Using Personalized Learning to Promote Educational Equity

Using Personalized Learning to Promote Educational Equity

Educators across the country are striving to promote equity in their classrooms and schools. Personalized learning is one strategy that helps in this effort by meeting all students where they are and providing the tools they need to master each subject. This individualized approach goes a long way in classrooms where achievement gaps exist between high- and low-income students, gifted students and individuals with special needs, and students with and without family support.

The positive impact of personalized learning can extend beyond the classroom walls. Entire schools and districts have witnessed the effect that personalized learning can have on heightening student engagement, reducing the dropout rate, and increasing school accountability. As we work toward promoting equity in education, it’s important to look at the impact of personalized learning on the classroom, the school, and the school system as a whole.  


Equity in the classroom

Every classroom teacher knows the struggle of engaging a variety of students with widely different strengths, needs, and interests. A traditional lesson, such as writing a report on an assigned book, may meet the learning needs of some students while missing those of others. A student who has already mastered these skills might coast through the assignment and miss an opportunity to be challenged, while a student who struggles with reading skills may be so overwhelmed that he or she becomes frustrated and ultimately gives up. This scenario illustrates a common quandary: How can educators ensure that students with different learning needs are not lost in the shuffle?

Personalized learning allows educators to engage every student at every level. At Nashville Big Picture High School, educators create foundational concepts and objectives for their classes but also offer students “a voice and a choice” in their learning. For example, in Derick Richardson’s math class, a lesson on profit function and quadratic equations became an interactive group activity. Students formed groups and created fictitious businesses, culminating in a grade-level presentation emulating the popular show Shark Tank. Since students saw the real-world applications of what they were learning and had a voice in their learning projects, student engagement was high. According to Richardson, "Everybody got involved, even the kids that are not good at math. I've never seen these kids get this excited about a math project." By offering students the freedom to design their own personalized learning opportunities, Richardson was able to engage students of all ability levels in the lesson.

Equity in the school

When personalized learning is adopted by an entire school, the effects on student engagement and achievement are even more striking. At Nashville Big Picture High School, educators form personal relationships with their students to identify how each individual learns and what they need to know. Then, the educators empower students to follow their passions and find real-world applications for their studies. As a result, students graduate with the self-knowledge of who they are as learners and what interests drive their work. In the words of Big Picture’s principal, Chaerea Snorten, "The whole focus of personalized learning is that students see the relevance of what it is that they're doing. The outcome is students are engaged, and they're enjoying the learning process."

Personalized learning has also been shown to slow the high school dropout rate by helping students stay in school through graduation. For example, as of 2012, Mascenic Regional High school in New Ipswich, New Hampshire, was able to maintain a 0% dropout rate for two consecutive years thanks to personalized learning. The high school revamped its teaching techniques to allow more one-on-one time, flexible teaching options, and individual attention from the faculty. Principal Trevor Courtney described the school's personalized approach to helping each student graduate thusly: "We have all these different students that are trying to get through one little door. Let's make more doors, try to open that up, breathe some more life into the curriculum." This innovative approach illustrates how personalized learning can address each student’s individual needs while still encouraging all learners to reach the same goal (graduation).


Equity in the education system

The effects of personalized learning are gaining notice from education leaders as well. With the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), individual states and districts have more control over students’ learning than was afforded under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). KnowledgeWorks created a side-by-side comparison of ESSA and NCLB that demonstrates how the new law helps school districts move toward personalized learning.  For example, ESSA gives schools the opportunity to change the way they assess their students—using a pilot demonstration program, schools can deliver assessments that give a detailed picture of how every student performs. Additionally, the Direct Student Services authorized by ESSA can be used to help meet the needs of struggling students. These provisions encourage schools to choose personalized-learning techniques and, in turn, create a more equitable environment for their students.

Considering the considerable potential for promoting educational equity, it’s no surprise that personalized learning is gaining traction in the education community. From individual educators all the way up to the leaders behind the ESSA, we are recognizing the wide range of students out there, along with the potential for each to become a lifelong learner. By meeting students where they are and tapping into their individual interests and motivations, we can empower every learner to succeed in school. By applying a personalized learning approach, the dream of creating a responsive, engaging, equitable learning environment can become a reality.

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