By Chester E. Finn, Jr.
I am 200 percent in favor of personalized learning, defined as enabling every child to move through the prescribed curriculum at his or her own speed, progressing on the basis of individual mastery of important skills and knowledge rather than in lockstep according to age, grade level, and end-of-year assessments. (I’m 200 percent opposed to the “let everyone learn whatever they want to whenever they want to learn it” version.)
There is nothing beneficial to kids about declaring that every ten-year-old belongs in something called “fifth grade” and that all will proceed to “sixth grade” when they get a year older, get passing marks from their teachers, and perform acceptably on “grade-level” tests at year’s end.
That’s not how it worked in the one-room schoolhouses of yesteryear, and it’s oblivious to the many ways that children differ from each other, the ways their modes and rates of learning differ, how widely their starting achievement levels differ, and how their interests, brains, and outside circumstances often cause them to learn different subjects at unequal speeds—and to move faster and slower, deeper or shallower, at different points in their lives, even at different points within a “school year.”
Yet we’ve organized conventional schools in an industrial model and we batch-process students in ways that made sense to “cult of efficiency” experts circa 1920, that lent themselves to uniform teachers delivering a uniform curriculum to groups of twenty to thirty same-age pupils in more-or-less identical classrooms during a six-hour day and 180-day year that made perfect sense for a country that lacked air conditioning and that wanted to standardize the school year.
Now we live in a post-industrial age. Technology surrounds us. Moms work—and less and less is standardized. Our demographics are more diverse than any country has ever experienced in the history of the world. Individualism, personal preference, and choice characterize almost every other aspect of our lives. We have hundreds of TV channels instead of three. The world is at our fingertips via the Internet. And we want every child to maximize his or her potential in life, not linger at some “grade level” defined by averages. That means, among other things, enabling motivated and high ability youngsters to go as fast and far as they can, while giving ample attention to kids who—for a thousand reasons—must struggle (and take additional time) to prepare for the adult world.
Personalizing our approach to K–12 education—and, while we’re at it, to pre-K and postsecondary education, as well—makes all the sense in the world. Hats off to Chan-Zuckerberg and others now striving (and investing) to make that real.
But my goodness, how tall are the barriers that we’ve built and that they’re going to have to overcome if personalized learning is to prevail.
First and most obvious, we’ve organized the entire, massive K–12 system around an age-based, grade-level, 180-days-per-year calendar; around mostly self-contained and generally low-tech classrooms; and around a pedagogical model centered on a single teacher teaching a uniform curriculum to twenty to thirty children for a prescribed amount of time each day, children who don’t have much in common except that they’re more or less the same age and (usually) live in pretty much the same community. We’ve constructed a hundred thousand schools that way; we’ve trained nearly 4 million teachers to do their best in that kind of structure; and we’ve socialized the families of some 55 million youngsters into believing that “that’s what school looks like and that’s how it works.” (Such socializing wasn’t hard inasmuch as most parents went through the same arrangement.) Many earnest efforts to foster school choice, blended learning, and differentiated instruction have nibbled away at the edges of this arrangement, but it’s staggeringly durable. Immense adult interests now depend on that arrangement not changing very much, except (of course) for spending a bit more every year.
Another major reason it endures—and another huge obstacle for the personalizers—is public complacency. Besides expecting children to attend schools that resemble those of their parents (and grandparents), we have ample evidence from a hundred surveys that most Americans are pretty content not only with those schools (at least those they know best) but also with the system as a whole. Those who are discontented can opt into something (slightly) different if they’re wealthy; if discontented and poor, however, they don’t have (or, in many cases, even expect to have) any real alternatives.
Compounding the problem, many of the most potent and best-loved education reforms of recent decades have bought into and now rest upon the same basic structure. Most obvious are grade-level academic standards with assessments and accountability systems aligned to them. Because the fifth-grade standards, for example, are meant to apply to almost every ten-to-eleven year old, we hassle endlessly over whether they should be low enough for most kids to achieve or high enough to point toward readiness for the real world, but practically nobody deviates from the underlying assumption: Ten-year-olds belong in fifth grade and the state should set uniform academic standards for fifth graders in core subjects, standards that apply to every fifth-grade public-school classroom and that form the basis of a high-stakes accountability system that educators are admonished to take seriously.
Yes, by all means, let’s personalize learning. It’s the right thing to do, it’s no secret how to do it, and the materials are at hand. But doing this right will either take a hundred years into the future or demands an education earthquake that will demolish almost every structure we’ve built over the past hundred years.
