Credit: Sharon Lurye / The Hechinger Report
Five-year-old Mykell Robinson practices his reading on the Lexia software while a small group of classmates work with a teacher. Credit: Sharon Lurye / The Hechinger Report

A few years ago, with little fanfare or announcement, the New Orleans education system began a massive experiment that’s reshaping how kids learn across the city.

Many charter networks, including Crescent City Schools, FirstLine, ReNEW and KIPP, have embraced an educational philosophy known as “personalized learning.” The goal of this movement is to give students more control over their education and customize lessons based on their needs. Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but common features include letting students set their own goals, study the curriculum online at their own pace, and decide when to take tests.

This story about personalized learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Much of the funding for this experiment came from philanthropies set up by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who made their money from technology and have argued that introducing more of it in classrooms can transform the education system. Though personalized learning doesn’t have to include technology, many New Orleans charters have put computers at the center of their personalized learning efforts.

But research has been mixed on whether it works. Supporters in New Orleans say that, so far, personalized learning has been transformative. But some admit that it hasn’t been thoroughly tested.

“Personalized learning has a lack of really clear data points, really clear success stories,” said Hilah Barbot, science and technology director for the national charter school network KIPP, who taught and oversaw technology initiatives at KIPP New Orleans for several years. “I think people still see the need, but they don’t know the right way to get there.”

“Personalized learning is not something you buy. It’s a teacher practice; it’s a teacher design.”—Chris Liang-Vergara, LEAP Innovations

Good teachers, of course, have always personalized lessons based on their students’ needs. What’s different about the trend today is that educational technology companies eagerly market software under the “personalized learning” label. Some educators support the philosophy behind personalized learning but worry that schools are focusing on the technological aspect — resulting in classrooms that depend too much on kids learning alone in front of a screen.

“Personalized learning is not something you buy,” said Chris Liang-Vergara, a consultant with the Chicago organization LEAP Innovations. He helped pilot FirstLine Schools’ personalized learning programs between 2011 and 2014. “It’s a teacher practice; it’s a teacher design.”

KIPP Morial, a school in eastern New Orleans, exemplifies how the personalized learning trend rolled out in charters across the Crescent City.

Related: Charter schools aren’t measuring up to their promises

Morial is one of three schools that received a one-time, $300,000 grant from the nonprofit New Schools for New Orleans in March 2015. The school spent the money on Google Chromebooks, allowing every classroom to have a laptop for each student. It also invested in software like ST Math and the reading program Lexia, created by the Rosetta Stone company. ST Math is produced by the nonprofit MIND Research Institute, but it’s quite expensive — about $15,000 per year, said Morial principal Mark Burton. Lexia costs about $5,000 per year. Although the school initially used grant money to pay for the programs, that cost has since become part of the regular school budget.

The software is marketed as personalized because the programs automatically adapt to what students are doing — jumping to higher levels if students breeze through questions or forcing them to repeat a level if they have too many wrong answers.

In a KIPP kindergarten classroom this January, the air was filled with a musical hum. Two teachers, seated at U-shaped tables on opposite ends of the classroom, were going through a reading exercise with four kids each, helping them sound out letters. “Aaaaaaaa,” the kids chanted. “Ooooooh. Shhhhhhhh.”

A kindergarten teacher works with a small group of students at KIPP Morial charter school in New Orleans, while other students work on personalized learning software. Credit: Sharon Lurye / The Hechinger Report

The rest of the students were focused on their laptops. Seven kids practiced reading on Lexia, while three kids with special needs, who were not ready for Lexia, watched YouTube videos about letter sounds.

Five-year-old To’Niyi Hilliard, her braids festooned in purple, green and yellow ribbons, eagerly chattered about how she was going to learn to read books to her mama. To’Niyi and her classmates treated the program like a game, excited when they passed a level. The kids said their goal was to get to level 100. And what would happen after that?

“I like learning by myself more because I get to work at my own pace and keep track of the time.”—Teira Rucker, student at ReNEW Schaumburg Elementary

“You’re gonna get on a new level,” explained To’Niyi.

“Your teacher’s gonna be proud of you,” added her table-mate, Mykell Robinson.

Another student, Tear Laird, was so excited when she passed a level that she let out a little cheer and jumped up to tell her teacher.

“My teacher’s happy!” she said.

