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Don’t call schools outdated; call them inadequate.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

to the races

Jia Lee, a special education teacher and union gadfly, wants to be New York’s next lieutenant governor

Earth School teacher Jia Lee is running for New York lt. governor. An advocate against high-stakes testing, she spoke about the issue in 2015 before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

With 18 years in the classroom, special education teacher Jia Lee has seen a lot of change. Now, she wants to be the one who makes it.

Lee is running for lieutenant governor on the Green Party ticket, facing off against the incumbent Democrat Kathy Hochul and a Republican challenger, Julie Killian, in the November general election.

Even during an election cycle that has propelled underdog candidates closer to office, Lee knows her odds of victory are long. But that hasn’t stopped her before. In 2016, Lee challenged United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew in a bid for the union’s top post. She lost but managed to garner more than 20 percent of the vote as part of the MORE caucus — an opposition party that calls itself the Movement of Rank and File Educators and champions pocketbook issues such as pay, but also social justice causes.  

When she’s not teaching fourth and fifth grades at Earth School in the East Village, campaigning, or agitating within the union, Lee is active in the opt-out movement that protests high-stakes standardized tests — an issue that she once testified about before Congress.

Lee joins a wave of teachers across the country who have taken their classroom frustrations to the campaign trail in states far less blue than New York, such as Oklahoma and Arizona. Closer to home, the 2016 teacher of the year could be heading to Congress. Here’s what Lee thinks is driving their activism and what she’d like to change in education policy in New York.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Why are you running for lieutenant governor?

I’m running — and with the Green party specifically — because I feel as though policies in education have been largely driven by corporate reformers, who have direct ties with the Democratic party. I see it as incredibly problematic when you have this private/public kind of partnership, especially in government, where money or for-profits are driving decisions in our state. And the Green party is completely untethered to any of that.

I’m realistic about the power of the Green party because of the way our electoral process works in New York state. I believe I’m part of building a more grassroots, bottom-up movement that’s not just talking about the issues that are problematic but highlighting the root causes of it — and that’s the system and the rules that were designed by people in power. So it makes it very difficult for regular people, working people to engage in the system.

How would education policy change if you’re elected?

Currently the way decisions are made, it’s a pyramid structure. It’s very top-down, and my idea is to kind of invert that pyramid and create structures so there’s greater voice coming up from the bottom. How else are you going to know what policies need to be put in place if we don’t know what the needs are really?

Let’s say there’s an education gap or an opportunity gap happening. The analysis — over why that problem is — is in large part determined by people in power. So their solutions have always been to create consequences and rewards like the teacher evaluation system and the accountability system around high-stakes testing. It’s this really test-and-punish system. But if you go to any school that’s struggling, you’ll find that a lot of the answers and problem-solving can come from the actual community.

That sounds hard to do at scale. What kinds of systemic or structural changes could be implemented to make that a reality?

One, we have mayoral control, and that wasn’t always the case in New York City. The largest five school districts in New York State, if you look at them, a lot of them have either centralized control where the elected school boards have been dissolved, democratic spaces were dissolved. It’s a pattern across the country, where centralized control takes hold, and then you have less voice coming up from people.

And then I do believe that our locally elected officials — senators, assembly members —  they’re also taking big contributions from education reform groups, charters. And that, in large part, incentivizes the decisions that happen at the local level. We have to push forward rules about campaign finance, and I think that’s one of the biggest things that has to change — the culture of our governing system.

What do you hope to accomplish with your candidacy, even if you don’t win?

I’m definitely very clear about the odds. But at the same time, I’m very hopeful about this process and this work. This candidacy is about really highlighting the process for a lot of people who maybe even never knew who our current lt. governor was, and now they know. That position has, in large part, been kind of invisible in our state, and maybe we’ve brought that to light. We’re electing people into positions of power in our state, and we’re starting to question them, developing ideas around what needs to change in order for a greater number of people to feel like they had a say, and not feeling like they have to compromise one way or another.

Another big push for me in this campaign is to highlight our issues. The root cause of poverty or all these societal ills is the income gap. It’s not about, ‘Oh, you must have worked harder.’ Or, ‘You must deserve your incredible wealth because of who you are.’ No. Everyone deserves to have basic quality of life.

We’re in a moment of great teacher activism across the country. What do teachers want? What is driving this?

Over the last decade, we’ve seen policies that strip our school budgets — so that places a greater burden on teachers. We actually spend a lot of our own personal money — people sometimes don’t realize how much — just to provide basic things like paper, pencils. And in some dire situations — I’ve actually been in this place — we’re actually buying clothes for students or toiletry items. I’ve had friends in New York City whose custodians have said that budgets have been slashed so much that they can only buy a certain number of garbage bags or paper towels for the bathroom. So teachers now in some schools put toilet paper on the supply lists and even purchase it themselves. That’s one phase of it.

And then another one is this incredible, ridiculous accountability system put in place while these budget cuts are happening —  asking teachers and students and administrators to jump really, really high — without any resources.

Teachers tend to be nurturers and people who sacrifice a lot. I’ve seen tons of stories in the media about the kinds of things teachers do above and beyond. It just shouldn’t be that way. The burden being placed on teachers is untenable.

What do you see as the value of unions? What do you see as reasonable criticisms of them?

Without unions, working people on the whole, we’ll have no space to collectively organize around working conditions. For us as educators, that has a direct impact on our students’ learning conditions. It’s a ripple effect. It affects our communities. Without our unions, we’re not able to protect and support our communities — let alone our own livelihoods.

I believe that our union needs greater internal democracy, that negotiations with the government — with the city or at the larger level — needs to have greater transparency and input from its constituents. Process matters within our union.

So far UFT membership has remained strong in the wake of the Janus Supreme Court decision, which banned mandatory union dues. How do you think the decision will play out here moving forward?

Being actively engaged in your union is like a gym membership. It’s only as powerful as how engaged members are in the process. So while we might have the roster — a lot of people [who] stayed on as union members — how much do they really feel engaged in decision-making at the policy level?

Collecting dues makes it so that our union leadership can have the finances to continue to operate in the way that they have and not to incentivize them to really listen to members. I’m concerned that unless there is greater engagement, nothing is really going to change, and it’s like death by a thousand cuts in our state. It’s not as visible as in red states, where they’ve had these huge cuts that impacted everyone, and everyone came around to the same conclusion that they had to fight for just their basic rights. Whereas here, it’s very nuanced. So it’s a slow death, I would say, at the rate that we’re going.

How has teaching prepared you for the campaign trail? Have you taken any campaign lessons into the classroom?

I have to say, being part of a school community that’s very collaborative and also being able to foster discussion practices with my students and teaching them how to have debates, be able to present their ideas —  in those very concrete ways, it’s prepared me for this. I feel like a lot of teachers could do this. It’s just the work of teaching takes up a lot of our time and energy and passion.

New York City’s elite specialized high schools enroll very few black and Hispanic students. Critics trace the segregation back to the Specialized High School Admissions Test, which currently serves as the sole admissions criteria. What do you think of  Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to scrap the exam?

I have very strong feelings that the SHSAT is a gatekeeper. The fact that we as a city can say there are elite schools for a few, and that everyone else is stuck with mediocre or less-than schools, is to me completely wrong. We should, as a city, be able to say that all of our schools provide the kind of education that we want our kids to have. If there is such a high demand for a specialized high school that has specific kinds of programming, then we need to find ways to provide more of them — even in each borough or each community if necessary. We’re creating a resource that seems to be very scarce, and in education, why are we doing that?

Reinventing school

What’s next for the Laurene Powell Jobs-funded effort to rethink American high schools

Tom Hanks and James Corden during XQ's TV special, "Super School Live."

A star-studded television special broadcast on major networks last year had a simple message: high schools haven’t changed in 100 years, but they need to — and fast.

It was backed by the nonprofit XQ Institute, which has awarded $130 million to 19 schools trying new approaches, like using virtual reality or creating a school within a museum. As those schools get off the ground, XQ has begun to deploy another strategy: trying to influence local policy.

Last week, XQ published a report encouraging state leaders to push for innovation on their own, including a set of recommendations for things like graduation requirements, teacher training, and innovation funds. Another guide, this one focused on convincing school board members to prioritize high school reform, is on the way.

It’s a notable new tack for the organization, which is affiliated with Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective. (Chalkbeat is funded by the Emerson Collective through the Silicon Valley Community Fund.) And it’s one with a reasonable shot at influencing policy, thanks both to XQ’s generous funding and to the fact that innovation appeals to education advocates of many stripes.

But XQ is also sure to face familiar challenges in realizing its goal of dramatically reshaping schools: convincing policymakers that their strategy is the right one and addressing foundational issues like school funding that can stand in the way.

“Typically what systems do is they exempt innovative schools from the traditional policies and practices of the district, but all that guarantees is that they’ll remain a minority among a majority of traditional schools,” said Warren Simmons, who was involved in the Annenberg Challenge, a philanthropic effort to improve schools in the 1990s.

19 schools, broader ambitions

A few of XQ’s schools opened their doors for the first time this year, including Crosstown High in Memphis, which promises to have students focus their learning on projects. Schools like that, XQ argues, will help students get ready for a changing world.

“To prepare for the future of work, we need to set a clear agenda to prepare the future workforce — and that agenda ties directly to our schools,” Russlynn Ali, the XQ CEO and a former Obama administration official, wrote in the report’s introduction.

To address this, XQ recommends several policies. One is to “communicate the urgency” of overhauling the high school experience. Others are more specific, such as having states offer competitive grants to spur school innovation, as XQ did, and provide additional autonomy to district schools, as has been done in Colorado.

XQ also wants more students to progress through classes based on measurements of their skills, not a set number of semesters or “seat time.” It’s an approach that has a lot of overlap with technology-based “personalized learning,” which is backed by other major funders including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. (CZI is a supporter of Chalkbeat.)

Meanwhile, XQ suggests states require that the courses necessary for earning a high school degree mirror those required to apply to a state public university system.

Together, the policies are meant to make high school more engaging and prepare students more directly for college and work.

The initiative’s ideas have garnered support from ideologically diverse sources. The Betsy DeVos-led U.S. Department of Education hosted a summit late last year that featured some of the same schools that won XQ grants and also called for leaders to rethink schools. (DeVos’s schedule indicates that she met with Ali and Powell Jobs in July 2017.)

An image from XQ’s recent report.

XQ itself has also drawn praise from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “America’s students need their high schools to be places where everyone can gain the skills they need to be ready for college, apprenticeships or other career paths — and for the rest of their lives,” she said in a statement. “The XQ report is a thorough blueprint for how states and school districts can help public schools achieve this.” (A spokesperson for AFT did not respond to an inquiry regarding whether the union has received funding from XQ or Emerson.)

Carmel Martin, a managing director at the Emerson Collective and an author of the XQ report, said that the organization sent the report to governors and she recently spoke to education staffers at the National Governors Association conference.

“We’re sharing [our research and experiences] with policymakers across the political spectrum,” she said. “We stand ready to help them move forward with these policy recommendations.”

The organization has also published a number of resources, including online guides to the science of learning and student engagement, as well as kits for people interested in running for local school boards. XQ says it provides ongoing support to the schools it’s funding, including through a five-day seminar this summer.

In addition to the $130 million those 19 schools have been pledged, a 2016 tax form shows XQ spent over $38 million building public awareness of its work that year, including a nationwide bus tour. (XQ says the tour hit 66 cities and included 68 student roundtables.) It spent an additional $5 million to run the award competition. The organization declined to offer additional spending figures.

If you build it, will they come (and will it work)?

Will it all be enough to spur action, and if so, how successful will those changes be?

That depends on several factors, including whether XQ can convince policymakers that reforming high schools is the right way to prepare for the “future of work.” That idea, that the economy is rapidly changing while schools have lagged behind, is the centerpiece of its latest pitch to state leaders. (As Chalkbeat has reported, there’s mixed evidence on just how fast the economy is changing and the claim that schools haven’t changed in 100 years.)

Those policymakers will also have to contend with the fact that a number of those policies have been tried elsewhere and faced setbacks.

In 2012, for instance, Maine passed a law creating a competency-based high school diploma. Students were to graduate based on whether they demonstrated proficiency in given areas, not based on how many classes they passed. It’s the sort of approach XQ says it favors, but earlier this year, Maine repealed the model before it was ever fully implemented. “I think this program is just set up with every opportunity in the world to put in the minimal amount of work,” one parent said.

Other XQ policies, like expanding career and technical education, have a longer track record and solid research base. Some, like improving teacher preparation and their ongoing training, have widespread support, though educators have long wrestled over how best to do it.

Another question is whether XQ will be able to use their 19 schools as proof points. XQ says it is already seeing results, pointing to D.C.’s Washington Leadership Academy, a charter school that won an XQ grant. That school has expanded the number of city students, particularly black students, taking computer science, XQ said, and posted strong test scores.

Michele Cahill, XQ’s managing director of education, said the schools would be judged in a variety of ways, including a suite of SAT tests that all of the schools have agreed to take. XQ is also working on guides for evaluating its schools in partnership with the external research group CREDO, and says it will publicly report on those results in the future.

Simmons said one challenge of the approach is that simply creating a handful of successful schools doesn’t mean their approaches will catch on. “That viral theory of action has failed time and time again,” he said.

And Megan Tompkins-Stange, a professor who studies education philanthropy at the University of Michigan, noted the challenge of expanding on success. “It’s very difficult to scale up local innovation with quality and consistency across a very large number of sites,” she said.

Cahill of XQ said creating a movement won’t be easy, but it can be done, in part through inspiring people.

“We believe broad change of this magnitude requires a cultural shift, [so] we’ve made it a part of our wheelhouse, investing our time, attention and resources not just in creating proof points at the school, district and state levels but also in the effort to win hearts and minds,” she said.

Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said past efforts similar to XQ’s have been “remarkably unsuccessful.”

But, Hess said, “The fact that it’s historically been incredibly hard to do in a sustainable way doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”