“It was one of the most powerful visits I’ve ever taken,” said Sheila Briggs, an assistant state superintendent with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. She was describing a visit last fall to Lake Pontchartrain Elementary School, a low-income school in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana, about thirty miles northwest of New Orleans. “The ability to hear what the state education agency was doing and then go into classrooms and see direct evidence was phenomenal,” Briggs gushed. “I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else.”
Officials of state education agencies are not known for hyperbole. Maintaining data systems, drafting rules and regulations, and monitoring compliance are not the stuff of breathless raves—especially in Louisiana, whose education system has long ranked near the bottom nationwide on measures of student achievement and high-school graduation rates. Yet in the last year, education leaders from across the country have beaten a path to the Pelican State to see what they might learn from education superintendent John White, assistant superintendent of academics Rebecca Kockler, and their colleagues. Together, this team has quietly engineered a system of curriculum-driven reforms that have prompted Louisiana’s public school teachers to change the quality of their instruction in measurable and observable ways unmatched in other states, including jurisdictions that, like Louisiana, adopted the Common Core or similar academic standards.
The linchpin of the state’s work has been providing incentives for districts and schools statewide to adopt and implement a coherent, high-quality curriculum, particularly in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics, and to use that curriculum as the hook on which everything else hangs: assessment, professional development, and teacher training. Most notably, White and Kockler have pulled off these reforms in the face of strident political resistance to Common Core and without running afoul of districts and teachers in this staunch local-control state.
In 2016, when RAND researchers set out to study Common Core implementation at the state level, they found something unexpected. Using data from the organization’s American Teacher Panel, a standing nationwide sample of about 2,700 teachers, the researchers noticed “large and intriguing differences” between Louisiana teachers and those in other states. The former were far more likely to be using instructional materials aligned with Common Core standards. They also demonstrated better understanding of the standards and taught their students in ways that the standards were meant to encourage. “We saw consistently higher results in Louisiana,” says Julia Kaufman, a RAND analyst. “There were occasional high points in other states, but we kept seeing this difference between Louisiana [teachers] and other teachers....We just thought there was a story there.”
There is a story, and it’s about curriculum—perhaps the last, best, yet almost entirely un-pulled education-reform lever. Despite persuasive evidence suggesting that a high-quality curriculum is a more cost-effective means of improving student outcomes than many more-popular measures, such as merit pay for teachers or reducing class size, states have largely ignored curriculum reform.
Louisiana began publishing free, annotated reviews of K–12 textbooks and curriculum programs in ELA and math, sorting the materials into three “tiers.” If a curriculum was judged to “exemplify quality,” it earned the Tier 1 designation; programs judged to be “approaching quality” were labeled Tier 2; and those seen as “not representing quality” went into Tier 3. Significantly, the quality reviews were not conducted by bureaucrats in Baton Rouge, but by a network of “teacher leaders,” handpicked by the Louisiana Department of Education for their demonstrated teaching and leadership prowess and drawn from every region of the state and every grade level. While the state created the rubrics for the curriculum, it was the teachers who did the evaluations—a feature that draws praise from the state’s largest teachers union. “We had lots of buy-in,” says Larry Carter, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. “There’s some sense of stability to how education is being delivered to students.”
State leaders sweetened the adoption pot by giving all Tier 1 vendors statewide contracts. Typically, this enabled districts to use the products of those vendors at discounted prices and without having to undergo separate procurement processes. “Districts are going to do what they believe is best, and we want to help them be positioned to do so,” says Kockler. The key was offering incentives for districts to make good decisions, a process she describes as making the best choice the easy choice.
“American policymakers seldom view curriculum as a serious lever for change,” observes Ashley Berner, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. Requiring children to learn anything in particular, she notes, is considered “pedagogically suspect.” Pitched and passionate battles over course content have made curriculum resemble a third rail in many states. But the failure of states to exert influence or offer expertise on curriculum leaves these decisions to districts, schools, even individual teachers, which risks robbing students of coherence and consistency. Local control is a central feature of American public education, but Louisiana’s reforms offer a glimpse of how to thread the needle, honoring community control while encouraging high-quality curriculum statewide. The state’s children and schools are showing the positive effects of that strategy—and other states are beginning to take notice.
Editor’s note: This article was adapted from “Louisiana Threads the Needle on Ed Reform” in the Fall 2017 issue of Education Next, where portions of it will appear.
One of the oldest tricks in politics is to project your own flaws onto your opponents. Teachers union leader Randi Weingarten put this age-old tactic to use in a speech to her members last week, accusing the school choice movement of one of the most enduring shortcomings of the traditional public school system: segregation.
No institution in America has done more to perpetuate segregation than public schools. Until 1954, segregated schools were legal in America, and it was the standard practice in much of the South.
