Three years of personalized learning: Key takeaways at Arthur Ashe Charter School

Three years ago, Arthur Ashe Charter School launched its blended learning model in an existing K-8 school. The main driver behind the move was the desire to personalize instruction to better meet each student’s precise needs.

Since then, we’ve learned a lot about how students, teachers and software interact, and about what it takes to ensure that those interactions lead to academic progress.

Key insight #1: Use people, not programs, to personalize learning for students

When we originally conceived of our personalized learning model, we thought that the major “win” would be how the computer programs could personalize instruction for students. Three years in, we know that the software programs have been a lever in the success of our students. But we think that the most important aspect of our model is the adult time that’s freed up to engage in different activities. More adult time means greater flexibility in how we are able to personalize learning for our students. Based on student need and progress, core teachers and other instructional staff can remediate daily assessments, have small group instruction, and remediate as students interact with software programs.

Key insight #2: Empower students to set their own goals and track their own data

During our first six months of implementation, we had very loose accountability systems for ensuring students were actually engaging with computer-based content. As a result, we saw a wide range of both engagement and—dependent on how high or low it was—academic progress.

To correct that, we’ve since refined our practices. Each student now sets individual goals based on the educational software program they’re using. Typically, we set both a weekly goal and a trimester-long goal. Goals are posted on the wall, as well as on an individual student data tracking sheets. Students periodically assess themselves and analyze the resulting data to track their own progress. Having students set clear goals and track their progress against them has led to a much greater degree of motivation.

Key insight #3: Ask teachers to teach, not be software ninjas

To provide students with the rich content they need, we use multiple software programs. Processing the volume of data points these programs generate is an exercise in drinking from a fire hose.  Each program – and each data point– gives a small window into a different component of student performance, often in different formats.

When we first implemented the program, we worked with teachers to process all this data, but the results were less than optimal.  A lot of programs were used, a lot of data was monitored, but little was acted upon.

Today, instead of asking teachers to master the minutiae of specific software programs, we now ask them to become proficient in one data type, generated by a program that allows students to take regular diagnostics and assessments to monitor ongoing progress. That focus on a single program and analysis has allowed our core teaching staff to spend their time on instructional planning, as well as on targeted support to meet students’ specific needs.

That said, we still want to ensure students get the most out of each program available. To that end, we have staff members (typically not core teachers) who specialize in specific software programs, who can help track students’ progress within those programs, and who work with students to remediate as needs arise.

The impact: Quantitative and qualitative

What results have we seen? For one, we’ve seen substantial improvement in student outcomes, particularly in math.  Student achievement (on grade level or above) grew by 10 percent in math from 2011 to 2012 and 17 percent in math from 2012 to 2013.

But even more inspiring has been how the model has changed the day-to-day business of teaching and learning. Under the blended model, Ashe students have become more engaged in the process of learning. Staff, meanwhile, love having the time built into the day to work with students individually and in small groups.

Sabrina Pence is the co-director of Arthur Ashe charter school, one of five participants in the May 2014 blended learning report released by SRI International and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. First Line also participated in a series of foundation-funded case studies on blended learning, conducted by FSG and released in 2012. 

Read more posts on blended learning here.
Download the research report from SRI here.