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Don’t call schools outdated; call them inadequate.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

Indianapolis Public Schools budget plan could include layoffs and salary freezes

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Indianapolis Public Schools is cutting spending across the district.

Schools across Indianapolis’s largest district could face hiring freezes and layoffs as the district seeks to balance its budget, according to a document published on the district website.

The finance update, which is expected to be presented Thursday for discussion to the Indianapolis Public Schools Board, outlines a plan for cutting nearly $21 million from the cash-strapped district’s $269 million general fund budget for 2018-19. Some of the potential cuts include educator layoffs based on subject area, salary freezes, and reductions in custodial services and substitute teachers.

It is not clear whether all the potential cuts will be made. The district declined to immediately comment on the proposal but said staff would be available to answer questions Tuesday.

Cuts to school and certified staff budgets could save about $8.9 million. Those could include freezing external hiring, early retirement, and layoffs. Districtwide cuts — which could include freezing pay and reducing substitute teachers, custodial services, and service contracts — could save about $9.2 million. Those savings could also include proceeds from real-estate sales. About $2.75 million could be cut from special education and English language learner services.

The district could also cut transportation for field trips and after-school activities, saving about $1.5 million from the $37.7 million transportation budget.

The plan is the first detailed look at how Indianapolis students, educators, and schools could be affected by a growing financial crisis. And more cuts may come if referendums to increase property taxes in order to boost school budgets fail later this year. Those measures were originally on the May ballot, but when they received little public support, the school board suspended the campaign. District leaders are now working with the Indy Chamber to craft a proposal that’s expected to be on the November ballot.

The Chamber expects to release the results of an analysis of the district’s finances by July, according to Mark Fisher, the organization’s chief policy officer. But district leaders say they will begin making the case to voters that the property tax hikes are needed before then, through meetings with school staff, parents, and community groups.

Last week, before the details of the potential cuts were revealed, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee told Chalkbeat his administration is dedicated to planning the budget for next year.

“The focus for the administration has been on ensuring that we make the necessary reductions that we need to make right now,” he said. “Those are important messages that families need to hear from us. And we will do a lot of that between now and the end of the school year, just educating families of where we are on the finances.”

Schools are already making cuts this year, with reduced staffing and hiring, according to the document.

Earl Phalen, who heads a charter network that runs two schools in the Indianapolis Public Schools innovation network, said the district already told schools they cannot plan field trips for students. “Those are important educational experiences for children,” he added.

While some of the proposed cuts may seem small, Phalen said they would have an impact on students. Campuses might be able to get by with fewer janitors, he said, but they don’t have “lavish resources.” Cutting those positions will mean that children go to schools that are not as well maintained, he said.

 

“You cut away a janitor, well, maybe the building is not going to be quite as clean. The children deserve to have a building spick-and-span,” he said. “You cut away a media specialist, well, then scholars don’t have the experience of going to a library and having that as one of their specials.”

MERGE AHEAD

Wadleigh middle school is safe — for now — after Harlem community rallied to stop its closure

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A Wadleigh graduate addresses the crowd at a rally outside the school. Students, parents and community leaders spoke against the city's plans to close the Harlem performing arts school.

Supporters scored a partial victory in their fight to keep the middle school alive at Wadleigh Secondary, a politically connected and historically important performing and visual arts school in Harlem.

Marking one of Richard Carranza’s first major moves as chancellor, the education department on Monday pulled its proposal to cut Wadleigh’s middle school grades — just days before the Panel for Educational Policy was scheduled to vote on the school’s fate. But the department also announced that it will begin laying the groundwork to combine Wadleigh with another district middle school in the building.

The school, which was saved from closure once before after a public outcry, will continue to serve students in grades six through 12 for the next school year.

“After listening to extensive feedback from Wadleigh families and community members, the chancellor is withdrawing the proposal to truncate the middle school grades at Wadleigh Secondary School,” the education department confirmed in an email.

The fight for the school, which is part of the city’s high-profile Renewal turnaround program, is likely not over. Saying the middle school’s academic performance is “not acceptable,” the education department announced it will begin a planning process to combine Wadleigh with Frederick Douglass Academy II. For school communities, such mergers can feel just like a closure, with one school often retaining its name, keeping the same leadership, and preserving its unique approach to teaching.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Gigs Taylor-Stephenson, president of the Wadleigh PTA. “The whole idea was to maintain our identity as an arts school with an strong academic component. It doesn’t seem like that’s the case, and we’ve argued time and time again that we don’t want to be a separate middle and high school.”

Education department spokesman Michael Aciman stressed that the plan to combine the schools is still in the early phases and said “the community will help shape and decide what the proposal looks like.”

The decision marks Carranza’s first foray in the controversial school closure process since becoming chancellor earlier this month. Kim Watkins, president of the Community Education Council in District 3, which includes Wadleigh, said the chancellor met with parent leaders and elected officials to hear their pleas to save the middle school.

“Something wasn’t right, and it was very reassuring to our council and to the community in Harlem that our chancellor took an interest,” Watkins said. “His fresh eyes, in conjunction with the hard work of community leaders, led us to the update we’re hearing today.”

Monday’s about-face marked at least the second time supporters beat back a proposal to shut down the middle school at Wadleigh, which has long struggled academically but enjoys a remarkable constituency. When it was targeted for closure in 2011, the famed philosopher Cornel West was among those who rallied to keep it open — and so did Mayor Bill de Blasio, who at the time served as the city’s public advocate. A new principal was installed but Wadleigh landed on the city’s list of struggling schools just two years later, and officials drew up an “action plan” to help turn things around.

After de Blasio was elected, Wadleigh became a part of the city’s latest improvement efforts: the Renewal program, which infuses schools with added resources and tacks on extra time to the school day. Still, the school has continued to struggle. In December, the education department recommended shutting down the middle school, citing low enrollment and three years without a single student scoring “proficient” on state math exams.

The latest battle to keep Wadleigh alive drew support from the NAACP, the local Community Education Council, elected officials including a state senator and the city comptroller, along with countless parents, students, alumni and school staff. Many argued the school still hasn’t received the help it needed to boost test scores. City data shows Wadleigh enrolls students who are usually the toughest to serve: Many enter middle school already lagging behind their peers, almost all come from economically needy families, and a disproportionate number have special needs.

“How about you just help us and keep this school together,” one student asked at a rally on Friday outside Wadleigh. “I don’t want this school to close down.”

This time around, the education department says it will appoint an assistant principal to focus on the middle school grades in both Wadleigh and Frederick Douglass. Starting next school year, the middle school grades will begin working together on math instruction and share arts resources, and staffers will train together, according to the education department.

Planning for combining both schools will start this year, with the merger set to take effect for the 2019-20 school year.

The announcement could deepen a clash between city officials and the popular but controversial Success Academy charter network, which also runs a school in the same building. Just last month, Success founder Eva Moskowitz stood outside the school and said the city has ignored Success’s requests for more room there. The network has filed a complaint asking state education officials to intervene.

A spokesman for Success declined to comment Monday, but the network’s leaders have said the charter school enrolls one-third of the students in the building, with only a quarter of the space.