Personalized learning and accelerated student outcomes

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about our support for schools that are redesigning their instructional models in order to personalize learning for students. I listed design principles shared by these schools:

  • Student Centered: designed to meet the diverse learning needs of each student every day
  • High Expectations: committed to ensuring that every student will meet clearly defined, rigorous standards that will prepare them for success in college and career
  • Self-Pacing & Mastery-Based Credit: enables students to move at their own optimal pace, and receive credit when they can demonstrate mastery of the material
  • Blended Instruction: optimizes teacher- and technology-delivered instruction in group and individual work
  • Student Ownership: empowers students with skills, information and tools they need to manage their own learning
  • Financial Sustainability: sustainable on public per-pupil revenue within four years
  • Scalable: designed to serve many more students if it demonstrates impact

In the earlier post I wrote a couple paragraphs about “self-pacing & mastery-based credit” and “student ownership.” I received a few emails asking about specific expectations for performance at the school level, since “high expectations” is listed as a principle. We’re thinking a lot about this with our partners.

Most of the schools we support serve high percentages of students who enter with academic knowledge and skills well below the benchmarks for their grade. To help students catch up, the school teams are designing instructional models and using technologies they hope will accelerate learning gains. The new schools we are funding have a goal of achieving an average of 1.5 years of growth for their students each year.

When I said this in a keynote at a conference in October, some folks in the tweet stream said it was illogical — one year is one year, and whatever a kid learns that year is a year’s worth of learning. That’s true in one sense, but we’re saying something different. Independent assessment instruments often have an objective notion of how many concepts students typically master in a school year and at specific grade levels. When students master fewer or more than these, they are said to achieve less or more than a year’s growth.

A more practical way to think about it is this: Imagine a 9th grader arrives at high school with 7th grade reading and math knowledge and skills.  Unfortunately this is a pretty common phenomenon in low income communities. The only way for this student to graduate in four years meeting 12th grade academic expectations is to learn 1.5 years of material every year.

To evaluate whether their approaches are working, the new personalized school models we fund agree to participate in a common, multi-year research and evaluation study conducted by RAND. The study focuses on learning outcomes, implementation issues, and financial sustainability.

For learning outcomes, “years of growth” will be measured at the student and school level in math, language arts, and problem-solving using the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) adaptive assessment, given at the beginning of the study to establish a baseline and then at the end of each academic year to evaluate growth. RAND will also collect and analyze state test scores, attendance, behavior, and graduation rates and compare them to matched comparison groups, along with non-cognitive measures of grit and academic mindset.

But back to the main idea of the post — regardless of the specific measurement instrument, what do you think about this 1.5 years of growth concept?

12 thoughts on “Personalized learning and accelerated student outcomes

  1. I’m not against raising the bar, but it also means that you are trying to personalize for these kids and then sticking them in the “unpersonalized” model that all students, even those whose full time job might not be going to school, need to fit in the very traditional model of graduating after 12 years of schools. If you take a kid that has learned less than a full year of school work for 8+ years and then teach them in a way such that they start to learn a full year of school work in a full year isn’t that sufficient improvement? It’s as if you are still penalizing them for the past. And telling them that you will personalize their teaching but not personalize your expectations, however justified.

    All that said, I love your theories and approach. Keep up the excellent work.

    • hi nancy — good to hear from you! The question of whether to hold expectations constant and do everything possible to help all students reach them, or to shift expectations for students who have been under-served for a long time is a really complicated one. The school teams we support in k-12 generally strive for the former — doing whatever it takes to help every student meet performance thresholds that give them the widest opportunity set possible at graduation. It’s interesting to hear you frame it as punative to the students. will have to do some more thinking about it….
      again, good to hear from you.

