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individualized instruction
In tiny Foster, Rhode Island, teachers at Captain Isaac Paine Elementary School use high-tech methods to teach a largely rural, off-the-grid population. Credit: E. Tammy Kim, for The Hechinger Report

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Half an hour west of downtown Providence, Rhode Island, past potholed highways lined with maple, ash and pine trees, is the town of Foster, population 4,700. Its residents live on small farms and in aging, widely spaced homes; the closest grocery store is in Johnston, 20 miles away. Down Route 6, not far from the Shady Acres Restaurant and Dairy, is Captain Isaac Paine Elementary School. Kristen Danusis, a former school psychologist who became the principal in 2013, tells me that many of her students live “off the grid,” in households that earn little regular income.

Yet, inside Isaac Paine, tech abounds. Teachers project lesson plans onto interactive screens, and little hands reach for black Chromebook laptops, which are stacked like cafeteria trays in a large box called a Chromecart. In one class, Danusis introduces me to a lanky child in rain boots, who clicks through an online math program while chatting about a baby goat that’s being weaned in her backyard. In another room, children rotate through learning stations, sometimes at screens, sometimes putting pencils to paper. Kids work alone and in small groups; they sit at tiny desks and on beanbags and sofas scattered around the classroom. It looks unlike any school I ever attended. The ratio of children to Chromebooks, in grades three through five, is one to one.

Danusis and her teaching staff practice personalized learning, an individual-comes-first approach, usually aided by laptops, that has become a reformist calling card in education. Two years ago, Isaac Paine Elementary won a competitive grant from the Rhode Island Office of Innovation to become a showcase “lighthouse school,” part of a statewide push to bring tech into education. That push officially began in 2014, when Deborah Gist, then the state’s commissioner of education, announced a public-private “innovation partnership” to merge traditional and computerized pedagogy. It was the latest big-fix trend in K-12 education, and Gist, a favored daughter of Silicon Valley philanthropists, offered up the nation’s smallest state as a laboratory mouse.

Personalized learning argues that the entrepreneurial nature of the knowledge economy and the gaping need, diversity and unmanageable size of a typical public school classroom are ill-served by the usual arrangement of a teacher lecturing at a blackboard. Some kids are English learners, and others have disabilities; some read well above grade level, and others lag behind in math. If every child had a computer or iPad, she could log into a customized cyberclassroom and learn at her own pace.

Anxiety over the influence of technology in schools, as in our lives, is an old story — but one made painfully acute by the glowing smartphone on which you may be reading this article. Advocates of personalized learning say that the approach has been unfairly conflated with teacherless, online-only education. They invoke Dewey and Freire and Montessori as guiding lights and take pains to emphasize, in almost liturgical unison, that personalized learning is not about tech — and that “tech is just a tool.” But skeptics warn that underneath the language of “student-centered” pedagogy is a tech-intensive model that undermines communal values, accelerates privatization and turns public schools into big data siphons. Rhode Island’s experiment with personalized learning reveals a still more complicated picture: of overworked, undervalued public school teachers who embrace reforms in order to get what they need.

Nearly two decades ago, the reporter Todd Oppenheimer documented the aggressive rise of emerging Silicon Valley technologies — personal computers and the Internet — in the nation’s public schools. In a dense, polemical book called “The Flickering Mind,” he warned of the industry’s tentacular reach into schools, steered by futurists such as Seymour Papert, the co-creator of the Logo programming language, who had a habit of proclaiming, every 20 years or so, that schools had 20 years left to either adapt or die. Some parts of Oppenheimer’s book (see: nightmare visions of Apple iMacs and CD-ROMs) have not aged well. His larger argument, though — that the alliance between education policymakers and billionaire technologists could undermine the role of teachers and the public sphere — has only become more relevant.

