schools of the future

As ed reformers urge a ‘big bet’ on personalized learning, research points to potential rewards — and risks

Philanthropists and school leaders need to make a “big bet” on dramatically reshaping schools, according to the leaders behind last week’s major education conference.

Re-imagining learning, schools of tomorrow, personalized learning, jobs of the future — these were the watchwords at the New Schools Venture Fund Summit. Ideas about how to reinvent schooling were more prominent than even hot-button topics like school integration or vouchers.

“The world has changed dramatically … and our schools have struggled to keep up,” said New Schools CEO Stacey Childress at the summit’s opening session. “We just think it’s time to update the way schools work so they better prepare students for success in today’s world.”

The solution, according to some, is a focus on innovative school models — particularly ones that use technology to “personalize” teaching based on students’ needs, desires, strengths, and weaknesses.

The gathering was underwritten by deep-pocketed funders known for backing technology-based education initiatives, including the Gates Foundation and the relatively new Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. (Gates is a supporter of Chalkbeat, as are the Walton Family Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, which were also major sponsors of the event.)

Advocates are extremely optimistic about investing in this new breed of schools. A report released by New Schools at the end of last year made an aggressive call to direct $4 billion in philanthropy toward creating, studying, and promoting this sort of innovation. Doing so, the authors write, will produce an estimated 200 to 500 percent return on investment.

It’s a remarkable claim, but perhaps an overly rosy one: the author of the study that New Schools relied on to make such a strong assertion says it’s likely inflated. And although some studies point to the benefits of specific technology programs, the research about whole schools using these approaches remains in its infancy.

As the ideas gain prominence, skeptics fear that the push amounts to the latest fad in education.

“What I see … is people imagining that if we just design the school with new models we will be able to satisfy the needs of the future,” said Ben Riley, head of the group Deans for Impact and former New Schools staff member. “The graveyard of people thinking they could successfully predict the future and then finding out that they were wrong about that has a lot of tombstones.”

The appeal of innovative schools and a personalized approach

Amidst a sea of buzzwords, it can be hard to define school innovation or personalized learning. (Some even argue that trying to pin down a clear meaning is misguided.)

Roughly speaking, though, the idea epitomized at the New Schools summit focuses on expanding technology in schools to better tailor teaching to specific students’ needs and desires.

The New Schools report points to several traits of these schools: maximizing “time, pace, instructional methods and outside experiences”; using “an expanded definition of student success”; ensuring students “feel ownership of their learning”; more frequent use of technology; and ensuring students build trusting relationships.

Advocates often point to Summit Public Schools, a charter school network in California that embraces a technology-infused model. A favorable case study authored by David Osborne of the reform-oriented Progressive Policy Institute calls them “schools of the future.”

Students at Summit spend about 16 hours a week — half of their school time — learning via computer. As Osborne describes it: “Teachers were there to answer questions, make suggestions when kids got stuck, and check their progress, but students were in charge of their own learning. They worked at their own pace, and when they felt they had mastered a concept, they took a 10-question assessment. If they could answer eight of the questions correctly, they checked that off and moved on to the next topic.”

Supporters of that approach highlight an analysis released by the RAND Corporation and the Gates Foundation. The study, which looked at schools funded by Gates because of their “promising approaches to personalized learning,” found that students made much larger gains on standardized tests compared to peers with similar characteristics attending different schools.

There is broader evidence that specific technology programs can improve achievement. Studies of computer programs designed to help students with algebra and early literacy, as well as the math program used by the Rocketship charter network, have shown benefits for students.

“The findings in general are very positive, especially for math,” said Andre Nickow, a Northwestern graduate student who worked on an analysis of technology-based personalized learning that was recently presented at a research conference.

Proponents also say the push for personalized learning is based on a deeper understanding of how kids learn — and how they can benefit from individualized instruction.

“The evidence base for the benefits of 1:1 mastery-based instruction is quite strong,” said Debbie Veney, a spokesperson for New Schools, pointing to a 1984 analysis of individual tutoring by prominent educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom, creator of the well-known Bloom’s taxonomy.

But providing each student a personal tutor is prohibitively expensive; the idea is to use technology to provide that personalization at a fraction of the cost.

“The innovative schools we and others support are working to find ways to produce similar academic results for students by using a mix of instructional approaches,” Veney said. “The early results of schools working on this challenge are quite promising, including the schools in the RAND study.”

