The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

My Reactions To the Concept of Personalized Learning

As I promised, today’s post gives my reactions to the beliefs and actions that have emerged from the introduction of Personalized Learning, as I understand them.  Digesting all the material in the Education Week booklet was difficult for me, so I may have interpreted some things incorrectly or been unfair in my judgments.  I would like very much to hear the opinions of readers who may be more familiar with the concept that characterises Personalized Learning and its performance so far.

Now that I know what personalized learning (PL) means, I realize that I can’t support it. What is clear to me is that PL is tied tightly to the CCSS, high stakes testing, and judgments made about the quality of students, teachers, and schools. Those three pillars of federal education policy have controlled public schools for most of this century so far; and there are not likely to be any school programs or teaching practices that do not bow to their power.

The word that has fooled me for some time– and probably many other people —was “personalized.” I thought it meant that schools would help students to choose, shape, expand, and use their learning to fit their needs and interests. But, alas, it means only that they will be given different types and amounts of assistance to acquire the the skills and information that government leaders and selected “experts” have determinedto be necessary for success in college and the work place.

Nevertheless, as I read the descriptions of PL being applied in some schools today, I had to admit that it might be better than much of the lock-step teaching and student learning expectations of the recent past. At least, PL acknowledges that students who don’t “get” stuff right away deserve some help; and to some extent it allows students to work on projects and give public demonstrations of their learning.

From what I read about the commercial programs being sold to schools, their key components are different forms of presenting information, and additional –perhaps better– explanations of concepts, key skills, and how to learn them. As might be expected, many of the educators consulted seem to think that they also differ widely in quality. Since I read only a few vague descriptions of such programs in the Ed Week booklet, I cannot make any judgment. But I do hope that the schools using such programs have enough variety in every classroom to serve the range of needs and preferences of all students.

Whatever their virtues or weaknesses may be,  PL commercial programs also present some new problems in the expense of the programs and the technology needed to use them, the difficulties of keeping track of student progress in those programs, and the complexity in changing teachers’ roles. I’m also afraid that many teachers will resist those role changes or feel they are incapable of making  them. Also, the presence of multiple commercial programs in every classroom may make it necessary to hire assistants to manage the technology and keep records of students’ progress.

Finally, I feel that our schools are being pushed too fast into accepting a new way of operating that is far from being proved effective. So far, research attempts have failed to produce strong and clear answers; and, I can’t help thinking that one of the reasons is the weakness of the PL concept. It is not at all certain that various types of assistance and more technology will make every student a winner in the sense that the federal government defines it.  Another reason is that the concept of a good education needs to change with the times, and ours has not. Our schools should be modernizing their K-12 curricula, high school course requirements, student discipline practices, class sizes, and the definition of “learning*. Our educational system is still seriously flawed because it has focused on what the people in power believe will raise our status on international tests, and not at all on the needs and aspirations of the young people who are now just subjects in a risky experiment.

  • “Learning is not climbing someone else’s ladder, but weaving your own web from the bits of meaning and beauty you find along your way.”

What Does”Personalized Learning” Mean in Today’s schools?

Over the past few months I have found the term “Personalized Learning” in several of the articles I was reading. Although I really didn’t understand what the term meant, it sounded like something I believed in was at last becoming popular in schools. Then, last week I received a booklet in the mail from the newspaper, Education Week, titled“Personalized Learning: the Next Generation.” I decided to read it carefully and find out for sure what this new trend was all about.  

In reading through the booklet I discovered that the term means different things to different people, but that it is also tied to the laws and practices that have ruled education over the past several years. Afterward, I read some other pieces on line that were written by critics or supporters of personalized Learning, so now I think I’m ready to explain to readers what the term means and how it is being implemented. I am also ready to give my opinion on its value and practicality. However, because of the length and complexity of the whole matter, I will present only my review of the Education Week booklet today and leave my opinions of the concept of Personalized Learning for my next posting.

 As I read through the booklet I found the statements by the EW executives fairly neutral. They appeared to be unsure about the meaning and value of this new movement, but felt it was their duty to continue to examine its procedures and results. The only definite opinion among them was that there is not yet any strong research to support it.