For decades, nonprofit advocacy groups and corporate donors have targeted K-12 education for intervention. The allure of helping disadvantaged children has combined with an openness, on the part of government actors, to private partnerships and technocratic fixes, especially those aimed at disciplining teachers. The George W. Bush and Obama administrations, with initiatives such as No Child Left Behind (2001) and Race to the Top (2009), spurred what’s been called a “nationalization of education politics” and, many teachers say, a relentless cycle of shiny fads promising to revolutionize the field. States and districts grew accustomed to applying for federal funds and foundation grants that eased the impact of budget cuts and promoted experimentation.

individualized instruction
At East Orlo Avenue Elementary, in the East Providence School District, children switch between group activities and individualized assignments. Credit: E. Tammy Kim, for The Hechinger Report

Charter schools are the bluntest incarnation of education reform and have long enjoyed bipartisan support. Last year’s wave of teachers strikes, though, popularized the critique that charters divert funding from traditional public schools and undercut union standards. Personalized learning, meanwhile, is as ascendant a reform as ever, boosted by many of the same philanthropic entities that have promoted charters: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (the Gates and Hewlett Foundations and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are among the many funders of The Hechinger Report). Intermediary funders and education-policy groups that depend on their grant dollars — including iNACOL, Excel in Ed, the Learning Accelerator, Big Picture Learning and Jobs for the Future — have, in turn, made personalized learning a priority. Karla Phillips, a policy director at Excel in Ed, told me that both personalized learning and charter schools have “flexibility” as their aim.

In 2010, Rhode Island won a four-year, $75 million grant from Race to the Top. State education officials promised to spend these funds on new curricula, teacher coaching and building improvements, but they initially made no explicit mention of personalized learning. This would soon change. They began to highlight “virtual learning,” and approved the creation of a virtual charter high school; they tapped private organizations to help implement tech-heavy personalized learning. Rhode Island couldn’t afford to equip every student with a Chromebook or iPad, but successive education commissioners and Governor Gina Raimondo, a Democrat and a former hedge fund manager, encouraged superintendents and principals to find money in local coffers and apply to local and national charities for ed-tech grants. Angélica Infante-Green, who became the education commissioner in May, told me that she intends to expand personalized learning to more schools. The state’s largest district, in Providence, has dramatically increased its spending on web-based instructional programs, from $158,000 in the 2011-12 school year to $928,000 in 2015-16, the latest data available. Four years ago, only one school out of 39 in Providence used personalized learning; the model has since spread to 25 schools. A similar dynamic continues to play out across the country.

Related: Q & A with Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist: Our goal is to be the first  state to fully blend technology into all schools

When I started to interview Rhode Islanders, I wondered how well personalized learning could serve younger students, given its close association with technology. But, at elementary schools like Isaac Paine and Orlo Avenue, in the East Providence School District, the basics of the method seemed well adapted to short attention spans: Kids could bounce from desk to cushy floor, or from a small-group tutorial with a teacher to a Chromebook game. I kept thinking how much the physical setup of the classrooms resembled a Silicon Valley workspace — or is it that Amazon, Google and Facebook have tried to replicate grammar-school life?

I found that, in Rhode Island, personalized learning seemed to exist only at schools with a one-to-one student-to-Chromebook ratio. This ratio, though, translated into a surprisingly wide range of pedagogical approaches. Providence’s DelSesto Middle School, which has about a thousand mostly black, brown and immigrant students, uses Summit Learning, a no-cost curricular platform developed, in part, by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Arzinia Gill has been the principal of DelSesto for the past several years. When she came to the school, she split the student body into three groups, and decided that all of them would adopt personalized learning. Summit flew Gill and her team to San Francisco, for school visits and training, and won them over. Today, nearly every DelSesto lesson plan unspools from a Summit-brand “playlist,” a menu of personalized activities.

At 360 High School, also in Providence and serving a smaller but demographically similar student body, I observed teachers use what the school’s principal, Kerry Tuttlebee, calls a patchwork of D.I.Y. apps and software, with some classes much more tech-reliant than others. The same was true at the affluent, predominantly white Barrington Middle School, which will soon move into a $68 million building fitted with a robotics lab. Meanwhile, at Cumberland High School, in a mostly white town along the Blackstone River, individual teachers get to decide how and when to use Chromebooks and personalized learning. Students at Cumberland recently asked the administration to institute “screen-free” days.

