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Personalized-Learning Case Studies: Lessons From 3 Schools

By Robin L. Flanigan — November 07, 2017 8 min read
Fifth grade teacher Elias Hernandez observes 4th grade teacher Jannette Moya at Belmont-Cragin Elementary School in Chicago.

Personalized learning is hard.

That much is clear, based on the lessons emerging from a wide variety of new models being tested in schools across the country.

But what specific hurdles do schools and educators encounter when they try to customize instruction for each student? How are leaders in the personalized-learning field responding? Is it working?

To help other K-12 educators and policymakers consider such questions, Education Week cast a spotlight on three schools, each affiliated with a prominent personalized-learning model, and each wrestling with a common implementation challenge.

Training Teachers for a Radical Change

Belmont-Cragin Elementary School | Chicago

In Chicago, the Belmont-Cragin Elementary School embraced an intensive approach to professional development, but teachers’ road to implementing an entirely new instructional model turned out to be rocky. At The Urban Assembly Maker Academy in New York City, the focus has been on getting students to take responsibility for making their own way through the curriculum, which has required more hands-on direction from adults than originally anticipated. And in Fresno, Calif., the challenge has been meeting students who are academically behind where they are, while still pushing them towards graduation.

To close big achievement gaps between its students, Belmont-Cragin Elementary School in Chicago partnered with nonprofit LEAP Innovations in 2016-17 to boost its personalized learning practices. Key to the model is a six-month professional development regimen to prepare teachers for the new approach. But even with such a prolonged, intensive, and intentional agenda, Belmont-Cragin found that training teachers to put in place personalized-learning models remained a big challenge.

Stacy Stewart, the principal of Belmont-Cragin Elementary School in Chicago, at left, and assistant principal Jorge Melgar meet with teachers, who regularly observe each other.

The school, which serves 585 students in pre-K through 8th grade, had huge gaps between students who were mastering grade-level content and students who were not. In one classroom, the gap ranged from the 70th percentile to the 7th percentile.

As part of its involvement in the LEAP Pilot Network, which pairs cohorts of schools with ed-tech companies and coaches, Principal Stacy Stewart rolled out new routines, guidelines, and procedures across the school and built in common planning time. But still, teachers “would stay in our own classrooms and focus on our own kids,” said Jannette Moya, a 4th-grade teacher. “We would share what we were doing virtually, then it would stop there.”

Teachers felt they needed more time in the day and follow-up training to do what they had been taught—but they were nervous about asking for help. At the same time, they were struggling to adjust to a new way of thinking about collaboration.

Stewart began having some teachers observe others during instructional time, with step-in assistance from student-teachers, followed by a question-and-answer session and the sharing of resources. And she encouraged cross-talk at weekly data-analysis meetings, whichresulted in one of the most significant shifts in the way the school educates its students.

Now, if Moya reports that some of her students are able to understand a literacy block at grade level in Spanish, but not in English, the special-education teacher can take them to his classroom for literacy lessons—no special-education status required.

“It helps us to service the kids more where their gaps are,” Moya said.

Meanwhile, data from Lexia, an adaptive ed-tech tool that supports literacy instruction, showed that teachers needed more guidance in recording interventions for struggling students. From Stewart’s dashboard, it looked like only 20 percent of struggling students were receiving additional small-group lessons. Teachers were taught to better differentiate between what was standard teaching, and what was above and beyond and worthy of documentation.

Stewart also brought in coaches from LEAP and Lexia throughout the school year for extra counsel—support that continues when needed.

“All of it is non-evaluative, and that’s the most important part,” Stewart said, meaning it won’t count against teachers in their evaluations. “These teachers believe in the work, but it’s not easy for them.”

In 2017-18, collaboration has grown stronger. Teachers often gather in one classroom during common planning times to swap ideas, and they regularly observe each other, regardless of grade level.

“We have grown to where we feel comfortable enough to ask for what we need, and now we’re working on next steps,” said Moya. “We need to have an open mind, to have the mindset that there’s still room to improve.”

Self-Paced Learning Twists and Turns

The Urban Assembly Maker Academy | New York City

When The Urban Assembly Maker Academy in New York City, one of a network of 21 small public schools focused on cutting-edge career and technical education, opened its doors in 2014-15 to only 9th graders, it gave students more responsibility than typically needed for organizing their time. As a result, more than 70 percent regularly waited until the last minute to start work on a project—then never turned it in.

