national newsletter

Is personalized learning the new Common Core?

Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! Sarah Darville, Matt Barnum, and Francisco Vara-Orta here, working to help you make sense of efforts to improve education across the country. This is our last newsletter of the year — happy holidays and we’ll see you in 2019!


The big story

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.

We have a new story today about the teachers, political conservatives, and parents who are beginning to mobilize against the idea, even as others embrace it. In some cases, the opponents are the very same people who fought the Common Core – perhaps because backers of both concepts have big ambitions to reshape schools.

“Once you start pushing for broader scale and scope, you leave the honeymoon phase pretty quickly,” said one researcher we talked to.

The two concepts are different in important ways. But the parallels 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.

Read our full story for more.


Local stories to watch

  • Memphis officials tout their falling suspension numbers, but they are obscuring a different problem. Expulsions in the district have increased, mostly for offenses where school officials have discretion over how students are punished. As a result, a Chalkbeat investigation found, students are missing more days than they were several years ago.
  • Some Chicago mayoral hopefuls say they’re OK with giving up power over schools. Amid a growing grassroots push for an elected school board, at least three candidates say they’d support that idea, while others are calling for a “hybrid” board.
  • To stop kids from falling through the cracks, Chicago is working on a centralized reading curriculum. Even once it’s created, though, there’s no guarantee schools will adopt it, given the freedom schools there have to choose how and what to teach.
  • To help them across the college finish line, KIPP alums from New York City, Philadelphia, the Bay Area, and Memphis will be eligible for emergency cash. Sometimes, small bills can derail students before graduation. The expanded program could make a difference, as it’s “about delivering money right when a student needs it, just in time to really help,” one expert said.
  • In Newark, students say they’re punished for absences when they really just need help. That’s one finding of a research project enlisting teens to talk to their peers about why they miss school. Other reasons? Managing family responsibilities, depression, and the fact that “school can sometimes feel like jail.”
  • Will the Acero charter strike in Chicago embolden other charter unionization efforts? Some labor experts say it’s likely, given that the Acero teachers got so much of what they wanted: pay increases, smaller classes, and a shorter school day.

DeVos watch

Yesterday brought some important, though unsurprising, news: The Trump administration is moving closer to scrapping the Obama-era guidelines meant to curb suspensions and expulsions, especially for students of color.

The federal school safety commission chaired by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recommended the move in a report released Tuesday, saying that efforts to address racial disparities in discipline may have made America’s schools less safe.

Three things you should know:

  • There’s limited research evidence that cutting back on suspensions made schools less safe, though teachers in some districts have reported that they have been hamstrung by new restrictions.
  • The education department hasn’t said when it will officially rescind the guidance.
  • Rescinding the guidance won’t require districts to make changes.

And in another sign that DeVos may face more scrutiny from the Democratic-controlled House next year, civil rights organizations have sent a letter pressuring Congress to examine how her department has handled reports of civil rights violations and racial disparities in special education.


Research round-up

  • Stressed out students perform worse on state exams, according to a new paper, which is among the first to look at how students respond physiologically to high-stakes tests. The study focuses on a charter network in New Orleans, and measures students’ level of cortisol, a hormone caused by stress. For most students, cortisol increases modestly leading up to the state test, and bigger swings in cortisol correlate with lower-than-expected scores. That suggests that the tests reflect not just what students know, but how they perform under pressure.
  • “Throwing money at the problem” isn’t a bad thing for schools. This won’t surprise long-time newsletter readers. But a new review of research offers more detail, and its author says the question of whether money matters is “essentially settled.” Of 13 credible studies looking at the effects of school spending across multiple states, 12 found statistically significant benefits for students’ test scores and high school graduation rates.
  • Sleeping in helped high school students in Seattle, according to a new study looking at the results of later school start times. The study, which examined students at two high schools, found that those who got 30 extra minutes of sleep had higher grades and were more likely to attend their first period class. This is more encouraging than the study we featured here last week, though both studies found that evidence that disadvantaged students were most likely to benefit from a later start.

Names to note


What we’re reading

  • Dallas’s school turnaround program “is built on a simple premise: putting the best educators in front of the neediest kids.” And it seems to be getting results. Houston Chronicle
  • Between 2012 and 2016, the share of students suspended nationally dropped from 5.6 percent to 4.7 percent, according to a new NPR/Child Trends analysis. NPR
  • An argument that the T. M. Landry scandal undermines the idea that elite universities are useful gatekeepers. The Atlantic

(Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)