Personalized learning key to tackling education inequities

Meeting kids where they are should be part of ed reform effort

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, Massachusetts set out on an ambitious reform plan for education. The Education Reform Act of 1993 established two main cornerstones for improving education in the Commonwealth: infusing massive amounts of funding to schools, while laying out rigorous expectations for school accountability.

The plan in many respects has paid off: The state’s four-year graduation rate has increased each of the last 10 years, while the dropout rate has decreased during the same period of time. Massachusetts ranks among the top in national and international test scores. But there are discrepancies in the data and many districts show increased inequality across the board. In 2016, some Boston Public Schools reported graduation rates over 98 percent, while others stood and less than 30 percent.

The 1993 law has clearly improved education in Massachusetts, but how do we ensure all students are included in the success over the next 25 years?

Since passage of this legislation, we’ve come to understand the individual needs of students more intimately.  Educators recognize that success for each student is different. At the heart of overall school improvement is the attention to each individual student’s success.

Call it what you want — personalized learning, student-centered learning, deeper learning, experiential learning — states are recognizing the need to incorporate a more personal approach to build equity and individual learner success.

Personalized learning is really about three shifts in the education paradigm:

  1. Away from uniformity and the one-size-fits all, factory model of teaching, and toward personalization;
  2. Away from adults being at the center, and toward the student at the center;
  3. Away from the system optimized for control, and toward a system optimized for student engagement.

Personalized learning seeks to accelerate student learning by tailoring the instructional environment – what, when, how, and where students learn – to address the individual needs, skills, and interests of each student. Personalization, as defined by the Massachusetts Personalized Learning Edtech (MAPLE) Consortium, a public-private partnership between the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the LearnLaunch Institute, is informed by advances in cognitive science. Personalized learning aims to maintain the rigorous standards that Massachusetts is known for while meeting the needs of the 21st century knowledge and service-based economy.

What does personalized learning look like in Massachusetts schools? There are a number of diverse examples of successful integration in school districts throughout the Commonwealth.

Andover’s “Global Pathways” program works closely with local corporations like Pfizer and Raytheon to bring the global world to Andover students with the aim of preparing them for a global community. The program has grown 500 percent in two years.

Both Beverly and Burlington school districts are using adaptive software technologies, designed by Bay State companies, to identify individual student’s strengths and weaknesses and adapt learning paths accordingly.  And 10 Boston elementary and middle schools have successfully integrated similar adaptive technologies into their literacy programs with the support of the LearnLaunch Institute.

Facing a large influx of children entering kindergarten with limited or no English language skills, Fitchburg Public Schools worked with its business community to launch Fitchburg Flourishes, a program using digital books and games that these children – and their family members – use on smartphones and tablets to develop critical early literacy skills. Since the initiative’s start, Fitchburg has seen the district’s youngest students starting school better prepared, and families more engaged with students’ learning.

Meet the Author

David O'Connor

Exec. Dir., MAPLE Consortium
It’s important for educators and edtech innovators to continue learning what works. The 6th annual LearnLaunch Across Boundaries Conference will take place on February 1 and 2 at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, bringing together educators, entrepreneurs, investors and innovators from all over the region interested in harnessing digital technologies to enhance learning and achievement.

Massachusetts, with its high learning standards and expectations of our students, is in a perfect position to continue to lead the nation by demonstrating how personalized learning in the classroom can both enhance the academic rigor of our schools and make equal opportunity for all students a reality.

David O’Connor is executive director of the MAPLE Consortium at the LearnLaunch Institute.