Monthly Archives: May 2017

The Rise of AltSchool

As of yet, there is no common definition that covers all these schools, which vary not only by size and cost but also in their education philosophies and operating models. Think one-room schoolhouse meets blended learning and home schooling meets private schooling.

As Matt Candler, founder of 4.0 Schools, writes, “What makes a modern micro-school different from a 19th century, one-room schoolhouse is that old school schools only had a few ways to teach — certainly no software, no tutors, and probably less structure around student to student learning. In a modern micro-school, there are ways to get good data from each of these venues. And the great micro-school of the future will lean on well-designed software to help adults evaluate where each kid is learning.”

Several factors are driving their emergence. Micro-schools are gaining traction among families who are dissatisfied with the quality of public schooling options and cannot afford or do not want to pay for a traditional private-school education. These families want an option other than home schooling that will personalize instruction for their child’s needs. A school in which students attend a couple days a week or a small school with like-minded parents can fit the bill.

Acton Academy

At roughly the same time as QuantumCamp’s founding, in Austin, Texas, Jeff Sandefer, founder of the nationally acclaimed Acton School of Business, and his wife Laura, who has a master’s degree in education, launched Acton Academy. In creating the five-day-a-week, all-day school, the couple sought to ensure that their own children wouldn’t be “talked at all day long” in a traditional classroom. The Acton Academy’s mission is “to inspire each child and parent who enters [its] doors to find a calling that will change the world.” The school promises that students will embark on a “hero’s journey” to discover the unique contributions that they can make toward living a life of meaning and purpose.

Acton compresses students’ core learning into a two-and-a-half-hour personalized-learning period each day during which students learn mostly online. This affords time for three two-hour project-based learning blocks each week, a Socratic seminar each day, game play on Fridays, ample art and physical education offerings, and many social experiences. The Socratic discussions teach students to talk, listen, and challenge ideas in a face-to-face circle of peers and guides.

Early results appear impressive, as the first group of students gained 2.5 grade levels of learning in their first 10 months. Now the school is spreading. There are currently eight Acton Academies operating—seven of them in the United States. Twenty-five are slated to be open by 2015. The Sandefers are not operating them, however; they provide communities that want to open an Acton clone a do-it-yourself kit plus limited consulting and access to wiki discussion groups. They are developing a game-based learning tool to help prepare Acton Academy owners and the learning guides in the schools. Tuition at the academies ranges from $4,000 per year to $9,900.

Key to the development of the AltSchool model is a proprietary, integrated software backbone that will handle everything from student learning in its schools to the operations of a network of private micro-schools. As at Acton Academy, students are grouped only loosely by age. Students spend about half their time on core subjects and work through personalized playlists built around third-party curricular materials. The rest of the day is spent on longer-term projects that can span as many as six weeks, according to a profile of the school in Fast Company.

Four AltSchools are open in San Francisco, with a combined 150 students enrolled, and more locations are coming, including schools in Palo Alto and Brooklyn Heights, New York, in the fall of 2015. Tuition ranges from $20,875 for elementary school in San Francisco to $28,250 for the Brooklyn middle school. For additional fees, each individual AltSchool will bring in specialists outside of the core school day to teach extracurricular classes based on the interests of the school’s families. AltSchool plans to drop its price tag significantly in the years ahead as the software improves, the school network scales, and it can bring down the internal cost each year.

Will it work? We’ll see, but notably, Ventilla told Fast Company that the traditional randomized-control trial approach to research is meaningless in a “personalization first” context. “You’re not thinking about the global population as one unit that gets this experience or that experience,” he told the magazine. “Something that’s better for 70% of the kids and worse for 30% of the kids—that’s an unacceptable outcome for us. AltSchool isn’t a particular approach.”

Competency-Based Education

Federal policymakers are increasingly talking about “competency-based learning” as the way of the future. In a competency-based system, students advance upon mastery. This model marks a sharp departure from the school system’s traditional metric:  hours spent in the classroom studying a specific subject.

At the turn of the 20th century, in an effort to standardize high school curricula and college admissions, a committee at the National Education Association determined that a satisfactory year’s work in a given high-school subject would require no fewer than 120 one-hour instructional periods. In 1909, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching codified this standard as the Carnegie unit, or credit unit. Since then, the education system has measured student progress in terms of instructional hours, not student learning. So long as a student logs the necessary hours and receives a passing grade, he can move on to the next course, regardless of gaps in his understanding. And a passing grade may be based in part on non-academic factors like attendance, extra credit, and good behavior, rather than demonstration of mastery.

