national newsletter

More evidence that personalized learning is ‘in’

Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! We’re Matt Barnum and Sarah Darville, Chalkbeat’s national team. Our goal is to help you make sense of the messy, fascinating, often controversial efforts to improve education for poor students across the country.

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The big story

It’s been nearly a year since Betsy DeVos became education secretary, bringing unprecedented attention to the job and launching a thousand grizzly bear memes.

Since then, DeVos has been limited in her ability to drive policy change. So she’s instead used the megaphone her high-profile perch has provided — most recently at a summit on school innovation, which brought leaders of charter, district, and private schools together at the education department yesterday. The biggest message of the event: Schools need to be more innovative and use technology to tailor teaching to individual students.

On that front DeVos has powerful allies, particularly philanthropies like the Emerson Collective, the Gates Foundation, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Just last week, Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a lengthy Facebook post, “We need an education system where all students receive the equivalent of an expert one-on-one tutor.”

Research on using technology to provide that help — often referred to as personalized learning — remains thin. And like any education policy, implementation can be difficult. Summit, a charter network that also offers personalized learning software to districts, has seen that firsthand in recent days, as a Connecticut district halted use of its program and an Indiana district scaled back its use. Summit’s head, Diane Tavenner, presented at Tuesday’s conference.

“Washington, D.C. does not have all the answers,” DeVos said. “But government can be good at bringing people together to highlight their creative thinking and new approaches.”

Local stories to watch

  • New York City plans to close several schools and combine others in the biggest school shake-up yet under the current mayor. It comes three years after the launch of the city’s expensive turnaround program, which hasn’t stopped enrollment from falling at many of the schools. A key part of the announcement: schools that have improved will get to permanently keep their community partners and extra funding.
  • A fight is brewing in Colorado over grade inflation — for schools. Civil rights groups say some schools look better than they should, and that could hurt families who rely on the district’s ratings to make choices about where to send their children.
  • The voucher fight may have just stalled in Tennessee. The lawmaker who has sponsored a voucher bill in the state senate says he won’t try again this year. “Right now, there’s not enough parental support,” he said.
  • Can crime-fighting tactics help Detroit’s schools? The district’s new leader has principals brief their peers — and district leadership — on their progress. Here, we go inside one of the meetings.

Matt’s research roundup

  • Good news and bad news for performance pay. A new federal study finds that merit pay for teachers generally had small positive effects on student achievement over four years, when compared to giving across-the-board raises to all teachers. This part of a nearly $2 billion program led to slight upticks in teacher retention, and didn’t hurt school morale. The bad news? It’s not clear the results will matter: most districts said they planned to scrap the pay-for-performance plan after their federal grants ran out.
  • Do community schools work? Sometimes, according to a new overview of research on the idea, also referred to as providing wrap-around services. The analysis compiles several past studies, showing that in some instances these programs boost test scores or grades, but in other cases, there’s no detectable effect. Notably, though, there were very few cases where the model hurt student achievement. Also of interest: there isn’t much evidence that community schools lead to bigger boosts on other measures like attendance.

Tracking DeVos

The education secretary spoke at the University of Baltimore on Monday, where some graduating students and their parents protested by standing with their backs turned during her speech.

DeVos’s was scheduled to testify in front of the House education committee today — but the hearing was postponed late Tuesday with no make-up date given.

What we’re reading

  • More than half of Arizona’s charter schools have exclusionary policies that could be illegal, according to an ACLU review. Arizona Republic
  • Innovate Public Schools, one of the groups we wrote about in our series on the portfolio model, is facing skepticism from district leaders in San Francisco. SF Examiner
  • There’s a disconnect within the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, writes the founder of Inside Philanthropy: Its advocacy work feels grounded in reality, but on education its work “feels rooted in a naive faith that engineers and scientists … can solve our biggest problems.”
  • The continued rise of “Achievement School Districts” with various definitions: In Las Vegas, struggling schools may be paired with charter schools; in Mississippi, struggling schools statewide will be overseen by one superintendent. Las Vegas Review-Journal, Jackson Free Press
  • Poor students who are deemed gifted or talented would get private-school scholarship money in Wisconsin under a new proposal. Wisconsin State Journal
  • An effort to find and help students harmed by Atlanta’s cheating scandal of a decade ago never got off the ground. Education Week
  • The Republican tax plan will put a big hole in state budgets, potentially limiting education spending and harming poor districts. New York Times