On the other hand, Helayne Brinauer Jones, the Senior Program Officer on the K-12 team of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), who was featured on the first page of the booklet, was all for Personalized Learning (PL) and cited one small school system as evidence of its success. Considering that the BMGF has contributed generously to the support and expansion of this innovation, I can’t accept that she is unbiased; nor do I feel that she gave any persuasive evidence that the movement is really helping students to succeed at school.

One early page in the booklet was devoted to diagrams showing the relationships among PL elements and the percentages of different results. I did not find them persuasive or even helpful to my understanding of PL. But, I must admit that studying information presented in this manner is not my strong suit.

For me, the most interesting parts of the booklet were descriptions of what is happening in various schools that have adopted PL officially. Their goals seem to be very much the same: improve the learning of all students, especially those who appear to be lagging behind; and all of them are relying much more on students’ use of technology than in the past. However, their classroom structures and procedures are still quite different.

All schools in Georgia’s Henry County system  are allowed to adopt their own processes and to decide how much they will rely on technology. As a result, there is a wide range of plans, some schools giving more control to students, while others have teachers map-out a series of activities over time for each student.

Some elementary schools devote one day a week to giving students “extra help.” Teachers focus on one academic area at a time, allowing students to make their own choices about where to get such help: from a teacher, on line, from textbooks, or in discussion groups. That seems like a good approach, but I could also see the complexity of extra preparation and evaluation in teachers’ responsibilities.

Another section of the booklet focused on research. Several studies have been undertaken in recent years, but according to the writer of that section,“the research evidence behind ‘personalized learning’ remains thin. The U.S. Department of Education has given half a billion dollars to districts that embrace the trend, with limited findings to date.” Also, the BMGF has given $300 million to support research and development. Officials there claim it’s too early to evaluate results. Other sources that have begun research studies tell much the same story: results seem promising, but it’s too early to make a definitive judgment.

There were several more articles recounting what some states or school districts were doing to implement PL, but I did not find anything remarkable or detailed enough to describe here. All I can say is there is a lot of variation and dependency on technology to carry the burden of teaching to the widely different needs of so many students.

I did not read two articles near the end of the booklet, because they seemed irrelevant to the issues at hand. One was on teaching social-emotional learning through technology and the other was on middle school students using a program called “Happify”, which is supposed to give a picture of a students’ character strengths to school officials.

Near the end the EW booklet reportrd on an assessment of the various forms of technology available. Over all, the school officials and teachers consulted were very skeptical of the value of ed-tech products to improve students’ learning or their involvement with schooling. At best, they felt it is very difficult—if not impossible—to provide a product that fits the needs of most students. They also were un-persuaded by the emphasis on producing data that some products boasted about; they felt that  most of it was not helpful to teachers.

Finally, the booklet compared the situation of PL in schools today to its inception around ten years ago by asking the opinions of a few school officials. Although they reported significant progress in the movement toward the use of technology in their schools, I felt they dodged the question of whether there were significant improvements  in students’ learning thus far.


All That Glitters in The New York Times is Not Gold

A little over a week ago I read an editorial in the New York Times entitled “Help Teachers Before they Get to Class” that really offended me; not only because I thought it was inaccurate, but also because it relied so much on questionable sources. As usual, I will describe the article and then give my opinions.

The editorial begins by declaring that “The countries that have eclipsed the United States in educational achievement have far more effective systems for training teachers.” Then, it goes on to claim that “Teachers colleges in the United States have resisted proposals for raising entry standards” and that teacher training here is “abysmal.”

In addition, using a single study done by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), the editorial blames teachers colleges for “training people in subject areas where no new teachers are needed, while ignoring areas where there is a teacher shortage, like math, science and special education” and for not placing student teachers in schools in high-poverty areas.

