Category Archives: Personalized Learning

Future rivalries: the platform vs. the chief academic officer

I’ve previously written on the rivalry between chief academic officers (who manage instruction) and chief schools officers (who manage the portfolio of schools).

In traditional districts, I deeply believe that the chief academic officer should report to the chief schools officer, who should report to the superintendent.


In the future, I think the chief academic risks losing another battle: this time with instructional platforms.

In his book the End of Average, Tyler Cowen makes the argument that those professional who form symbiotic relationships with technology will thrive. He cites the example of hybrid human-computer chess teams.

It is likely that the same will be true in education.


My hunch is that in the future most schools and districts will be on educational platforms that combine human curation of content and algorithms to develop an instructional program from afar.

In this sense, many school operators will outsource many of the traditional roles of a chief academic officer to a platform.

Once these platforms get good enough – chief academic officers who claim “I know our children better” and demand full control of the academic program – will lose. The platform will be better.

The platform , on average, will be better than a chief academic officer.

But this does not mean that a platform, on average, will be better than a platform + a smart / humble / hardworking chief academic officer.

As with chess, the hybrid may very well win.


How might a chief academic officer add value in this new role?

She could:

  1. Monitor relationships and place students and teachers into groups in a manner that would be difficult for a platform to intuit.
  2. Utilize local community resources to augment instruction.
  3. Provide intensive academic support to students who are not progressing as expected.
  4. Provide non-academic interventions to struggling students.
  5. Run experiments to test whether new platforms might be better to adopt.

In other words, the chief academic officer might morph into a chief learning officer that focuses on psychology, relationships, anomolies, and technology acquisition.


Timing is one of the hardest part about incorporating technology into daily operations.

Move too fast and you have a mess.

Move too slow and you’ve harmed those you’re serving.

Over the past year, I’ve tried to spend time learning about the major platforms out there.

It feels like it’s getting close.

Not yet sure who is Friendster and who is Facebook.

The race is on, as they say.

Should Ed-Tech Platforms Empower or Restrict?

I’ve previously written on being bullish about the potential of ed-tech platforms.

Currently, both Summit Public Schools and Alt Schools are leading the way on developing platforms that may eventually be used by thousands of schools across the country.

Many people are drawn to ed-tech platforms because they can: (1) support teachers to curate innovative lessons and execute more personal coaching; and (2) allow children to learn at their own pace and explore their intellectual interests.

In short, ed-tech platforms are about empowerment.

But it is unclear to me that empowerment will be the only way that ed-tech platforms improve education.

I think they might also improve education by restricting educators and students.

I’m still trying to work through this, but see below for a graphic representation:

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The goal of many (thought not all) personalized and ed-tech enthusiasts is to move from wherever they are to the top right corner.

This vision has much to be said for it, and under the right conditions it very well may work.

But there is also another option – one based more on restriction than empowerment. A couple of great educators have been pushing me to think about this path as well.

The argument for restriction goes something like this:

  1. The No Excuses charter movement has learned a lot about what it takes to increase the learning of students who are multiple grade levels behind.
  2. It will be very difficult to scale No Excuses charter schools due to human capital, operational, and political constraints.
  3. Professional development has proved generally ineffective in spreading the practices of No Excuses charters to mediocre charter and traditional schools.
  4. A tech platform that utilized software that mimics the instructional practices of No Excuses charter schools – and then frees up teachers to do scripted small group and individual tutoring – could be a way to scale the core components of the No Excuses model while bypassing traditional human capital, operational, and political constraints.

Under this scenario, the goal is to move from the bottom-middle row (I do think No Excuses charters are empowering students more than before) to the top-middle row (with more scripted curriculum and teaching structure preventing this model from being ed-tech progressive).

In this model, the tech platform is really a backend way to scale a high-performing whole school model, in that the platform would dictate curriculum, assessments, pacing, and staffing.

Ideally, this packaged model would only take up 3-4 hours a day, and there could still be plenty of time for true project based instruction, extracurriculars, etc.

In summary: perhaps there is a (mostly) best way to teach basic reading and math, and, perhaps, a tech platform can scale this (mostly) best way.

And maybe the “big data” from such a platform could further evolve the (mostly) best way.

I’m not really sure. All feedback welcome.

Is No Excuses or Personalized Learning the Low Hanging Fruit of School Improvement?

On average, I visit a school every other week or so. For the most part, these schools are equal to or better performing than the median urban district school.

During these visits, one question I usually mull over is this: if I was leading the school, what would I focus on to drive the next phase of improvement?

Often times, what the school leader is focusing on and what I would focus on are at odds.

I don’t have extremely high confidence in my analysis, so consider the below speculative.


Here are the things I most often here school leaders saying they need to improve on: personalization, student ownership, and critical thinking. Tactically speaking, this often leads them to experiment with new models of instruction and technology.

All good things.

But I’m often thinking that the school really needs to get better at: instructional delivery, higher ratios of student intellectual engagement, and more effective use of small group instruction.

Most school leaders seem to believe that they have the basics down and need to go from good to great.

I tend to think that most schools are mediocre at the basics of things such as cold calling, wait time, efficient time on task, and tutoring – and the other hall marks of the no excuses model.


