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Don’t call schools outdated; call them inadequate.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

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”