Next, the editorial identifies and praises what the Department of Education (DOE) has recently done to determine the quality of teacher education programs in each state, make that information available to the public, and force states to provide resources that will help low performing programs improve. This federal body has produced a set of rules that includes gathering information about the performance of new teachers and their students, and connecting it to the programs where teachers were trained. Based on that information, each training program will be rated as “effective,” “at-risk”, or “low-performing”, and those ratings will be reported to the public and the DOE. Finally, states will be required to “provide technical assistance to any program rated as “low performing.”

In the view expressed by the editorial: “The new rules represent a necessary first step in broader reforms of teacher preparation. Eventually, for example, schools of education will have to become more rigorous and selective if the country is to get the caliber of teaching that it clearly needs.”

In my own view there are several holes in this editorial’s arguments about teacher education programs, and even more booby traps in the ODE’s plan for filling those holes. First of all there are many reasonable explanations for why America’s international test scores are not as high as we would like them to be. Mainly, those explanations have to do with the size of a country, the economic levels of the students who attend school and take the test, and the wealth and health of the couuntry’s citizenry as a whole. As all of us who read about education well know, Finland is usually at the top of the heap because it has advantages in all those areas.

A bigger problem with the editorial is its failure to report the credentials of the NCTQ and the weaknesses of it survey. It is a private adequacy group founded by Thomas E. Fordham Institute. In 2013 this group sent our forms to 1,130 000 teacher preparation programs in which they were to provide information about their textbooks, syllabi, graduate surveys, and admissions requirements. Only 114 replied fully to the request, and 700 others declined the request altogether. After examining the returned forms the NCTQ rated only 10 percent of the programs that responded as adequate, based on its own criteria. Representatives of NCTQ never visited any of those programs to verify the completeness or accuracy reported in the forms.

Worst of all are the rules created by the DOE because they put a large burden upon states and individual schools to obtain several types of information about novice teachers and where they received their training, and to report it without any assistance in terms of personnel or funding. In my mind these rules not only create a lot of extra work for school principals, but also a muddle for a state in matching poor performers to programs, at least some of which exist in other states.

After reading this editorial, a description of the NCTQ study, and the DOE rules I felt that if the federal government really cared about the quality of American schools, it  should have undertaken the tasks of examining the high scoring programs  in other countries and the teacher preparation programs in this country itself. Although those two tasks would be monumental in size and complexity, their results would have been tremendously important. Handing them off to an organization of dubious credentials and state departments of education was a serious neglect of responsibility.

Over all, I feel that in publishing this editorial the New York Times fell to a new low of accuracy and fairness.

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Another Educator Likes a New Type of High School

Today’s post is a response by Don Bellairs, an experienced and talented teacher, to my piece posted six days ago. Both of us were intrigued by the description of a new type of high school that gives students in danger of failing in regular schools a fresh start with a forward-thinking curriculum, hands-on-learning, and personal attention.

Wooden High School’s project-based learning curriculum is not really new, but it is important…and should not be limited to kids who can’t jump through the typical curriculum hoops. Schools like Wooden are given some freedom and enough personnel to show kids individual attention…but all kids need that. All kids should be getting some personal guidance and feedback while creating projects in groups, where they constantly practice by choosing leaders, collecting data, planning, procuring supplies, and achieving a goal!

In ordinary high schools we are punishing many of the students who are capable of self-teaching; who can read chapters and answer questions about subject matter, but who aren’t much involved in the regular curriculum. We are also labeling those kids as “unsuccessful” or even “not too bright.” Unfortunately, giving personal attention is easier for teachers with kids who dress well, smell good and whose parents know people on the School board.

On the other hand, schools like Wooden are given some freedom and enough personnel to show students individual attention.   All kids are getting personal guidance and feedback while creating projects in groups, where they constantly practice by choosing leaders, collecting data, planning, procuring supplies, and achieving a goal!

A good team of teachers can build a nice holistic unit on raising a calf. Kids can write and do research, accumulate data, solve problems, practice math and algebra, work within a team toward a measurable goal…and have a pretty good relationship with a cute animal.

Lesson plans that assign projects and require teams of students to work beyond self-interest to reach a measurable goal are in the future, but should be in more of today’s schools.Wooden has a good start, and if its leaders can retain funding, it will probably benefit from consistent upward tweaks to its academic offerings. If the staff is committed, they could create a workable model for all high schools to imitate.