The class rotated so every student had a turn at a computer and with a teacher. The principal benefit of the technology is it allows teachers to spend more time helping students one-on-one or in small groups, Assistant Principal Emma Collier said.

“It actually enables our kids to be seen by a teacher more frequently and in a smaller group setting,” Collier said.

Related: Choosing personalized learning as a strategy for educational equity

The software is essentially a “very useful placeholder,” Burton said. He didn’t mean the software is just busywork; it is useful because it adapts to enable kids to practice the concepts they need to work on, something a paper worksheet can’t do.

However, he said, the teacher is ultimately more important. “The best teacher is going to be the human teacher. We truly believe that,” Burton said.

Collier’s contention that technology allows the teacher to spend more time working with some students individually is backed up by research. A 2017 study by the RAND Corporation found that 17 percent of teachers in the personalized learning schools surveyed said they devote a least a quarter of class time to tutoring students one-on-one, compared to just 9 percent of teachers surveyed nationwide. The study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, looked at 40 schools nationwide that had received personalized learning grants from Next Generation Learning Challenges. (The Gates Foundation is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

17%Of teachers at personalized-learning schools spent at least a quarter of class time tutoring one-on-one9%Of teachers nationwide spent that much time tutoring students one-on-one

Although the RAND study was conducted in the 2014-15 school year, before New Orleans schools started to implement their programs, the author said its findings can provide some lessons for the city.

“The attempt here is to try to move closer towards an idealized system that’s not feasible because of costs,” said John Pane, one of the study’s five authors. “And that idealized system is where every student would have their own teacher.”

Pane’s study estimated that over the course of a year, personalized learning helped students gain up to 3 percentile points on the math portion of the MAP, a national online adaptive test. There was no statistically significant effect on reading scores.

But the effects of a personalized approach varied widely: Some schools showed large gains in test scores; others experienced large drops. A 2015 RAND study, which looked at 62 schools that had received various Gates Foundation-funded grants for personalized learning, found gains of 11 percentile points in math and 8 in reading.

Pane predicted that if the personalized learning trend continues, it could upend traditional notions of what a classroom looks like.

“I think we will see less classrooms that are organized in rows and teacher in the front, and more classrooms where teachers are among the students, working among the students,” he said. “I think you will see technology as a prominent thing, but I don’t think it’s going to be a situation where the teacher is not engaged.”

“The attempt here is to try to move closer towards an idealized system that’s not feasible because of costs. And that idealized system is where every student would have their own teacher.”—John Pane, researcher

Upstairs at KIPP Morial, math and science teacher Garrett Dorfman used technology to divide his fourth-graders into two classes. He taught a lesson to half the students while the other half worked by themselves on computers. Then he switched them. “I love it, because teaching a whole group of kids — 30 kids at a time — some pretty rigorous math skills is really hard,” he said.

Dorfman also noted that his more advanced students can work ahead more effectively. Although students could always work ahead in the textbook or on worksheets, Dorfman said he thinks a computer game with “a little cartoon character” is more engaging. One of his students finished the entire fourth-grade curriculum on ST Math by himself before winter break and then started teaching himself fifth-grade math.

In contrast to the joyful hum of the kindergarten class, a sixth-grade intervention period upstairs was almost entirely silent, with every student seated at a computer.

The class is called “intervention” because its main purpose is to provide time for students who need extra help to work in small groups with teachers. Two teachers take turns pulling small groups of six to eight kids out of class for 20 or 40 minutes at a time to tutor them in math or reading. Every sixth-grader takes this class, but not all need intervention; those who don’t need extra tutoring spend this period on the computer. Once again, the technology acts as a placeholder.

“You can’t ask the computer questions. The computer doesn’t understand you most of the time. You can only ask the teacher because the teacher actually has a heart.”—DeVonté Trask, student at KIPP Morial

Students who don’t receive tutoring have a lot of options: They can work on ST Math, practice typing with a game called NitroType, or learn a foreign language with DuoLingo. Sometimes the class works on a project or reads a novel together, but on this particular Wednesday in January students were working alone.

Kailei Whitaker, 12, said she likes learning from a computer more than from a teacher because she can focus better. She admitted her friends sometimes distract her during class. “But when I have my headphones on, I can focus on the computer and nothing else,” she said.

