Posted on 03/04/2019 at 10:11 AM by Blog Experts

For over 200 years, we have researched, experimented, and worked to develop different initiatives that would create academic success for most of our students.  We have taught to the middle average hoping that those who had learning gaps would somehow catch up and those that already knew what we were teaching would not become bored and frustrated while waiting for everyone else before they could move on (Schwahn & McGarvey, 2012).  How many of us, as adults, would enjoy working in that kind of environment?

What if we designed our schools to truly meet the needs of all students? 

We know that students learn at different rates.  “What if students were able to work on a skill or concept until they had mastered it, instead of getting a bad grade, or not fully understanding, only to move on the next skill or concept because a traditional school classroom [and bell schedule] dictates that all, or most, students profess at the same pace?  What if students could move on to the next skill or concept or dive more deeply into a topic when they were ready, instead of sitting through lessons and taking tests over material that they already know” (Friend et al., 2017)?

Students have different interests, strengths, skills, and abilities that make them unique learners.  We know there is no such thing as average, as noted by Todd Rose in The End of Average (2016).  We know that standardized, norm-referenced tests are ineffective in measuring the academic proficiency of our students.  We know that students who begin to struggle academically in the latter elementary grades will become labeled as struggling learners and that our focus on their weaknesses only magnifies their failure.  We know that these students, without any opportunity to excel once this identification has been made, may begin to be disengaged, become non-producers and stop trying to catch up, exhibit behavior, or may stop coming to school at all. Why should they?  We have created a system of education that is “okay” with not all students being successful and they just happen to be one of those students.

“What if teachers were able to spend more of their time working with individual students on specific needs instead of moving the whole class together through a standard curriculum?  What if students and their families had a more accurate picture of what each student knew and was about to do instead of just a report card with an A-F letter grade in each subject at the end of the quarter” (Friend et al., 2017)?  These questions, and more, would be answered in the positive - yes, that would be better. 

It is possible for all of our districts today – no matter how big or how small, to create this type of learning environment for their students.  It is happening in the some of the most ethnically diverse student populations.  It is happening in some of the most economically disadvantaged schools in our country.  And when it happens students are experiencing higher levels of academic achievement, increased competencies in many of the most needed soft skills, and greater connection to apply their learning to areas of interest and relevance. Students are being given opportunities for the learning to be applied and connected to authentic projects in partnership with business, industry, and community partners. And families and communities are excited about the impact these shifts are having for all of their students. 

It is exciting for educators as well.  Conversations with those who have been involved in this more personalized learning environment, where policies and procedures are designed to support this transformational system have shared some of the following results in their professional growth and experiences:

  • We have stronger, deeper relationships with students – get to know them better
  • All students are OUR students and are able to focus on how students learn best
  • We have more time to work with other teachers.  We want to communicate and collaborate with one another instead of working in isolation.
  • We can be more creative in how they design curriculum and instruction.
  • There is more time to work one-on-one or in small groups with students, which makes me more effective as a teacher.

For the most part, those teachers whom I have visited with about moving to this focus on personalized, student-centered learning will never go back to teaching in a traditional model (Friend et al, 2017; Schwahn et al., 2012, Swank & Bauer, 2019).  This has been true for teachers who are recognizing themselves as teachers but also as learners, coaches, mentors and facilitators of learning.

If some of these ideas have excited you about learning more about personalized, mastery-based, competency-based learning models, please email me at  We are continuing to look for some school districts or buildings who want to begin or continue their journey as pilots for Innovations in Learning. This work is supported by Northwest AEA and The Center.


Friend, B., Patrick, S., Schneider, C., & Vander Ark, T. (2017). What’s possible with personalized

learning? Vienna, VA: International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

Rose, T. (2016). The end of average: How we succeed in a world that values sameness.  New

York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Schwahn, C. & McGarvey, B. (2012). Inevitable: Mass customized learning.

Swank, D. & Bauer, E. (2019, March 1).  The journey of MCL at Canyon Lake Elementary School.

Interview by MCL PLC, Northwest AEA.

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