Our children live in an active and competitive experience-based world, where one-way schooling has become unacceptable and unhelpful. If ALL children really matter, then America must move to “individualize” educational opportunities and options and then “personalize” the instruction for each student.
Maximizing student educational opportunity and access to high quality schooling options must be the benchmark for public school progress to realize educational equity in America. Allowing families, students and teachers opportunities to match learning environments and programs to individual students’ needs and aspirations will drive the future of student and school success.
The legitimacy of high expectations from families and business clash with the passive, large group instruction and traditional classrooms which we find in many American classrooms. The status quo, for want of a better term, is choking the educational possibilities and futures of our children. We can break through the vicious cycle of antiquated instruction by adopting new methods of personalizing teaching and learning that meet new demands from today’s learners. And then, we can get to a point where ALL children, regardless of zip code, background or learning style, will have schooling that prepares them for life in a newly-competitive America.
My experience as a school district leader has demonstrated that ALL children can learn if their educational environment treats and understands them as individual learners, building on their strengths (Lopez & Louis, 2009). I have led what have been identified by the US Department of Education (the Department) as high poverty-high minority, school districts that have beaten the odds both in graduation and college level experiences; whether those experiences were during high school or after. Critically, these accomplishments occurred at less than the average per-pupil expenditure for our state. What was the differentiator? Individual education options and personalized learning.
Success for ALL is possible but with targeted and specific interventions, programs and national efforts. What are the national efforts needed to progress to success for ALL students?
The seven essential steps to progress are:
- Start Where Teachers Start: Change how teachers are prepared
- Provide Choice: Individualize student educational opportunities and options
- Personalize Student Learning: Meet all students’ needs
- Unchain Student Growth: A Competency-based progress path
- Leverage Data and Technology: Supporting teachers equitably and effectively
- Equitable Support for Rural Americans: Servicing technologically disadvantaged communities
- Link Funding to Impact: Launch quality-focused funding competitions
1. Start Where Teachers Start: Change how teachers are prepared
Good teachers start by learning how to teach well. If they experience predominantly lecture and textbook instruction they will have tendency to imitate such styles. If they themselves are exposed to successful personalized instructional methods, they will then be more apt to feel comfortable around and more likely to master such instruction in their own classes.
Students seeking careers as teachers need educational opportunities and options just as the students they aspire to serve do. Schools are thirsting for new teachers who have a strong understanding of (and skill in) personalization of learning and effective blending of technology-empowered instructional models and practices. Unfortunately, we seldom see that skilled teacher entering the schoolhouses in America because they have neither been exposed to personalized methods during their college pre-service, nor student teaching experiences.
Considering the billions of dollars being spent annually on professional development following the college pre-service experience without significant student performance results, we have to creatively find ways to restructure teacher development experiences. They must become more in line with what we know about good teaching in general, and the use of effective personalized teaching models that we know to drive individual student performance growth.
A good example of such restructuring efforts might be to incentivize the adoption of personalized learning pedagogies by higher education faculties, which have shown positive undergraduate student effects (Weimer, 2013). Similarly, as aspiring teachers themselves would now have had learning experiences in a personalized learning classroom during their pre-service education they would be more comfortable and willing to develop in their own teaching strategies and styles those successful personalized pedagogies.
We should also consider supplementing higher education’s role as a provider of in-service teacher development with direct financial support to the employers of teachers – public school districts. In many school districts the array of professional development is, for example, the functional equivalent of a Master’s degree while on the job. The Department should support LEAs that are able to run their own customized professional preparation programs that provide research-based experience and practice in understanding and developing strong teaching skills in personalizing student learning. Blending of those skills with technological assets, action research and experienced mentoring and coaching could ultimately lead to effective instruction for ALL PreK-12 students. Equally important would be the possibility for a more affordable advanced degree for those new teachers entering the workforce.
2. Provide Choice: Individualize student educational opportunities
In today’s education world, it only makes sense to provide for differentiated learning pathways in all schools and for all students. Unfortunately, the word “choice” in education has become synonymous with the charter school and voucher movements, perceived by many as anti-public school and dangerous to that institution’s financial health.
For the sake of this article, let’s speak in terms of “educational options,” for describing the right all students have to an appropriate educational environment that matches their particular learning style, educational needs and aspirational goals.
