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Professional Development Opinion

Addressing Equity by Personalizing School Cultures

By Mary Hendrie — June 18, 2014 4 min read
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A new book argues that effective school-wide implementation and use of personalized learning is essential to the pursuit of greater educational equity.

In Growing into Equity: Professional Learning and Personalization in High-Achieving Schools (Corwin, 2013), Sonia Caus Gleason and Nancy Gerzon present detailed case studies of four schools explicitly striving for greater equity through personalized learning for both students and teachers. They define personalized learning generally as instruction that is based strongly on an educator’s close understanding of students’ individual needs and their ability to address them effectively.

Along the way, they offer practical demonstrations of what it takes to integrate such instruction on a school-wide basis, paying particular attention to changes in teacher professional development.

This book presents not a dispassionate review of personalized-learning strategies but rather a call to action. (The final chapter is, in fact, titled “Call to Action.”) “As we push to increase the number of students who succeed,” Gleason and Gerzon write, “we hit a wall unless we take students, one by one, and put our heads together to make sure that they make enough progress toward high standards.”

Gleason and Gerzon augment observations and analysis from their research and cite interviews with 23 educators and a wealth of materials from the featured schools, including sample charts, checklists, handouts, and student surveys.

The schools’ professional-development approaches are plumbed in-depth to give insight into the school structures and collaborative cultures necessary to implement an individualized instructional model. Gleason and Gerzon argue that the personalized-learning approaches of the four schools demand individualized learning for teachers as well as students, thus promoting a culture of continuous professional development and collaboration. The featured schools offer detailed examples of how schools can leverage short-term data cycles, targeted student interventions, and extensive, well-structured training to meet the needs of all students.

All four of the schools featured have regular data-analysis meetings to both identify students’ individual needs and to improve teachers’ professional capacity to meet those needs. These collaborative professional forums suggest that the pursuit of equity through personalization cannot be satisfied through isolated classroom practices, but instead demands buy-in from the highest levels of school leadership. As Holly Ward, the English-language learning coordinator at Tusculum View Elementary School in Greenville, Tenn., notes of her school’s model, “Differentiated instruction is not a new thing that we will just add to our bookshelves. It is something we are becoming; it is part of who we are.”

Despite the wealth of the sample materials offered, the book’s heavy focus on the role of the greater school community may preclude its usefulness as a how-to manual for individual teachers. The personalized-learning models outlined in this book rely on a school-wide network of leadership, revamped professional-learning structures, and clearly codified school values.

At Stults Road Elementary in Dallas, one of the featured schools, teams of teachers at each grade level meet every week to comb through short-term assessment data and place students in appropriate targeted-instruction groups. A dedicated instructional leadership team comprised of the principal and three specialists, in turn, reviews feedback forms from the grade-level teacher teams to determine the teachers’ professional learning needs to be addressed in weekly professional learning community meetings.

Gleason and Gerzon intentionally focus their analysis on a diverse set of schools. While all the schools featured have relatively small student populations, they range from rural to urban and from pre-K to high school, representing the potential value of personalized learning for a diversity of student demographics. All four of the featured schools, though geographically and racially diverse, also serve large proportions of low-income students.

Though explicitly promoting particular approaches to professional development and personalized learning, the tone of the book is more instructive than prescriptive, with Gleason and Gerzon far more apt to celebrate the successes of these model schools than to denigrate alternatives. Since the authors begin with the assumption of the value of personalized learning in addressing educational equity, more attention is paid to studying how schools can implement such instructional models than to proving that they should. The criteria for classifying these four schools as “high-achieving,” for example, is only vaguely addressed, requiring readers to trust the authors’ judgment of the success of these schools.

Teachers interested in learning more about how the principles of personalized learning can practically be applied on a school-wide basis will find much to like about the comprehensive case studies included. Given the limited sample size of the schools explored, Growing into Equity may not be the last word on personalized learning, but it does offer a persuasive argument for continued exploration of the approach as a way of addressing educational equity.

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