Today, the Carnegie unit is showing its age, as more educators recognize that the time-based measure leaves students susceptible to moving on to material before they are ready, or remaining mired in a subject that they have already mastered. In addition to introducing flexible pacing, competency-based education attempts to import newfound rigor to the concept of “mastery.” In this new system, “competencies” describe what students should know,as well as what they should be able to do. Competency-based assessments aim to test students’ ability to demonstrate what they can do in real-world applications and across a variety of contexts.

Policies that allow institutions to measure student progress in terms of mastery rather than credit hours are beginning to take hold in K–12 and higher education. The U.S. Department of Education recently committed a wave of Experimental Sites Initiative funding to supporting competency-based approaches in postsecondary education, and more than 300 institutions are lining up to be among the approved experimenters. In K–12 education, states are following suit: 42 states have granted schools the flexibility to incorporate competency approaches in some form or fashion. Among states promoting K–12 efforts, New Hampshire has been a trailblazer.

The state’s move has enabled many innovative schools to transform the schooling experience for students. But spreading competency-based practice has also proven challenging in a state with a strong tradition of local control. One superintendent captured the wider sentiment when he said in an interview last year, “Frankly, a lot of superintendents don’t like the state telling them what to do in their districts.”

The state has struggled to balance a culture of autonomy with furnishing school districts with supports and guidance to move away from time-based practices. “The state is supportive in theory,” a New Hampshire school leader said. “They like the idea of competencies. I don’t think they’ve really thought through what has to happen for those things to be viable.” The challenge of providing meaningful supports is made more acute by the fact that the field at large is still attempting to research and understand exactly what is required—logistically, pedagogically, and culturally—to transition to a fully competency-based system. As a result, the state has found itself tasked not only with providing what districts say they need, but also with identifying still-emerging best practices in how to transition from time- to competency-based systems and structures.

Detroit’s Broken School System

Detroit is a classic story of a once-thriving city that has lost its employment base, its upper and middle classes, and much of its hope for the future. The city has been on a long, slow decline for decades. It’s difficult to convey the postapocalyptic nature of Detroit. Miles upon miles of abandoned houses are in piles of rot and ashes. Unemployment, violent crime, and decades of underinvestment have led to a near-complete breakdown of civic infrastructure: the roads are terrible, the police are understaffed, and there is a deeply insufficient social safety net.

There are new federal funds and private investment being directed to Detroit’s renewal. Bankruptcy proceedings are finally under way, and a new mayor wants to make a fresh start. But it’s hard to see how a renaissance can occur without making headway on the public schools. Detroit parents still have very few high-quality options, despite a number of different reform interventions, including putting a state-appointed emergency manager in charge of the district, pulling the lowest-performing schools into a statewide turnaround district, and allowing a significant number of charter schools to operate.

Ms. Gordon (not her real name) is a lifelong Detroit resident. Her 11-year-old son will enter middle school in the fall of 2014, and she is anxious about how to find and choose his next school. He has not had an easy time in elementary school; he struggled academically and was often in trouble for his behavior. Over the years, she has tried to talk to the principal and her son’s teachers, but it always felt as though no one was listening to her concerns or willing to work with her to address them. Now, as she’s looking for a middle school, she wants her son to have a fresh start and a chance to get the academic and social support that he needs. A friend suggested she look at the charter school that her daughter attends. The school sounded interesting, but Ms. Gordon decided it was too far away for her son to travel there safely on his own. Even if she could find a safe route, she was disappointed to read in a parent guide [published by Excellent Schools Detroit] that the kids at the charter school weren’t doing any better than those at the low-performing neighborhood middle school. In fact, few schools looked like good options, even though there were many to choose from. As she faced spring enrollment decisions at the time we talked to her, she felt she was no closer to finding a school that would be a good fit for her son. She expressed frustration and despair, recounting her efforts: “It just feels like you have to fight for your kids every day in this city, because no one else will.” 