Not every kid shared that ability to focus. Despite teachers’ warnings that goofing off would hurt their participation grade, a lot of kids sneaked onto non-educational websites. At one point, five kids in the class were on YouTube, watching videos that were definitely not part of the curriculum.

Eleven-year-old DeVonté Trask was busy playing a typing game on the computer. If he had to choose between learning from a computer or learning from a teacher, he said he’d choose the teacher.

“You can’t ask the computer questions,” he said. “The computer doesn’t understand you most of the time. You can only ask the teacher because the teacher actually has a heart.”

How personalized learning came to New Orleans

In 2014 and 2015, New Schools for New Orleans awarded schools grants of up to $300,000 to transform classrooms based on personalized learning. The goal: to bring personalized learning to 30 percent of New Orleans students within five years.

A wave of pilot programs appeared in classrooms across the city. One educational consulting group estimated that over $2 million has been invested “to encourage the implementation of personalized learning in New Orleans schools, impacting over 12,000 students.”

Sari Levy, an elementary school teacher at Bricolage Academy, is one of 22 teachers from 18 New Orleans schools who took part in the Personalized Learning Fellowship. Credit: Sharon Lurye / The Hechinger Report

But three years later, few people, even in education, fully understand what the term “personalized learning” means — or what it means for the children of New Orleans.

“I still don’t know if anybody’s really figured it out,” said Hilah Barbot, the KIPP technology director.

When New Schools for New Orleans announced the competitive grant program, 23 schools — about a quarter of all public schools in the city — expressed interest by attending workshops on personalized learning.

The nonprofit selected nine schools, each of which received between $10,000 and $300,000 to jump-start programs. New Schools for New Orleans started a personalized learning fellowship in the 2016-17 school year, giving teachers $2,000 apiece to implement it in their classrooms. Fellows attended monthly meetings at which they shared questions and observations about the technique. KIPP’s Barbot helped lead the meetings, along with ReNEW’s director of personalized learning, Nate Kellogg.

The program is now in its second year, with 22 teachers from 18 schools. They presented the results of their projects at a public showcase at the People’s Health New Orleans Jazz Market in May.

[module align=”left” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]Personalized learning’s appeal to schools and teachers is that it seems to offer a way to reach students in classrooms where some kids need significant amounts of remediation and others are above grade level.[/module]Personalized learning’s appeal to schools and teachers is that it seems to offer a way to reach students in classrooms where some kids need significant amounts of remediation and others are above grade level. While every classroom has students of varying abilities, this problem is often more acute in schools with high levels of poverty. In New Orleans, 81 percent of public school students are economically disadvantaged, according to data from the Louisiana Department of Education.

“The amount of differentiation needed in New Orleans schools was massive and everyone was unhappy with their ability to reach all students,” Barbot said. “In one sixth grade classroom you’d have every reading level in existence.”

Related: Rethinking grade levels and school design for personalized learning

Test scores were an issue as well. In a 2016 interview for a Dell Foundation podcast, KIPP New Orleans Chief Academic Officer Todd Purvis said local KIPP schools had succeeded in increasing the percentage of students who achieved “basic” on state tests, but the percentage of students who scored “mastery” stayed flat. Teachers had to spend so much time helping kids who were behind that they couldn’t get to the more challenging lessons that would push top students to excel.

“How do we push the needle on high performance? How do we break through … the mastery barrier on state testing? In order to do that, we’ve got to free up how they’re spending their day,” Purvis said. Personalized learning, he argued, allows classrooms to be run more efficiently so top students and struggling students can grow.

“How do we push the needle on high performance? How do we break through … the mastery barrier on state testing? In order to do that, we’ve got to free up how [teachers are] spending their day.”—Todd Purvis, KIPP New Orleans

Barbot said another reason personalized learning caught on in New Orleans is that the city is dominated by charter schools, which have a reputation for adopting new technologies more easily than larger, more bureaucratic public school systems. About three-quarters of the schools in the 2017 RAND study were charter schools.

But it was the influx of funding that kicked personalized learning into high gear. “Where there’s money, that fuels the fire,” Barbot said.

The role of philanthropy is important because there are many different visions of what personalized learning means and what role, if any, technology plays. Since 2010, Next Generation Learning Challenges has given $40 million in grants nationwide for “next generation learning,” which it defined in a 2013 paper as “learning designs that are personalized and competency based … and that are enabled by the deeply integrated use of technology.” Next Generation funded New Schools for New Orleans, which gave grants to schools across the city.

