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Personalizing learning in urban high schools.


Much-maligned urban high schools are in need of major reform if they are to ensure that their students are prepared to be successful workers in the post-industrial economy. Ongoing small school reforms may help provide the personalization needed to make schooling relevant and engaging, but without self-devised personal learning plans, students will never attain the levels of autonomy, self-directedness, and responsibility that are crucial in the global age.


The model of schooling most prevalent in urban high schools today is an industrial-age relic where students are expected to learn the skills and values that do little to enhance their abilities to navigate their futures (Anyon, 2005; Delors, 1998; Egol, 2003; Meier, 2002; Toffler & Toffler, 1994). It is a model that relies on a "pedagogy of poverty" (Haberman, 2000) ensuring that the already disadvantaged continue to be disenfranchised in the Post-Fordist economy and the rapidly changing "Global Village." Scholars have offered strategies to rectify this regrettable situation, strategies such as culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy (Anyon, 2005; Delpit, 1996) that show much promise but may be unattainable in the present urban high school environment of control, where goals are set for low-level skills attainment. To counter the present state of urban high schools, this article proposes the use of personalized learning plans (PLP's) that are developed, maintained, and monitored by the student; plans that would require increased levels of responsibility, trust, and autonomy among students and educators. The results may be the fostering of autonomous, self-reliant, and self-directed workers as well as responsible, effective citizens.

Changing skills, values, and dispositions

The skills and values required to succeed in the global economy, particularly autonomy, collaboration, self-directedness, and responsibility, are lacking in most urban high schools (Anyon, 2005; Egol, 2004). The ability to work autonomously without supervision or coercion while functioning in a collaborative, team-oriented structure are essential for urban school graduates to succeed as "knowledgeworkers" rather than low-wage service employees destined for financial insecurity (Reich, 1991; 2002). Urban high schools that rely on bureaucratic structures and behaviors have allowed urban students and their teachers to become deskilled (Anyon, 1997; Johnson, 2004) with their reliance on scripted lessons and unauthentic assessments, and may be widening the gap in wealth and power in the US (Giroux, 2003; Sehr, 1997). Yet, focusing on economic needs and workforce skills does not minimize the importance of learning to live in a multicultural global society. The model of organization championed by leaders in management fields is one that is democratic, collaborative, and tolerant (Deming, 1986; Senge, 1990), one that would be conducive to fostering citizens who can live peacefully amongst those of other races, cultures, and religions. This model can be replicated in small, autonomous schools but, as will be explained later, must be reinforced by self-devised, PLP's.

Global skills in the Accountability Era

Autonomy is one of the key traits that knowledgeworkers in the global economy must possess (Dobbin & Boychuk, 1999). Due to the impact of the accountability movement of the past two decades with its crushing effects on urban education (see Anyon, 1997; 2005), US schools have resisted allowing for student autonomy (Solomon & Battistich, 1996). Although attempts have been made to increase autonomy of teachers with such reforms as "site-based management" (Shapiro, Benjamin, & Hunt, 1995) these attempts are at risk due to top-down directives of states and the federal government emanating from "get tough" business approaches that dictate the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) (Meier & Wood, 2004). If urban high schools wish to prepare students for the future workforce, they may have to subvert the constrictive forces of the accountability movement and move toward empowering those who work in the schools: teachers and students. Personalizing learning through the use of self-devised learning plans may empower students and free teachers to foster learning rather than concentrating on control, order, and low-level skills (Kohn, 2004).

Empowerment may be the most important aspect of democracy (Dewey, 1916; Sehr, 1997; Soder, 2004), yet our overly controlling urban high schools prohibit student empowerment, and the bureaucracies that control them prohibit empowerment of teachers. Without the ability and desire to be an autonomous worker and citizen, one who is able to critically analyze and willing to accept personal responsibility for his or her actions, the urban graduate will be relegated to a life of dead-end, low-paying, "dumbed-down" jobs (Apple, 2001; Reich, 2002, Ritzer, 2000). The status of knowledgeworker, the most highly paid and desired worker in the global economy (Egol, 2003; Reich, 2002), may be unattainable for most urban children due to the deskilling of the schooling process that emphasizes the "skill, drill, and kill" instructional model (Haberman, 2000; Johnson, 2004; Kohn, 2004). Urban high schools more and more resemble factories where students are transported on assembly lines and fed knowledge along the way, periodically checked for quality (standardized tests) and are sent back, re-worked (remedial classes), or tragically thrown out (see Kohn, 2004). In the end, this manner of schooling may produce a person who is merely prepared for employment that entails little or no higher-order thinking but does require a high degree of supervision (Brown, 2003; Chomsky, 2003; Haberman, 2000), the antithesis of the autonomous knowledgeworker.

Personalization of Learning

It is incumbent upon urban high school educators to promote knowledgework and active, meaningful participation in a democracy. Several school reformers (e.g., National High School Alliance, 2005; Daggett, 2005) have espoused the formation of strong relationships between students and adults in schools along with rigorous and relevant curricula a new definition of the "3 R's." Personalizing learning can promote these new 3 R's by

1. Connecting students to content by making it relevant to their lives and the world around them, ostensibly increasing motivation.