Detroit Needs a Plan 

Detroit is a powerful illustration of what happens when no one takes responsibility for the entire system of publicly supported schools in a city. Parents struggle to navigate their many, mostly low-performing options, and providers face at best weak incentives to improve academic quality. As a result, large numbers of failing district and charter schools continue to operate.

That plan will have to address negligent charter authorizers and persistently low-performing charter schools, and identify novel ways to build and attract high-quality school-management organizations. It will also have to come up with strategies for restructuring or replacing most of the schools run by the school district and the state-run EAA.

We heard from many thoughtful advocates and civic leaders in Detroit who are trying to develop creative solutions for renewing Detroit’s schools. Their ideas tended to coalesce around five strategies:

1. Develop a strong core of high-quality schools in the charter sector by working with the best charter authorizers to develop quality benchmarks and close low-performing charters in a targeted set of neighborhoods. Local leaders also told us that they believe the governor is the only official who has the needed credibility and authority to weigh in on negligent charter authorizers.

2. Leverage change from the bottom up by helping parents and communities to push authorizers and the district to increase performance accountability. Community groups such as the Detroit Parent Network, Excellent Schools Detroit, and the Skillman Foundation are leading efforts to inform parents about their options and how to identify a high-quality school.

3. Double down on recruiting talented school leaders and teachers to Detroit. There have been some investments in Teach for America and other talent-recruitment strategies, but many observers believe they need an even stronger focus on human capital to bolster nascent high-quality local school providers. While through 2011, Detroit’s school spending was on a par with similar  cities (see Figure 3), charter schools in the city and statewide have received considerably less funding per pupil than district schools. Equalized, student-based funding, many say, would help to attract high-quality charter providers. DPS is also challenged to attract talent thanks to a 10 percent salary concession the emergency manager has put in place as a result of the district’s extreme financial deficit.


4. Engage Detroit city leaders, like the mayor and local developers, in addressing safety, transit, and social-service support to help families and schools develop a strong choice infrastructure. These efforts should be leveraged along with other urban-renewal strategies in the city.

5. Recognize that DPS is at risk for financial collapse and develop a plan to replace DPS with a community “portfolio manager” board and superintendent who will see their role as overseeing a citywide system of high-quality schools rather than operating schools directly. This would likely mean sharing district facilities and special education services with charter schools, and coordinated information and enrollment systems.

Given that there seems to be little appetite from the state legislature and governor for legislative action on these fronts, much of these efforts have to be driven by local leaders. One strategy is for a group of charter authorizers, district leaders, and school and school association leaders to come together to take a stand for quality to build on the existing success stories in Detroit. A public statement followed by a series of activities to promote more high-quality schools could drive improvement from the ground up if state leaders continue to fail to act. The group could form a powerful lobby to rally needed state and federal investment and regulations.

Another solution is to create a Detroit-based nonprofit organization that has sufficient funding and authority to be the citywide coordinating body for all public school buildings, special services for families, transportation, enrollment, and parent information systems. The mayor and foundation leaders could help tremendously by investing in citywide safe transit routes for students and new solutions for choice-based special education and mental health services, as well as counselors and consultants to help families navigate the choice process.

There are no simple solutions for Detroit, but it is clear that no progress will be made until state and local leaders stop trying to defend their turf and start solving the very real problems that parents face. As one Detroit community leader opined,

Detroit parents made it clear to us that they don’t care whether their child’s school is called a charter school, district, EAA, or private school. What they want and need is for some one to take responsibility for making sure that when their child heads to school each day, he or she will be safe, cared for, and well educated so that Detroit can rise again.

Personalization Be the Future of Learning

Personalized learning theory is built on the twin pillars of 1) differentiated learning pathways for students and 2) feedback that enables students to make informed judgments about what they’ve learned, how well they’ve learned it, and what to learn next. The importance of these two pillars for effective education is well established, yet traditional schools struggle mightily with both, mostly because there are only 24 hours in a day and educators are human.

Built on these two pillars, personalized learning has the potential to fulfill some of the most basic hopes families have for their children: “I just want my child to get what they need, when they need it.” “I want my child to grow and develop from where she is today.” “I want my child to experience success and grow in confidence as a learner.”

Differentiated learning paths honor student variation in both background knowledge and ability. Effective teachers assign work to students that is “appropriate to their current levels of competence.” But most teachers’ ability to manage multiple learning paths in multiple subjects is limited, at best. Arbitrary, age-based academic standards and fixed pacing guides only exacerbate the problem.

