The Original Personalization App—Great Teachers

With all the buzz about the District Race to the Top and jockeying to fit it into differing agendas, you might miss its simple premise: “There are great teachers … who have figured out how to personalize education and we are asking our districts to identify them and amplify their reach and impact,” Secretary Arne Duncan said in his remarks announcing the competition.

The goal of this competition is to “support LEAs that demonstrate their commitment to identifying teachers, principals, and schools who have a vision and the expertise to personalize education and extend their reach to all of their students,” says the introduction to the final criteria.

The criteria require all applicants to:

  • 1. Meet an “Absolute Priority” for learning personalization that includes “expand[ing] student access to the most effective educators” and increasing all educators’ effectiveness.
  • 2. Measure and report the number and percentage of students whose teacher of record is highly effective, reporting separately those who have effective teachers.

The competition awards points for:

  • 3. Having a plan to increase the number of students who receive instruction from highly effective and effective teachers.
  • 4. Giving schools flexibility to change schedules, staffing models, and budgets to implement their plans.
  • 5. Showing financial sustainability beyond the grant.

Most of the buzz about this competition has focused on technology. True, self-paced digital instruction and “learning management systems” that measure students’ progress and prescribe next steps will surely keep improving and increasingly personalize learning. And technology is crucial to save teachers time, and ultimately it should make all of what a teacher does easier, including personalization, as we’ve said here, here, here, and here.

But the competition criteria recognize that all of these tools are much more likely to propel student learning if more students have proven excellent teachers in charge of their learning. Personalization has been part of great teaching for decades, long before the PC landed in classrooms. Maria Montessori’s individual-choice methods and Carol Ann Tomlinson’s masterful differentiation manuals that show teachers how to combine large group, small group and individual instruction are just two of many great examples. But still, some teachers “get it” faster and do it better. That’s why RTTT-D directs applicants to give more students access to these teachers.

As districts shape their applications, they will be smart to acknowledge the education department’s very clearly expressed view on this, and not submit applications implying that technology will “teacher-proof” education or that excellent teaching will soon become less important. Performance differences in other professions mirror that in teaching, so it’s unlikely that technology alone will make education the only job on earth in which the person in the job doesn’t matter.

In short, a few simple reminders, both to applicants and to other education leaders who want to achieve better outcomes with personalized learning for more students:

1. Excellent teachers personalize, whatever it takes. The original personalized learning app is having an excellent teacher. Great teachers do it with no technology and bad textbooks. They do it with cobbled-together materials from the Web. They just do it, because they are compelled by the learning potential and needs of their students. Put digital tools in their hands, and they will tell you how to make them great for personalizing learning.

2. Excellent teachers need new school models to personalize learning for more students. Schools can redesign roles and use technology to put top teachers in charge of more students’ learning. These models free a great teacher from other duties that peers and paraprofessional staff can do with a great teacher’s leadership and collaboration. And they make it possible to pay excellent professionals about 20 to 40 percent more and teacher-leaders up to 130 percent more, within budget. Some models allow paying all teachers more, sustainably. If you’ve been following our work on, this is old news. If you haven’t, check out the short videos, infographic, and slide deck describing these school models.

3. Last but not least, excellent teachers can spread their personalizing techniques, materials, and attitudes to peers. But only if they are recognized, empowered within their schools, and provided with time to collaborate and lead. Most of the school models mentioned above allow schools to provide this time, but teachers need leaders’ help to arrange the school schedules and teaching roles accordingly.

Districts that want to achieve personalization and outstanding learning at scale will focus on all three of these—recognizing the excellent teachers already in classrooms, committing to models that reach the most students possible with excellent teachers in charge, and baking accountability and the time to lead and develop peers into the school recipe.

Adding well-designed digital tools (read Tom Vander Ark and Innosight) to these strategies will lead to big wins, not just for competing districts, but also for teachers and their students.

-Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan Hassel

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