Foundations that fund Next Generation Learning Challenges include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative (which is among the funders of The Hechinger Report), the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Michael Dell Foundation — linked to the founders of Microsoft, Facebook, Hewlett-Packard and Dell.

“What personalization means to the Gates Foundation is specific: It’s software,” said Audrey Watters, author of a forthcoming book on the history of educational technology.

“What personalization means to the Gates Foundation is specific: It’s software.”—Audrey Watters, author of a forthcoming book on the history of education technology

She pointed out that Montessori and Waldorf schools have done their own versions of personalized learning for 100 years, one that emphasizes free play and imagination. But “the Gates Foundation hasn’t spent $10 billion funding Waldorf schools,” Watters said.

“They’ve been funding a particular vision of what personalization means,” she said. “And it’s one that is very wrapped up in the idea that the way that one personalizes education is through software that both mines student data and algorithmically presents students with the concept they need to learn.”

New Schools for New Orleans’ grants did not require schools to use software from any particular company. However, it used a common definition of personalized learning, also used by Next Generation Learning Challenges, that focuses on outward signs of personalization — which can most easily be fulfilled with technology.

This definition involves four components: a learner profile with student data; flexibility in schedules, classroom set-up and student grouping; some choice for students in how and what they learn; and the ability for students to go through a course at their own pace.

Liang-Vergara, the educational consultant from LEAP, said the problem with these four components is that schools can check off each of those boxes with a thing, often software, instead of a deeper personalized-learning experience. It’s not that software is bad, he said, but it can be a superficial solution. He contrasted the commonly-defined four components of personalized learning to LEAP’s own definition, which is more open-ended: “learner-focused, learner-led, learner-demonstrated, learner-connected.”

“You’ll have a school that’s got a Google Doc and a questionnaire about the kids, and it’s like, ‘Great, I’ve got a profile,’” he said. “But then when you actually go into the classroom and say, ‘How well? Do you know your students better? How much better do the students know themselves?’ The answer was the same. A learner profile for me is like a thing. But that doesn’t mean it’s actually creating the learning experience that we’re going for.”

Related: Laptops, Chromebooks or tablets? Deciding what’s best for the nation’s schools

This is not to say that every teacher who is part of the Personalized Learning Fellowship has made technology the centerpiece of their classrooms. Sari Levy of Bricolage Academy, who works in small groups of first- to fourth-grade students, said she’s at “stage one” when it comes to using tech in the classroom. She does use the computer at times, but her main focus since joining the fellowship has been on setting goals with her students and giving them more choices. For example, she let her students choose their own “proud partner”: an adult, preferably a relative, the kids talk to when they’ve accomplished a goal in class.

Jeff Carver, a writing teacher at New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, or Sci High, made his own online modules to explain basic grammar concepts. Once students finished the modules, they worked on class projects like producing a podcast. The high school received a $300,000 New Schools for New Orleans grant in 2015, so the students were used to seeing personalized learning techniques in other classes — although the amount of technology varied widely by teacher.

“How personalized learning looks at Sci High is all the way from a very technology-rich classroom to a traditional classroom that has students doing different activities at the same time,” explained Principal Chana Benenson.

Carver liked the fact that by using the self-paced modules, he could focus on helping students who needed remediation, while more advanced students could finish the work in two days and move on to topics that were more exciting than semicolons. Still, the student reaction was ambivalent.

“A lot of them liked it because it was something that was familiar to them and a lot of them did not like it because it just seemed like, ‘We’re just in front of computers again and that’s not helpful to me,’” he said.

Is personalized learning really personalized?

Some education experts are skeptical of just how “personalized” learning from a screen really is.

“I go into a lot of classrooms as a consultant and I see where teachers will put kids on the personalized learning software independently, but they’re not necessarily incorporating principles of personalized learning in their instruction,” said Tinashe Blanchet, who runs an after-school program in New Orleans called the Learning Lab.

Rafranz Davis, who leads the digital learning program in the Lufkin Independent School District just west of the Louisiana border in rural east Texas, said many programs labeled “personalized” or “adaptive” don’t offer individualization. Rather, they just present a menu of options. Students’ choice is limited to whether they complete the program quickly or slowly, and the computer still guides them every step of the way.

