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Making personalized education a reality

The MCPS eLearning webpage.
The MCPS eLearning webpage.
Courtesy MCPS website.

Yesterday, the Washington Post highlighted the Food and Drug Administration’s recent approval of a “promising new lung cancer drug named Zykadia four months ahead of schedule.” The drug is tailored for a very small number of patients suffering from an advanced stage of a specific cancer and a very “specific gene mutation that causes tumors to become resistant to existing treatment.” It was heralded as a sign of the increasing reality of personalized medicine. As this new trend of personalization becomes increasingly pervasive, it may be about time that education, too, becomes personalized.

Consider a reality that anyone with more than one child is intimately familiar with. It is highly likely that each child took his/her first step or uttered his/her first word at a different age. While most children follow the same general growth and development pattern, not all progress at the same pace.

The reality, therefore, as the American Psychological Association observes, is that “just because you have a classroom full of students who are about the same age doesn’t mean they are equally ready to learn a particular topic, concept, skill or idea.” Notwithstanding this reality, education is calcified in the belief that all children are ready to begin their formal education at a very specific age. Maryland state regulation, for example, prescribes the ages of entry for prekindergarten, kindergarten, and first grade. Beginning with the 2006–2007 school year, students were required to be age 5 by September 1 in order to be eligible for entry to kindergarten. Even with these rigid entry requirements, Maryland does recognize that there may be some children who may be ready to enter kindergarten earlier. Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), however, accommodates this requirement via a specific process each parent must follow.

Even with this minutia of flexibility the school system still imposes rigid benchmarks. For example, the school system claimed that it “developed the college readiness trajectory by looking backwards from the goal of college and career readiness and linking successful attainment of one key with the likelihood of successful attainment of a subsequent key.” The keys, enumerated by MCPS were as follows:

1. “Reading Above Grade Level in Grades K–2
2. MSA Reading Advanced in Grades 3 to 8
3. Grade 6 Math in Grade 5
4. Algebra 1 with a C or higher by Grade 8
5. Algebra 2 with a C or higher by Grade 11
6. AP exam score of 3 or higher or IB exam score of 4 or higher by Grade 12, and
7. SAT combined score of 1650 or higher or ACT composite score of 24 or higher by Grade 12.”

These were euphemistically dubbed the Seven Keys to College Readiness. Today, barely more than five years later, there is little mention of the highly promoted Seven Keys. Even while promoting the Seven Keys milestones, the system acknowledges “Our children are unique, and how quickly or how much they progress will vary.” In addition to the reality that how quickly or how much each child will progress varies, so does the preparedness of each child beginning his or her education. Consequently, there are persuasive and substantive reasons to personalize education.

The skeletal framework for personalizing education already exists. For example, MCPS offers online learning opportunities, albeit at a cost. According to public data, in 2013 the number of MCPS students taking online courses stood at 1664. Furthermore, when it came to online AP courses, there was just a small gender disparity in course taking. On May 12, 2014, the school system mailed a notification to students who had “met the college ready grade point average requirement” stating that they may be eligible to take college courses at “a free or reduced tuition rate next school year.” As schools increasingly gear towards teaching college level subject matter in high school and sometimes middle school, the choice of taking college level courses in college makes more sense.

Teachers, due to no fault of their own, are increasingly without the subject matter competence to teach high level courses that may never have been part of their education. MCPS has seemingly bowed to this reality. In 2009, Harvard Education Press published a book titled “Leading for Equity: The Pursuit of Excellence in Montgomery County Public Schools,” authored by Stacey M. Childress, Denis P. Doyle, and David A. Thomas. The book disclosed that “The district is in talks with Lockheed Martin's Simulation, Training and Support group to create a prototype of a potentially breakthrough approach to teacher training. ... Brian Edwards, the superintendent's chief-of-staff is managing discussions about the development of a new approach to algebra professional development that builds on STS's sophisticated simulation and gaming technology, used by the military and commercial sectors to prepare people for complex and often high-risk professional tasks. The project is in the very early stages, but the general idea is that teachers could practice proven instructional techniques for core algebra skills in a virtual classroom environment that would include students with a variety of learning needs.” A better option, financially prudent and practically viable, one could argue, is for the district to provide credit for students taking such online algebra courses.

Today, the educational landscape is burgeoning with options. You could take a Linear Algebra course from edX, and if you so desire, receive a Verified Certificate of Achievement. Alternatively, you could take a course titled Honors Algebra I, through the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, Honors Intermediate Algebra through the Stanford University Education Program for Talented Youth, etc. Personalized education can be a reality.

There are tantalizing indications that MCPS has dabbled in personalized instruction. The question, now, is if the school system is flexible, innovative, and willing to understand the nuances of individual development and embrace personalized learning.