“Kids show up in 9th grade used to every adult telling them exactly what to do and when to do it,” said Luke Bauer, principal of the school, which added one grade each year and now has 410 students in grades 9-12. “It’s not their fault. Being able to manage their time, set goals for themselves, and know how and when to get support can be tricky.”

The school, a recipient of a Carnegie Corporation Opportunity by Design grant, isn’t the only competency-based model to struggle with teaching students to effectively pace themselves.

One of the RAND Corporation’s recent studies found students at schools receiving Next Generation Learning Challenges grants for personalized-learning initiatives also failed to complete work at an acceptable pace. The report found the grading systems used were difficult to explain to parents and community members.

Bauer recalled experiencing those issues initially, which he said was “a little morale-killing for a new school.”

Andrew Calkins, the director of the learning challenges program, said students may struggle with pacing because for the first time they’re being asked to manage their own learning. “These are exactly the skills that students need to be developing today,” he said.

These days, more than 70 percent of students at The Urban Assembly Maker turn in their work on time. The turnaround is due mainly to a strong advisory program. Weekly check-ins called “self-awareness days” pose multiple questions to students, such as “Have you come across any challenges in your projects?” and “What resources could you use to figure out those challenges?”

Students also are given a checklist with key benchmarks and dates—for planning purposes only—to meet project deadlines.

Because an inconsistent number of standards required for mastery in different subjects led to confusion when students transferred to other schools, the school ultimately simplified its grading process and converted an overall rubric score to a traditional 0-100 scale.

As for difficulty explaining competency-based grading systems to parents, Josh Lapidus, a 9th-grade social studies teacher, said the barrier has been language that leans too academic.

The school is using a new program in 2017-18 called JumpRope, an interactive, standards-based platform school leaders believe more clearly articulates aggregate data that sum up student performance.

Lapidus advises other schools interested in adopting a self-paced approach to accept the iterative nature of steady—and sustainable—change.

“It’s not going to be a perfectly smooth transition,” he said. “Time spent developing good standards and good rubrics is time well spent.”

When Students Are Below Grade Level

Aspen Valley Prep Academy | Fresno, Calif.

To give some of its students a slice of independence, Fresno’s Aspen Valley Prep Academy wanted to provide 6th through 8th grades some flexibility to work on material of their own choosing. So the preK-8 school, where more than 80 percent of students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, began using Summit Learning’s personalized-learning software during the 2016-17 school year.

The platform, developed by California’s Summit Public Schools charter network, in partnership with engineers from social-networking giant Facebook, is one of the highest-profile personalized-learning technologies in the field.

But Aspen Valley Prep found that implementing the software wasn’t easy; with more than half of students who transfer into the school testing below grade level, there were roadblocks.

“The traditional system keeps pushing these kids through because of their age, yet they are never held accountable for learning what they haven’t learned,” said Hilary Witts, the director of Summit Learning at the Aspen Valley where she taught math and science to middle grades. “With so many gaps, they can’t access grade-level curriculum.”

Because the software platform is flexible, Witts inserted additional gap-filling learning resources so that students could go back several grade levels if necessary.

That had its challenges as well. English teacher Melani Harley recalled an 8th-grade student, frustrated and almost in tears, who loved to read but couldn’t pass a grade-level punctuation content assessment because he couldn’t distinguish between a noun and a verb. She gave him 6th- and 7th-grade content, but that wasn’t enough. She had to go back to a 4th-grade level—the grade, she eventually discovered, that he had failed despite being moved ahead with his class—to help him catch up.

Throughout the personalized-learning movement, there are signs that such pressures are getting in the way of giving students the types of choices Aspen Valley Prep aspires to. Recent studies by the RAND Corporation for example, have consistently found that students in personalized-learning schools report being given limited choice over the material they learn and the instructional approaches they receive. As part of the Summit Learning approach, Aspen Valley Prep assigns a mentor to each student. They meet one-on-one, at least once a week, to talk about assignments, goal setting and life skills.

“These meetings tend to become really personal,” said Harley.

As a result, staff said, the school has seen a cultural shift in the classroom in recent months.

“The students know where they’re at, they’re not embarrassed to know where they’re at, and they’re not embarrassed for other people to know where they’re at,” Witts said. “This program has totally revolutionalized their thought process.”

The hope is that will consistently lead to more students becoming more accountable for their own learning—while also getting more choice over what and how they learn.

Coverage of learning through integrated designs for school innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2017 edition of Education Week as Case Studies: Lessons From 3 Schools

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