May 28, 2019
By Hal Kwalwasser
For the past twenty-five years, educators have repeatedly set as their goal the creation of a “personalized” system of instruction that would radically improve our ability to educate our children.
Most parents have not dug deep into what that means for their kids.
Since the 1980s, educators have recognized that the way we used to teach children needs some serious updating. What we were doing then simply caused us to lose sight of children. Not everyone responded well to the typical “stand and deliver” style of instruction, where the teacher lectured for much of the period. And many kids found that they did not learn well from a common textbook. It was boring or irrelevant, and reading may not be the way they best absorbed the material. And, kids did not all learn at the same pace. Some were way ahead, while others fell far behind, but it was difficult (although not impossible) to address those students’ needs.
Taking a page from what Federal law had by then mandated for a decade about teaching special education kids, education theorists said we should “personalize” learning. We would not rely as much on “stand and deliver.” We would not all focus so heavily on a common textbook. We would accommodate slow and fast learners. We would get to know our students better; we’d identify how they learned best and give the quickest learners additional challenging material and slower learners direct, targeted teacher help. And, perhaps most importantly, we would provide better social and emotional support that would create empowered and optimistic kids who wanted to learn.
One reason charters were created was to see what a new group of educators could do to meet these audacious goals. Some charters – and some traditional public schools – figured out strategies that began to address these problems, but national test scores suggested that, on the whole, there was only limited improvement.
Then, about fifteen years ago, we began to see the possibilities with computers. We could do away with – or certainly limit – stand and deliver instruction. We could tailor instruction because we could carefully track students’ progress and see what they understood and what they didn’t – and do it in real time. And the Web gave us options besides the common textbook to provide instruction. It could address different learning styles, be more relevant, and might allow for more self-paced learning. We even began to understand that school had a role in developing students who had the right attitudes toward life and learning. All potentially good things.
But still test scores and other measures of success did not rise to meet expectations.
What happened? To make all of this work required a total overhaul of our schools. Too many administrators did not want to take the risk. Too many teachers did not want to change their ways. Too many schools focused on simple survival rather than on improving their product. Especially during the Great Recession, money was cut back, and, even now, in many districts they are spending less than they did before 2008.
But there is one more reason that things have not turned out as well as they might have. Parents, voters, and the board members who come from those groups did not push. They wanted “better,” but they did not really know what “better” looked like. Some of it was the result of thinking that schools should be just like the schools that educated those of us who graduated a while ago. Some of it was that less systemic issues, like bell times or bullying (which are certainly important) crowded out other discussions. Some of it was the result of educators insisting they knew best what to do – and intimidating those who were on the outside.
So here’s where we are: There are traditional public schools and charters that have embraced change and validated that it works. Test scores are up. Dropouts are down. Discipline problems have shrunk. College-going is up. Their students are empowered.
What’s most important; they are no different from most other districts. They don’t have student populations largely made up of upper middle-class white populations whom you’d expect to succeed regardless of school quality. They don’t spend more money than others. They don’t have spectacular faculties drawn from the top tier of colleges. What they show is that virtually every other district or charter can do well.
Names of a few of those districts: Lindsay Unified, Sanger Unified, in the Central Valley, and Long Beach Unified, all in California. Taylor County Schools in Kentucky. Iredell-Statesville and Mooresville in North Carolina. Blue Valley in Kansas. Vancouver in Washington State. Menominee Falls and Oconomowoc in Wisconsin. Aldene in Texas. Gwinnett County in Georgia.
So what’s a parent to do: Read up on what’s happening. Google those districts. Or use search terms like “personalized learning,” “flipped [or blended] classroom,” or “social and emotional learning.” Or read the education section in your local paper. Talk to your kids (if you have some still in school) about what they are doing, and what works and what doesn’t. Get involved in the school PTA/PTO or foundation to find equally interested people to talk to. Go to school board meetings and talk to your school board members. Encourage experimentation with some of these new ideas. Don’t punish teachers, administrators, or board members merely because a new idea does not live up to expectations; merely encourage them to learn from their failures what to do better.
Here’s one thing we’ve learned about students. They have to believe that by working hard, they will succeed. Without that faith, they will never rise. You need the same thing. Believe there is something better out there. If you believe, you will read, you will talk, you will demand, you will vote – and, at the end of the day, you will succeed.
Hal Kwalwasser is the author of Renewal, Remaking America's Schools for the 21st Century and former General Counsel of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
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