Personalized learning is key to Mass. school success

Our No. 1 ranking comes from longstanding commitment to individualized learning

HERE IN MASSACHUSETTS, we stand on the pinnacle of education greatness. Recently, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education unveiled a new logo that highlights our well-deserved recognition as “Nation’s Best,” as we were No. 1 in the US in reading and math on so-called Nation’s Report Card, No. 1 in the world in reading on the PISA international assessment, and No. 1 in Advanced Placement success in the country.

There is always room for growth, but it is no coincidence that we are leading both the country and the world in education. Rather, it is owing to the fact that we are the birthplace of personalized education and we continue to be committed to both personalized education and the power of family and community engagement in meeting the needs of all students.

The state’s Systems for Student Success framework, a blueprint for school improvement here in Massachusetts, provides all districts with guidance on how to design curriculum, instruction, and assessments. This framework requires that all districts in the state have “an established documented process for the regular and timely review and revision of curricula that is guided by the three Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles (multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expressions, and multiple means of engagement).” Since UDL provides a foundation for teaching and learning in the state, it’s critical that we all have an understanding of what UDL is and how it impacts our kids.

UDL is a framework that ensures all students have options and choices about how they learn, how they share what they have learned, and how they work through meaningful, authentic, valuable challenges. Another way to look at it is that UDL is a plan for personalizing education that offers students a “buffet” of multiple options, as opposed to a “casserole,” so they can become self-directed learners and choose the options that work best for them

A casserole lesson is one-size-fits-all. It’s how many of us were educated. We sat in rows, our teachers assigned the same book to all of us, or delivered a lecture while we sat quietly and listened, and we then we took the same multiple choice test, wrote an essay, or designed the occasional poster. Today, the same lesson, through the UDL lens, would encourage choice and personalization. Instead of assigning the same text to the class, teachers may focus on a theme, like tolerance, and then students choose texts that have meaning to them. They could read a novel from the library, read an e-book on their smartphone or iPad, listen to an audiobook, or choose to read with peers or a teacher using short, meaningful texts. To share their knowledge, they can write essays or poetry, working collaboratively or using dictation software; produce short movies or make book trailers; record podcasts; design infographics or suggest even more creative options. That is what UDL and personalization are about—access, creativity, and innovation.

UDL is endorsed as best practice throughout the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015. The adoption of federal legislation has sparked both curiosity and fandom, with educators nationwide celebrating this new concept of personalization.

Betsy DeVos, the US secretary of education, in her “Rethink School” tour touted personalization when she stated, “So much of our curriculum has been focused on the average student, and yet we know that no student is average. Everyone is unique and different, and that’s why this whole personalized learning notion is really, I think, very attractive and one that really should be studied closely by educators across the country.”

Madam Secretary, may I be so bold to say, it already has been. For decades. In Massachusetts.

As partners in our students’ education, we can advocate for our kids. As a mother of four and a district administrator, I encourage you to share your perspective with educators and administrators, get involved, and help us to provide your children with the choices they need to thrive.

Meet the Author
Knowing more about why and how we got to be the “Nation’s Best,” and advocating for continued personalized education for our kids will ensure that we continue to lead the nation and create an even better education system in Massachusetts for our future. Our work here can help inspire other states to follow the path of personalized education until someday, every parent has a voice, and all students have multiple pathways to achieve success.

Katie Novak is the assistant superintendent of the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District and the author of four books, including Let Them Thrive. Learn more at