(Preface: We wrote a post on July 25th, We Are for Public Schools, and another on July 30th titled, We Love (Public School) Teachers. As you read, please keep in mind all our efforts are focused on a more effective school system for the sake of the students, you know, those people who are going to lead our nation in a few years.)
Everywhere one looks and reads, Personalized Learning is a growing buzzword among public school educators and among educators, generally. It is widely known that the process can help students catch up when they've fallen behind or set them free to accelerate their learning as fast as they are able. But there is much more.
Personalized learning is about discovery. It energizes creativity. It results in the cultivation of passion and true competency. In other words, a student applies what they have learned to become competent in what they are most passionate about. Students thrive when they work toward something they love. Learning starts to make sense. It gives purpose and direction and the hope of something great in life.
Clearly, the goal in personalized learning is NOT to merely do well on a test. There are many brilliant students who are not good test-takers, and there are many excellent memorizers who can't apply what they know. It is also NOT for the sake of the school, the district, the administrations, teachers, or any group's reputation.
Personalized Learning is student-centered. Learning becomes more important than passing. Equipping each student for the future is its end. It builds agency, creativity and key attributes they will need for their future.
So, can our public schools offer a fully-orbed, personalized learning process? Not likely, not in its present form. Although, there are many districts and individual teachers who are trying to move toward personalization. In all sincerity we want to bless and encourage them to excel still more. At least they see the problem and attempt to innovate with ideas like flexible seating, projects or flipped classrooms. But it is too little to personalize learning. So, while we are reticent to say so, it is akin to changing a tire with a pair of pliers. The result sought will not be as it was envisioned.
Here are some reasons why personalized learning is unlikely in the present public school environment:
Funding. It costs a lot of money to change systems. We say we don't have it. Of course, it also costs a lot of money to continue falling further behind every other nation competing with us for the best talent. Currently, our students' results are not high enough to be on the list with the other 30 developed nations in the world. In fact, we rank 125th in the world in literacy. Studies (Forbes) have shown that poor results in education costs the U.S. over $2 trillion per year in economic development and advancement. The bottom line is that the cost of funding a new system is far less than the cost of continuing the current one.
Goals and Objectives: Those in control believe the answer to declining scores is not to change the system, but to tighten the accountability noose around the necks of the schools through standardized testing. Their idea is to test students and the results will reveal the effectiveness of the teachers. But that logic is terribly flawed.
It can not reveal anything except on that particular day(s), amidst thousands of variables such as student attitudes, sleep schedules, hunger, nerves, family dynamics, illnesses, absences, life circumstances, and many more, on that day the results show how the students were able to perform. Tomorrow, it could be different. And it can be different irrespective of how teachers taught or managed their class.
There is an age-old axiom we can apply. No one can control an outcome when they are not directly involved. The only solution is to lower the bar so the goals can be met. That is the current wisdom.
Unwillingness to Change. We are all familiar with the expression, stop beating a dead horse. The point is that the horse can no longer get you to where you wanted to go. Only a cruel person or a fool would do that. The current system was created in the 18th century when the goal of school was to equip young people for factory work. And nothing has changed to this day in that system except technology. To tweak the system and add testing will not get us to where we want to go. We have to stop beating that horse. Change is needed.
Opponents to School Choice. The ability for parents to choose any school for their child is a right in Arizona and many other states, just as a parent can choose any public school for their child because of open districts. It has been allowed for years. If there is equal treatment under the law, and there are taxes being paid and set aside for education, then the state shouldn't decide for parents what building that education can be received.
It might also be mentioned here that after years of data, private school and home school students have routinely scored higher in aggregate than public school students. Perhaps that's because parents hold the school to a higher level of accountability. We find this method to be more effective than the administrative, standards-based accountability currently being used in public school. Also, some level of competition is good for all schools. A monopoly creates apathy.
Grouping Students By Age. This is the way public school has done it for centuries. It's all any of us know. Yet, it makes no sense. Again, when the goal was to supply a labor force for multiplying factories during the industrial revolution, it made perfect sense. But in today's world, where completely different qualities are sought after in employees, no. Students the same age learn in different ways and can have a variety of interests and goals. They will be at different levels in most every subject. And the pace students learn can be radically different. In a world of specialization, the school system is somehow content with standardized curriculum and standardized testing.
There is much more we could consider, but I would refer you to a previous post on the Paradigm Learning website titled, When A Revolution in Education is the Only Option.
The situation is dire. Scores continue to decline. But there are bigger problems. Students are dropping out of schools at record levels. Up to 60% in some areas of the country. Generally, young people have lost the desire to learn. Their most common goal is to pass with a high enough grade to keep them out of trouble. They are being equipped for the past, not the future. It should come as no surprise 70% of college graduates are not working in the area they earned a degree. Record numbers of students moving into college have no idea what they will do with whatever it is they are studying. And, at the high school level, most haven't a clue why they are learning what they are theoretically learning.
Public schools will likely find it impossible to make the changes necessary to move into personalize learning, at least not in their present environment and with the current set of priorities. But perhaps they can eventually attain the mindset similar to real estate developers who buy a mall. Typically, they tear it down and start again in a way that will bring profit to them in the future. Let's call on our educators to do the same, because the stakes are so much higher than a mall.