Failing schools

To the Editor:

Congress will soon hash out the biggest education reform since the controversial “No Child Left Behind” effort more than a decade ago.

This summer, the House and Senate passed bills reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Now, a conference committee must reconcile the two. Both measures would empower states, rather than the federal government, to set academic standards and police school performance.

But it doesn’t matter whether the final bill puts states, the feds or the government of Finland in charge. U.S. schools are failing because they expect 19th-century teaching methods to reach 21st-century kids.

Instead of wasting time reorganizing the education bureaucracy, lawmakers should call for the end of conventional, one-size-fits-all lecture-based learning and the advent of personalized education.

American students have fallen behind their foreign peers. Our nation’s 15-year-olds rank 28th internationally in math and science skills. One-quarter of U.S. students fail to demonstrate even basic skills in math or science.

Our nation’s poor schools are also exacerbating racial and economic inequality. Students at schools that serve low-income populations enter high school more than three grade levels behind their peers in affluent areas. And they’re five times less likely to graduate.

The education status quo clearly isn’t working. Personalized education approaches can.

Personalized education recognizes that every student is an individual with ever-evolving aptitudes and needs.

And technology can make this possible. Khan Academy, for instance, with its massive online library of videos and problem sets, allows students to learn at their own pace and pursue a curriculum tailored to their unique needs.

Research shows that personalized education works. A study from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that personalized learning improved math and reading scores across all grades. The gains were biggest among students with lower initial achievement rates.

One of the big reasons personalized education is so effective is that it makes learning more engaging – and fun. Using personalized curricula, students meet their educational goals by choosing the particular topics and learning methods that work best for them.

And personalized education makes learning more fun, too. A survey of Khan Academy users found that more than 70 percent of students enjoyed using the program.

Personalized learning methods also can better develop skills like conflict resolution, relationship-building and self-awareness. These “social-emotional” skills get short shrift in the conventional classroom. But research shows they’re essential to students’ long-term success.

K-12 students who participate in social-emotional learning programs exhibit better classroom behavior, experience less stress and suffer lower rates of depression.

Federal policymakers finally appear to be taking note. The new Senate education bill allows schools to engage in some limited experimentation with personalized learning.

That’s a start. But it’s not enough.

Our nation’s educational outcomes never will change unless we reform how we teach our students. Personalized learning is the way. Our leaders should embrace it.

Alan Shusterman

Washington, D.C.

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