Behind the numbers

Why ‘personalized learning’ advocates like Mark Zuckerberg keep citing a 1984 study — and why it might not say much about schools today

PHOTO: TechCrunch/Creative Commons
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made a bold statement in a recent essay: By giving students individual help, average students can be turned into exceptional ones.

“If a student is at the 50th percentile in their class and they receive effective one-on-one tutoring, they jump on average to the 98th percentile,” Zuckerberg wrote.

It’s a remarkable claim, one that strains the limits of belief. And for good reason: The results from the 1984 study underlying it have essentially never been seen in modern research on public schools.

Still, the results have become a popular talking point among those promoting the “personalized learning” approach that Zuckerberg’s philanthropy is advancing. One video created by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative features an illustration of a 50 on a graph zooming upward to hit 98. The New Schools Venture Fund, another influential education group that backs personalized learning, cites the same work by Benjamin Bloom.

But a close look at the study raises questions about its relevance to modern education debates and the ability of new buzzed-about programs to achieve remotely similar results.

“If you’re really going to make these huge investments and huge pushes [based on this study], you might want to be absolutely sure that the analysis of that research is solid,” said Ben Riley, head of the group Deans for Impact and a skeptic of personalized learning.

Jim Shelton, who heads CZI’s education work, said in an interview that the organization relies on a great deal of other research, but highlights Bloom to illustrate in the best case scenario for what schools might accomplish.

“It stands to reason that many kids that currently perform at levels that we consider average or even below average could be performing at levels that we would consider superlative,” he said.

Questions then and now about the meaning of Bloom’s work

The conclusions on the effects of tutoring from Bloom’s widely-cited paper are drawn from two studies conducted by University of Chicago graduate students.

One of those studies is available online, but reading the other requires some sleuthing. (We ended up paying for access through a service that compiles dissertations.)

In both studies, students were taught novel subject matter — probability or cartography — using different methods over the course of a few weeks. Some students were taught in a traditional lecture style, others received “mastery-based” teaching, and others received small group tutoring.

On a final test, students who were tutored one-on-one or in small groups came out far ahead, and in some cases the average tutored student beat 98 percent of those taught in the traditional way. Students who received the mastery-based teaching — which overlaps with modern conceptions of personalized learning — also did much better, though not as well as those tutored.

Jim Shelton of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in one of the organization’s video, saying that the average student will move to 98th percentile with one-on-one tutoring.

The applicability of these studies today is an open question. Combined, the studies focus on just three schools and a few hundred students. And since this was done more than 30 years ago, things like what traditional instruction looks like may have substantially changed.

The papers include little information about those final tests, but it appears they were designed by the researchers, unlike a traditional standardized test. Researcher-created assessments on subjects that are totally new to students — like cartography and probability, in this case — tend to see students make the largest gains.

Bloom’s work also doesn’t focus on technology-based tutoring, a point personalized learning advocates usually acknowledge. “If it supports anything, it supports one-on-one human tutoring,” Riley said.

But what earned the most attention, then and now, is how big of an impact tutoring had on students. The difference between tutoring and traditional instruction after just three weeks was two standard deviations — to researchers, a truly incredible result. It means bringing students from average to exceptional.

“I’ve never seen a study in education that found effects in the range of two standard deviations, so it’s remarkable for that reason,” said Jon Guryan, a Northwestern professor who has done research on tutoring.

Another researcher, Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University, logged concerns about Bloom’s outsize claims as early as 1987. Focusing on such unusually large gains, he wrote, “is misleading out of context and potentially damaging to educational research,” since it could lead researchers to “belittle” more realistic results.

Guryan’s recent work, on tutoring of struggling students in Chicago, found what would normally be considered fairly large gains: about a quarter of a standard deviation on math standardized tests. Other recent research on intensive tutoring in public schools looks similar, in some cases showing even smaller effects. Meanwhile, studies on computer-based personalized learning have shown a range of effects — but none comes close to two standard deviations.

Bror Saxberg, CZI’s vice president of learning science, acknowledged that Bloom’s findings are bigger than in other research. But he said human and computer tutoring can have a substantial impact, pointing to a 2011 overview of research where results come close to a full standard deviation. (This overview included studies in a variety of contexts, including outside K-12 education.)

In sum, a number of studies suggest that Bloom’s huge results are not plausible to expect in public schools today, and they have rarely been seen in other research. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg, Shelton, and CZI’s public statements imply that, with the right tools, students could see similar off-the-charts improvements.

Can ‘personalized learning’ drive huge gains? Advocates hope so.

Shelton analogized Bloom’s work to the human quest to run a four-minute mile: a crazy-seeming goal that was eventually attained by a small number of elite runners.

“Everyone said it was impossible to break the four-minute mile, until somebody broke the four-minute mile,” Shelton said. “Someone has broken the four-minute and its equivalent and we need to figure out how to do it and how to get a lot more people to be able to do it.”

Many others also see Bloom’s research less as a precise accounting of the results of tutoring and more as a call to action. Indeed, most of Bloom’s paper amounts to him pondering a question philanthropists are grappling with today: How can schools get the benefits of individual tutoring without the prohibitive expense of actually hiring each student their own tutor?

“If the takeaway from Bloom is that by doing tutoring and mastery you’re going to get two [standard deviation] gains — I don’t think that’s the right takeaway,” said Todd Rose, a Harvard professor who has argued that schools need greater customization. (CZI has funded some of Rose’s work.)

The value of the study, he says, is that “it speaks to a very different view of human potential than is embedded in our current system.”