“I was just getting really good at standard classroom-based instruction, and then they pushed this — which is the story of public education in America.”

Rhode Island’s education department and the governor’s office told me that personalized learning isn’t being forced on anyone, and repeatedly deemphasized its relationship to tech. But, in practice, the approach is often imposed from the top — and, in turn, by local leaders eager to stay current. Teachers at Orlo Avenue Elementary said that, while they supported their principal’s decision to adopt Chromebook-based personalized learning, it had undoubtedly created a lot more work, with no accompanying pay raise. At Providence Career and Technical Academy, a high school that combines classroom learning with on-the-job apprenticeships, the district adopted Summit without first consulting the staff. “I was just getting really good at standard classroom-based instruction, and then they pushed this — which is the story of public education in America,” Chris Bull, a physics teacher, said. “My ability to motivate students depends on relationships with them, but that’s hobbled by each of them being in front of their own screens.” (The principal did not respond to requests for comment; a district spokeswoman told me that personalized learning at the school “began with a small cohort of teachers who opted into a first-year pilot.”)

individualized instruction
In the classrooms of East Orlo Avenue Elementary, in the East Providence School District, personalized learning takes place on Chromebooks and on paper. Credit: E. Tammy Kim, for The Hechinger Report

Bull also worries that these screens infringe on student privacy, especially in light of Summit’s proximity to Facebook. (Priscilla Chan, Mark Zuckerberg’s wife and his partner in the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, is the chair of Summit Learning’s board.) As a matter of course, Summit, like most schools, collects such data as students’ names, identification numbers, email addresses, income status, race, gender, date of birth, language preference, standardized test scores and grades; unlike most schools, it is a private nonprofit that operates in 38 states. Students and parents in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Kansas have protested Summit for collecting vast amounts of data and subjecting students to excess screen time. They argue that Summit is not your average private vendor and, because of its ties to Silicon Valley, is different even from educational heavyweights like Macmillan and Pearson. “What does it mean to have your educational system uploaded for commodification and surveillance?” Alison McDowell, a parent and activist blogger in Pennsylvania, said. How do we ensure that Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple won’t sell these enormous stores of information to advertisers, employers, law enforcement or the military?

Related: Tipping point: Can Summit put personalized learning over the top?

Jessica Geremia, a technology trainer for the Chariho Regional School District, in southwestern Rhode Island, told me, “We use Google all the time. You have that concern: What are you trading for the free use of this tool?” (A spokeswoman for Summit said in an email, “We only use information for educational purposes. There are no exceptions to this.” She added, “Facebook plays no role in the Summit Learning Program and has no access to any student data.”)

Neither the Rhode Island Parent and Teachers Association nor the state’s two teachers unions oppose the implementation of personalized learning. Yet the academic and policy research behind it is thin. A few local pilot programs have been shown to slightly improve test scores and teacher satisfaction, but a 2017 study by RAND, commissioned by the Gates Foundation to study 40 Gates-funded schools, reads like a shrug. “Although advocates and reformers have developed PL models,” the RAND authors observed, “many of the component practices are relatively common nationally, making it difficult to clearly identify what makes a school a PL school.” In April, researchers at the University of Colorado warned that proponents of personalized learning invite corporate interference in public schools and force students “to learn the same way via digital means,” sidelining human instruction. And, in late June, in a scalding review of the Providence district, the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy found that, in several Summit schools, “Off-task student behavior was the same as, or worse than, in the more traditional classrooms, with some students observably working on assignments from other classes, viewing YouTube videos (or similar), queuing songs on playlists, toggling between Summit and entertainment websites, or pausing on workscreens while chatting with neighbors.” Summit said in response that these experiences “are not reflective” of its approach, and that Providence doesn’t have the “conditions in place to fully implement our model.” Other personalized-learning advocates told me that execution is everything.

“We use Google all the time. You have that concern: What are you trading for the free use of this tool?”

