The variance across students’ current abilities and interests is an age-old challenge for educators, and one that’s resulted in a long list of proposed solutions. These include, among others, gifted programs, Montessori education, charter schools, and a range of initiatives that intend some version of custom-tailored learning. Today, “personalized learning” is the object of much attention, energy, and philanthropy.
Yet there’s a fundamental tension between individualization and standards, one might say between the cognitive pluribus and the unum.
Of course we want kids to move at their own pace, and to some degree to follow their own interests. We are fine, for example, when they following those interests in graduate school, but less so in kindergarten. In between, like the U.S. Constitution’s unum and pluribus, there needs to be a balance. Even in college there's an argument for some sort of “core curriculum.”
We also worry, not unreasonably, that too much "personalization" will become a rationale for getting some kids to a high standard like “college ready,” while others, especially poor and minority children, are held to much lower standards—or none at all. This leads to legitimate concerns about tracking. It’s also hard to figure out how to address kids who are way below grade level. Do you focus on remediation? Teach them grade level standards in the hope that it will help them catch up faster? Place them with higher-achieving peers, which tends to benefit lower performers but may slow the progress of more advanced classmates?
Enter what we at Fordham call “personalized pacing”—a truly pragmatic reform, and one that has the potential to significantly improve the outcomes of bright, low-income students.
Whereas personalized learning, according to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, “seeks to accelerate student learning by tailoring the instructional environment…to address the individual needs, skills and interests of each student” (emphasis added), personalized pacing focuses mostly on the “accelerate” part and largely excludes the interests portion. It affirms the curriculum unum while allowing students to deviate from grade-level learning. It often employs digital tools.
Its use among kids struggling to meet standards is a bit controversial, and more research should be done before we settle the debate on the best application for those children. But the platforms, which include free options like Khan Academy, are a no-brainer for students performing above standards. They can do great things, like enable a smart black fifth-grader languishing in a class that does nothing to maximize his potential to be challenged for the very first time, and help a low-income sixth-grader attending a small rural school to finally access the math content she’s long wanted and deserved.
An old version of this is grade acceleration, wherein high achievers get promoted into classrooms with older students. This has a long track record of improving outcomes, and is still worthy of support. But digital tools make it possible to get the same enhanced academic benefit while maintaining the social advantages of staying with same-age peers. And it helps out the in-betweeners—children whose ability exceeds their current grade levels but who might struggle with a full-grade jump.
Personalized pacing can also make a big difference in the third of schools that lack gifted programs, as well as those whose offerings are nominal, low quality, lacking in racial and socioeconomic diversity, or all of the above. Efforts to introduce, expand, or improve such programs are often beset by charges of discrimination, unfairness, and tracking. Such criticisms would be harder to level against free or low-cost personalized pacing platforms that can exist in all classrooms. And they can help demonstrate the importance and potential of high-quality gifted programs, thereby lessening community resistance to their adoption—which should still be the goal.
To be sure, we must remain mindful of the risk of techno-utopianism. Doe-eyed optimism about the latest and greatest hardware and software can, for example, cause leaders to overpromise on their potential and underestimate their risks. We must continue to protect privacy and guard against incentive structures that encourage profit or expansion over better student outcomes. And never should we think that technology can replace the dedicated adults at the heart of education, such as teachers, principals, and parents. The objective must always be to enhance their value and effort, not render it obsolete.
But if we deploy personalized pacing responsibly, especially for the disadvantaged students who would most benefit, its potential is immense. The key is to think of it as a flexible tool, not a panacea. To deal with it sensibly and realistically. To be, that is, pragmatic.