USD 383 moves towards personalized ed

Kris Long, Print Editor-in-Chief

USD 383 is set to begin integrating personalized learning into the wider curriculum next school year. District administration have been working with the Institute for Personalized Learning out of Milwaukee since May of 2019 to implement the practice and are piloting it across areas of the district in the 2022-23 school year to prepare for system-wide use in 2023-2024. 

“This is the core classroom, and this is focusing on how within that we personalize it,” Director of Teaching and Learning Paula Hough said. “It’s not the idea of learning styles, things like that. But it’s about that choice, giving that choice … How does the student present the information to you? Instead of saying ‘you learn this way so you’re going to have this, whereas you learn this way.’ It’s general to the classroom. But there’s still a choice within that.”
The district defines Personalized Learning as “plac[ing] the whole child as an active participant at the center of instruction. Strong relationships between educators, students, family and community ensure equity and choice in time, place, path, pace and demonstration of learning.” The initiative includes practices like standards-based grading, rather than a typical A-F scale – which will be implemented in the elementary schools starting fall of 2022 – and giving students choices on how to be assessed.

At the elementary school level, personalized learning manifests itself in different learning paces and focuses on mastering competencies students need to progress to the next class in the subject or the next grade. Entering secondary school, while differentiated pace and standards-based grading continues to be important, it is accompanied by a shift towards students understanding the opportunities available to them and creating a class schedule that suits their needs. The district is using Xello – which they piloted this year – to help students plan for their personalized education. 

“It’s not an IEP for every student … It doesn’t mean you have 30 kids doing 30 different things,” Hough said. “We want to make sure that our students, before they’re even at the high school … know what the pathways are. Do their parents know what the pathways are? If you’re an oldest child, and you haven’t been through that yet, do you know the options that are available in high school?”

The high school has been working on a shift to standards-based grading in the science department, with freshman Biology classes using a one through four grading scale. 

“We take a look at all the standards we want our students to achieve, and we design lessons and assessments that match up with those standards,” Biology teacher Noah Busch said. “We rate them on how well they understand that particular standard. Rather than assign them a score, like ‘oh, you got 100% or 80%, or 50%’. We rate them on a scale of zero to four. Four is they understand it so well, they’ve got above mastery. Zero means there’s no evidence of them having learned or mastered any concepts.”

The courses also focus on concept mastery, rather than meeting an arbitrary grading standard. They do this by encouraging students to retake exams to prove they understand concepts, so pupils have an incentive to continue working at material they didn’t get the first time. 

“Rather than students being concerned with ‘how many points is this worth?’ Or, ‘how many points did I get,’ or ‘what percentage or what grade did I get?’ I would much rather students be wondering ‘how well did I understand this?’” Busch said. “If we can start, both as students and teachers, to move towards this idea of getting away from points and focusing more on understanding, or move towards an education system that allows this continuous learning process, then there’s not an end or a stop, we’re always learning.”

The freshman science department has used standards based learning for five years, yielding lower failure rates and higher student engagement. 

“Students love the opportunity to always be working on their understanding,” Busch said. “If a student is given the opportunity to go back and demonstrate a deeper understanding, and their grade is attached to that, then there’s actually a motivation, or drive, for the student to continue learning…. I very rarely have a student fail my class now because there’s always the opportunity for them to work on that. I think the kids that normally would fall through the cracks, now we have a plan for them.”

Apart from freshmen Biology, other Math and Foreign Language teachers have experimented with personalized learning at the high school level. 

“Because I am a math teacher, I see a lot of students just really disengaged with math as a whole,” Cindy Kraus said. “I’ve seen it for a number of years. The question that’s always coming up in a math class is ‘when am I ever going to use this?’ And I feel like they use math without even knowing they’re using math, and if I can try to help them see that, that’s a win in my book… I really have seen that whenever I’m able to bring in one of the activities that get that creativity coming into the classroom, their whole demeanor changes, and they’re more willing to put the phones down and be engaged.”

Personalized Learning hopes to incorporate students who do learn well with traditional methods of assessment as well as those who it hasn’t worked for. 

“I can definitely see that some students are comfortable and some… If the traditional way of learning has always worked for them, they’re like: ‘I don’t see the need. I want to go back to the work that always worked for me’ because that’s their comfort area,” Kraus said. “But for students who that traditional model hasn’t worked for them they’re like: ‘this is what I have to do? This is going to be okay?’ And I can see that I’m getting a different reaction from those students who the traditional method hasn’t necessarily been what works for them.”

Although the change to standards-based grading at the elementary level — students will be assigned a score of one through four — starting next year does not extend to the middle and high schools, the district hopes to move in that direction. The difficulty in changing high school grading practices lies in transferring standards-based learning to colleges and for scholarship qualifications. 

“There’s an interest [at the secondary level] definitely,” Hough said. “We did have professional development on it this year, and there was strong feedback. I wouldn’t say strong support necessarily, but just strong feedback because it got people thinking … [The catch is] the credits, the GPA ranking, AP, how do all of those things fit in? But it’s not impossible.”