Analysis: Students Who Are Lagging Behind Need Both Grade-Level Content and Personalized Learning. How 3 Schools Are Making It Happen

Nationally, as many as 3 out of 5 students enter school below grade level. The numbers are even higher for low-income students and children of color. To address this problem, some educators and policymakers advocate for more access to higher-quality instructional materials — grade-appropriate curriculum and content that are standards-aligned, coherent and easy for teachers and students to use.

Others argue that personalization — which strives to give students more choice over their learning, access to a variety of content based on interests and needs, and flexible pacing, all driven by continuous use of data to inform instructional decisions and often using technology — is the key to postsecondary success. However, personalized learning alone does not dramatically improve student learning outcomes. Swapping one curriculum out for another is also not a panacea, especially without ongoing professional learning supports for teachers.

Given that neither of these approaches — more access to grade-level content or to personalized strategies — is enough to help students who are behind, what is the answer? The key is to do both.

One terrific example comes from the leaders at Navigator Schools, a network of K-8 schools in Gilroy, California. For most of the day, teachers use high-quality instructional materials at students’ grade level so they can meet college- and career-ready standards. During other parts of the day, teachers work with students using adaptive software alongside targeted small-group instruction to address unfinished learning. Importantly, teachers are also supported with real-time coaching and feedback that enable Navigator to achieve a 77 percent proficiency level on the Smarter Balanced Assessment, compared with 45 percent statewide — all while serving a large population of low-income students.

This is the new personalized learning movement. Top-performing schools are weaving together high-quality instructional materials and personalized learning strategies to create coherent instructional systems that accelerate learning for all students. Thought leaders and funders are beginning to promote this more integrated approach.

However, most existing materials and tools are not designed to support teachers in providing coherent instruction that accelerates student learning. Teachers often use different technological tools, like NewsELA, Myon and IXL, alongside high-quality curricula but struggle to do so in an integrated way — and there is very little research on the effectiveness of integrating technological tools with curriculum in a classroom. Additionally, teachers are often confused about the right combination of curriculum and tools that lead to the greatest gains in student learning.

This is reflected in national patterns. A recent Gallup survey found that 65 percent of teachers use digital learning tools every day, 87 percent at least a few days per week. The same survey also found that 55 percent of teachers report that “my students generally learn the same content working at the same pace together as a class.” Finally, the majority of teachers see value in the tools, but only 27 percent say there is a lot of information on their effectiveness. They are right. Current evidence does not paint a clear picture for how schools and teachers should implement both high-quality instructional materials and personalized learning programs in a way that benefits the most students.

The good news is that schools across the country are starting work on this new model of learning, pairing high-quality instructional materials and personalization.What about schools that are not there yet? How they are getting to strong implementation depends largely on what their starting point is, with three paths emerging.

Grade-level instruction first, personalization second

Schools in this category execute well on standards-aligned instruction with the teacher at the center and all students moving at the same pace and on the same path. Their leaders view personalization as a way to better reach all learners and unlock student agency and ownership. Russell Middle School in Milpitas, California, for example, had been academically strong for a while, with high student achievement on state tests. School and district leadership, however, wanted to see greater investment and engagement from students, who often seemed to be going through the motions. Russell adopted The Learning Platform from Summit Public Schools, an online learning management system that allows students to set ambitious goals, select their learning pathway and progress through competency-based assessments at their own pace. Some teachers opted in during the initial implementation years, and gradually, more came on board. The biggest challenge was gaining teacher investment, and some, ultimately, never signed on, creating a somewhat disjointed experience for students. Now, though, when administrators observe classrooms, they note how students overall are more engaged, and achievement on state assessments remains strong. Across the district, three elementary feeder schools have adopted the platform, and their high school is re-evaluating its learning environment to provide more opportunities for student differentiation, independence and agency.

Personalization first, grade-level instruction second

Over the past decade, some schools set out to shift the paradigm of traditional schooling. These innovative schools were founded on a strong belief that students should spend a significant part of their day working at their own pace and on their own path. An unintended consequence of this strategy is that students, particularly those with gaps in learning, did not get enough learning time with grade-level content and fell behind their peers. In Pennsylvania, for example, Building 21 launched its flagship high school in 2013 in Philadelphia and a second school in Allentown in 2015. Its model for competency-based education was in high demand from students and parents alike, but student achievement gains, particularly in math, were not meeting expectations. Recently, Building 21 adopted the Illustrative Math curriculum and began partnering with Teaching Lab to support educators in learning the skills necessary to implement the curriculum. The curriculum’s problem-based approach aligns with the schools’ competency-based program while ensuring that teachers know what and how to instruct to ensure that all students reach high standards. Although it’s early in the process, Building 21 shows how adopting a standards-aligned curriculum does not have to be at odds with an innovative school model — actually, it can lay the foundation for building greater student agency.

Grade-level instruction and personalization together

Some schools, usually new or existing schools that want to avoid multiple implementation cycles, roll out a high-quality curriculum and personalization at the same time. Mott Haven Academy Charter School, a pre-K-8 school in New York City that serves foster children and students in the child-welfare system, decided on this approach after years of seeing English Language Arts test scores hovering around the state average — a comparatively strong performance for a vulnerable student population, but below the school’s big goals. In each class, students who were several years behind sat next to children exceeding academic goals, and none of them were driving their own learning experiences.

Through a design process led by TNTP, Haven adopted the Wit & Wisdom curriculum and identified early-adopter teachers to pilot personalized learning techniques alongside it, like stations (different learning opportunities that students rotate through during a period) and playlists (coordinated series of activities that students walk through in order to learn specific content). The school’s pilot showed promising gains in benchmark assessment scores and the frequency of self-directed learning. Moving from pilot to implementation came with some challenges, though. Maintaining a high bar for grade-level content while providing students with voice and choice requires teachers to both plan and deliver instruction differently, a shift in practice that demands sustained professional development and coaching. While the school is optimistic about building on the promising early results of the pilot, its experience is a reminder that implementing grade-level instruction and personalization together takes time and patience.

What about schools with no starting point at all — that lack grade-level instruction and are low on personalization? Research seems to show that it is exceptionally important to ensure that students first gain access to high-quality instructional materials, as differentiation without access to grade-level content is meaningless. Meanwhile, we are hoping to learn from schools, such as Haven Academy, whether successfully implementing grade-level instruction and personalization together is possible.

To be sure, the stories of these schools are still being told, and more evidence is needed to determine which paths lead to the largest gains in student learning, especially for those kids entering school farthest behind. Researchers, policymakers and education leaders should continue to monitor and learn from these three groups of schools to determine what leads to the greatest long-term impact on student outcomes, or even if there is another, totally different, path. Each school should reflect on its starting point and chart a path forward.

The magic always happens in the details of implementation. As a sector, we should move beyond false dichotomies. Students deserve both daily access to grade-level curriculum and personalized strategies to help them reach their potential. We need to continue to study the real stories of educators engaged in the complex work of ensuring that all students learn and graduate empowered and prepared to pursue college and career. Educational equity demands nothing less.

Sarah Johnson is CEO of Teaching Lab. Amber Oliver is director of the Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund. Robert Schwartz is a partner at the Silicon Schools Fund.

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