  2. You cannot “personalize” learning without smaller classes; it cannot be done as you propose, through data manipulation, more testing or a machine. When will you admit this and listen to,the results of your own teacher surveys?And the MAP test? Isn’t that what Seattle teachers are now boycotting in your backyard? What do you think about the growing revolt vs. the misuse of testing, which the Gates policies have encouraged?

    • Good to see you here, Leonie. I understand you disagree with the approach to personalization outlined here, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be done. A growing number of schools are moving in this direction and we are supporting and learning from them.The growing dialogue about the wisdom of using summative tests as the only way to evaluate student learning is important in my view and I’m following it with great interest.

  3. What schools are you supporting w/ online learning? Are you aware that the administrators at Rocketship admitted that their computer labs aren’t working? Why is it okay to put Kindergarten students on computers 2 hours a day,without any art or music? Is that the kind of education that you would want for your kids or Bill Gates for his?

      • I felt so sorry for those poor children in the PBS story about Rocketship Schools. They sat there at there computers being neglected by the very young adults tasked with looking out for them. Where were the actual adults with children of their own or at least years of experience working closely with children? I also felt bad for those parents who want only what’s best for their children yet are forced to send them to these warehouses dressed up as schools. Is this dystopian future that underprivileged children have to look forward to?

  4. Who over at the B&MGF is working on the long-term effects of exposure to technology, LCD screens, etc.? There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that the millennial generation is already showing signs of lacking the same social and problem-solving skills as their counterparts who graduated college only 15 years ago. With all your zeal to push these algorithm-based learning systems into inner-city classroom, is anybody in your organization considering what the long-term effects will be of less and less human-to-human contact?

  5. Thanks for the post, Stacey. The goal of 1+ year’s worth of academic growth per year for struggling students is a noble one, and I am all about it. That said, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this: isn’t the idea, more or less, that the later an intervention comes in a student’s life, the more costly and difficult it will be, with lower success rates ultimately?

    In other words, wouldn’t the best “bang for the buck,” in the big picture, be to provide early childhood interventions at the family and pre-K level? If we can get the kids to start school on the same footing as their “middle of the bell curve” counterparts, wouldn’t we resolve the need for 1.5 years of growth per year, before it even hits them?

    I know you guys have done significant work in early childhood and community interventions. Are personalized learning initiatives, if their goal is to “boost” academic growth for students that are behind, a temporary band-aid of sorts, while we figure out how to deal with the conditions that put those students in a lagging position to start with?

    Thanks for what you do.

  6. I think the “year’s growth” language is imprecise but helpful nonetheless.

    1. Depending on size of gap, points to the “double-layer” of challenge. I.e., Ach Gap for Grade 9 probably more typically 4 grade levels. So growth rate has been, say, 0.6 per year.

    Job 1: Get kid to learn at 1.0 per year, no small feat
    Job 2: Get that kid to then accelerate to 1.5 to 2.0 per year

    There are a decent number of schools, traditional and charter, which achieve Job 1 but not 2.

    2. Enter imprecision. Math different from English.

    Middle school math is typically 3 years of fractions, decimals, percentages, negatives. Kids can make up “3 years growth” in a single calendar year with optimal instruction. See Kane/Angrist.

    Less true of English, though. Harder to recover.

  7. Interesting debate! I wish more schools were aiming for self-pacing & mastery-based credit” and “student ownership. It is certainly doable and most countries are aiming for a higher student achievment and more students graduating. I agree that starting in high school is often too late. The gaps in student achievement start in the early years. I recently visited Highland Tech Charter school and I believe they are planning to start enrolling younger kids as well. Seems to me that the RISC model fits nicely with your wish that “As soon as students learn something and can demonstrate it, they should get credit for it and move on. Move on to the next set of concepts and skills on their learning path, and move on to deeper engagement in topics they’re interested in. ” I wrote more about that on my blog, link below, and Norway is certainly interested in learning more about the RISC model. Regarding your 1,5 year growth goal I’m not sure how that fits in with self-pacing. Is it not a contradiction in terms?

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