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Shouldn’t Schools Provide Some Good News for Working Parents?

This morning I received an article from a friend that was posted at a source that is new to me: “Think Progress”.  Although,  I cannot vouch for the accuracy or neutrality of this source, the article seemed reasonable to me. So I will summarize it here and add my own criticisms and suggestions.

The title of the article was,“Our Outdated School Schedules Are Hurting Working Parents.” Although I haven’t heard that assertion before, it seems accurate, and I have to agree that the days when schools are closed or when children are sent home early create problems for many families.

Back in the 19th century and for about half of the 20th century almost all married woman stayed at home while their husbands went out to work. Although it was not always easy to take care of sick children or to pick them up at school, most mothers accepted those tasks as their responsibility and did not complain. They also accepted keeping their children at home on holidays or on days when the schools were closed for other reasons. But things have changed considerably since then. Not only are many more mothers at work themselves, but also schools are closed more often during the traditional “school year.”

The article asserts that the women and families most affected adversely by no-school days are “single parents, low-income parents, parents of color, and part-time workers.” Members of those groups are less able to afford outside day care for their children or at–home caregivers. Often, they resort to getting a friend or neighbor to“look in”on their children or leaving them unsupervised completely for several hours.

At least one organization, the Center for American Progress (CAP) takes this situation seriously, believing that schools must adjust their schedules to better meet parents’ needs. Catherine Brown, vice president of education policy for CAP and one of the authors of a new report, says, “We need to invest in the kind of school policies and schedules to catch us up to the way people are actually living their lives. I think requiring longer school days requires an injection of resources and creative thinking about how you set up your schools.”

In its report CAP offers several suggestions for changing the ways school schedules work. Those suggestions are listed below:

States could raise the minimum length of a school day to eight hours, which would push schools toward a typical work schedule.

Districts could use the assistance of AmeriCorps members, college students, and community members to help run programs during school closings and to monitor students when parents are at work.

Schools could limit days off to major holidays, look to major employers when deciding whether to close schools for inclement weather, and create school health policies that better recognize parents’ busy schedules.

Administrators could accommodate parents’ work schedules when deciding when to schedule parent-teacher conferences and consider alternatives to in-person meetings, such as chatting through Skype.

Schools could look at more efficient ways to conduct teacher professional development, such as having teacher development run throughout the school day through teacher collaboration and individualized coaching, so the school wouldn’t have to close for the day.

Schools could identify alternatives to a tiered busing schedule, such as a dual-route system, so that students can get to school at the same time.

On the whole, I find these suggestions impractical because they involve school districts and groups of outsiders not likely to commit themselves to changing their operations to suit the needs of parents. Below I offer my own suggestions that I think are more practical, even though they would they would be likely to increase the costs of school operations considerably.

Elementary schools should shift to a nine-hour day (8 A.M. to 5 P.M.) with breakfast at 8 A.M and classes beginning at 9 AM, with a one hour break for lunch and recess, and after school activities for those students whose parents request it.

Middle schools should have an 8 A.M to 4 P.M schedule that would also include an hour for breakfast and another hour for lunch and recess. A 4 P.M. dismissal time assumes that students of this age are mature enough to manage their lives for an hour after school without supervision.

High school schedules should stay as they are because of sports and other after school activities now available. I assume that students who do not participate in such activities are old enough to be at home by themselves or to join friends after school.

Parent teacher conferences and professional development sessions should be held in the evenings or on Saturdays, with teachers compensated for the extra time.

On holidays when businesses are not likely to be closed, elementary and middle schools that close should provide a full day of activities and busing for students whose parents request it. Parents should pay a low fee for this service.

I fully understand that implementing my suggestions would require more school funding for trained para-professionals to manage after school and holiday programs at elementary schools and middle schools. At the same time such programs could be designed to employ young people who want to become teachers and provide them with college scholarships rather than salaries.  This could be a win-win situation for parents, prospective teachers and schools.

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