We should be reminded that “individual educational options” between and among public school opportunities are also essential and have become buried in the political and policy debates about choice. Countywide and cooperative educational jurisdictions are good examples of these.
State education departments, as well as federal officials, need to support initiatives where high-quality educational options for ALL students can be provided without creating fear and divisiveness. The fact remains, when a student is in the right learning environment for them, the first of three important requisites for successful learning is in place. The remaining two requisites of personalized instruction and appropriate competency-based assessments, will be discussed below.
3. Personalize Student Learning: Meet all students’ needs
We know how to personalize learning. A form of personalized learning, “Blended learning,” couples the best of technology with the best of teacher-led instruction. And the technology makes it possible for children to be treated as individual learners. Blended Learning has improved academic proficiency and closed achievement gaps between student groups (Education Elements, 2015). More importantly, blended learning increases educational opportunity by individualizing learning for specific student needs and styles, as well as amplifying good pedagogy across all teachers through adaptive strategies, data and resources. All teachers become better when implementing high-quality blended models and all students show growth when implemented with fidelity. With Blended Learning, students do better and so do teachers.
Although federal initiatives such as Future Ready and the Federal Office of Educational Technology have made valuable progress introducing school districts to digital learning opportunities, the byproduct to date from these efforts have provided limited resources for school districts looking to integrate quality personalized learning models to scale. The Trump Administration should continue these valuable efforts, and refocus their work to support school districts that have committed to personalizing teaching and learning to prepare them for high-quality implementation to scale for all students.
We need to move these significant positive effects from their current urban and suburban test beds to all schools, public and charter, urban and rural. The Department can support a national effort to scale these proven models, which is critical to decreasing the gaps and addressing ALL students’ educational learning needs.
4. Unchain Student Growth: A competency-based progress path
Traditional education models require that all students learn at the same pace and within the same time frame. Students are then evaluated in a uniform, standardized format, and be tested as if they were all making progress on an identical pace.
Competency-based progress fits ALL student learning styles and leverages the power of both individualized student opportunities and Personalized Learning by providing pathways of assessment that measure specifically defined learning objectives in active vs. passive ways. It also allows students, along with their teachers, to choose differentiated assessment approaches that fit with the individual student’s educational needs while demonstrating mastery. The individual student continues to be at the center of their learning rather than as part of a large standardized group. Both state and district level models have been documented and shown to have positive effects in New Hampshire and New York (FAIR Testing, 2016):
- New York State Performance Standards Consortium demonstrated that participating schools significantly outperformed NYC city schools serving similar students (NYPSC, 2015)
- New Hampshire studies found the scores across districts were “similar, indicating a high degree of comparability between PACE and non-PACE districts” to include subgroup data (NHDOE, 2016).
The most important work is at the school district level: to redefine Carnegie Units so that promotion requirements that were designed for the schools of a hundred years ago can align with a competency-based progress path. The Department can expand opportunities under the Every Student Succeeds Act’s (ESSA) Innovation Assessment Demonstration Authority to allow districts with high readiness indicators to have on-ramps to enable scaling of their work. Expanding opportunities through this authority would also support state accountability systems as they are developing regulations needed to successfully sustain competency based progress paths. Without that happening, personalized blended learning will never be able to realize its potential.
5. Leverage Data and Technology: Supporting teachers equitably and effectively
In all aspects of our lives, data fuels decision-making and technology makes work easier and more efficient. Our path forward towards better schooling will need to make better use of the tools that support so many other industries. We need to support our teachers with timely, actionable data in a form that makes it helpful to use to guide differentiation (Hattie, 2016).
We can do better than patterns of marginal schooling leading to marginal employment. We can do better than shrugging at the cruel differences between the technology/education/data haves and have-nots. With digital technology used equitably and effectively, we can support everyone’s learning to include those who have not, until now, been well-served by traditional schooling.
With better data, teachers can better meet the individual needs of students and district leaders can make more informed decisions around high impact purchasing and professional development. Technology in classrooms will help us to scale personalization, improve workflows and communication, and support teachers in becoming better at delivering effective strategies and content to students of varying abilities, interests and needs. It is imperative then that the Department supports current national efforts and the needed expansion in order to close the significant gaps in technology accessibility, bandwidth and access to appropriate digital resources.
