Personalized at Scale

Large-scale personalized instruction is not only possible — it’s necessary.

GUEST COLUMN | by Lynn Young

CREDIT Killeen ISD TexasAll children – no matter their learning ability – deserve a curriculum that’s both rigorous and aligned to state standards. That vision can be difficult to achieve in any district and it was a particular challenge for my own, Killeen Independent School District in Texas. Our student population of about 42,000 includes more than 4,700 students who have been diagnosed with a disability that requires individual instruction.

When you can pinpoint what’s missing and design custom lessons to fill in those gaps, students gain the skills to move forward.

In addition, because we’re located near Ft. Hood Army Post, more than 50 percent of the students we serve have one or both parents in the military. That can be challenging for both students and teachers. We have a mobile population. Two or three times a year about a third of our students leave because their parents have been re-stationed, and a new crop of students enrolls with us. Military students are resilient, but those kinds of upheavals can be difficult for anyone, particularly special education students.

The effect of this mobility on instruction is enormous. Our teachers don’t know what gaps children have when they join us, and they don’t have a lot of time to find out.

I was investigating curriculum supplements for special education students when I found a program that seemed to provide everything I needed: assessment tools, the ability to provide custom curriculum to students and continuous tracking of their progress. What I liked in particular was that the curriculum was designed for remediation and acceleration for all students – not just those with special needs. It had the rigor and alignment to state standards that I was looking for, so I decided to give it a try.

After only five months of learning with SuccessMaker from Pearson, in the 2010-2011 school year, students in special education at Harker Heights High School demonstrated 1.13 years of academic growth in reading and 1.43 years academic growth in math. More recently, at the end of the 2013-2014 school year, 92 percent of eighth-grade students in special education at Manor Middle School who were building reading skills with the program passed the state reading assessment on their first attempt. And at Audie Murphy Middle School, every single special education student – 100 percent – passed the state reading assessment test on his or her first attempt.

Test scores are only one part of the picture. One eighth-grade student was initially assessed as a beginning reader. After learning with the program for the year, he achieved nearly four years of growth and was able to develop the skills needed to enter high school. A third-grade student went from being a non-reader to not just passing the state reading assessment, but to receiving the highest rating possible of “commended performance.” Overall, teachers tell me that their students feel an immediate sense of accomplishment after using the program, and that their elevated confidence transfers to their classroom performance.

The students at Killeen may face some challenges that other schools don’t, but their learning needs are the same as children in districts nationwide. Every year, teachers encounter a new classroom of students with a wide range of learning levels. When you can pinpoint what’s missing and design custom lessons to fill in those gaps, students gain the skills to move forward. Using such a program to assess student knowledge and provide them with individual instruction has been and will continue to be a critical ingredient in ensuring that Killeen students are successful.

Lynn Young, Ed.D., is currently the executive director of special education at Killeen Independent School District in Texas. She has worked in the education field for more than 30 years, beginning as a speech therapist and then serving as a classroom teacher, an instructor for gifted students, assistant principal and principal. She has spent the last 10 years specializing in special education.

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