Will the TPS Personalized Learning Experiment Work?



If you’re old like me, you may remember the SRA Reading program with the color-coded cards? Each color represented a reading level, and students could independently work their way through the box of stories, answering questions at the end, and moving on when each level was “mastered.” As an advanced reader, I flew through these boring story cards, so I could read real books. Did I learn anything from the SRA Reading? Probably about as much as a learned from taking standardized tests. I learned that learning that way was boring, and that I couldn’t wait to get to the more exciting lessons that the teacher had planned for us.

I bring this up because personalized learning is the new SRA of 50 years ago, only on screens! And Tulsa Public Schools is experimenting with Personalized Learning, maybe at your child’s school. Personalized learning (which essentially is self-paced, SRA-type instruction – no real teacher needed) is touted as being NEW! DIFFERENT! NOT YOUR SAME OLD GRANDPARENTS’ SCHOOL! Except it isn’t. Personalized learning has been around for more than 50 years.

An article in the Tulsa World (Jan. 2018) reported that TPS would start a pilot program in two schools beginning in the 2019-2020 school year. “The pilots could include a high degree of personalized, self-paced learning and a fundamental shift in how teachers offer instruction, TPS officials said.”  https://www.tulsaworld.com/news/education/a-new-way-to-do-high-school-tulsa-public-schools/article_5f4e1b49-db58-597f-9215-408a5040c024.html

A “fundamental shift.” What does that even mean? Mrs. Long, my 4th grade teacher, would have been happy to know that she was experiencing a fundamental shift by using SRA Reading. Too bad she’s no longer alive.

The Tulsa World article goes on to say:

“A preview of the self-directed learning component can already be seen at some TPS sites.

Castaneda said about 1,500 students at McLain High School, Webster junior and senior high schools, and Hale Junior High use Teach to One — a software program for learning mathematics.

The program has helped some students progress by more than a grade level with a year, she said.

Personalized learning has its advocates nationwide. Large-scale philanthropists such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg have extolled its benefits.

Seven TPS schools — about 1,700 students — use Summit Learning, a personalized platform, starting with three schools two years ago; four sites were added this school year.”

So, because Mark Zuckerberg likes it (and is most likely collecting student data off of it), that means it’s great? Zuckerberg is not just extolling its benefits, he’s creating it and “giving” it to the schools. Summit Learning is an online platform supported by Zuckerberg’s foundation! When did Zuckerberg get to be an expert on teaching and human learning?

The article continues: “The struggles the district has had in implementing such personalized learning models could, perhaps, be a preview of the reimagining process.

At times, the change to a personalized learning format, with the increased use of technology and the changing of the teacher’s role in the classroom, hasn’t been easy, Castaneda said.

‘We have … teams that have implemented Summit (Learning) and really struggled through the implementation challenges and the teaching challenges that it presents,’ she said.

The teams reached a point ‘where they made a choice about whether to persist or return to their old learning model, and because they’re seeing success for their kids they … continue with Summit even though it’s a really hard transition to make,’ she said.

The district doesn’t have a price tag in mind when it comes to reimagining high school. The consultant contract, at $200,000, is being covered by philanthropic funds.

Castaneda framed the process as both a necessary adaptation and a chance to strive, saying, ‘This is a place where we can create a new model of high school that’s different than the one I attended and the one my grandparents attended because, well, everything in the world has changed except for the American high school.’”

Seriously? High school hasn’t changed for two generations? Ask your grandma if that’s true. Well, even if you believed that, self-paced learning, whether it’s on a computer or a piece of paper, isn’t new.

One thing that personalized learning will do is make it possible to cram even more bodies in to a classroom, because all you need is a computer and an adult monitor.

Here’s the current marketing hype for SRA:

“SRA Reading Laboratories have been helping students improve their reading skills for over 50 years! SRA Reading Laboratories provide a range of reading levels to encourage students to learn at their own pace; personalized instruction helps meet the needs of all students at all grade and reading levels.

Educational programs. Since the 1960s, SRA has been the publisher of Direct Instruction programs, also known as DISTAR (Direct Instruction System for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading). These include Language for Learning, Reading Mastery, Reasoning and Writing, Connecting Math Concepts and Corrective Reading.”

Here’s the marketing from Summit Learning’s website:

“Summit Learning uses personalized teaching and learning to empower students to harness their inner drive for success. Developed in partnership with nationally-acclaimed learning scientists and researchers, our instructional approach inspires children and prepares them for life after graduation. By concentrating on the personal needs and abilities of both individual students and whole communities, we have been able to create an environment that fosters success.

Outcomes for Students

We strive to reach every student and ensure they leave high school with the skills, knowledge, and habits they need to succeed. And, we are dedicated to giving every student what they need to lead a fulfilled life; one with purposeful work, financial security, fulfilling personal relationships, engagement in the community, and the physical health to engage in daily life."

Wow. First, Summit Learning’s marketing says it’s “developed in partnership with nationally-acclaimed scientists and researchers” but it doesn’t say who they are. My wrinkle cream says it “improves the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles” – the operative word here is “appearance.” Maybe if we just believe hard enough, my wrinkles will disappear and all of our kids will learn everything they need to know from “nationally-acclaimed scientists.”

Summit’s  word-salad also says that the self-paced learning will motivate and inspire students. I’m pretty sure most good teachers, both from Grandma’s time and today, are doing their best to inspire and motivate their students. And, doesn’t it make sense that small class sizes, where professional teachers really know their students and are invested in the community, would be a better way to meet students’ individual needs than putting them in front of a computer doing self-paced exercises exactly like every other student using Summit Learning?

But wait! There’s more! Summit Learning’s website promises “purposeful work, financial security, fulfilling personal relationships, engagement in the community, AND the physical health to engage in daily life.” Sign me up!! I want some of that personalized learning!

Unfortunately, Zuckerberg’s snake-oil is beginning to sour. An article in today’s Chalkbeat says that Summit Learning lied about a partnership with Harvard researchers. There is no real research to support their amazing claims.

According to Chalkbeat, “Summit’s website says. ‘Summit’s research-backed approach leads to better student outcomes.’ Schools have used that seeming endorsement to back up their decision to adopt the model.

In fact, though, there is no academic research on whether Summit’s specific model is effective. And while Summit helped fund a study proposal crafted by Harvard researchers, it ultimately turned them down.” 

The Chalkbeat article continues: “As ‘personalized learning” becomes a more popular idea among those trying to improve America’s schools, Summit’s platform has been adopted for free by schools across the country. That’s thanks largely to the backing of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropy poised to receive Zuckerberg’s billions. Summit’s model has drawn praise from parents and teachers in some schools, but proven controversial in others.

Regardless, CZI’s support means Summit could continue to grow rapidly — which has some observers wondering when its backers will show that what it’s offering is particularly effective.

‘I do think that there is an obligation to provide credible evidence to schools when you’re trying to convince them to adopt things,’ said John Pane, a researcher at the RAND Corporation who has extensively studied personalized learning initiatives.”

Are we willing to experiment with our kids, especially those who need the most?  Do we, as parents, simply accept something without question because it is free, and a wealthy philanthropist is offering to pay for it?

The Chalkbeat article asks that question here:

“What does philanthropy owe the public?

Today, Summit’s learning platform has far outpaced its charter network. About 380 schools, with over 72,000 students, use the platform; the national charter network KIPP, by comparison, runs 224 schools serving around 100,000 students.

Summit now gets its engineering help from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, not Facebook. That philanthropic partnership has fueled its growth: While CZI has not disclosed how much it’s given to Summit, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation — through which CZI funnels much of its education giving — lists grants to Summit totalling over $70 million in 2016 and 2017.

Summit has also netted $2.3 million for the platform from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2016, and another $10 million in 2017. (CZI, the Gates Foundation, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation are all funders of Chalkbeat.)

Some major foundations regularly invest in research to better understand whether their gifts are doing good, noted Sarah Reckhow, a Michigan State professor who studies education philanthropy. In a number of instances, that research comes to unfavorable conclusions, like a Gates-funded study on its teacher evaluation initiative or a Walton Family Foundation-backed evaluation of charter schools’ propensity to screen out students with disabilities. (A Gates spokesperson said that part of its $10 million to Summit was set aside for “measurement and evaluation.”)

Reckhow said she hasn’t yet seen that same inclination from CZI. And she worries that school districts might be less likely to carefully examine programs that are offered free of charge, like Summit.

‘If you reduce that barrier, you’re making it potentially more likely to adopt something without as much scrutiny as they otherwise might do,’ she said. ‘That increases the obligation of Summit and CZI to evaluate the work.’

CZI spokesperson Dakarai Aarons said the organization is committed to research and to Summit, and pointed to a number of schools and districts that saw academic improvements after introducing Summit’s platform. ‘As the program grows, we look forward to expanded research to help measure its long-term impact,’ he said.

Tavenner said Summit is exploring other options to prove its approach is working, including talking to researchers who study continuous improvement. ‘We can’t just keep saying no to [randomized studies],’ she said. ‘We’ve got to have another way, but I don’t have another way yet.’

Researchers Kane and West, for their part, say Summit’s concerns about evaluating its evolving model should also raise questions about Summit’s swift spread.

‘The evaluation we proposed would have assessed the impact of the model at that point in time, even if the model continued to evolve,’ they wrote in an email. ‘When a model is still changing so radically that a point in time estimate is irrelevant, it is too early to be operating in hundreds of schools.’

‘Unfortunately, Summit is closer to the rule than the exception,’ they said.”

Parents, are your children using Summit Learning? Share your experience.


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Editor's Blog

Living the empty nest life, and loving it.

About This Blog

Betty Casey has been editor of TulsaKids for over 20 years – her youngest child was 3-years-old when she started working for the magazine. She and her husband Wes have three young adult children. Betty’s blog ranges from writing about current issues or information of interest to local parents, reflecting on her life without kids at home, and posting a few recipes now and then. (Cooking and running are two or her favorite past-times.) Betty is the author/illustrator of three children’s books, "May Finds Her Way," "That is a Hat" and "The Prince of the Prairie" (The RoadRunner Press). She was named Blogger of the Year in 2014 by The Great Plains Journalism Awards, was a finalist in 2015 and won again in 2016. Most recently, she was named the 2017 News Blogger of the Year. She has also won numerous writing awards from the Parenting Media Association.

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