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A common complaint about personalized learning is that it takes autonomy away from the teacher, leaving students to be taught by computers that adapt to their skill level. But in many schools, personalized learning does the opposite, giving teachers even greater power and responsibility as they tailor learning experiences to the wants and needs of individual students. That is particularly true when it comes to students with disabilities and those for whom teachers may have lower expectations, whether they come from low-income families or they struggle to speak English.

It can actually take more work to maintain high standards for all students in a personalized learning classroom.

Juliana Finegan is a managing partner at The Learning Accelerator, a nonprofit that advocates using data and technology to improve instruction. She leads the organization’s efforts to help teachers hone their craft, and produced a three-part series called Supporting Diverse Learners in a Personalized Learning Classroom, with support from the National Center for Learning Disabilities. One challenge the series tackles is how to maintain rigor and high expectations for all students in blended and personalized learning classrooms.

Finegan pointed to research showing that personalized learning can increase achievement gaps. A former teacher herself, Finegan said educators have to fight the urge to let students bow out of assignments that make them uncomfortable, like group work that requires collaboration with their peers. By letting students work alone when they prefer it, teachers may think they are personalizing instruction when instead they are holding students back.

“We’re missing the piece where we give them scaffolds and supports to become comfortable collaborating and working in groups,” Finegan said.

Letting students off the hook with these particular types of learning experiences is all too common.

Ashley Jochim, a senior research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, spoke with educators in 39 schools across 11 states for a massive study about personalized learning. She said nearly every educator she and her team talked to mentioned being motivated to personalize learning because of the potential to address equity challenges in the classroom.

Unfortunately, the ideal doesn’t always materialize. Sometimes personalizing the learning experience creates new inequities or, at the very least, reinforces existing ones. The very flexibility of personalized learning gives teachers an opportunity to lower or change their expectations from student to student.

Related: Access does not equal equity

Teachers Jochim spoke with often had a laser focus on students’ skill gaps, tailoring instruction to helping them close those particular gaps to the exclusion of other learning opportunities. But high-functioning personalized learning classrooms don’t just feed students academic material at their level, when they’re ready for it. They give students opportunities to collaborate on projects with their peers, practice higher-order critical thinking skills and attempt more rigorous coursework to stretch them – all skills needed for success in the modern workplace. Jochim, though, found that many teachers don’t strike that kind of balance.

“While these educators were personalizing instruction and trying to address issues around achievement gaps, they were falling short in enabling students with weaker skillsets to engage in those more authentic activities that are going to push them to develop the skills that we know are important,” Jochim said.

Morgan Tigert, a high school special education teacher in the Corcoran Unified School District in central California, uses personalized learning to teach history, and says it has helped close achievement gaps. She presented earlier this year at the Education Elements Personalized Learning Summit, where she said her students perform on par with their general education peers on the same history tests that students across the district take.

[pullquote author=”  Morgan Tigert, high school special education teacher, Corcoran Unified School District in central California” description=”” style=”new-pullquote”]“I never offer alternative curriculum to special education students. I scaffold the same content. Kids like that.[/pullquote]”

Flexibility is key, she said. Tigert selects a range of readings and videos that students can choose from to learn historical information. Those who prefer to watch videos can, while their peers read documents with similar information. Then they come together to discuss what they learned. Tigert offers targeted support to small groups when students need it, leaving the rest of the class to work through self-directed assignments on their own.

No matter how they mastered the material, all of Tigert’s students have to answer the same test questions and prove they’ve learned the same history in the end.

“I never offer alternative curriculum to special education students,” Tigert told attendees. “I scaffold the same content. Kids like that.”

Her methods – empowering students to make choices about their learning and prioritizing projects and group work – ensure that special education students get to practice the skills they’ll need to succeed in the outside world, too.

Ace Parsi, the director of innovation at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, is leading a project about how schools that emphasize the development of such skills can include students with disabilities in their efforts. In the coming months, the NCLD will release case studies of schools doing this particularly well, drilling down into specific best practices that educators nationwide can emulate.

In personalized learning classrooms, after all, it is still the teacher who has the power to take on this challenge. And Parsi finds the need to be pressing.

“It’s not like we’re going to be dropping our [English learners], students with disabilities and low-income kids into a world where they won’t need these 21st century skills,” Parsi said.

This story about achievement gaps was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletters.

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