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Mind the Gap

By Contributing Blogger — May 27, 2014 6 min read
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This post is by Jenny Davis Poon, Director of the Innovation Lab Network at the Council of Chief State School Officers. Connect with Jenny @JDPoon.

The muses that inspire “personalized education” reformers--that is, those who hope to radically redesign the education system to be more responsive to the needs of individual students on customized pathways that produce deeper levels of learning, as described here and here--are diverse. Some are motivated by the student watching the clock, bored by the traditional classroom that requires him to “sit and get” for 60 minutes, even though he already understands the lesson and wants to move on to something more complex. Others picture the cellist, playwright, soccer player, or robotics whiz that excels in the extracurricular space, only to have her accomplishments contribute nothing toward her in-school elective requirements (not to mention getting credit for any math, language arts, or science skills she might have developed in her pursuits). Still other reformers desire to improve the higher education business model, hoping to provide undergraduates and graduate students with greater choice at lower cost. All of these drivers are noble, but my personal reason for supporting the movement stems from the enduring gap in academic achievement between the wealthy and poor.

My muse lives in the gang-torn streets of South Central Los Angeles, where I began my teaching career. A nine-year veteran of Los Angeles’ public education system, my muse arrived in my biology classroom on the first day of high school with high spirits but low academic skills. He was fascinated by Planet Earth and other shows on the Discovery channel; but when it came to completing our labs, he hadn’t yet cultivated the necessary skills in measurement, graphing, or written communication to be able to fully participate. He also hadn’t perfected the kinds of time-management or organizational skills he needed to persevere. He struggled to keep up, often failing to transfer his knowledge to quizzes or tests.

Beyond offering after-hour tutoring to this student and the many others like him, I didn’t know how else to help. The loci of gaps in the “swiss cheese” learning he acquired over the years was more than he or I could decipher, let alone in a few hours spent after school. What we so badly needed was a systematic way of charting the knowledge and skills he possessed, understanding what he needed to work toward next, and then targeting--personalizing--supports to help him get there.

Howard Gardner pinpoints the link between the personalization movement and equity when he writes, “Throughout most of history, only the wealthy have been able to afford an education geared to the individual learner. For the rest of us, education has remained a mass affair, with standard curricula, pedagogy, and assessments.” As I noted in a previous post, reformers had valid reasons for standardization circa the 1900s. But with the changes that have occurred in our economy, society, and technology in the century since, we now have both the capability and the moral imperative to provide a world-class, personally-responsive education to all students, regardless of where they grow up.

Can we close achievement gaps without moving to a personalized learning system? We can, and have done so in small pockets of celebrated classrooms and schools across the country. Writ large, however, gap-closing remains an issue across the country. Personalized learning is a vehicle that, if deployed properly, has the potential to accelerate achievement among disadvantaged students by creating environments where these students have both the motivation and tools needed to succeed. First, personalized learning environments help students and anyone who assists them by removing the mystery behind what discreet knowledge and skills they have and have not yet cultivated. No longer would my “C” students move on to 10th grade while their new teacher wonders which 30 percent of my curriculum they had failed. Instead, the academic and skill-related “competencies” they had mastered would be made explicit. Further, the competency map would allow the student and teacher to plan immediate next steps on the path forward. After all, if you’re running a marathon, it’s more helpful to focus on your next several steps than the miles you have left to go. Lastly, personalized learning systems create agency, ownership, and pride by crediting what has been accomplished along the way and allowing the student to move on when ready. These sources of intrinsic motivation should not be diminished, as they provide fuel for a learning journey that lasts a lifetime.

It is essential to note, however, that pursuing personalized learning will not automatically result in decreased achievement gaps unless specific attention is given to equity. Whenever I hear colleagues say we will revolutionize schooling by making learning the “constant” and time the “variable,” my mind takes the well-known graph of achievement gaps and flips the axes, without consequence to the gap itself (see accompanying image). Without additional intervention, we can expect those farthest behind to require more time to reach specified levels of mastery, creating a “time gap” in time to graduation that falls along the same socioeconomic divides that define achievement gaps today. Personalized learning systems must be coupled with intentional supports and interventions that are responsive to individual learner needs, especially among disadvantaged students.

Achieve has convened a working group of state leaders and national organizations to explore equity considerations for personalized learning environments. In a forthcoming policy brief on the state role in advancing competency-based pathways (expected for release this summer), Achieve highlights seven areas within which system leaders can work to ensure equity. Among the recommendations are actions such as: ensuring consistently high expectations for all students; supporting flexible options for how students demonstrate what they know, including where and when such demonstrations can occur; monitoring the pace at which students move through material; flagging and providing additional supports for students who are farther behind; providing a timely, systematic processes through which students can access supports based on their individual needs; ensuring equitable access to effective teaching; and ensuring transparency so that students and parents understand and can support their child’s progress.

Examples of personalized learning systems that have successfully focused on closing achievement gaps are emerging. Tom Vander Ark and Carri Schneider profiled six such schools in “Deeper Learning: For Every Student Every Day.” Sonia Caus Gleason and Nancy Gerzon studied four more in “Growing into Equity: Professional Learning and Personalization in High-Achieving Schools.” Many schools and districts in the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Innovation Lab Network states also top the list of systems that have taken seriously the responsibility of closing achievement gaps through personalized learning, and are beginning to see results.

Yet we are still early on the journey, and as such, must continuously take stock of what motivates us to care about personalized learning systems in the first place. We must remember the end goal. After all, if it doesn’t work for all students, it doesn’t work.

When boarding the personalized learning train, please mind the gap.

Illustrations by Jennifer Davis Poon.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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