On Mondays at Luella Middle School, the big, broad goal of “personalized learning” gets distilled down to a simple concept: Students who need extra help get it.
All students at the school in the Henry County system in Georgia spend an entire day once a week with access to additional academic support. The decisions about which subjects they will spend the most time with—math, language arts, social studies, or another—are left largely to them.
Those sessions, known as What I Need, or WIN, periods, are designed to give students choice and responsibility over their learning. They’re one piece of an entire fabric of academic strategies that the district has been rolling out over the past few years, while allowing for experimentation, missteps, and adjustments along the way.
One of the biggest adjustments came a few years ago, when Henry County officials settled on a personalization strategy, only to refashion it after deciding that their original plan was too focused on technology and other objectives that should have been secondary.
Their new model makes it clear that tech tools and devices are designed to serve deeper goals, such as promoting the autonomy of individual schools and giving individual students more power to make decisions.
“We realized that the center was the student being the change agent,” said Aaryn Schmuhl, the district’s assistant superintendent of leadership services. “Kids need to be owners of their learning and partners in that. Everything else is sort of window dressing and structured around that.”
The responsibility delegated to students in Henry County is on display in the WIN sessions overseen by 8th grade math teacher Gayle Herrington.
During those Monday classes, some of Herrington’s students work on assignments individually, while others work in small groups. In one area of the room, students tackle math problems on desktop computers.
In a traditional class, a struggling student is told, “The topic of the hour is this—and they may still be two topics behind,” said Herrington. “Now, the students are beginning to see, ‘I can catch up and I don’t have to be left behind.’ ”
Rethinking the Strategy
The effort to create a model for personalized learning in Henry County began with a false start.
In 2012, the 42,000-student district applied for a federal grant through the Race to the Top program. The vision called for reinventing curriculum, instruction, and school structure, with a heavy emphasis on technology and blended learning.
The district didn’t get the grant. But the rejection prompted officials to rethink their strategy. Losing out in the federal competition “advanced the cause,” Schmuhl recalled.
Henry County’s original personalized-learning plan was initially crafted by a relatively small group of people, Schmuhl said. As they designed a new approach, Henry County officials say they reached out to a much wider group of stakeholders, including parents, teachers, and school leaders.
Today, that revised model for personalized learning rests on five pillars. There’s a focus on nurturing competency-based education, with flexible pacing for students; promoting readiness for college and careers; boosting learning through technology; supporting project-based learning; and establishing learner profiles, or personalized-learning plans for students.
Variations on those principles are used by districts around the country that have been testing personalized learning in recent years, with the encouragement of philanthropies that are supporting experiments in that area.
In the years after losing out on the Race to the Top bid, Henry County won a measure of redemption, securing more than $4 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the Next Generation Systems Initiative grant program to support its revised agenda. That money, which came from 2013 through 2015, has supported everything from the district’s hiring of personalized learning managers at individual schools to covering the costs of district officials for travel to study academic models Henry County was considering imitating.
Last year, six Henry County schools opened under newly designed models. This academic year, the district launched a second cohort of nine redesigned schools. Another eight are piloting new approaches, and the district is about to choose nine more.
The goal is to have all schools doing some form of personalized learning—in the way that those schools choose to define it—by 2020.
Henry County’s rethinking of its strategy is consistent with a broader trend, said Wendy Surr, a senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research who has helped states implement personalized-learning strategies.
Initially, the main focus in many personalized-learning efforts was in tailoring lessons to different academic levels to meet student needs, primarily through technology, said Surr. In recent years, many districts have taken a “more nuanced view of personalization,” she said, one centered on recognizing the different ways that students acquire knowledge, and how to challenge and inspire them.
That strategy, in turn, is requiring school leaders and teachers to take a different view of instruction and cede more control to students.
In many personalized-learning models today, teachers act as “guides and facilitators” who do more than just “stand and deliver information,” Surr said.
One of the core features of the Henry County personalized-learning plan has been the redesign of individual schools with district scheduling, instructional, and curricular strategies. District officials reviewed those plans, but gave individual schools broad autonomy to develop their own models.
At Luella Middle School, a big focus is on giving students influence over their academic trajectory. Rather than having entire classes of students move at the same pace, students are given individual “playlists” in each subject—basically, schedules of their learning, with activities they need to complete to show mastery. Those activities can be more straightforward academic assignments or performance tasks.
Watch a video about a student in Henry County, Ga., where school leaders have put in place a personalized learning program that aims to shore up students’ academic weaknesses.