The prospect of children surfing the web and clicking through their lessons while teachers, or nonteacher chaperones, pace the room is an emerging reality, especially in states such as Louisiana and Mississippi, where personalized “ed tech” is offered as a balm for budget austerity. “There’s been hyperbolic claims about the ability of these new technologies to radically transform schools,” Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education at Brown University, told me.

Related: Blue-collar town leads Rhode Island’s tech-assisted learning revolution

So much has changed so quickly in Rhode Island that it’s difficult to measure whether, and for whom, personalized learning works. Since 2013, the state, dissatisfied with its scores, has shifted through three standardized-testing modules for elementary and middle school students. (On the latest exam, just 34% of third-to-eighth-grade students were proficient in English language arts, and just 27% were proficient in math, compared to 51 and 48%, respectively, in neighboring Massachusetts.) Alex Lucini, a music teacher at West Broadway Middle School, in Providence, told me that the persistence of high-stakes testing acts as a brake on even the most well-intentioned pedagogy: “You’re only going to get personalization as far as the accountability measures will allow.” Every year, personalized learning comes to a halt in the stressful lead-up to the weeks-long standardized exam, now called RICAS. In April, when I visited Barrington Middle School, which, like Isaac Paine, is a showcase “lighthouse” school for personalized learning, certain doors in the building were closed and marked with bright orange signs: “RICAS TESTING, DO NOT DISTURB.”

Various sources told me that personalized learning, when aided by screens, is a bad fit for vulnerable students — those from low-income families, ethnic and racial minorities, kids with special needs and English language learners. In some areas of the country, including Providence, these groups account for almost the entire population of public schools. But the experience of personalized learning is, indeed, personal, and exceptions abound. A former special education teacher in a rural, mostly indigenous region of Alaska told me that some students responded better to negative feedback when it was provided by a machine; they perceived the computer as correcting rather than castigating them. Jessica Jennings, a Providence resident whose daughter is one of a handful of white students at her public elementary school, sees personalized learning “as a tool to support diverse learning environments,” a potential path to racial and class integration.

individualized instruction
Maggie Mian, whose sons, Naiem (right) and Aziz (left), attend Providence’s West Broadway Middle School, said she is enthusiastic about the Summit Learning platform. Credit: E. Tammy Kim, for The Hechinger Report

I later met with another local parent, Maggie Mian, and her two sons at a pizza shop on the west side of Providence. Naiem and Aziz, who were finishing up the fifth and sixth grade, respectively, at West Broadway Middle School, wore identical red hoodies and aloof expressions that were quickly unwound by soda pop. With their mother’s permission, they took out their smartphones to show me the Summit interface: assignments organized by subject area, with color-coded progress notes attached. Aziz, Maggie told me, “was in trouble every day” at his previous school. Now, thanks in part to personalized learning, he was staying on top of his work — and she was staying on top of him. “Summit is very informative with parents. You can log on and see what your kids are learning, how they’re doing,” she explained. When I asked what she thought about the criticisms of laptop-based learning, she demurred. “There’s always big business. If you don’t get Chromebooks from Google, where are you gonna get it?” Naiem and Aziz replied instantly, in unison: “Apple!”

In nearly every conversation I had about personalized learning and ed tech in Rhode Island, the names Donna Stone and Shawn Rubin came up. Stone, of New England Basecamp, and Rubin, of the Highlander Institute, are educators turned nonprofit entrepreneurs in the field of professional development. They specialize in helping teachers design flexible, “student-centered” lesson plans that incorporate Chromebooks and online curricula. Collectively, New England Basecamp and Highlander have trained hundreds of educators at dozens of schools in the state since 2014.

Related: Light a Fuse: How one state’s teachers are sparking digital innovation

Teachers and principals across the ideological spectrum — which, in education land, generally boils down to one’s opinion of charter schools and unions — praised Rubin in particular. While New England Basecamp focuses on Summit schools, Highlander contracts with any school that’s interested in personalized learning. In 2014, Highlander launched the Fuse Fellowship, a mentorship program for “natural change agents” that has trained more than a hundred fellows in Rhode Island and recently spread to Massachusetts and Syracuse, New York.