So here’s some questions on my mind:

  1. Should the median charter school be focusing on getting better at the basics of the no excuses model or experimenting with deeper innovation?
  2. If it’s true that the median charter school is still mediocre at the no excuses basics, what should we take from this? That high fidelity to the no excuses basics is operationally hard to scale for either intellectual, emotional, or human capital reasons? That many leaders don’t think the no excuses basics work?
  3. Is there a progression of improvement (i.e., you need to get the basics right before you work on deeper innovation) – or does shifting to more innovative models allow you to bypass the no excuses basics and still get academic gains?


My hunch is this: only the top tier charter organizations and the very best entrepreneurs should be working deeply on the margin of innovation.

Most charter schools should be working on the margin of better adoption of the tenets of the no excuses model.

Once new models are hammered out and refined – and get better results than the no excuses model – then the median charter school should begin adopting these new models.

But not before that.

In sum, I think better fidelity to the no excuses model is the low-hanging fruit of school improvement.

Maybe I’m wrong? Maybe I’m very wrong?

Personalized Learning Will Accelerate Relinquishment and Vice Versa


I believe that personalized learning will dramatically increase student engagement and achievement.

But, as I noted in my review of the recent Rand study on personalized learning, my guess it that, right now, the standard practices of high-performing charter schools are still driving much of the gains we see in great schools, even those that use personalized learning.

But I do think this will change as personalization, coupled with the technology that enables it, continues to improve.

But there are two under discussed issues with personalization that are worth touching on.

Personalized Learning Will Accelerate Relinquishment

Here is how the New York Times covers non-profit high-performing charter schools that serve low-income students:

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Here is how the New York Times covers for-profit private schools that use personalized learning to serve rich students:

Screen Shot 2015-12-05 at 12.12.56 PM

Get the point?

Personalization is the apple pie of education reform. Everyone loves it.

In case you haven’t noticed, not everyone loves common core, teacher evaluations, charter schools, etc.

Right now, No Excuses charters aren’t offering anything that most of America really wants.

By offering something that everybody wants, personalized learning schools may change the politics of education reform.

Over the long-run, it would not shock me if Alt-School is the gateway drug to vouchers.

Relinquishment Will Accelerate Personalized Learning

The top personalized learning schools are, for the most part, either charter schools or private schools.

This is not shocking.

New ideas and models are best brought into existence by entrepreneurs, and charter schools and private schools are much better vehicles for entrepreneurship than are government monopolies.

The more relinquishment we have -> the more entrepreneurs we’ll have -> the more innovative schools models we’ll have -> and, eventually, the more high-quality adopters we’ll have at scale.

I strongly believe that creating relinquished school systems is amongst the highest ROI strategies we have to increase personalized learning. Direct investment in entrepreneurs (in both the school operation and technology sectors) is probably the only other strategy that even comes close.

Of course, the two strategies are best executed in tandem.

In Sum 

Personalized learning will beget relinquishment.

Relinquishment will beget personalized learning.

RAND Study: Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning or Great Charter Schools?

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A friend just emailed me some questions about the RAND personalized learning study.

After reading the study, I too had some questions. My initial read is that the report did not do an effective job in drawing the right conclusions from the data.

Perhaps I’m misreading the study. The folks at RAND generally produce solid research. If I made some mistakes in my analysis, I’ll update the blog to reflect my errors.

Overview of Study Design: 

  • The treatment group implemented personalized learning strategies.
  • The treatment group included charter schools and district schools that received funding through a competitive personalized learning grant process.
  • The control group is made up of matched students and schools with similar performance,  demographics, and governance conditions.


  • Charter schools, in aggregate, achieved very significant and positive results: .1 to .4 effects.
  • District schools, in aggregate, achieved no positive results (the sample size was also smaller).

Concern #1: What is the Intervention?

The title of the study is “promising evidence on personalized learning.” But how do we know that personalized learning is driving the gains?

Those familiar with CREDO’s research on Charter School Growth Fund will remember that their portfolio achieves a ~.2 effect.

The charters in this study are hitting about the same marks, give or take.

So are we seeing promising evidence on personalized learning or further evidence on the effect of high-performing charter schools?

Running personalized learning charter schools through a rigorous selection model and then comparing them to other schools (even if they are schools of choice) is not a way to tease out the effect of personalized learning.

A better design would have had some high-performing charters adopt personalized learning and then compare their results to other high-performing charter schools.

Without this type of comparison, I don’t think we know that personalized learning is driving the gains; rather, the gains could just be caused by other elements of high-perfoming charter schools (culture, data usage, teacher coaching, etc.).

Concern #2: Is the Lede Buried?

The fact that district schools didn’t achieve positive results was the sixth “Key Finding” listed in the report, and it was not mentioned in the RAND website overview of key findings.

This happens too often.

Whether we’re talking about Newark, personalized learning, or some other topic, many times:

  1. Charters deliver most of the gains.
  2. The gains are reported out as positive.
  3. The fact the district didn’t improve (or improved much less) is not mentioned or is buried.

Yes, there are some exceptions, such as Washington D.C., where the district is also delivering real gains.

But too often charter effects are reported out as general effects.

In Sum

It’s great to see charters implementing personalized learning and getting strong results.

It’s disappointing to see that these gains were not achieved in district schools.

For me, this is further evidence that governance might be the most effective intervention we can deliver to ensure that all kids get the schools they deserve.