Debbie Veney, a spokesperson for New Schools Venture Fund, which is supported by CZI, had a similar take: “[Bloom’s results] inspired and challenged many to figure how to achieve similar conditions in a more cost-effective way — which spawned many creative concepts and efforts to scale similar results.”

That’s in line with CZI’s sweeping ambitions — “empower every teacher everywhere,” as described in one CZI video — and deep pockets.

Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have pledged to donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares — worth an estimated $45 billion in late 2015 — to CZI over their lifetime. The organization — which also focuses on criminal justice, immigration, and economic policy — is expected to give “hundreds of millions of dollars” per year to education causes.

The group has already supported a number of tech-based approaches to school, including the Summit learning platform, a computer program created by a charter network to help teachers personalize learning. CZI has also tried to broaden the definition of personalized learning, funding organizations that offer free eye exams and small-group, in-person tutoring.

A spokesperson pointed to other research CZI relies on, including psychological studies from Rose and others on how children learn and develop and the work of Stanford professor Carol Dweck, which suggests that people with a “growth mindset” are more likely to succeed.

But Sarah Reckhow, who studies education philanthropy at Michigan State University, suggests that CZI’s ambitious goals will meet the hard realities of the classroom and fall far short of Bloom’s results.

“I do think they’re setting themselves up to fail,” she said. “If you look at educational research, if you look at what will most definitely vary once you to put something into practice … those effect sizes won’t be replicated, but also there will probably be some cases where it will not turn out well or there will be unintended consequences.”

Asked about his benchmarks for success, Shelton said it’s not clear yet what is possible.

“We’re at the beginning of our journey, not the end of our journey,” he said. “We are in the business of trying to figure out how to solve this problem that has never been solved before.”

an hour a day keeps state accountability away

Florida told its low-scoring schools to make their days longer. It helped, new research finds

Students reading at the Book Fair International at Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)

Last year, Camille Watkins’s day as a fourth grade teacher got a little longer.

The elementary school where she taught had been named one of Florida’s 300 lowest-performing schools. That meant the school was required to add an extra hour of reading instruction to the day, something Watkins found grueling.

But new research finds that the program really did boost reading scores for students from low-income families. It’s new evidence that lengthening the school day, an approach being taken at schools across the country, can make a difference for students who stand to benefit the most.

In Florida, the extended-day push began in 2012 with the state’s 100 lowest performing schools and expanded to 300 schools in 2014.

“Florida likely made a smart move,” said David Figlio, one of the study’s authors.

The new research looks at that first year of the program, and takes advantage of a natural experiment. At schools with test scores just good enough to miss the cutoff, the students were very similar to students at the schools that scored just poorly enough to qualify. That allowed the researchers to compare both groups of schools over time, knowing that the key difference was the longer school day — one of the first times additional learning time has been studied this way.

What they found was that the extra time paid off, modestly. Over the course of one school year, students’ test scores jumped by the equivalent of one to three months of extra learning. Another way to look at it: The most optimistic estimate is that the program closed about a third of the gap in the reading scores between the best schools in Florida and average schools.

The effects were concentrated among students who consistently qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, students with limited English proficiency, and students whose mothers had teen pregnancies.

Whether adding an extra hour to an affluent school would yield the same effects is unclear, said Figlio, who authored the study with Kristian Holden and Umut Ozek.

Another benefit: The extra hour of class approach provides similar benefits to reducing class sizes at a fraction of the cost. Previous research has estimated that decreasing class size can cost between $2,000 and $4,000 per student each year, while extended day programs cost around $800 per student each year, according to district estimates.

Schools can choose how they work in the extra time, but most schools end their days later. At Rainbow Park Elementary School in Miami, where Watkins taught until June, the extended schedule meant that class began at 8:35 a.m. and finished just after 4 p.m. for second through fifth graders on most days.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics (Graphic: Amanda Zhou/Chalkbeat)

The program also requires students to participate in different types of learning, including working in a small group, during the extra hour of intensive reading help.

Watkins, who taught for 11 years but isn’t returning to the classroom next year, said the most difficult part was adding that hour to the end of the two-and-a-half hours she was already spending on reading and writing skills. Watkins said she tried to keep the class engaging by using a reward system, but students often felt like they had already done the work.

The three-and-a-half hours of reading classes was “the cherry on top” of her decision to leave, Watkins said.

Her experience points to potential weaknesses of programs like Florida’s — that flexibility means not all schools may find a useful way to spend that time, and the extra time on the job can burden the educators tasked with executing it.   

Figlio said that was why he wasn’t sure whether their research would find any effect.

“Just because a state goes and tells a school to do something doesn’t mean there is a lot of guidance about it. It doesn’t mean schools know exactly how to do it,” he said.

College Readiness

Find your Colorado 2018 SAT and PSAT results

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Students work on projects at Academy High School on May 10, 2018 in their Mapleton School District. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

This year, Colorado has a lot more comprehensive data on students who took the SAT and PSAT tests in the spring of 2018.

Use Chalkbeat’s tool below to compare school results to each other or to statewide averages. This tool has results for every public school with ninth-, 10th-, and 11th-graders who took the SAT or PSAT test. It shows the mean score by grades, as well as a growth score.

The growth score is calculated by Colorado officials to show how much a student improved compared to the previous year, regardless of what their achievement was to begin with. Students with similar past achievement are grouped and ranked with a score from 1 to 99. A student with a growth score of 50 is considered to have made a year’s worth of academic progress in a year’s time, while a student with a lower score is considered to have made less than that.

Look back at 2017 results and our coverage here.