Tennessee

Report: “Personalized learning” shows promise, but barriers remain

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Valor fifth-graders discuss how they are going to make their school the best in Nashville during an all-school morning meeting, which is held daily.

“Personalized learning” is in — the Tennessee Department of Education has an office dedicated just to the approach. But just what makes learning “personalized,” let alone whether such programs work, is less clear.

A new report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the RAND Corporation aims to define and analyze the performance of schools focused on personalized learning. It concludes that while early personalized learning efforts are promising, there remain practical and systemic barriers to expanding programs that aim to tailor instruction to individual students’ needs and skills.

“It seems theoretically like a good idea to let children work at their own pace and continue working on things until they get mastery on a topic,” said John Pane, a senior scientist at the RAND Corporation who led research for the report. “But it’s important to see if these schools did produce stronger takeaways than traditional schools.”

On that question, the report, ”Early Progress: Interim Report on Personalized Learning,” is cautiously optimistic. Researchers from RAND found that students in 23 personalized learning schools  did better on a computer-based reading and math assessment known as MAP than peers in a control group, and students who started out behind were even more likely to show growth.

But the report specifies that it’s not yet clear whether the personalized learning programs are responsible for the gains. Other elements of the schools — all charter schools that use technology in instruction — might help explain the scores, the report notes.

“Clearly it’s not harming students,” Pane said. “And it might be a possible explanation for why they’re doing well. We need to do more work to decide.”

The researchers looked at schools that had been using personalized learning programs for at least two years and had gotten funding from the Gates Foundation or other philanthropies to support technology, professional development, and other elements of personalized learning, but each had designed its program independently. (Chalkbeat also receives funding from the Gates Foundation.)

Although not all of the features were in place at every school studied, researchers found that the schools tended to use

  • “Learner profiles,” or records with details about each student;
  • Personalized learning plans for each student (students have the same expectation but have a “customized path”;
  • Competency-based progression, in which students receive grades based on their own mastery of subjects rather than on tests that all students take; and
  • Flexible learning environments, in which teachers and students have physical space and time in the schedule for small-group instruction or tutoring.

The report highlights advantages of personalizing learning beyond boosting test scores. Most teachers in the schools reported that they felt supported by administrators and that their professional development helped them tailor lessons to students’ needs.

It also highlights areas where teachers said their schools’ personalized learning efforts fell short. Fully half of teachers said the training they got took up more time than it was worth, and only a third said they got data about their students’ performance in subjects other than math and reading.

Vicki Phillips, who heads the Gates Foundation’s U.S. education division, said the results “give us a sense of what’s possible.”

“We have a lot more to learn and a broader band of schools to see if this is more effective — and a lot more to do to really isolate what works,” she said. “But if we don’t talk about it, we don’t grow or mature as a field.”

Personalized learning is a central approach at several Tennessee schools, particularly in the charter sector. Green Dot, which just opened its first Memphis school this year, says the approach is the backbone of all of its schools. And Valor Collegiate Academy, a Nashville charter school, cites personalized learning as part of what makes the school unique. “Every scholar is different, but all are wired for greatness,” the school’s website says

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede