Can students learn about what they like, at their own pace, and still pass standardized tests at the end of each year? It’s a dilemma facing a growing number of schools and districts that have jumped onto a new tech-fueled trend in education known as “personalized learning.”
The goal of personalized learning is to tailor lessons for individual students to help them master content on their own schedule, whether it’s faster or slower than their same-age peers. At its most extreme, personalized learning can also unfetter kids to study whatever they’re most interested in, although experts say most schools still require students to cover key subjects and skills.
The new educational philosophy has spread from Maine to Silicon Valley, propelled by new technology making it easier for a classroom of students to work on different tasks and by passionate proponents who see it as the future for an American education system that badly needs updating.
But as more schools, districts, states and even the federal government begin to embrace the idea, personalized learning is coming into conflict with an older movement in American education: standards-based accountability.
Grade-level standards – the content and skills students are supposed to master each year – and the end-of-year tests that measure them aren’t forgiving to schools and teachers who stray far from the predetermined path. The consequences of failing can include sanctions for schools and teachers, and even school closure, and now the standards are more rigorous with 40-plus states having adopted the Common Core State Standards.
The rigidity of the current standards-based system could present a problem as personalized learning tries to grow – although some hope advocates on both sides will find compromise that strengthen both ideas.
“There’s a conflict in the sense that the standards and accountability movement has focused on grade-level standards,” said Sara Mead, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington, D.C.-based policy group, “and the idea that equity to some extent is based on getting everybody to master the same content at the same time.”
The standards movement, driven by fears that American students were falling behind their international counterparts, has dominated U.S. education reform since the 1990s. Reformers sought to raise the rigor of American classrooms and shine a light on achievement gaps between high-needs groups and their peers. Standardized testing, enshrined by the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, became the method of holding schools to account to ensure they were helping disadvantaged groups catch up.
“The standards movement was intended as a way to say, hold up, if we are holding kids who are coming in more ready to learn to higher standards than kids who need extra help, then what we’re effectively doing is perpetuating the achievement gap over time,” said Kathleen Porter-Magee, a fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think tank.
“It’s helpful to have some common language that says here’s what fifth grade is, and here’s what sixth grade is,” she said. “The most disadvantaged students benefit from that.”
But the standards movement has faced a backlash in recent years after a majority of states, urged on by the federal government, adopted the controversial Common Core standards. A motley coalition of teachers unions, parents, and politicians and activists from both the left and right fought against Common Core and the new standardized tests linked to it. Common Core still stands in most states, but many have tweaked the standards and changed the name to something less politically charged. At the same time, the new federal education law passed in 2015 has removed some of No Child Left Behind’s teeth.
Yet, though the standards movement may be weakened, it seems unlikely a freer approach to education in the form of personalized learning-for-all will take its place – or that it should.
“If your goal is self-actualization for the child, and you want them to discover what they’re good at, then personalizing learning sounds like it would be really wonderful,” said Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who studies how cognitive psychology applies to schooling. “There’s a good argument to be made for a standard curriculum, though, especially if your goal is a civic citizenship, and children being able to get a job when they finish: If you want everyone to have basic numeracy and civic engagement.”
Most personalized learning advocates wouldn’t disagree. Although personalized learning supporters say they want even more changes to the current structure of standards-based accountability, many also are adamant that high standards are compatible and even necessary for their movement to keep up its momentum.
“We have to be careful with all this personalized learning where there’s still a floor,” said Brian Greenberg, CEO of the Silicon Schools Fund, which funds new schools that use personalized learning. “We don’t want to go back to a model of low expectations. We need to give those students more support to accelerate them. In a race, there’s still a trail vehicle to make sure no one falls back.”
The ideal, both according to personalized learning backers like Greenberg and supporters of standards like Porter-Magee, would be a system where the two education philosophies not only coexist, but strengthen each other.
Mead, who is a co-author of a report about the tensions between standards-based accountability and personalized learning, says, for example, that personalized learning might show the way for schools trying to catch up children who are far behind. “If you have a kid who is several years below grade level, what you should be doing is not teaching them grade-level content. You should be going back and filling in the gaps,” she said, “so that eventually they can reach grade-level standards, and get there faster.”
Joel Rose, co-founder of School of One, a personalized learning program in New York City now known as Teach to One, said that although standards – and specifically, the annual tests attached to them – are a challenge for his model, “having a fixed target we’re aiming for to make sure kids get over that line is critical.”
For now, personalized learning may clash with the grade-level standards and accountability regime, Rose acknowledged, but as the movement expands “it may also lead to looking at scores not on an annual basis, but in increments. We oftentimes look at kids who are on or above grade level when they enter middle school and then look at that same number when they exit middle school. By focusing less on the year-on-year state test scores, it enables allows us to meet kids where they are, with an eye on high school readiness.”
One proposal is standardized tests that kids take when they’re ready, over the course of three years, say, instead of every spring.
In the meantime, Brian Greenberg believes the best schools should be able to handle both.
“If we only teach kids at their instructional levels, kids who are below may never catch up and the kids who are ahead may never interact with their peers,” he said. “Common sense and compromise can be pretty powerful. There’s room for kids to learn a canon of knowledge that we want every one to learn, and to have some choice and agency in what they learn.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
Unlike most of our stories, this piece is an exclusive collaboration and may not be republished.