Using Personalized Learning to Close Reading Gaps

Teachers are always concerned about “adding one more program” to their plates. So, as our district team researched the merits of personalized learning, we saw that implementing a personalized learning program could help us reach several of our instructional objectives without additional burden on our teachers. In fact, if we implemented a comprehensive program with fidelity, teachers would have more tools, training and technology to help them differentiate instruction. 

We wanted to:

—Train teachers how to differentiate instruction and provide technology to help them

—Have students take more responsibility for their own learning

—Close reading gaps for our struggling students

Muscogee County School District is near Fort Benning, Georgia. As a military community, a large percentage of our 31,500 students are transitory. Also, we have a 24% poverty rate, and 78% of our students are on some kind of meal assistance program. The district felt that it was critically important that personalized learning ensured that our students did not have gaps or redundancies in their instructional programs.

Fortunately, we received a grant from the governor’s office that allowed us to pilot personalized learning in second and third grade in three of our more challenged schools last year. We had already done the background research on the devices we wanted to use from durability and capacity standpoints; we selected Chromebooks and piloted a personalized learning initiative. The program results were impressive in terms of student engagement, and our teachers reported a greater sense of efficacy. The results confirmed our theory that personalized learning would help us achieve our goals, so the school board gave us the go-ahead to move forward districtwide.

Ed Elements helped us plan and execute the rollout of devices. We piloted the 1:1 Chromebooks in second and third grade last year at three schools; we just deployed Chromebooks in all middle schools at the beginning of the current school year; and we plan to deploy them to all of our high schools in January 2020. Then at the beginning of next school year, we will issue Chromebooks to all elementary students—completing the 1:1 rollout.

Choosing Reading Curriculum and Supplemental Programs

When I first arrived as superintendent and reviewed the reading gap data, I was concerned that there was not a standard approach to literacy instruction throughout the district. In addition to the gaps and redundancies in our instruction, we were also transitioning from a low-level statewide assessment to a much higher level assessment.

All of this was the catalyst for searching for a curricular reading backbone. We chose one product for the district, but even as we standardized the reading curriculum, we saw that teachers needed more assistance with differentiating instruction. Many teachers were challenged by how to fully utilize different aspects of the reading program because these topics were not a part of their pre-service teacher education. So, we wanted to address that, while at the same time teach the scientific aspects of reading. We also needed something to help us differentiate instruction and provide quality Tier 1 instruction that aligned with our MTSS scalability from Tier 1 to Tier 3.

The district developed pacing guides and we continued to use the supplemental resources we had found successful. Although we had a solution to serve upper-level reading, we still had a need to provide support for lower grades. The grant allowed us to use Lexia Core5 Reading to focus on grades K–2 at three high-need schools. After the pilot results, we decided to implement Lexia more broadly and use it with our struggling readers in all elementary grades.

The Right People with the Right Plan for Personalized Learning

Last year’s pilot got off to a strong start because we worked with early adopters in our district who volunteered to be part of the pilot. You have to be comfortable with the concept of personalized learning and interested in learning yourself. Teachers attended a boot camp where they learned about implementing personalized learning and what that really meant. Differentiation is part of personalized learning, but the terms are not synonymous. The boot camp training helped teachers really understand that, and they became better teachers. It is possible to personalize learning without technology, but using technology that offers explicit, systematic instruction frees up time for teachers to address the individual needs of each student and provide higher-order feedback.

What we saw from our pilot last year was that students began to take more ownership in their learning, they were more engaged and behavior significantly improved at those three schools. One of the outcomes of the pilot was that we saw the ownership of the learning move from teacher to student. 

The instructional software is great for generating immediate feedback about the student relative to mastery, but using the higher-order feedback—the information that teachers gain from the software to work more effectively with individual students—that is the real art of teaching. We’re providing both the art and science of learning through personalized learning. The results speak for themselves. In one of the pilot schools, 100% of the students closed their learning gaps and achieved their progress goals as defined by the state. The other two pilot schools had similar results.

Moving Forward

Nothing begets success like success. The early adopter teachers in the pilot received all the training and support they needed to be successful. This year they are working with colleagues to help them achieve similar results in fourth and fifth grades in those same schools. After seeing the success that their peers had last year, there is an organic excitement and energy around personalizing learning. The teachers are carrying this forward. It’s not a mandate from the administration.

We have also been working with our local university, Columbus State, from which 65% of our teachers have graduated. Pre-service teachers take part in the professional training from EdElements. We include them in this approach to teaching so they can hit the ground running as beginner teachers in our system. This has been a win-win for us. We provide a bridge for them from college students to first-year teachers, and they come out better prepared and knowledgeable about the process and resources we utilize. The hope is that they will be more successful in their early careers, and we will reduce the turnover that often happens in the first three to five years of teaching.

Our district is enthusiastic about this shift to personalized learning, and Lexia is a big part of it. Core5 is research-proven and now classroom-proven in our district. We believe in balanced literacy, in which phonics and decoding are so important, and it does this very well. And, of course, the information the program provides to teachers gives them tremendous insight into the needs of each student. We are helping students build a learning path and supporting their personalized learning through our technology and devices. I think this is an efficient and effective way to supplement our reading instruction and help students close their reading gaps.