2. Requiring teachers to personally know each student, discovering her interests and strengths, exposing the learner's needs and enabling content to be more relevant to the learner's life.

3. Changing the roles of teachers and students so that the operant model of learning is not simply transferring content from the teacher to the student.

4. Allowing students to take control of their learning so that schooling becomes something that they do for themselves, not something that is done to them. This is facilitated by the development of personalized learning plans where the responsibility of the development lies with each student.

Small learning communities as advocated in business by Senge (1990) among others, and by many educators (e.g., Cotton, 2004; Oxley, 1994) are slowly becoming more commonplace in US high schools. Small schools can prepare students for the global age by creating caring environments that motivate students to learn, and are particularly promising for large urban high schools. It is critical, however, that these small schools do not fall into the trap of doing "more of the same" as may be the result of NCLB's focus on test taking. Although a portion of this act calls for innovation, the pressures of high-stakes testing seem to inhibit progressive innovation, causing teachers to teach-to-the-test in a factory-style mode (Meier & Wood, 2004). The key to these schools' success may be in their ability to connect students with adults, formulating powerful relationships, aiding in personalized learning where teachers know the needs and desires of students, ultimately creating high schools that cultivate autonomous workers and responsible citizens.

Self-directedness and PLP's

Self-directed learning requires students to internalize the importance of education and become self-regulated, autonomous learners (Reeve, 2002). Personalized learning plans may be the most useful instrument in facilitating self-directed learning. These are comparable to Knowles' (1975) learning contracts in that they are written by the learners with the guidance of professional educators. Although Knowles' developed these contracts for adult learners, contracts for youth would invite parental input in conjunction with teachers and each student. Such plans were observed in Sweden by Shapiro (2004) and Nordgren (2003) and enthusiastically supported by the 1994 Swedish Educational Reform (Sandahl, 1997). Swedish students from pre-school through adulthood develop short and long-term learning goals based on interest and needs. The success of these may contribute to fairly high satisfaction for school among teachers, students, and administrators in high schools (Nordgren, 2003). If satisfaction leads to motivation, and motivation to achievement (Herzberg, 1987) then it is only logical that Swedish high school students score higher than their American counterparts in mathematics and science (NCES, 1999).

Urban students, prone to feeling that schooling is something that is done to them rather than for them (see Ogbu, 2003), may be more internally motivated to learn if they "owned" their learning, as may be the case with the Swedes. Students who are introduced to the concept of developing their own learning plans in the first few years of compulsory school may be willing to continue with this practice throughout their schooling careers, and may demand that they be allowed to do this. It would become an entitlement, so to speak, that would cost little but would reap tremendous benefits to our economy and our society as the proliferation of life-long learners ensues.

In high schools with self-devised, personal learning plans, teachers must reconceptualize their roles, to become facilitators, resources, and monitors of student success. Standing in front of a class and orchestrating a lesson assumes that all students are at the same level and have the same needs; this is naive if not ignorant. Scholars have been advocating for individualizing instruction for decades (e.g., Dewey) but within the classrooms and schools common in urban areas, this is impossible. Teachers instruct en masse then attempt to comprehend what each student knows, sometimes writing individual assessments for each, but often assigning a grade based on a teacher-devised grading rubric--assuming the teacher seeks some level of objectivity. This model of instruction is something that is indeed done to students. True personalized learning is created by the student, monitored by the student, and assessed by the student; it is something the student does for herself. Teacher-directed curricula and instructional models crush personalized learning efforts by withholding power of the learning process from the students.

Although it appears that Swedish youth can develop their own learning plans and still score higher on international tests than US high school students, many obstacles impede their use among this nation's urban educators. First, these plans require trust be placed in the students to do this for themselves and urban education is infatuated with control; control that exists in part because of a distrust of urban students and teachers (Haberman, 2000; Johnson, 2004). Small, autonomous schools may help break up the bureaucratic models that exist, in part, on the lack of trust (bureaucracies thrive on supervision). Second, a perception exists among urban educators that the accountability movement and NCLB don't allow for such changes in pedagogy, that there are too many standards that must be met and too many tests which students must be "trained" to take. This is only a perception because students can demonstrate through their own personally developed assessments how different standards are being met. Daggett correctly points out that "We've never met a standard we didn't like" (2005), and it is true that there are too many standards demanded by states. Graduates meeting with success in college and the workforce who do not meet every standard before the end of high school would be evidence that many of our state standards are superfluous. The graduates' success would help foster a trust among policy makers for urban high schools and urban students. Until this happens, urban educators will need to subvert pressures to "dumb-down" learning; the sooner a new model is implemented, the better.

Proof that urban high schools can produce knowledge workers who are self-directed, self-regulated, and autonomous, would end the misguided efforts of the accountability movement. Students who are self-directed and responsible enough to write their own plans, with minimum coercion, may develop into citizens who will be self-regulated, life-long learners (Reeve, 2002); citizens who may participate fully in a democracy, and workers who will not need direct supervision. In essence, self-devised personalized learning plans may lead to autonomous students/citizens/workers; the type of individual who will succeed financially and socially in the new economy and in the Global Village (Chomsky, 2000; Delors, 1998).

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R.D. Nordgren, Cleveland State University, OH

Nordgren, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Urban Secondary Education
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Author:Nordgren, R.D.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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