Substantially reorganizing school to honor the variation in student readiness is an option that educators only infrequently employ. At my children’s elementary school, the entire student body learns math at the same time, and students across the school are regrouped based on their needs, not their grade or age. I’m not arguing that this practice is the only answer to our problems, but it is clearly much easier to say “we differentiate for every child” than to actually put differentiation into practice.

Feedback has a powerful impact on student achievement, and providing it is entirely within the school’s control. In traditional classrooms, teachers are the bottleneck in giving student feedback unless there are other feedback loops students can access directly. In personalized learning environments, students theoretically have access to ample, frequent, and actionable feedback from multiple sources, including content, peers, and teachers. Teachers can focus their energies on 1) providing the feedback that only they can provide and 2) making sense of the feedback generated by other sources.

Together, differentiated learning paths and feedback create the basic conditions for personalized learning to occur. In addition, students need to own their learning. Every student should have the opportunity to go to college, where students are primarily responsible for their learning. This lies in stark contrast to K–12, where teachers are primarily responsible for student learning. Ensuring college readiness requires improving executive function and ramping up background knowledge, neither of which are core competencies in today’s schools. It is unrealistic to assume that in a traditional school, students will receive a seven-step lesson for every chunk of background knowledge they’ll need to succeed beyond the 4th grade. We need to organize our schools in such a way that students acquire background knowledge, accrue expertise, and develop independent learning skills.

Among the issues frequently raised by skeptics are that the research base for student-driven learning is abysmal. Individualized instruction has shown particularly weak effects on student achievement as have other methods that put the teacher in the role of facilitator. I suspect insufficient attention to background knowledge is the Achilles heel of those who believe teachers should be the “guide on the side.” I remain optimistic nonetheless, for two reasons. First, now that I have a deeper appreciation for what it takes to develop stable personalized-learning environments, I’m skeptical that prior efforts had the resources, capacity, or technology necessary for those initiatives to succeed. Second, the new wave of personalized learning draws on a set of instructional strategies that have shown particularly large effects on student achievement: feedback, peer tutoring, mastery learning, goal setting, and even direct instruction.

A second contention is that students are incapable of making good decisions about their learning. I agree that many students, without any structures, supports, or feedback, will make poor decisions about their education. But schools that move to student-driven environments create supports so students can function well. These include increased coaching, goal setting, feedback on progress, tiered supports, peer tutoring, small-group instruction, and other resources that together enable a greater percentage of students to manage their own learning effectively. For example, the first thing most schools do is put in a “minimum pace” to help address the “slow velocity” problem.

Opponents argue that students will avoid hard thinking in personalized environments without teachers. I generally agree that teachers are best positioned to lead cognitively challenging activities like Socratic seminars, deep reading, and math talk. Personalized learning environments are better suited to teach basic skills and background knowledge than to teach critical thinking. That said, students with significant background knowledge are capable of hard thinking when they take more ownership of their learning, and we need to honor those capabilities.

Similarly, opponents assert that personalized learning precludes great pedagogy like argument, discussion, and debateThis is a false choice. Students can engage in personalized learning for a portion of the day and spend the rest of their time in rich learning activities that only teachers can provide. The bet here is that if students can drive their development of basic skills and background knowledge, teachers can “trade up” and focus their energies on challenging tasks and compelling experiences. Teachers should be in the business of creating “aha” moments for children, not figuring out seven different math lessons for 25 different students.

Ben Riley argues that one of the important roles of the teacher is to “pick what to study next,” and Dan Willingham acknowledges that “craft knowledge trumps science” when it comes to differentiation. But clinical diagnoses have extraordinarily high error rates. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman cites a study in which experienced radiologists contradicted themselves 20 percent of the time when they saw the same chest x-ray on separate occasions. A recent Johns Hopkins study found that 28 percent of ICU patients had at least one missed diagnosis when they died. It is not unreasonable to believe that error rates are higher in education because of the lack of reliable heuristics and a relatively thin research base. This is not teacher bashing. If education is anything like other professions that rely on clinical judgment, it is likely that one in four education diagnoses (probably more) is incorrect. Students are best served when they have access to both expert judgment and the types of algorithmic supports possible in personalized learning environments.