Vodicka, aware of such findings, said the results of personalized learning depend on how it’s implemented—and that AltSchool was already addressing many of the concerns identified by the Rand review by, for example, creating flexibility in the pace at which students progress through a course and giving teachers time and resources to develop and evaluate new materials and approaches. “There’s a version of personalization which ends up as computer-based screen time in which the learner basically gives up their agency to the technology,” he told me. “That’s not what we’re trying to do at AltSchool.”
Another school network that has been using technology and personalized learning for years in an effort to eliminate the achievement gap, with mixed results, is Rocketship Public Schools a network of charter schools, which serves low-income Latino and African-American students, mostly in and around San Jose. It has won credit for pushing up test scores but has also been criticized for its heavy reliance on computer-based instruction.
Why technology alone won’t fix schools
At Rocketship Los Sueños in San Jose, students spend extended periods of time on laptops in their classroom and another 90 minutes in the Learning Lab—a large room where kids spend time sitting at long tables, wearing headphones and working on laptops, supervised by classroom aides. On a visit last June, I found that few things broke the silence: when kindergartners filed in from recess; when a staff member came into the room. Students scarcely talked and when they did, or their attention drifted too far, they were admonished. A supervisor prompted the kids to “focus” and “sit up”. She counted down—“8, 7, 6, 5, 4”—when it was time to switch from one software program to another. The kids looked zoned out, with blank expressions on their faces. “Technology is not a substitute for excellent instruction at Rocketship Public Schools,” a spokesperson for Rocketship said. “Our teachers lead the learning process for every single student we serve.”
When Paul France went to work at AltSchool, he told me, he believed using technology in schools could “minimize the complexity of the classroom ... and make us more powerful, allowing us to do other things with our time.” He helped open three Bay Area schools and worked closely with engineers, testing and developing software. As the school’s buzz grew, he became the company’s poster-teacher, appearing in stories in Wired, The New Yorker, and Pacific Standard. “He is young, enthusiastic, and enterprising—the kind of teacher every parent would want for their child,” Issie Lapowsky wrote in Wired.
France and his fellow teachers prepared lengthy narrative reports on each child’s progress sent twice a month to parents. For many parents, that wasn’t enough. “Parents are coming to me asking, ‘What are you doing to individualize for my child?’” France said. “Or ‘Why is my child working on the same thing as that kid over there?’” He felt many parents seemed to put more faith in software like Lexia, a reading program, and DreamBox, a math application, than in teachers. They’d ask, for example, why a student who’d already passed a certain standard in DreamBox was still doing similar work in class. “They don’t know how mastery works with kids,” France said. “The programs aren’t really assessing for conceptual understanding, they’re assessing if they answered the question right.”