Less recognized, but equally pernicious, is the structural segregation all across America, where zoned school systems maintain racial and economic segregation. Some parents of color have been jailed for trying to enroll their children in schools where they don’t live.
Today, one of America’s most segregated school systems is in New York City, where Randi Weingarten once ran the teachers union. As a recent fight on the Upper West Side of Manhattan shows, even white progressive parents resist integration.
School systems across America and the colleges and universities that prepare teachers have also done a terrible job recruiting people of color into the teaching profession and an even worse job keeping the few they have. Nationally, the student body is over 50 percent people of color, but the teaching profession is just 17 percent people of color. Only about two teachers in one hundred are black males.
The roots of this institutional racism in the teaching field go back to the 1950s, when the Supreme Court ruled segregation illegal. Tens of thousands of black teachers working in all-black schools could not find work in integrated schools.
Teachers unions have done little to address this issue. Weingarten’s New York City local actually led a notorious fight against integration in 1968 in Ocean-Hill, Brownsville that triggered a 36-day teacher strike and made Albert Shanker a national hero.
The most absurd part of Weingarten’s speech was how she positioned teachers unions as the brave and intrepid “David” standing up to the “Goliath” of school privatization.
Teachers unions have more than 4 million members and collect billions of dollars of dues at the federal, state, and local levels each year to advance their political agenda. They hire lobbyists in every state and spend billions buying the support of influential political leaders.
They sit at the table deciding how America spends $600 billion each year on public education. They use their influence to protect their members’ jobs and benefits but do little to address inequities in per-pupil funding of low-income, black, and brown children.
Unlike the union movement, the school choice movement is not run from an office building in Washington just steps from the U.S. Capitol. By definition, the choice movement is decentralized, uncoordinated, and organic. It’s the product of individual decisions of 10 million parents all across America who have opted out of the traditional public school system for personal reasons, whether it’s religion, safety, racism, or low quality.
It includes 3 million kids in charter schools, 1.8 million kids in Catholic schools, 3 million more in independent private schools, and another 1.8 million homeschoolers. Many “choice” parents are unionized public school teachers.
It also includes thousands of public charter school educators who left traditional public schools to escape the stifling bureaucracy and create the kind of learning environments they always wanted. The best charters are eliminating achievement gaps.
Many of us in the “school reform” movement have worked long and hard to partner with teachers unions on a variety of strategies to improve public schools. In cities like Denver, Newark, and elsewhere, we have helped build partnerships among charter and traditional public school educators to share best practices.
We’re not anti-union or free market zealots. We just believe in the power of education to improve the lives of children, regardless of poverty, race, or background. We’re frustrated that the traditional public school system has been so resistant to needed change.
Like many politicians today, Randi Weingarten needs to fire up her base by manufacturing dissent, amplifying grievance, and ascribing ill motives to philanthropists and others who have invested their time and money to improve all public schools, including charters.
Her members, on the other hand, are mostly hardworking classroom teachers who are getting amazing results every day in schools all across America. They don’t pay much attention to union politics. Their voices, along with those of parents and students, matter most.
Peter Cunningham is the Executive Director of Education Post, and served as the assistant secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the first term of the Obama administration.
Editor’s note: This article was first published by The 74.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
On this week's podcast, special guest Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds, vice president of policy at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, joins Alyssa Schwenk and Brandon Wright to discuss whether state ESSA plans have been innovative, and whether they’re cause for optimism. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines the effect of mandatory college entrance exams on college enrollment.
Amber’s Research Minute
Joshua Hyman, “ACT for All: The Effect of Mandatory College Entrance Exams on Postsecondary Attainment and Choice,” Education Finance and Policy (Summer 2017).
The New Teacher Center (NTC) is a nonprofit organization that aims to improve student learning via supports for beginning teachers. In 2012, NTC got a federal i3 grant to launch a teacher induction model that provides professional development, research-based resources, and online formative assessment tools for beginning teachers, mentors, and school leaders.
The NTC model has two goals: to develop first- and second-year teachers into effective instructors and to boost their retention, particularly in schools that are hard-to-staff or serve high-poverty student populations. Toward these ends, NTC deploys full-time mentors who are carefully selected and receive 100+ hours of intensive training. New teachers meet with their mentors weekly for at least 3 hours per month and work through an NTC-created suite of research-based tools that include classroom observation cycles. Mentor coaching lasts for two years.
SRI Education recently evaluated the NTC induction model by conducting randomized controlled trials in the Broward County and Chicago Public Schools. The evaluation used both quantitative and qualitative methods and considered two aspects in particular: program implementation fidelity and teacher and student outcomes. These effects were measured over a three-year period (2013-14 to 2015-16) for two cohorts of new teachers.