Students at University Prep, a Denver elementary charter school, work on a computer-based assignment .
PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

The concerns about existing research

Indeed, that RAND study of innovative schools using personalized learning is often cited in these conversations. But there are a few reasons to view the findings cautiously.

The first is how New Schools frames the results in its report. Based on the RAND analysis, New Schools estimates a 200–500 percent return on the $4 billion the group argues philanthropists should invest over 10 years. But John Pane, author of the RAND study, disputes those projections.

“I was not really keen on some of the leaps that they were making based off of our data,” he told Chalkbeat. Pane himself estimated a potential return on investment and said he found “vastly smaller numbers” than New Schools did. (He declined to share his exact figures because his results have not gone through peer review yet.)

Veney said that the method in the report — converting effects on test scores into days of learning — is common in education research, including the CREDO charter studies.

The report has another major limitation, which Pane acknowledges: the schools in the study had to go through a rigorous application process in order to receive funding. That means the academic gains described in the study may not be the result of the schools’ use of personalized learning per se, but simply the possibility that only high-performing schools were examined.

“For me, the headline was good schools do good things,” said Alex Hernandez, a partner at the Charter School Growth Fund, which invests in new school models.

Regarding the two leading “pioneers” identified by New Schools, the research is also limited. Studies of the New Classrooms model, a personalized learning program that began in New York City known as Teach to One, have found mixed results. There does not appear to be any external empirical research on Summit Public Schools, though an internal analysis says students in the schools make large gains on standardized tests.

Skeptics say that the theory behind personalized learning has some inherent flaws, too.

For instance, Diane Tavenner, Summit’s CEO, previously said, “Look at the economy: it’s not about concrete knowledge, it’s about higher-order thinking skills, and the ability to perpetually learn and grow.”

Sentiments like that worry Ben Riley, who argues that the best way to train students for the jobs of tomorrow is to “provide them with a really rich, broad comprehensive education that gives them the knowledge base that allows them to adapt to those new jobs.”

“If there’s one thing that cognitive science has shown over and over again, it’s that our ability to understand new ideas depends on what ideas we already know,” said Riley, whose group released a report compiling research on the science of learning.

Meanwhile, unmentioned in New Schools’ report is research on fully virtual schools, in which instruction is delivered exclusively online. Although supporters might not categorize this approach as personalized learning, the schools are certainly different from traditional schools in their reliance on technology. And yet the results to date have been abysmal — students have generally seen large drops in test scores relative to those in brick-and-mortar schools. This suggests that expanding technology in education can come with significant risks.

If it fails, move on — but who is left behind?

New Schools acknowledges that these innovative schools aren’t a sure thing. (It is calling the plan a “big bet,” after all.) But trying out new structures for schools is necessary to prepare more students to succeed in college, especially the black, Hispanic, and low-income students who haven’t been served well by typical schools, they argue.

“If after several years this approach isn’t living up to the potential we imagine, let’s change course,” the report states. “But let’s also evaluate every other idea for how to direct the $20 billion in education philanthropy over the next 10 years based on concrete estimates of the improved outcomes we should expect for students.”

As schools experiment, “We will fail,” said Derwin Sisnett, cofounder of the Gestalt Community Schools charter network, at the summit.

But critics of the approach say such failure could lead to collateral damage.

“Should philanthropists scrap the initiative after five years, 1,700 schools will be left to deal with the aftermath and lost funding despite the many constraints they face,” wrote Jeffrey Snyder of Cleveland State University in a critical review of the New Schools report for the National Education Policy Center, which is partially funded by teachers unions.

Veney of New Schools said the group’s vision is to use philanthropic funds temporarily to jumpstart innovation. “Our proposal is to support educators who want to make the shifts with the resources they need to do it well,” she said, “and to ensure that the designs and practices they are adopting are sustainable with public funding after the first few years.”

Snyder, though, writes that the risks extend beyond the financial considerations. “Especially concerning should be the potential for this philanthropic shift to continue (and exacerbate) reform churn — the process where schools move quickly among reforms, never allowing any to take root.”

devos watch

Asked again about school staff referring students to ICE, DeVos says ‘I don’t think they can’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Pressed to clarify her stance on whether school staff could report undocumented students to immigration authorities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos avoided giving a clear answer before eventually saying, “I don’t think they can.”

