Top schools lag poorer schools?

by Bruce Kasanoff on October 12, 2009

It’s counter-intuitive, but when it comes to personalizing education, the best-funded schools may be falling behind their more challenged counterparts.

So says Ann Henson, Vice President of Curriculum and Instruction for CompassLearning. Prior to joining CompassLearning, Ms. Henson was a high school math and computer science teacher and worked at a district level on curriculum development. We really like the organization’ mission statement, which reads: CompassLearning is dedicated to facilitating student success by collaborating with educators to deliver personalized learning experiences.

“The primary drivers that get us new clients,” says Henson, “Are high dropout rates and low test scores. We also get a lot of demand in districts where there are a shortage of qualified teachers, or in rural districts that are missing teachers in certain subject areas.”

The toughest place to introduce personalized education (differentiated instruction that is meaningfully enabled by technology) is at the secondary school level, reports Henson. “Secondary is the most resistant to this. They teach subjects, not kids. The primary places that secondary schools are willing to move to individualized approach is in alternative schools and places where there are challenges already.”

I have anecdotal experiences that reinforce this. Over the past 18 months I discussed personalization with both the superintendent of Westport, Connecticut schools and the principal of Westport’s Staples High School. Westport is a very well-funded school system and the town is populated by adults who fiercely defend the town’s educational system. But both educators see personalization as something far short of technology-enabled differentiated instruction. For example, they cite frequent recognition of students with awards as evidence of personalization, but this has nothing to do with changing lesson plans based on a student’s needs.

So perhaps well-funded school systems are still more inclined to pay for teachers instead of technology? But even a great teacher has trouble handing the diverse needs of 28 kids in a single classroom. Change is coming, despite the obstacles.

“Differentiated instruction is central to what we do.” says Henson. “In our best implementations, after working with the customer to identify needs, it is usually obvious that what is needed is to personalize instruction. The world has more information than you can teach in twelve years using traditional methods. Now you have to look at how you can optimize and accelerate education. The only way you can do this is through technology.”

“But schools aren’t always able do what we recommend,” admits Henson. “Lots of systems use us for a specific targeted group, such as math students, or an upper quartile group that needs enrichment. This is more due to budget restrictions than anything else.”

To help spur usage and adoption, CompassLearning recently moved to unlimited users licenses. This means that schools don’t have to pay extra for more licenses or more usage. If more classes sign on, the cost doesn’t go up. If parents monitor their kids’ progress, again, the cost does not go up.

Still, hardware remains a limiting factor. A school may have 100 computers and 600 kids. The software can also be used at home, but students in poor areas often do not have access to a computer at home.

Despite such hurdles, the concept of differentiated instruction makes overwhelming sense. Technology, used properly, makes it possible to recognize where individual students are having trouble and to focus teaching and practice on those specific problem areas.

Henson explains, “Over the last few years, as we develop content, we take each teaching objective, and see what kind of mistakes kids make. Let’s say we’re building a geometry course, we track what kind of mistakes kids make when learning equations. Then reteaching is based on common errors.”

She doesn’t mean when a student makes a mistake you reteach him all the areas where students typically make mistakes. She means you reteach the specific areas in which that student made mistakes. To do this, her team develops content for each of those common mistakes.

Henson is optimistic about the future. “Over the last six to twelve months, funding has loosened up for us.

I’ve been in this 22 years. I see people in public education thinking we really need to start over and do this differently. The data is waking people up. In education as a whole, we are still doing what we did in 1950. Fortunately, there are more pioneers than there used to be.”

CompassLearning Odyssey offers schools and districts a complete, online K-12 curriculum and assessment solution. Each course is filled with personalized, engaging, and age-appropriate curriculum based on the most current and confirmed research about how students think and learn. Unlimited-user licensing means that every student at a school will have access to the Odyssey curriculum both at school and at home. Schools are not forced to share licenses or limit use of the program to specialized populations. The company also offers coaching, mentoring, and modeling services and a variety of customer support options to ensure teacher success.

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