By NICHOLE DOBO, The Hechinger Report

By design, some students go through two years of kindergarten in Middletown, New York.

People associate repeating grades with disastrous consequences. But in the Middletown City School District, the kindergarten repeaters often end up ahead of their peers in later grades — standout students who avoided getting forever labeled as performing “below expectations.” They’ve had the extra instruction they needed, when they needed it. The district has worked to remove the stigma of being “slow,” and has stopped moving children in lockstep through school in grade bands defined by age. They now focus on each child’s individual needs.

“We have proven the fact that all children can learn — and can learn well — under the right instructional circumstances,” said Kenneth W. Eastwood, the district’s superintendent.

About a decade ago, leaders in this public school district nearly 70 miles northwest of New York City decided to radically change the way they provide education to its diverse and academically challenged student body. They decided to “personalize” learning for every child, which means that they tailored lessons to each student’s needs, interests and learning pace. They gave each student access to technology that helps teachers customize their lessons. And they ended social promotion, so that struggling students are no longer shuttled along to the next grade level simply to keep them with the herd of similarly aged classmates.

The shift has coincided with improved test scores and graduation rates.

“I am overwhelmed with joy for my students because I know now they each stand a better chance of being a successful student,” said Regina Trout, who teaches the second-year kindergarteners at Maple Hill Elementary School in Middletown. “When they come to me knowing zero letter recognition — some might not even be able to recognize their own name. And at the end of the year, to just see their growth … I start to get teary.”

And it would not be possible, Trout said, without small-group instruction and the assistance of classroom technology that helps her deliver a custom-fit lesson for each student.

Personalized learning dates back to a Chicago lab school at the turn of the 20th century, but the concept is having a renaissance because of today’s more sophisticated technology — and the excitement and investment the technology has inspired. Last year, the founder of Facebook pledged to donate $45 billion to social causes, one of them personalized learning. And various technology companies — from no-name startups to behemoths like Pearson — boast of new programs meant to facilitate this style of education. Conferences for teachers from coast to coast brim with representatives from the multibillion-dollar technology industry, many of them promising to help teachers provide customized tracks for education.

“All of them are searching for that holy grail of tailoring content and skills to the weaknesses of each kid,” said Larry Cuban, an emeritus professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, who often writes about education technology on his popular blog.

What is personalized learning? It can look a little different in every school, in every classroom and for each student. Teachers create lessons that are challenging without being too hard, and that suit the individual interests of each child.

It’s easy to see why this is an attractive idea.

When teachers face 25 or 30 students, if they decide to teach in the conventional way of standing in front of the room and lecturing, then they must provide a lesson that will benefit the majority of the room — the average student. That leaves behind those who are below or above expectations. The best teachers find ways to help those students, but it’s a tall order. It takes a superhuman amount of work to find lessons that fit each student every single day.

That’s where technology comes in. Various products on the market today claim they can help the teacher create bespoke lessons for individual students, or otherwise make teaching more effective and efficient.

Some education technology developers, such as Knewton, say machines can figure out what students need to know and how best to deliver it. The computer system does this by constantly assessing how a particular student answers questions and what kind of lesson most engages that student. For instance, Waggle, a program powered by Knewton’s technology, serves students new tasks based on how well they did on previous tasks. Knewton’s claim to fame (and some are skeptical of it) is that it provides the right difficulty and the right presentation, and can find whatever style students seem to like best.

But for that concept to work, a child must spend a lot of time on the computer, feeding the system with data that the software uses to improve itself.

“You want to extend and maximize their time in the system,” said Jose Ferreira, Knewton’s founder and CEO.

There’s the rub: The idea of students, especially younger children, spending a lot of time on a computer worries some people.

And they suspect that education technology companies may be promising more than they can deliver.

“The words ‘personalized learning’ probably generate more heat than light,” said Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and a former president and professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The phrase “personalized learning” is now emblazoned on a wide variety of programs and products. Some schools say they have trouble figuring out what to buy. Many programs and products produce reams of “research,” but they’re just sales materials masquerading as effectiveness studies.

“You wouldn’t take a medicine that hasn’t been tested,” said Ryan S. Baker, associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the new Penn Center for Learning Analytics. “But people will adopt a curriculum after just being pitched by a salesman. The things that are good are not the same as those that have good marketing.”

Baker thinks the real problem is lack of awareness about what’s available. There is a lot of good research about what works in education technology, he said, adding, “The problem is there is not a lot of good research about every system.”

The enthusiasm to be in on the latest and greatest thing in education can lead schools to try splashy programs that fail to take into account teacher training and valid research into how students learn. And the schools may then adopt and fast-track those programs without giving proper thought to what personalized learning entails or how to train their teachers to do this work.

“Don’t believe the sticker,” said Karen Cator, president and CEO of Digital Promise, a nonprofit organization that promotes effective use of education technology. “I shouldn’t say ‘don’t believe,’ but I mean double-check and see if, in fact, it’s marketing. Or does it actually follow the promise of personalization?”

It’s impossible to say precisely how many school districts, nationwide, are implementing personalized learning. But the popularity of education technology comes at a time when computer algorithms are creeping into just about every part of the day. Netflix provides suggested movies based on what you’ve watched in the past. Google’s search engine serves up more of what you’ve clicked on in the past. Social media sites suggest new “friends” and sources of information tailored to your connections.

Many say that for education to be truly personalized, the student should get some say in his or her learning, and teachers should be there to guide them — not just push them along based on whatever a computer algorithm determines is best.

“A lot of folks, when they say ‘personalized learning,’ they mean something about a technology platform that changes for [different] kids,” said Jennifer Davis Poon, director of the Innovation Lab Network at the Council of Chief State School Officers, a Washington, D.C.-based education reform advocacy group. “But in a more traditional setting, it is a very teacher-focused, teacher-driven type of instruction.”

And for Trout, the kindergarten teacher at Middletown, New York, her work reveals an instructional shift that goes beyond buzzwords like personalized learning — or the flash of new technology.

When students get what they need when they need it, and when they are treated as an individual, it makes all the difference.

“I see how the students grow,” Trout said. “I see their confidence level take off. They really become learners and ready for the process of learning.”

For more, check out this story about personalized learning and Common Core by Sarah Garland. This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter to get a weekly update on blended learning.

  • Hillary Clintub

    i guess teachers should be really, really worried about being replaced by robots, right?

  • Robert Schuetz

    What’s being described here is individualization and differentiation of learning. How much power do you have when anything is “ized” for you? If the aim or result is teaching efficiency then the target of personal learning was badly missed. Is it any wonder teachers are confused when buzz words continue to muddy the waters.

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