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Personalized progress: How tech model is driving achievement

More districts using technology to customize instruction
Ingenium Charter School students, like this one shown, set goals for their own personalized learning.
Ingenium Charter School students, like this one shown, set goals for their own personalized learning.

Personalized learning is beginning to produce positive results in student achievement as it becomes more established in districts nationwide. These success stories are encouraging more districts to adopt the tech-heavy learning model that’s designed to customize education for each student.

At FirstLine Schools, a New Orleans charter network where most students are low-income and many have special needs, the personalized learning approach has produced some of the highest scores on the Louisiana state assessment in the New Orleans area, says Chris Liang-Vergera, FirstLine’s director of instructional technology for personalized learning.

“People are seeing the results of personalized learning and the improvements in student achievement, and that’s what educators live and die by in this high-stakes testing environment,” says Liang-Vergara.

District administrators also have a financial incentive to adopt personalized learning. When the U.S. Department of Education in 2012 changed its Race to the Top grant selection criteria to favor districts with personalized learning, it provided a multimillion dollar carrot to educators.

“The amount of resistance to change has reduced,” says Rick Schreiber, the executive director of the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, a national, nonprofit education foundation established to produce improved learning environments and achievement results for all children. “We no longer have to persuade people that personalized learning is valuable. ”

Turning theory into practice

Many district administrators are designing curricula based on the personalized learning principle that all students should receive an education that matches their specific learning needs. Technological advances have made this concept feasible, since adaptive learning software has the capacity to do what was once impossible.

The software engages students with game-like programs and constantly monitors their performance. It also uses artificial intelligence to pinpoint students’ weaknesses and identify which lessons they need to learn next.

Adaptive software vendors say the demand for their products has increased exponentially in the past few years, and they say this surge in demand explains why so many new adaptive learning programs are on the market. Julie Evans, CEO of the nonprofit Project Tomorrow, a national nonprofit that, in part, provides resources and online tools to districts and conducts national research, says her organization’s annual polling data reveals the growing popularity of adaptive software.

“We have seen a substantial increase in the number of teachers and administrators using digital tools,” Evans says. These digital tools typically have the power to simultaneously instruct and assess students, she adds, and that dual functionality allows for seamless integration of data collection into classroom instruction.

Choosing change

This technological wizardry is one of many reasons educators are implementing personalized learning programs. Brandi Brevard, academic program manager of Houston ISD, says an alluring element of personalized learning is that it can improve student test scores at a low cost.

In 2013, Houston was awarded both a Race to the Top grant and a Broad Prize for Urban Education for its personalized learning program, which significantly raised student test scores. Brevard says personalized learning programs allow districts to spend less on textbooks and to replace paper products with cheaper online resources.

Cynthia Raymond, a language arts teacher at Hall-Dale Middle School in Maine and a semifinalist for Maine’s 2013 teacher of the year award, says she “transformed as a teacher” once she adopted personalized learning. Her training in special education convinced her that individualized instruction was ideal, but she couldn’t implement it until her district, Kennebec Intra-District Schools RSU 2, let her experiment with a flipped classroom.

Raymond says this method allows her to spend more time mentoring students, and she argues that one-on-one interaction is critical to the success of personalized learning.

During class time, Raymond focuses on project-based learning, allowing her students to pursue their interests through customized writing assignments designed to intrigue them and to reinforce literacy skills. This passion-based teaching approach allows her to engage students that were formerly hard to reach, she says.

And this technique worked with one of her students, an uncommonly bright child with psychiatric issues and severe test anxiety, she says. The student began having less “contempt for school” when she allowed him to write essays about medieval history, a subject he loved. Raymond says she often gives children these kinds of assignments to spark their interest.

Carlos Moreno, national director of Big Picture Learning’s charter schools, says his nonprofit organization uses personalized learning because he believes it’s the best way to help students discover their talents and choose a satisfying career. Moreno says schools have an obligation to provide students with marketable skills, and he argues that traditional teaching models often emphasize content memorization over personal development.

Big Picture schools require students to participate in internships, vocational training and other forms of experiential learning. Students are urged to learn outside of the classroom, and they are granted course credits when they master an academic subject that they study on their own time. “The linchpin of the curriculum is relevance,” he says.

Producing results

Jessie Woolley-Wilson, CEO of DreamBox Learning, an adaptive learning software company, wants students to get excited about math. DreamBox software provides digital games that supplement K5 classroom instruction, and the adaptive games adjust the level of difficulty for each student in real time.

California students who used DreamBox for 16 weeks before taking the Northwest Evaluation Association math test averaged a 5.5-point higher percentile rank than students who did not use it, according to an independent study conducted by SRI International.

Adaptive learning programs can also improve literacy. For example, a program called myOn Reader personalizes learning by providing e-books matched to students’ individual reading level and area of interest. And at Bart-Colerain Elementary School in Christiana, Pa., there was a dramatic increase in Lexile scores after they began using Achieve 3000 reading software.

Achieve 3000 provides 12 versions of each article in its virtual library, and each version is written for students at a particular Lexile level. Students can absorb the same content as their classmates and participate in class discussions, regardless of their reading ability, says Jim O’Neill, chief product officer of Achieve 3000.

Experts predict that adaptive learning will be nearly universal in the U.S. within 15 years.

“We believe this transformation is coming not only because of the increasing ineffectiveness of schools in meeting society’s needs—though that is certainly a good reason—but even more due to the growing unaffordability of the current classroom model,” Harvard professors Chris Dede and John Richards write in their book, Digital Teaching Platforms. “Events of the last few years, and projections of our nation’s economic future, paint a bleak picture of the financial viability of schools as we know them; we can no longer support an educational system based on the inefficient use of expensive human labor.”

Ilana Kowarski is a freelance writer in Florida.