To gauge fidelity of implementation, SRI rated each district annually on key components of NTC’s model: 1) NTC supports, such as principal engagement and capacity building; 2) mentor selection and assignment; 3) mentor development and accountability; and 4) provision of high-quality mentoring. The evaluation found that all participating school sites implemented the model with high levels of fidelity.
To study impacts, SRI compared the outcomes of teachers who received NTC induction mentoring with those who received their district’s typical new-teacher supports. Impacts that were studied include retention into the third year of teaching; classroom practices as measured by the Framework for Teaching; and student achievement on state assessments in grades 4-8. The researchers adjusted for student, teacher, and school characteristics as well as district differences where appropriate.
The upshot: NTC teachers and control group teachers were retained at similar rates. Both groups also scored similarly on teacher practice, though the small sample size may have reduced analysts’ ability to detect positive or negative effects.
Effects on state test results, on the other hand, were positive. On ELA assessments, students in grades 4-8 whose teachers participated in the NTC model for two years outperformed the students of teachers in the control group by .09 standard deviations, which translates to a jump from the 48th to 52nd percentile. In math, students taught by NTC teachers scored .15 standard deviations higher, equivalent to moving from the 46th to 52nd percentile. Although there were no detectable differences in teacher practice outcomes, the frequency and duration of mentor-teacher meetings were positively correlated with the student achievement results.
Overall, the data seem to indicate that an induction and mentorship program like NTC’s may boost pupil achievement while also supporting new teachers. NTC is currently scaling its model and testing it in five more sites. Let’s hope the positive results continue.
SOURCE: Rebecca Schmidt, Viki Young, Lauren Cassidy, Haiwen Wang, and Katrina Laguarda, “Impact of the New Teacher Center’s New Teacher Induction Model on Teachers and Students,” SRI Education (June 2017).
New findings from an upcoming study from Michael Hurwitz of the College Board and Jason Lee of the University of Georgia show that, while high school grades have been rising for decades, SAT scores have continued to fall. It’s not that achievement is strengthening; it’s that grades are inflating, particularly among high schools enrolling our most advantaged students.
The study was born of (1) variation between high schools on the awarding of grades and a suspicion that students are not making the kind of gains that their GPAs suggest; (2) a general increase in A’s, which makes it harder to identify high achievers; and (2) how this complicates colleges’ admissions decisions.
The authors sought to document trends in grade inflation and the suppression of GPA-based class rank information over the past two decades. They examined high school GPAs among SAT test takers reported on the College Board’s Student Data Questionnaire, as well as descriptive data from three federal surveys: the National Educational Longitudinal Survey of 1988, the Educational Longitudinal Survey of 2002, and the High School Longitudinal Survey of 2009. They also looked at the high school class ranks of incoming freshmen, as reported by colleges through the Annual Survey of Colleges, collected by the College Board.
They found that typical high school grades are higher than ever and have been trending upward for at least twenty-five years, according to these and earlier findings from the U.S. Department of Education. From 1998 to 2016, the average high school GPA rose from 3.27 to 3.38. The share of SAT test-takers with high school GPAs in the A-range rose from 39 to 47 percent. Yet during the same period, average SAT scores on the 1600 scale (math and verbal) declined from 1026 in 1998 to 1002 in 2016.
The study grouped high schools depending on the degree of grade inflation present, showing that gains varied among high schools. Schools in the top decile of high school GPA growth showed an average GPA of 3.56 and were more likely to represent white and Asian students at a higher socioeconomic level than the lowest decile of schools, with an average GPA of 3.14.
Authors also found a rapid decline in colleges reporting the high school class rank of their incoming students, and that this decline was more dramatic for the nation’s most competitive universities, where the fraction of entering students with class rank declined by more than 20 percentage points between 2005 and 2015. (There was only a 3 percentage-point drop among less competitive colleges during the same time period.) Placing a student’s high school GPA in context with their peers by showing class rank can add important extra information for college admissions officers, especially where grade inflation may be present. It’s no secret that many young Americans are entering college woefully unprepared for its rigor, and grade inflation may be partly to blame. Standardized tests like the SAT aren’t perfect gauges of college readiness, but this study suggests that they’re needed now more than ever alongside inflated and often unreported GPAs.
SOURCE: Michael Hurwitz and Jason Lee, “Grade Inflation and the Role of Standardized Testing,” in Measuring Success: Testing, Grades and the Future of College Admissions, Johns Hopkins University Press (embargoed until release in January 2018).