In the midst of growing uncertainty about the school year due to rising COVID-19 cases, it would be easy to lose sight of the potential possibilities for transformative change to the nation’s inadequate, inequitable, education systems. One potential paradigm shift for the school system would be to abandon the batch-processing factory model of education adopted in the industrial era of the early 20th century and replace it with a customized, personalized system that meets each child where they are and gives them what they need to thrive both inside and outside of school. This is an opportune moment for sweeping change since there’s a sense of public urgency about equity and resources available through federal American Rescue Plan to fund a process of deep change.
This shift to personalization involves changing underlying assumptions on which the current system is founded. For starters, states should abandon the idea, disproven by evidence, that schools can, by themselves, level the playing field and create genuine equality of opportunity. Despite best intentions and school reforms, there remains a consistent correlation between socioeconomic status at birth and educational achievement and attainment. Schools alone cannot do the job of creating an equal opportunity society. While an education can certainly make a big difference for those few who defy the odds, the data are clear: The nation’s education system continues to leave many children far behind. What’s also clear is something that has been long ignored or denied: Poverty matters. It creates serious impediments to children’s education.
The second assumption to be discarded is that an education system that ostensibly aims to achieve equality of opportunity can be effective by conflating equity and equality, i.e., assuming that if all students receive the same curriculum and instruction for the same amount of time (equality) then school system will be both fair (equitable) and effective (achieving its goals). This is a naïve assumption in the face of enormous and growing inequality of economic and social capital in our society that prevails in children’s lives outside of school. Equity would demand that each and every child gets what he or she needs to be successful. And, as any parent knows, children’s needs vary widely as must the strategies for meeting them.
To remedy these problems, there needs to be a new paradigm for child development and the education system: personalization. Education too often relies on an outdated concept of “teaching to the average,” even though there’s no such thing as an average student — which has been vividly underlined, once again, by the differential effects of the pandemic on children’s education and life experiences.
While some students have been optimally supported with two professional parents at home as well as up-to-date technology, tutoring, and recreational opportunities, others have lost touch with schools altogether and struggled with challenges ranging from homelessness to family instability to untreated medical issues.
The good news is that many school systems, in response to COVID closings, have made extraordinary efforts to reach out to students and connect with them and their families. These substantially strengthened family engagement efforts are a first step toward creating a personalized system of education. For example, the Metro Nashville Public Schools has strongly embraced a personalized strategy by assigning 6,000 teachers and administrators to serve as navigators to 60,000 of its students. These navigators are charged with getting to know each child, assessing their needs, acting as mentors and advocates, and then guiding them to the necessary support services and opportunities. Costs include a technology platform and stipends for navigators. While it’s too early to show outcomes for the program, satisfaction levels among teachers, students, and parents are high. This approach has become so successful that district leaders are making it permanent.
At the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s EdRedesign, we have been working on a personalization strategy called “success planning” for several years. We have developed guidelines and tools that enable school districts and communities to implement this strategy, which calls for navigators to develop a “success plan” that takes into account the strengths, interests, challenges, and needs of each student while reckoning with in-school and out-of-school factors ranging from academic needs to food security to technology and internet access. Each plan then stipulates strategies designed to create the best possible opportunities for that student’s success. Our underlying principle: Every student has the right to be seen, heard, and responded to as a unique individual.
The personalization of education, customizing the system to meet every child where they are and give them what they need, should not be a heavy lift. While personalization would be a paradigm shift for education, it’s a familiar way of treating children. It’s what all families try to do for their children, but not everyone can afford to do it thoroughly. America needs a cradle-to-career pipeline that works for all students in order to ensure the future of our economy and democracy. Federal resources are newly available to support such a transformational, but doable, shift. Meet them where they are, give them what they need. Now’s the time.
Paul Reville is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he leads the Education Redesign Lab. He is a former Massachusetts secretary of education.