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Using Technology to Tailor Lessons to Each Student

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When 12-year-old Nina Mones was in sixth grade last year, she struggled to keep up with her math class, getting stuck on improper fractions. And as the teacher pushed ahead with new lessons, she fell further and further behind.

Then in the fall of 2019, her charter school, the Phoenix International Academy in Phoenix, brought in a program called Teach to One 360, which uses computer algorithms and machine learning to offer daily math instruction tailored to each student. Nina, now in seventh grade, flourished.

“I’m in between seventh- and eighth-grade math now,” she said, proudly. “It gave me more confidence in myself.” And when the coronavirus shutdown occurred, she said, her studies continued uninterrupted, thanks to the program’s online portal.

“This is a model for personalized learning,” said Sheldon H. Jacobson, professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a risk assessment public policy consultant.

The move toward a tech-driven, personalized learning system, like Teach to One 360 from a nonprofit called New Classrooms, is long overdue, experts say. Other industries, such as health care and entertainment, have been shifting in this direction for years. Personalized medicine, for example, looks at DNA biomarkers and personal characteristics to map out a patient’s most effective treatment, Professor Jacobson said.

And experts say the Covid-19 pandemic might be the spark that finally drives schools out of their comfort zones and into the world of innovation and personalized learning programs.

“We’ve seen an embrace of technology that was rapidly accelerated by Covid,” said Bob Hughes, director of the K-12 Education in the United States Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which helps finance nonprofits like New Classrooms.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, backs such programs. “Innovations like this,” she said, “can help educators meet students where they are and address their individual needs.”

A number of firms, like New Classrooms, Eureka Math, iReady and Illustrative Mathematics, have been working aggressively to bring personalized learning to the forefront.

Joel Rose, a former teacher, and Chris Rush, a technology and design expert, are the brains behind Teach to One 360, which is based in New York. When Mr. Rose first started teaching fifth grade in Houston in the 1990s, he was stunned by the number of students whose math skills were two or even three grade levels behind. “Some students were as low as the second grade, and other students as high as the eighth grade, and others in between,” he said.

This one-size-fits-all system is broken, he said, adding, “It is wildly outdated.”

So, in 2009, while working for the New York City schools chancellor, Mr. Rose partnered with Mr. Rush to create School of One (later renamed Teach to One 360), a technology driven math program for students in grades five through 12.

Here’s how it works: Students take a 90-minute MAP test, which is a standardized test measuring math skills, and a 60-minute diagnostic test to determine gaps and strengths. The program then uses algorithms and machine learning to identify problem areas and strengths, and creates a personalized daily lesson or “playlist.”

It also chooses the modality, or teaching method. Some may get their lesson through a traditional teacher-led class; others will work in small peer groups collaborating with students who are at a similar skill level; and others will work independently, using online interactive videos, games and math programs. Each student is assigned at least two different modalities a day, and a team of at least four math teachers oversees the program.

At the end of the day, students take a five-question quiz, and the algorithm uses the results to determine the next day’s lessons.

The program was rolled out to 1,500 students in three public schools — one each in the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn — as a pilot project. In 2011, Mr. Rose spun off the program into a nonprofit firm, called New Classrooms, and renamed the program Teach To One.

The company has raised $94 million from such entities as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Bezos Family Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, as well as government grants. The Gates Foundation, for example, has donated more than $31 million to New Classrooms since 2011.

ImageJoel Rose and Chris Rush outside MS 88 in Brooklyn. 
Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

New Classrooms faces competition from companies like Eureka Math, iReady and Illustrative Mathematics, which also offer programs to help teachers identify learning gaps and provide customized lessons.

However, most focus on current-grade-year lessons and assume that students already know the previous grades’ skills, Mr. Rose said. By contrast, New Classrooms gives every student access to multigrade curriculums and skills, which better addresses learning gaps in students who are several grade levels behind, Mr. Rose said.

“Our assessment identifies which specific skills at each grade level the student does and does not know,” Mr. Rush said. “A road map may say, go back and work on just these 10 fourth-grade skills and these 12 fifth-grade skills and 25 sixth-grade skills.”

On the content side, New Classrooms has partnered with some of its rivals, as well as online content providers like Carnegie Learning, Khan Academy, EngageNY and IXL, so that students can have access to their math content through the Teach to One portal.

Alfred Cordova, the principal at Taos Middle School in Taos, N.M., brought in Teach to One for his sixth-grade math students in 2015 to turn around his school’s dismal math scores. “Our scores had really tanked,” he said, partly because of the large number of students entering from elementary school with poor math skills.

“Very quickly, our sixth-grade students started excelling and passing our seventh and eighth graders ability-wise in math,” Mr. Cordova said. “It’s been a huge success.” He has since expanded the program to all grades.

The program also helps gifted students.

Jade Parish, a 13-year-old student at Taos Middle School, is in seventh grade but working on eighth-grade math, thanks to the Teach to One program. She said she used to be bored in the old system, where one teacher taught the same lesson to every student, regardless of their skills. “Working at your own pace is a lot better,” she said.

Currently, 27 schools across 11 states have adopted Teach to One. Still, getting schools to sign on has been challenging.

Cost, bureaucratic inertia, schools and teachers being set in their ways, and fears that technology could replace teachers are among the barriers, Mr. Rose said.

Schools are often under pressure to follow a traditional curriculum with textbooks and teacher-led classes to ensure that they cover the content needed for standardized tests. Many worry, Mr. Rose said, that veering away from traditional practices could affect test results, which would then affect school rankings and funding.

“Innovation has always lagged in education, and we are slow to change and slow to respond as an organization,” said Scott Muri, superintendent of schools at the Ector County Independent School District in Odessa, Texas, which brought the Teach to One program into three schools in 2019.

Then there’s the cost of purchasing the program itself, buying computers for students, adding math teachers and sometimes reconstructing classrooms to accommodate the different modalities. The total costs of such programs can vary substantially, and most school systems depend on grants to cover them.

Sometimes, money simply has to be redirected. “In our country, we invest a tremendous amount in K-12 and many people criticize that the current model just is not working,” Mr. Jacobson said. “So it’s not a matter of spending more money — it’s spending money in different ways.”

Teachers and principals must also be fully onboard for the program to work.

“You can have the best program on God’s green earth, but if you don’t have good implementation of it, it’s all for nothing,” Mr. Cordova said.

Credit…Caitlin O’Hara for The New York Times

And this can be tricky. Some teachers are reluctant to try innovative teaching methods, while others worry that technology could eliminate their jobs.

But Mr. Muri pointed out: “The program is not stand-alone. It’s married to the teacher. Neither work by themselves — you have to have both together.”

New Classrooms is expanding its program this month to include tools for schools currently not in the core program that want to help students learn from home. Its Teach to One Roadmaps Free program offers a free 90-minute virtual assessment and cranks out a road map of courses and content that the student needs to master the grade. In this free version, it’s up to the student to find the online content recommended.

Its Teach to One Roadmaps Plus goes one step further, giving students access to the tailored online content through its portal and charging schools $15 per student per year.

Mr. Rose hopes to expand the Teach to One 360 program beyond math to other subjects within five years.

“We are so underinvested in innovation in K-12 relative to every other sector of our society,” he said. “And I think in moments like this we’re now feeling the impact of all that.”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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