School of Me

[This Hechinger Report looks at Personalized Learning where it’s not just the technology that matters, but meeting each student where they are. In my 40+ years of educational experience I’ve seen attempts at individualizing or differentiating instruction. In both cases, it’s about the teacher trying to meet the needs of individual or groups of students. Today, we have technology tools that are beginning to appear. The Summit Public Schools have worked with Facebook to develop a system to track student progress. However, it’s not the technology that makes the essential difference; it’s the teacher working with the student. In a truly personalized learning environment, students have choices based on their interests, knowledge, and skill levels. Teachers play a critical role working with students to address not only deficits, but strengths. Ultimately, we want every student to succeed and become lifelong learners.]

A fifth grader works on a digital lesson as part of a blended learning program. Photo: Meghan E. Murphy

A fifth grader works on a digital lesson as part of a blended learning program. Photo: Meghan E. Murphy

By design, some students go through two years of kindergarten in Middletown, New York.

People associate repeating grades with disastrous consequences. But in the Middletown City School District, the kindergarten repeaters often end up ahead of their peers in later grades — standout students who avoided getting forever labeled as performing “below expectations.” They’ve had the extra instruction they needed, when they needed it. The district has worked to remove the stigma of being “slow,” and has stopped moving children in lockstep through school in grade bands defined by age. They now focus on each child’s individual needs.

“We have proven the fact that all children can learn — and can learn well — under the right instructional circumstances,” said Kenneth W. Eastwood, the district’s superintendent.

About a decade ago, leaders in this public school district nearly 70 miles northwest of New York City decided to radically change the way they provide education to its diverse and academically challenged student body. They decided to “personalize” learning for every child, which means that they tailored lessons to each student’s needs, interests and learning pace. They gave each student access to technology that helps teachers customize their lessons. And they ended social promotion, so that struggling students are no longer shuttled along to the next grade level simply to keep them with the herd of similarly aged classmates.

The shift has coincided with improved test scores and graduation rates.

“I am overwhelmed with joy for my students because I know now they each stand a better chance of being a successful student,” said Regina Trout, who teaches the second-year kindergarteners at Maple Hill Elementary School in Middletown. “When they come to me knowing zero letter recognition — some might not even be able to recognize their own name. And at the end of the year, to just see their growth … I start to get teary.”

And it would not be possible, Trout said, without small-group instruction and the assistance of classroom technology that helps her deliver a custom-fit lesson for each student.

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