Technology plays an important role at Luella Middle, but only to serve the academic goals targeting individual students’ needs, explained Mary Carol Stanley, the school’s principal. The playlists are designed by teachers and housed electronically on the district’s learning management system, as are academic profiles of students, which include notes on their interests. Different teachers use different forms of technology, and many students bring their own devices.
The modest approach to technology use is partly a result of feedback from parents during the initial planning process for the new school, Stanley recalled. Some parents were afraid their children “would be on computers all day and not have interaction with teachers,” she said.
Quick Formative Assessments
At Luella, students are given a lot of power to make their own decisions about their individual academic needs—within parameters set by the school and its teachers.
During the course of a week, teachers regularly give students quick formative assessments to gauge their mastery of lessons. Students give their preference for WIN class the week before—and groups of educators review them, agreeing to some student preferences, changing others if they think a student needs extra help. Students go to their assigned WIN classes the following Monday.
As it is, extra help that Luella Middle School students receive is within their assigned grade level; school officials say they’re considering options for allowing students to receive customized support that is above or below their current grade levels.
In Herrington’s math class, students come seeking help with specific lessons, such as integers, a common stumbling block in math. Or they need help building broader skills, like learning how to check their work.
With students working on different assignments, individually and in small groups, one of the biggest challenges for teachers—which Henry County administrators acknowledge—is managing it all and keeping students on task. Herrington said she tries to shift throughout the room, stepping in when there’s a break in one group’s activity, refocusing students when they need it.
“There are multiple things happening at one time,” Herrington explained. The goal is to have “students taking ownership” of the learning, “but that doesn’t happen naturally. It’s something we’re training them to do.”
Teachers in many districts using personalized-learning approaches face similar pressure as they’re asked to transform their style of teaching, said Surr of the AIR.
For many teachers, “it’s a leap of faith to say that these students will want to learn, and to think that they’re going to come to me for help when they need it,” Surr said.
One student who has sought help in Herrington’s classroom is Hailey Miller, an 8th grader. Since last year, she’s learned that sometimes the guidance comes directly from the teacher, but she can also get support from classmates moving at a more advanced level.
“I plan out my questions, and I write them down,” the 13-year-old said. “Usually, I sit close by her when I need help.”
The personalized approach is different at Henry County’s Locust Grove Middle School. The school uses a “competency-based” model, setting different learning levels—1, 2, and 3—for each subject and grade—and allowing students to advance through them at their own pace, based on performance.
Teachers give students options for advancement. Last school year, a student who was interested in music showed competency in a social studies class—where students were asked to create countries and delve into issues of geography, economics, and history—by composing a national anthem for his nation, recalled Anthony Townsend, Locust Grove’s principal.
“The idea with competency-based learning is that the competency can look like different things,” Townsend said. “Our mission is educating the individual student.”
Henry County officials applied for and received flexibility under a “performance contract” with the Georgia education department for a number of pieces of its personalized-learning model. The flexibility grants schools greater freedom to award academic credit based on measures other than just seat time, to revise courses to meet school needs, and to use state funding with more latitude, among other changes.
In exchange for that leeway, the Henry County schools will have to meet yearly academic targets.
District officials say the early academic results are promising. Most, but not all, of the initial six schools that launched the personalized-learning model last school year made academic gains on state tests that outpaced average gains across Georgia.
Henry County officials’ belief that technology is only one piece of personalized learning—not the core of it—is shared by leaders in some other districts, too.
The Frederick County, Md., school system is in the earliest stages of a five-year plan to build its personalized and blended learning programs. But it is starting by trying to understand teachers’ needs and meet them. It has also taken an inventory of its existing technology to try to see what models of innovation its digital tools can support, said Kevin Cuppett, the executive director for curriculum, instruction, and innovation across the 41,000-student district.
“We believe in both low-tech and high-tech personalization,” Cuppett said. The interest is “leveraging technology, where kids have some say in the time, place, and pace of learning.”
The success of personalized-learning efforts in many districts will hinge on K-12 systems’ ability to resist rushing to implement sweeping changes to models, and instead try to nurture buy-in from educators and the community, said Surr.
“Teachers need to be given a voice and choice in trying different strategies” in personalized learning in their classrooms, Surr said. “If you allow them to experience success, they will spread it to others. It creates a ripple effect.”
Coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards and the use of personalized learning is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2016 edition of Education Week as Students Pinpoint What They Need