Almost a decade ago, I wrote that “the greatest challenge facing America’s schools today [is] the enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom.” Unlike plenty of what I’ve said over the years, this one has stood the test of time.
The challenge is age-old, going back over a century to when the rural one-room schoolhouse started to give way to age-based grade levels. That shift made organizational sense as schools scaled up and were charged with helping many more children go much further in their educations. But it didn’t erase the fundamental fact that just because two kids (or thirty kids) are the same age, it doesn’t mean they’re ready for the same level of academic challenge.
So how can schools manage? The answer for many decades was so-called ability groups: The redbirds were ready for chapter books while the bluebirds were still learning their letters, and Mrs. Smith would spend a chunk of time with each, meeting kids at their level. This became politically incorrect in the 1990s, though, as the anti-tracking movement convinced many educators that any sort of grouping was inequitable, if not racist and classist, which was in fact how ability groups often broke down.
Now schools talk about “differentiating” instruction, which is supposed to focus on the needs of individual children, though in my experience those are often just new bottles for the old wine of ability grouping. Today, however, schools at least try to make sure that such groups are flexible, meaning kids can move up as they make progress.
A cousin, if not a synonym, of differentiation is “personalization,” all the rage among Silicon Valley types. The hope is that by focusing on the needs of individual students, we can move beyond whole-group instruction, or even small-group instruction, and instead “teach to one.”
In a series of posts this month, I’ll explore the possibilities of “personalized pacing” by going deep into two fantastic but very different models from the charter school sector: Rocketship Public Schools and Wildflower Schools. The former is famous for its personalized learning model that focuses on serving low-income students of color; the latter builds intentionally-diverse, teacher-led, micro-Montessori schools. Both are committed to helping students master the academic content set forth in state standards, but they are willing to let individual kids move at their own pace.
Today, we begin by letting Rocketship’s Preston Smith and Wildflower’s Matthew Kramer explain, in their own words, how their schools meet kids where they are. In future posts, we’ll delve deeper.
Mike: Please describe the ways in which your model differentiates or personalizes instruction versus providing all students the same grade-level instruction.
Rocketship’s Preston Smith:
Our mission is to eliminate the persistent achievement gap between children of different races and ethnicities, zip codes, and backgrounds. This achievement gap is clear even before many students enter elementary school—with the vast majority of our students starting with us well behind grade level. In order to get all students up to and above grade level standards, Rocketship pioneered a high-quality personalized learning model that permeates all parts of our school day. Unlike traditional elementary school students, our Rocketeers rotate across four content blocks every day: humanities, STEM, Learning Lab, and enrichment. We integrate a rich social-emotional curriculum across all content blocks and embed English language development standards throughout our instruction. Our teachers lead the learning process for every single student we serve in both whole group grade level instruction and differentiated instruction to meet each student’s individual level. Each day, students engage in one block of math and science instruction (STEM) and a double block of literacy and social studies instruction (humanities). Teachers introduce new concepts, provide supported practice opportunities, and engage students in small-group activities, including integrated online learning programs (OLPs). This carefully orchestrated combination of instructional methods is made possible through robust and regular data streams that highlight where students need support to achieve mastery—from concept acquisition all the way through practice and repetition. This is how we ensure we are optimizing our teachers’ talent and instructional time, targeted in our tutoring, and purposeful in our use of technology.
In addition, classroom instruction is further supplemented and supported through purposeful social-emotional instruction and community meetings, which help our Rocketeers develop the skills to thrive in class and beyond. Personalized learning at Rocketship also extends far beyond the classroom and school year. Every year, our teachers and leaders visit the home of every student we serve. When we change the dynamic from a parent in a teacher’s classroom to a teacher in a student’s home, we develop much stronger relationships with our families and a deeper understanding of how to best serve each and every student.
The Learning Lab is what most people think of when they think of Rocketship’s personalized learning, but it is just one piece of our personalized learning model. Classroom instruction is complemented with a variety of Learning Lab activities, supporting students in multiple ways as they work to master standards. The Learning Lab is like a high-quality afterschool program that is integrated into students’ school days and tightly tailored to their unique learning processes and needs. Our students’ time in the Learning Lab does not replace any time with a teacher. It augments their classroom learning by helping students learn at their own pace and develop more ownership of their learning within our extended school day.
The Learning Lab offers access to adaptive online learning programs, targeted tutoring instruction, leveled independent reading exercises, purposeful independent work, and meaningful enrichment opportunities. Our Learning Lab is a constant space of innovation and is currently evolving into an environment that includes a wider range of activities that provide our Rocketeers with the appropriate level of choice, agency, and real-world application that aligns with our learning outcomes and life success competency scope and sequence. For example, we continue to innovate on various center-learning activities that students rotate through in the course of the day. This ensures we are developing the whole child through strong social-emotional skills when working in a collaborative environment. Rocketeers are exposed to centers that focus on critical thinking and hands-on learning such as Lego robotics, chess, coding, art, project-based learning extensions of topics introduced in class, and hands-on science. This gives Rocketeers multiple and varied opportunities to master content at their level, as well as opportunities that ensure they are better able to access and master skills necessary to compete in the twenty-first century.
Wildflower’s Matthew Kramer:
In authentic Montessori programs, differentiation and coverage of core content are not opposing forces, as they generally are in more teacher-directed educational models. In authentic Montessori environments, children operate with substantial autonomy to choose what they work on each day, with whom they work, and where and how they work in a carefully prepared learning environment in which all the curated choices are good ones, supported by a specially trained adult who observes and gently guides the children as they do their work.
Montessori emphasizes mastery of a comprehensive set of skills with less concern for whether students memorize a large number of facts. All authentic Montessori classrooms include a complete set of Montessori materials (i.e., activities, learning manipulatives, and resources) that have been developed and refined over more than a century through an empirical process started by Maria Montessori and her collaborators. As a group, the materials and the associated presentations and lessons form a comprehensive, progressive curriculum that covers nearly all of the main topics covered by the Common Core State Standards, as has been demonstrated by several detailed cross-walks. The curriculum generally flows from concrete concepts to abstraction and from big picture understanding to detailed understanding, both the opposite of many traditional approaches. This basic approach applies to all subject areas.
Guides (the teachers) play a critical role in ensuring that individual student choices result in covering critical content. Guides keep detailed records of student work choices and areas of struggle and mastery. They use these records to inform their planning of what lessons they present to whom each day—generally as short one-on-one or small group presentations. They also use a series of subtle intervention methods to keep everything on track, such as a carefully designed physical environment and classroom culture that encourages freedom with responsibility, encouraging younger children to enlist the help of older children (Montessori classes all cover a three-year age span—0–3, 3–6, 6–9, 9–12, etc.) or asking a child to explain the topic they are working on to the Guide.
In addition to these authentic Montessori approaches, Wildflower is also developing technologies that support Guides as they do their observations and record keeping—starting with our 3–6-year-old classrooms. Through the use of embedded radio sensors in the environment and computer vision technology, teachers can see how much time they spend with each student and how much time students spend with each lesson. And we’re working on technology that will allow us to measure mastery of physical lessons and track student concentration levels throughout the day. In this way, technology allows for objective, fine-tuned, ongoing assessment in environments optimized for learning, not testing.