would support putting the facility in another neighborhood.

One student at the Near West Side high school asked how the candidates would address the “school-to-prison pipeline,” in which discipline on campus may set youths on a wayward path. Some students pointed out that many schools on the South and West Sides have more police and security guards than social workers and guidance counselors.  

While Daley largely skirted the policing part of the question, he said hiring more school counselors is a place to start to address students social and emotional needs, not just their safety in schools.

“We’ve got to find a way to afford that, ” he said.

Amara Enyia, a proponent of reducing policing in schools, said many under-resourced schools are “in communities that have neglected for decades.”

All the candidates agreed that they would keep Chicago as a sanctuary city, and would not direct local law enforcement to enforce immigration laws. County board President Toni Preckwinkle repeated her vow to dismantle the city’s gang database. Former schools chief Paul Vallas said he would work to rebuild the city’s detective division and establish a witness protection program to deal with Chicago’s low murder clearance rate.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Five of the 11 candidates who attended Thursday’s forum.

When it came to the question of whether they support closing more underenrolled or underperforming schools in Chicago, the candidates were split.

“Only if it made the situation better [for students],” said Gery Chico, an attorney and former school board president.  

Five candidates answered a flat-out “no”: state representative La Shawn K. Ford, former police board president Lori Lightfoot, ex-police chief Gerry McCarthy, state comptroller Susana Mendoza and Preckwinkle.

Former alderman Bob Fioretti punted, answering that “once an elected school board is in place, they can decide.”  

Enyia and Bill Daley pledged not to close schools in a community unless the community decides. John Kozlar said he would “not close, but repurpose schools.” Meanwhile, Vallas said, “Only if the community wants it, and only if there’s a plan to repurpose,” he said.

One student asked about how the candidates would handle contract negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union, which released a 75-point list of demands this week, including a 5 percent raise. Lightfoot praised teachers but said “we can’t negotiate and give away dollars we don’t have.” McCarthy said teachers deserve to be paid more, but had hard words for the teachers union.

“If the CTU spent half as much time putting their efforts into making sure teachers teach, instead of their politics, we’d be in a much better place,” he said.

The candidates all said they would support legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana, which sent cheers through the crowd. Asked if they would support giving 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote, only Daley said no.

Dunson, who helped organize and moderate the forum, called the event a success. 

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Caleb Dunson, 16.

“Whitney Young is an amazing magnet school, but we have kids coming from some of the most under-resourced, underfunded communities in Chicago. They know what it’s like to feel inequity, and to feel oppression, and I think they were able to accurately speak to their experiences of that,” said Dunson, junior class president.

He said that the exposure to a candidates forum could be important for students later — and inform conversations at home this election cycle.

“Even if you aren’t voting,” said Dunson who at 16 can’t yet vote, “you are going back to your parents and you’re telling them what you saw at this forum.”