Christopher Maher, the outgoing superintendent of Providence schools, credited Highlander with turning him on to personalized learning. At first, Maher said, “What it looked like to me, from the outside, was a lot of corporations that were taking advantage of school districts’ inability to navigate what are complex problems.” But, when he asked veteran teachers what tools they had recently found most helpful, “a lot of them talked about the personalized-learning training they received from Highlander,” he recalled. (Maher amended his comments in late June, after Johns Hopkins published its review: The district should “conduct an internal assessment” to see which personalized-learning platforms “may need to be reconsidered,” he said, through a spokeswoman.)

Rubin, who has a skateboarder’s gait and nonchalant air, was raised in Michigan by unionized educators, and he aspired, early on, to follow their lead. But, during a brief apprenticeship at a public elementary school in Boston, he said, “I couldn’t do anything I wanted to do,” and thus he looked for a teaching job that would give him “control over my domain” — a common story among education reformers. He taught for 10 years at the Highlander Charter School, in Providence, then joined the Highlander Institute.

“Our education system is completely racist. I have a hard time glomming onto Facebook as the biggest problem in an inner-city middle school.”

Highlander’s offices now sit in a sprawling former wool mill in western Providence. The organization receives support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and New Profit, which is funded by the Gates Foundation, so I asked Rubin what he thinks about the creep of tech brands into public schools. He responded, “I have concerns, but compared to what? Pearson? Sodexo?” — referring to the testing and cafeteria behemoths. “Our education system is completely racist. I have a hard time glomming onto Facebook as the biggest problem in an inner-city middle school.” Stone, of New England Basecamp, said she was not concerned about Mark Zuckerberg’s ties to Summit. “The fact that so many schools and teachers are benefiting from this platform should be celebrated,” she told me. “He could be spending his money on so many other things.”

New England Basecamp and Highlander typically charge a given school between several thousand and tens of thousands of dollars per year for training and consulting. Each school is responsible for acquiring the requisite hardware, usually in Chromebook form, at a cost of hundreds of dollars per student. It’s not uncommon for schools to outsource professional development, but the decision to transform a traditional classroom into a fully personalized, tech-heavy setting demands more than the odd skills workshop. While reporting, I wondered whether the intensity of this training — one-on-one coaching, peer roundtables, site visits to other schools, and time to read, think and reflect — was what had turned so many Rhode Island teachers onto personalized learning. At its core was the commonsensical, ancient practice of getting to know each child as an individual and catering to her needs. A passage from Oppenheimer’s book kept coming to mind: “For decades, we have taken people whom we hold responsible for the intellectual and moral development of our children, put them in chaotic, overcrowded institutions, robbed them of creative freedom and new opportunities for their own learning, imposed an ever-changing stream of rules and performance requirements that leave them exhausted and hopeless, and paid them about $40,000 a year.”

In southern Rhode Island, I met with a special education teacher who had recently been trained in Google Classroom. (Google offers its own network of certified instructors and “transformation partners.”) Her school was pushing Chromebook-based personalized learning, she told me, but offered little coaching beyond the nuts and bolts of the platform. “Most districts invest in professional development that’s the least expensive,” she said. “They have a huge tech push, but we don’t need that. There are so many structural issues we need to work on: implicit bias, trauma-informed classrooms, historically accurate teaching.” Kristen Rhodes Beland, a fourth grade teacher in the North Kingstown District, told me that the philosophy of personalized learning has helped her respond to these social and emotional challenges — “because it means not being stuck in this industrialized box.”

Teachers in Rhode Island did not participate in the wave of strikes that began last spring. But, like other public school educators around the country, they have since enjoyed a heightened recognition. Kraft, the Brown professor, told me that this “broader public solidarity” has caused a shift, a move “away from differentiation and individualization to this macro sense of ‘What do we have to do to invest in the teaching profession more broadly?’ ” Personalized learning, though premised on differentiating one student from another, has seemed to work best when it attends, first and foremost, to the needs of teachers as a group. If tech is, indeed, merely a tool of personalized learning, then what does that make the teacher?

This story about individualized instruction was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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