6. Equitable Support for Rural Americans: Servicing technologically disadvantaged communities
All children deserve equal access to a high-quality education that includes teachers with effective adaptive teaching skills who can leverage the power of technology in schools that are wired and connected. They should be provided access to proven digital resources and rich data and adaptive assessments. In general, we must prioritize and create national policy to both scale successful individualized educational choice and personalized learning models (i.e., blended learning) across all demographics.
Targeted funding to develop an equal and equitable service plan for the most technologically disadvantaged school communities, which make up most of rural America, would make an important difference. Rural communities want their children to be equally prepared for a globally competitive world in which location is not a barrier and teams or groups can work virtually from anywhere. Rural America, if not forgotten, could be an enormous asset and engine for our new global economy:
- 22% of rural schools are found to have “fair” or “poor” technology infrastructure. (NCES, 2014)
- 42% of districts with less than 2,500 students have an Information Technology (IT) position while 82% of districts with more than 10,000 students have an IT position. (NCES, 2010)
- Access to Advanced Placement courses decreases with distance from urban areas with 42.8% of rural student enrollment in comparison to 97.4% of urban students. (UNH, 2015)
- The recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers are hardest in rural and urban inner city districts. (Maranto and Shuls, 2012)
Rural schools serve more than a third of America and the majority of students for more than half of our states. These students, and these schools, have and continue to be left behind in access to individualized learning due to outdated infrastructures, outrageous internet costs and limited access to high quality instruction. Rural Americans are deserving, proud and hard-working: although disproportionately low income, they often refuse public assistance. They should have the same excellent educational opportunities for their children that the rest of America has sought.
7. Link Funding to Impact: Launch quality-focused funding competitions
Education funding competitions should focus around high priority topics with proposals selected on the merit of their potential impact on student performance and growth with proficiency/competency being the targets. Successful instructional models and/or proof-points, such as personalized learning which has shown great promise at maximizing student growth for ALL children, need to get into the hands (or pedagogies) of significantly more teachers and at a more rapid pace.
Though the Race to the Top-District grant program was designed to create proof points for personalized learning by implementing a range of innovative local approaches to it, relatively little if funding is available for refinement and replication of the successful practices identified through the initial investment. In the first three years of our personalized learning work in Middletown, student progress over the course of each school year was, on average, almost 50 percent more than national benchmarks would predict for reading, and almost 30 percent more for math, as measured by NWEA MAP.
Such “proof-points” should be widely scaled and in a more aggressive way without requiring randomization of students like the Department’s Education, Innovation and Research expansion grants currently do.
One important program we run in Middletown offers a money-back guarantee on the quality of basic skills to our high school graduates and their employers. If the graduate’s skills do not measure up to the employer’s needs, the district pays for additional education. There are other districts serving children from economically challenged communities and families that can be competitive and successful in a re-structured funding process, but as they are working under a compliance driven framework rather than an equity framework, they do not see the value of following their students after graduation.
The Department has an opportunity to support equity frameworks by elevating the value of quality education models such as Middletown’s, education that is based on rigorous academic standards to meet college and career readiness skills by restructuring current funding priorities and review processes and through the development of new funding opportunities.
Let’s stick to what we have come to know works, shows results, and has great promise. Let’s make teacher development programs and experiences more effective through personalized instruction approaches that have been shown to work regardless of the type or demographic of student.
If we are serious about improving education then we also need to get serious about improving teacher quality and instruction, providing individual educational opportunities and personalized instruction. We need to remember that education for ALL means students of all demographics, and in all parts of our country.
Research and development will be essential. The U.S Department of Education and the Federal Communications Commission, in collaboration with the philanthropic, community, profit and not-for-profit sectors, professional teacher and administrator organizations and teacher education preparation programs should commit to making a comprehensive and large scale shift in our approach to schooling, a moon-shot research and development effort to strengthen the capacity of individualized learning, teacher pedagogy with the effective use/leveraging of technology, especially for rural communities.
Finally, it is compelling how creative and innovative Americans can be when the rallying cry resonates and is legitimate. If we want ALL students to be successful, then ALL America has to be behind and support what is paramount to a moon-shot, which will be necessary to provide individualized educational opportunities and personalized instruction for ALL of America’s students.
Dr. Kenneth Eastwood is superintendent of the Enlarged City School District of Middletown, New York. Read more about Middletown’s work personalizing teaching and learning here.
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