Personalizing Learning in Urban High Schools

By Nordgren, R. D. | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Personalizing Learning in Urban High Schools

Nordgren, R. D., Academic Exchange Quarterly


Much-maligned urban high schools are in need of major reform if they are to ensure that their students are prepared to be successful workers in the post-industrial economy. Ongoing small school reforms may help provide the personalization needed to make schooling relevant and engaging, but without self-devised personal learning plans, students will never attain the levels of autonomy, self-directedness, and responsibility that are crucial in the global age.


The model of schooling most prevalent in urban high schools today is an industrial-age relic where students are expected to learn the skills and values that do little to enhance their abilities to navigate their futures (Anyon, 2005; Delors, 1998; Egol, 2003; Meier, 2002; Toffler & Toffler, 1994). It is a model that relies on a "pedagogy of poverty" (Haberman, 2000) ensuring that the already disadvantaged continue to be disenfranchised in the Post-Fordist economy and the rapidly changing "Global Village." Scholars have offered strategies to rectify this regrettable situation, strategies such as culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy (Anyon, 2005; Delpit, 1996) that show much promise but may be unattainable in the present urban high school environment of control, where goals are set for low-level skills attainment. To counter the present state of urban high schools, this article proposes the use of personalized learning plans (PLP's) that are developed, maintained, and monitored by the student; plans that would require increased levels of responsibility, trust, and autonomy among students and educators. The results may be the fostering of autonomous, self-reliant, and self-directed workers as well as responsible, effective citizens.

Changing skills, values, and dispositions

The skills and values required to succeed in the global economy, particularly autonomy, collaboration, self-directedness, and responsibility, are lacking in most urban high schools (Anyon, 2005; Egol, 2004). The ability to work autonomously without supervision or coercion while functioning in a collaborative, team-oriented structure are essential for urban school graduates to succeed as "knowledgeworkers" rather than low-wage service employees destined for financial insecurity (Reich, 1991; 2002). Urban high schools that rely on bureaucratic structures and behaviors have allowed urban students and their teachers to become deskilled (Anyon, 1997; Johnson, 2004) with their reliance on scripted lessons and unauthentic assessments, and may be widening the gap in wealth and power in the US (Giroux, 2003; Sehr, 1997). Yet, focusing on economic needs and workforce skills does not minimize the importance of learning to live in a multicultural global society. The model of organization championed by leaders in management fields is one that is democratic, collaborative, and tolerant (Deming, 1986; Senge, 1990), one that would be conducive to fostering citizens who can live peacefully amongst those of other races, cultures, and religions. This model can be replicated in small, autonomous schools but, as will be explained later, must be reinforced by self-devised, PLP's.

Global skills in the Accountability Era

Autonomy is one of the key traits that knowledgeworkers in the global economy must possess (Dobbin & Boychuk, 1999). Due to the impact of the accountability movement of the past two decades with its crushing effects on urban education (see Anyon, 1997; 2005), US schools have resisted allowing for student autonomy (Solomon & Battistich, 1996). Although attempts have been made to increase autonomy of teachers with such reforms as "site-based management" (Shapiro, Benjamin, & Hunt, 1995) these attempts are at risk due to top-down directives of states and the federal government emanating from "get tough" business approaches that dictate the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) (Meier & Wood, 2004). If urban high schools wish to prepare students for the future workforce, they may have to subvert the constrictive forces of the accountability movement and move toward empowering those who work in the schools: teachers and students. …

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