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Don’t call schools outdated; call them inadequate.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

Immigration fears

Chicago on Trump administration changes: ‘A sicker, poorer and less secure community’

PHOTO: Scott Olson/Getty Images
A scene from an August immigration rally in downtown Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel submitted a public comment on the proposed public charge rule changes on Monday.

The possibility of tougher rules on immigration and citizenship has provoked “tremendous fear” and plummeting participation in publicly funded daycare programs and afterschool care, according to a federal memorandum the City of Chicago submitted Monday.

The Trump administration has proposed changes that would weigh participation in programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, or housing assistance when granting residency and citizenship.

The changes could be devastating, the Chicago memorandum warns.

They could affect 110,000 Chicago residents, according to the filing. One in three Chicago residents receives Medicaid benefits, which the proposed changes would affect.

Chicago and New York led a coalition of 30 cities that filed comments to the Department of Homeland Security over changes to the so-called “public charge” rule, which is used by immigration officials to decide who is allowed entry and permanent residency in the United States.

“History teaches that, given this choice, many immigrants will choose to forgo public aid, which will make them a sicker, poorer, and less secure community,” according to the City of Chicago’s comments. You can read the entire document below.

Already, the city said, a group called Gads Hill that operates child care centers in Pilsen and North Lawndale has struggled to enroll children because of families’ worries about the impending rules.

Another operator, Shining Star Youth and Community Services in South Chicago, saw families start to keep children home since the proposed changes were announced.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago told the city that participation in its after-school programming also has taken a hit, the filing said.

The changes to the proposed rule do not specifically mention Head Start or any of the publicly funded child care programs. But many families are fearful that participation in anything offered by the government — from child care to health care to even food programs — would bring them to the attention of immigration authorities.

Early childhood advocates shared similar concerns at a November meeting of the Early Learning Council, an influential group of policymakers who help set the state agenda for children ages birth to 5.

“Families are very confused about the changes,” Rocio Velazquez-Kato, an immigration policy analyst with the Latino Policy Forum, told the group. “They think that by enrolling in Head start or free and reduced-price lunch at school — that it will factor against them.”

Public comment on the proposed rule change was due Monday. The 60-day public comment period is required by law before the federal government delivers a final recommendation.



on the move

Lack of transportation, conflicting deadlines put school choice out of reach for some, study finds

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

More Colorado students use school choice to opt into traditional district-run schools than use it to attend charter schools. Those who do so are more likely to be white and middle- or upper-class than their peers. And transportation continues to be a barrier for students who want to go somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

Those are the findings of a report on choice and open enrollment in the traditional public school sector put out by Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform advocacy group that supports greater access to school choice.

The report, “Open Doors, Open Districts,” looked at the roughly 49,800 Colorado students who attended school in a district other than the one in which they resided during the 2016-17 school year and another 95,600 who used school choice within the 12 largest districts in the state. Together, these 145,400 students make up roughly 16 percent of all Colorado students. Another 13 percent of state students attend charter schools.

Since 1990, the School Choice Act has allowed students to enroll in any public school they want, without paying tuition, provided there is room — and that the school provides the services that student needs, a sticking point for many students who require special education services.

The number of students using this system to attend school in another district increased 58 percent over 10 years to 49,800 in 2016. Roughly 6,000 of those students attend multi-district online schools.

The students taking advantage of inter-district open enrollment are more likely to be white than Colorado students as a whole — 58 percent are white compared with 54 percent of all students. They’re also less likely to come from low-income families (36 percent, compared with 42 percent of all students), to speak a language other than English at home (8 percent compared with 14 percent statewide), or to have a disability (8 percent compared with 11 percent).

“It is important to understand these differences so that policy leaders and educators can work to ensure that open enrollment opportunities are more accessible for all Colorado families,” the report said. “The underrepresentation of Hispanic/Latino students and English learners suggests there may be some unmet needs in Spanish-speaking communities around inter-district choice — either in information, accessibility, or appropriate services for students.”

The report highlights two major barriers to more students using school choice.

Most districts don’t have the kind of common enrollment system that Denver pioneered or that Jeffco is rolling out each year. Most districts require parents to turn in paperwork at a particular school. Not only do districts not share the same deadlines as each other, often different schools in the same district have different deadlines.

The other is transportation. 

“Time spent driving students to school can conflict with work schedules for parents, and public transit options can be scarce in many areas, making open enrollment functionally impossible for families without a transportation solution,” the report said. In one rural district, a group of parents banded together and hired their own school bus to take students to another district.

A bill sponsored last year by state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, would have addressed both issues, encouraging the creation of more consistent deadlines across the state and allowing districts to cross boundaries to provide transportation. That bill was defeated in the Democratic-controlled House after some school districts said it would set the stage for larger, wealthier districts to poach students.

The transportation provision was later added to an unrelated bill in the final days of the session, a move that led to a lawsuit in which a judicial decision is pending.

Democrats now control both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly, and it’s not clear how any attempts to expand school choice would fare. Both school choice and charter schools have enjoyed bipartisan but not universal support in Colorado.

By highlighting the prominence of traditional public schools in how Colorado students use the choice system, advocates hope to separate choice and the popular idea that parents should be able to find the school that best meets their child’s needs from the more divisive debate about charter schools, which critics see as siphoning scarce dollars from other schools while not serving all students.

The report recommends developing more consistency between and within districts, providing more information to parents, and removing barriers to transportation.

Districts with higher ratings, which are determined primarily by results on standardized tests, tend to get more students than those with lower ratings, but some districts, particularly in the Denver metro area, send and receive large numbers of students, reflecting that parents and students are making decisions at the school rather than at the district level.

Metro area districts that have struggled to raise student achievement are losing large numbers of students to other districts. A quarter of students who live in Adams 14, whose low test scores prompted a state order for external management, attended school in neighboring districts in 2016. In Westminster, which just came off a state watchlist for low-performing schools this year, that number was 29 percent.

Ready Colorado found no clear relationship between districts that spent more per student and districts that attracted more students — but districts with higher enrollment get more money from the state for each student, creating incentives to compete for students.

Read the full report here.