Learning Gets Personal; the Nation's Next Education Reform Movement Shifts to More Customized Learning to Ensure Students Master Skills before Advancing

Article excerpt

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AT EDUCATION CONFERENCES, AS WELL AS in professional association reports, as a target area of funding for nonprofit foundations and in the literature of industry vendors, the term, "personalized learning" has taken center stage in an arena already crowded with complex and long-standing issues and concerns.

Why personalized learning? And why now?

Education industry veterans know the concept of customized learning is not new. The terms "individualized learning," "differentiated learning" and "individualized learning plan" have long been part of the education lexicon. But the term "personalized learning" has only just cropped up. Its difference is that it makes the student key: "A learner's needs, abilities, aptitudes, motivations, interests, skill levels, and most successful learning situations combine to provide a 360-degree view that reveals his or her best pathway to success," says Joel Rose, the founder of New York City's pioneering School of One math program, which personalizes student schedules on a daily basis. The elements of 21st-century learning are part of personalized learning, but added to these is the more revolutionary component of a competency-based, time-variable model in which students progress at their own pace as skills are mastered, rather than advancing through grade levels with peers.

The rise of personalized learning in districts across the nation can be attributed to a convergence of multiple circumstances, including technological advances, nearly ubiquitous digital content, the Obama administration's support for school innovation, and the growing willingness of states to grant waivers for mandated "seat time" requirements and, in cases such as Alabama and Colorado, to eliminate those requirements altogether.

Education leaders and experts agree the current model of education in the country is incapable of meeting the personalized needs of students and that a systemic redesign--not just a tweaking--is needed (see sidebar about the symposium, p. 34).

Reinventing Schools

Beyond the talk, however, there is action. The nonprofit Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC) is one group at the forefront of transformation. RISC was born of a mid-1990s initiative that threw out traditional grade bands and instituted personalized learning to turn around the failing Chugach School District in Anchorage, Alaska. The district Website notes that in five years, composite scores on the California Achievement Tests rose from the 28th to the 72nd percentile, and the percentage of students taking college entrance exams went from 0 in 1996 to 70 in 2001.

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Building on that concept, a former Chugach superintendent, Richard DeLorenzo, who led the transition to performance-based learning, co-founded RISC in 2002 with Chugach former colleagues Wendy Battino and Rick Schreiber. The organization supports schools and districts willing to leave behind traditional age-level and grade-grouped approaches to education in favor of a student-centered performance model.

"The incremental changes we've made in the past were dearly not getting to the heart of the problem," says DeLorenzo. "We still have 7,000 students [nationwide] dropping out of school every day."

More than a dozen schools and districts in Alaska, California and Colorado are implementing RISC, which also has a statewide contract with Maine. Working first with six districts in Maine exhibiting the most "readiness"--those with reforms already in the works the program will gradually expand.

Another group active in the personalized learning movement is the Stupski Foundation, which is focused on transforming public education so that all students are prepared for college and/or careers. The foundation has worked with districts nationwide since 1999 to help develop data systems and leadership capacity. …