It was an odd exchange before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, during a hearing that was meant to focus on budget issues but offered a prime opportunity for Senate Democrats to grill DeVos on other topics.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, focused on DeVos’s comments a few weeks ago at House hearing where she said that it was “a school decision” whether to report undocumented students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Civil rights groups responded sharply, calling it an inaccurate description of the department’s own rules and the Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, that says schools must educate undocumented students.

In a statement after that hearing, DeVos seemed to walk back her comments, saying, “Schools are not, and should never become, immigration enforcement zones.” DeVos also referenced the Plyler case on Tuesday, while initially avoiding multiple chances to offer a yes or no response to whether school officials could call ICE on a student.

In response to DeVos’s latest remarks, her spokesperson Liz Hill said, “She did not avoid the question and was very clear schools are not, and should not ever become, immigration enforcement zones. Every child should feel safe going to school.”

Here’s the full exchange between DeVos and Murphy:

Murphy: Let me ask you about a question that you were presented with in a House hearing around the question of whether teachers should refer undocumented students to ICE for immigration enforcement. In the hearing I think you stated that that should be up to each individual state or school district. And then you released a follow-up statement in which you said that, ‘our nation has both a legal and moral obligation to educate every child,’ and is well-established under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler and has been in my consistent position since day one. I’m worried that that statement is still not clear on this very important question of whether or not a teacher or a principal is allowed to call ICE to report an undocumented student under federal law. Can a teacher or principal call ICE to report an undocumented student under current federal law?

DeVos: I will refer back again to the settled case in Plyler vs. Doe in 1982, which says students that are not documented have the right to an education. I think it’s incumbent on us to ensure that those students have a safe and secure environment to attend school, to learn, and I maintain that.

Murphy: Let me ask the question again: Is it OK – you’re the secretary of education, there are a lot of schools that want guidance, and want to understand what the law is — is it OK for a teacher or principal to call ICE to report an undocumented student?

DeVos: I think a school is a sacrosanct place for student to be able to learn and they should be protected there.

Murphy: You seem to be very purposefully not giving a yes or no answer. I think there’s a lot of educators that want to know whether this is permissible.

DeVos: I think educators know in their hearts that they need to ensure that students have a safe place to learn.

Murphy: Why are you so — why are you not answering the question?

DeVos: I think I am answering the question.

Murphy: The question is yes or no. Can a principal call ICE on a student? Is that allowed under federal law? You’re the secretary of education.

DeVos: In a school setting, a student has the right to be there and the right to learn, and so everything surrounding that should protect that and enhance that student’s opportunity and that student’s environment.

Murphy: So they can’t call ICE?

DeVos: I don’t think they can.

Murphy: OK, thank you.

DeVos in Detroit

Betsy DeVos’s first Detroit visit featured Girl Scouts, robots, and talk of beluga whales

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes pictures on her phone during the FIRST Robotics World Championship, held in Detroit on April 27, 2018.

Betsy DeVos was all smiles on Friday as she toured the world’s largest robotics competition and congratulated student contestants.

The event was her first visit to Detroit as education secretary. DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist before joining the cabinet, has a long history of involvement with the city’s education policies.

It was a friendly environment for the secretary, who has often faced protesters who disagree with her stance on private school vouchers or changes to civil rights guidance at public events. (Even her security protection appeared to be in a good mood on Friday.)

Here are four things we noticed about DeVos’s visit to downtown and the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

1. She got to talk to some local students after all.

DeVos didn’t visit any Detroit schools, and didn’t answer any questions from reporters about education in Michigan. But as she toured the junior LEGO competition, she did stop to talk to a handful of Girl Scouts from the east side of the city.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

2. She knows a thing or two about beluga whales.

She also stopped to stop to chat with students from Ann Arbor who called themselves the Beluga Builders and designed a water park that economizes water. DeVos asked how they came up with their name, and they told her how much they love the whales. “They have big humps on their heads, right?” DeVos said. “Yes,” they answered in unison.

3. She is an amateur shutterbug.

She stopped often during her tour to shoot photos and videos with her own cell phone. She took photos of the elementary and middle school students’ LEGO exhibits and photos of the robotics competition.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

4. She was eager to put forth a friendly face.

As she stopped by students’ booths, she often knelt down to children’s eye level. When she posed for group pictures, she directed students into position. And she shook lots of hands, asking kids questions about their projects.