“I go into a lot of classrooms as a consultant and I see where teachers will put kids on the personalized learning software independently, but they’re not necessarily incorporating principles of personalized learning in their instruction.”—Tinashe Blanchet, Learning Lab

“The more guided you are, the more you honestly have no clue of what to do,” she said. To really learn, in her view, students need to build things themselves, experiment, seek help, search for information. They need teachers to present multiple ways of understanding a concept.

“Buying a program is much easier than doing all of that,” Davis said.

Faith Boninger, a researcher at the National Education Policy Center in Boulder, Colorado, pointed out that while students can learn basic concepts from personalized learning software, it’s isolated learning. They’re missing out on what they could learn from working with other students and their teachers.

“You’re preventing the learning opportunities that are unscripted, that good teachers can jump on,” said Boninger, who co-wrote a 2017 report on “the lure of personalization.”

She raised concerns about how much data software can collect on children. She noted the CEO of Knewton, a personalized learning software company, once bragged, “We literally have more data about our students than any company has about anybody else about anything.” He also described his product as “a robot tutor in the sky that can semi-read your mind and figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are, down to the percentile.”

Related: Getting a GED while still enrolled in high school

If not properly protected, that data could be hacked, sold, or used for targeted advertising, Boninger said. Software created by private companies could one day be used to algorithmically decide which educational tracks students should be placed in. Even with the right protections in place, the emphasis on data can change the focus of education.

“We’re going to computerize things that are easy to computerize and provide data on things we can provide data on,” Boninger said. “And there are some things that don’t lend themselves to the computerization, so we won’t have those.”

Liang-Vergara, the Chicago educational consultant, said the potential problem with personalized learning isn’t the software. It’s thinking the software is all you need.

“Look at the teacher practice. Look at the goal setting. Look at the one-on-one conferences we’re doing,” Liang-Vergara said. “That’s where the magic is happening.”

Students at ReNEW Schaumburg charter school in New Orleans write down their goals for Summit, a personalized learning platform designed with the help of Facebook engineers. Credit: Sharon Lurye / The Hechinger Report

Jillique Logan, a sixth-grade English teacher in New Orleans’ ReNEW network, said software changed the focus of her classroom for the better. At her school, ReNEW Schaumburg, students use a free platform called Summit to teach themselves concepts in math, English, science, and social studies. Summit was created by a West Coast charter network with the help of engineers from Facebook and funding from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative.

Students use Summit only one hour per day during “personalized learning time”; the rest of the day they’re in traditional classrooms. The program encourages group projects and requires each student to meet one-on-one with a mentor at the school for at least 10 minutes every other week.

Several of Logan’s students said they enjoy the program because it lets them work at their own pace. In one classroom, visited in January, students sat silently in front of computers, earbuds plugged in, taking notes from videos and documents about figurative language. Logan circulated throughout the classroom, helping students who raised their hands — but most didn’t need her help.

“If we don’t understand something in class, we could go on here and we would find what we were talking about in class and learn more about it,” said 11-year-old Teira Rucker. She added, “I like learning by myself more because I get to work at my own pace and keep track of the time.”

Logan said it was initially difficult for students to adjust to the program last year. The sixth-grade teachers had to work together to help students build skills like goal-setting and time management.

“They’re used to traditional teaching, insomuch that they almost need to be spoon-fed,” she said. “So to jump from that kind of culture [to] where you’re sitting by yourself for an hour, doing your own work, was a little bit difficult.”

Now, however, she’s impressed by how motivated, focused, and independent her students are. She can spend the personalized learning period helping students who really need her, while the others “have the integrity and the drive and the stamina to push through and get things on their own.”

“That’s what we ultimately want them to do, pursue knowledge instead of waiting for it to be given to them all the time,” Logan said.

The question that remains is how “personalized” these classrooms truly are. Tinashe Blanchet, the educational expert from New Orleans, said schools always have to remember that true personalization comes from the relationship between teacher and student.

“Software doesn’t have the ability to see your students,” she said. “Software doesn’t have the ability to know this kid — their parents just divorced or they’re going through a difficult financial time. Those are still things that teachers are sensitive to.”

This story about personalized learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Disclosure: The author worked in a FirstLine school as a member of AmeriCorpsduring the 2016-17 school year.