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How Can Personalized Learning Support Educational Equity?

By: Noah Dougherty on October 24th, 2018

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How Can Personalized Learning Support Educational Equity?

Personalized Learning

In his book Striving for Equity: District Leadership for Narrowing Opportunity and Achievement Gaps, co-author and former Arlington County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Smith provides the following explanation of educational equity:

“You don't have equity in conditions in which all students are receiving the same amount of support, ... You are getting equity if you have a situation in which every student is getting the amount of support to be successful.”

Smith’s explanation helps illustrate the role of personalized learning in the fight for educational equity. Personalized learning tailors instructional experiences to meet the individual needs, interests, and goals of each student. That personalized experience necessarily involves different levels of support for different students, which in turn should lead to more equitable outcomes. There is already evidence of this in a 2017 study by the RAND Corporation which found that personalized learning helped students, “significantly below national norms in both mathematics and reading, … [move] closer to [those] norms during the school year.”

While educational equity and personalized learning certainly seem complementary, what is their actual relationship with one another?

Personalized learning can be a powerful tool for educators seeking to provide equitable outcomes for students. The lens of equity can become a driving purpose behind personalized learning. That purpose can then empower PL tactics and instructional models to become tools with which to provide all students equitable access to grade-level content and skills.

While personalized learning can be a powerful tool for educational equity, equity is not an inherent part of PL. The teacher who personalizes learning experiences for students must be the one who actively applies an equity lens to their work. Simply using a station-rotation model will not automatically lead to more equitable outcomes for students. Educators engaged in this work must intentionally use an equity lens to give driving purpose to personalizing learning for students. This, in turn, will influence how they utilize PL tools in service of that goal.

An equity lens can address some common concerns about personalized learning and illustrate new opportunities in the fight for educational equity.

Concern: Meeting students who are below grade-level “where they are” means they will always remain behind.

An equity lens calls educators to meet all students “where they are” in order to accelerate the growth of below-grade-level students. The goals students set, the content they work with, and the targeted instruction they receive should all be oriented towards helping them meet grade-level standards. Additionally, personalized learning instructional models should give teachers the flexibility to spend more time with below-grade-level students. Finally, when possible, the context with which students practice academic skills should reflect their individual interests to increase engagement and thereby accelerate their growth. For example, a below-grade-level student might practice reading skills in engaging fiction and nonfiction texts of their choice, at their reading level, in order to maximize instructional time.

Concern: Giving students choice can rob them of shared learning experiences.

An equity lens requires educators to provide the necessary supports for all students to engage successfully in shared learning experiences. Choice in personalized learning classrooms is not without bounds; it exists within designed parameters and is meant to be in balance with shared experiences. In traditional classrooms, all students normally engage in the same teacher-directed learning experiences, regardless of their interests or abilities. In personalized learning classrooms, all students are supported to participate in both shared learning experiences and individualized experiences of their choosing that align to their individual goals. An equity lens promotes a balance that allows individual students to explore topics that are meaningful to them and for all students to benefit from the diverse perspectives of their peers on topics of shared interest.

Concern: Digital content programs are meant to replace the job of teachers.

An equity lens can only be applied by a teacher. There is no digital content program that can replace a teacher and their ability to personalize an individual student’s learning experience. Applying an equity lens adds an additional layer of purpose that can only be successfully facilitated by a teacher. Equity is about more than outcomes; it is about engaging students in rich discussions and relevant content that leads to greater self-actualization. No algorithm can build the kind of relationship necessary to have those discussions, and no computer program can serve as a role model for students seeking examples of the adults they aim to become. An equity lens reinforces the role of the teacher.

The fight for educational equity is a complex issue, and personalized learning can be one tool educators call upon. Culturally-relevant curriculum, restorative justice practices, and teacher-exploration of bias are among the other important priorities that drive towards equity. As educators continue this work, it is important to keep all these components in mind and aligned towards the same goal.

Interested in further developing your leadership skills and collaborating with other education innovators to build processes around areas like equity, PL, responsiveness, and professional development? Join us at the New School Rules Leadership Institute this December!

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About Noah Dougherty

Noah Dougherty is a Design Principal at Education Elements. He previously worked as a teacher, curriculum writer, instructional coach, and school leader. He began his teaching career in Prince George’s County, Maryland with Teach For America and continued with KIPP DC. He has taught middle school social studies, 8th grade ELA, English 12, AP Literature, high school journalism, and DC History. While at KIPP DC he wrote the middle school social studies curriculum, designed a blended professional development course on writing instruction, and supported personalized learning. As a school leader he coached eleven teachers on the ELA and social studies teams, leading to a 13-point gain in students earning a 4+ on the PARCC, more than doubling the portion of students passing from the previous year. Noah has also worked for DC Public Schools and LearnZillion on curriculum development initiatives. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. Noah grew up in Syracuse, NY and now lives in Washington, DC.

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