Aim for individual mastery and the rest will follow


May 20, 2015

As debates about ESEA reauthorization continue on the Hill, Congress is grappling with the question of how to square current accountability structures with emerging personalized learning models. A recent Bellwether Education Partners report, A Path to the Future: Creating Accountability for Personalized Learning, summarized the apparent friction facing policymakers:

Personalized learning aims to change instruction in ways that customize students’ experiences—and, ultimately, lead to systemic changes in how students are assessed and progress to more advanced content. Standards-based accountability seeks to mold the K–12 system by creating common expectations for student performance—and, ultimately, incentives for instructional changes to help students achieve them. In other words, personalization and accountability meet in the middle, creating challenges for policymakers when the two appear to be in conflict.

The report’s side-by-side comparison of personalized learning approaches and standards-based efforts raises important questions about the potential minefield of trying to reconcile these two worlds. But it also conflates inputs with outcomes. Indeed, the apparent tension between standards and personalization dissolves if we can better delineate prescriptive inputs and desired outcomes.

Personalized learning is a means, not an end. Standards are an end, not a means. Debates about both, however, tend to muddle these distinctions.

In the EdTech, blended learning, and competency-based reform worlds, a quiet debate about the definition of personalized learning is heating up. In an attempt to codify the often-vague concept of personalization, however, champions risk fixating on enumerating the inputs of personalized learning approaches, in turn losing laser-like focus on the outcomes we’re hoping such approaches can achieve. Personalized learning is a process, not an outcome. The relevant outcome animating this work is not personalized learning but actually individual student mastery. The inputs to get there —which we often dub personalized learning—ought to be whatever it takes for particular students in particular circumstances to achieve mastery. To maximize individual student mastery, we’d probably expect radical structural shifts in how we organize and deliver education—such as moving away from lockstep grade and age cohort-based pace, using technology to assess student mastery more frequently, tapping into students’ passions, and allowing students to access learning in environments beyond their school building, to name a few. But all of these strategies will look different depending on a given schools’ philosophies and circumstances.

Standards, on the other hand, represent an outcome, not an input. Standards need not dictate standardization in process or approach, but rather they can provide a common set of learning objectives that states determine students must master. Accountability frameworks may nudge schools’ experience of implementing standards into the realm of inputs. For example, once yearly testing may force schools to take a cohort-based approach to teaching and learning in hopes of driving up average, rather than individual, mastery across a grade level. Standards themselves, however, articulate the goals of an education system, rather than how we get there.

Putting the two outcomes—individual mastery and standards—together then, would create a system in which standards articulate the content and skills that each student must master, which we in turn measure on an individual basis. The latter piece is where the current accountability system has always fallen short: we have historically focused on average, rather than individual student performance. Only recently have we seen the advent of statewide data systems even capable of tracking individual student growth, and we still require only that schools report out on proficiency across grade levels. But to advance the frontier of what’s possible in education, we must remember that focusing on individual student mastery is not at odds with holding schools accountable to standards; individual mastery is simply not the current metric that No Child Left Behind propagated in law.

Debates about the right inputs—the particulars of the act of personalizing or how to teach particular standards—should be left up to systems trying to figure out how to achieve mastery for each of their students in their own contexts. Otherwise, we stand to hamstring innovation and—ironically—standardize (different from standards) a personalized approach that should instead adjust to specific students’ circumstances and the best methods to yield individual mastery.

The more urgent and complicated matter that we can and should debate is what constitutes individual student mastery and how we measure it in a reliable and equitable manner. This may involve tough questions about which standards (or “power standards”) schools may need to prioritize, the degree of depth of understanding we think defines mastery, and whether older students should be afforded choice as to certain standards that they do or don’t need to master. The value of wrestling with those tough questions is that we will continue to clarify our desired outcomes, rather than fixate on particular inputs.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.