Personalization Is the Key to Transforming Education

Students at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester, Mass., in 2008. (Adam Hunger/Reuters)
The same technologies that customize our purchases and media preferences can help kids learn at their own pace.

The results of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called “the nation’s report card,” are cause for concern. More than a generation into the digital age, America’s fourth- and eighth-graders made little to no gains in reading and math. Educators are working hard, and leaders are investing in targeted interventions for students along with engagements for parents. Yet only 37 percent of American fourth-graders have the reading skills they need — and that number is not improving. The key to making everyone’s work and innovation pay off lies in applying the now-familiar technology of our daily lives to teaching our children.

Today’s adaptive technology allows us to personalize our news, shopping, media, and even fast-food orders. We must now employ this innovation in our schools to personalize education for our students. I’m a millennial Teach For America alumnus who was elected in 2016 to lead the public schools in North Carolina. Here I am considered an education reformer. But this technology is more than an “education reform”; it is how we transform education for students, parents, and educators. Every side of the debate should support this transformation to help us break our current performance gridlock.

First, the underpinnings of our education system were designed in the early 20th century with early-20th-century tools to meet the needs of an industrial society. We require teachers to convey standard information from standard textbooks at a standard pace. Students then take a standardized test to prove memorization of standard facts. Regardless of whether each student shows mastery or fails, the entire class proceeds to the next standard.

The system works for some students, but many others start off behind or fall behind and never catch up. Some students find the material too easy and are never fully challenged. Meanwhile, most educators would probably rather devote their time to addressing the individual needs of their students and helping them develop critical thinking, but they must teach to end-of-year tests that are not able to inform their instruction during the school year.

With the new adaptive technology, teachers, students, and parents no longer have to tolerate this model. The appropriate use of this innovation in the classroom, known as “personalized learning,” is as a tool enabling educators to better help all students while reducing the burdens that traditional methods placed on their profession.

In personalized learning, students work at their own pace and advance when they have mastered a concept. Personalized learning also benefits teachers, who, as instructional leaders, gain access to immediately available information on student progress, replacing binders of paperwork and grading. They can better guide all students toward critical thinking instead of test-question memorization. We can reemphasize history, science, and arts as our young children learn to read. Also, screen time is limited. Students alternate between the adaptive technology, books, paper-and-pencil, and small-group work with one another and the teacher. Most important, personalized learning empowers students and educators. Teachers know each student’s needs better and can help every student maximize every moment of every class. Each student creates his or her own roadmap to mastery.

Whether pursuing a career as a welder, doctor, or anything in between, students must learn critical-thinking skills and collaboration so that technological disruptions don’t outpace their ability to adapt.

During a recent visit to a digital-age classroom in North Carolina, one student showed me her individual learning plan with pride. In less than a year, she rose two grade levels to catch up with her peers. A different student showed me how she excelled a grade level ahead of her peers. The adaptive content engages students by activating their interests and aspirations at a pace that works for them.

Our education system must give every student an equal opportunity to work hard and succeed. No matter their background or zip code, students should be able to reach their American Dream. The standard notion that only students who go to college can succeed needs to be replaced by personalized options for students, such as apprenticeships, technical certifications, associate degrees, military service, or a four-year college if they so choose. Whether pursuing a career as a welder, doctor, plumber, lawyer, soldier, teacher, farmer, coder, or anything in between, students must learn critical-thinking skills and collaboration so that future technological disruptions don’t outpace their ability to adapt. This is an “education transformation” we can all get behind.

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