Today’s education system was built to standardize the way we teach and test. This worked well when most students would progress from school to an industrial job. However, students are expected to perform more complex tasks in today’s workplace, when the current education system does not adequately prepare students for success in career and life.

Today’s education system was built to standardize the way we teach and test. This worked well when most students would progress from school to an industrial job. However, students are expected to perform more complex tasks in today’s workplace, when the current education system does not adequately prepare students for success in career and life. Given that each student has different learning needs at different times — we learn at different paces, have different aptitudes, and enter classes with different experiences and background knowledge — we need an education system that can offer customized instruction so that individual students can realize their full potential (Innosight Institute, A Guide to Personalized Learning, p.1).

Curriculum Designed for Learning Mastery

At Laurel Springs School, the methodology we apply to our teaching and learning criteria is focused on a common college preparatory curriculum and assessment program. This program is implemented school-wide and allows for personalized instruction. Our curriculum is developed and disseminated to teachers who follow lesson plans while working one-on-one with students. Since teachers do not create each week’s learning activities and assessments, they are able to focus on evaluating student work, providing high-quality feedback and gauging ongoing academic progress through a variety of formative assessments.

Today’s students will benefit most from curriculum that promotes independent thinking and active learning.

Today’s students will benefit most from curriculum that promotes independent thinking and active learning. Higher level thinking and open-ended assignments are included in frequent authentic evaluations. Performance-based rubrics guide students to complete assignments and strive for mastery of the concepts. Formative assessments that conclude unit studies in all core courses are comprehensive and allow students to demonstrate mastery of learning objectives. In addition, these assessments offer students options, where appropriate, to demonstrate mastery using different media or learning modalities.

In Disrupting Class, the authors challenge school leaders to focus on customizing an education to match the way that each child learns best. In some learning environments that is easier to do than in others. Specifically, to introduce customization successfully, schools must move away from monolithic instruction and move towards a modular, student-centric approach. I believe that if we reinvent our learning environments and embrace online or blended programs, we create a pathway to student success through personalized instruction and learning.

Data to Support Personalized Learning

In today’s world, we are inundated with data, and it can be hard to digest information about our students in time for it to have a material impact on student success in the current school year. How do we as leaders in our schools create a framework and structure to turn that data into something meaningful? Specifically, how can data be applied to improve student success and personalize learning?

Implementing a personalized approach to big data can add a layer of unexpected culture to a school:

  • Teachers are empowered to differentiate curriculum and instruction according to learning profile data.
  • Students are treated as individuals with assignments that speak to their strengths and address their areas of challenge.
  • Students retain information better, resulting in improved academic outcomes.
  • The “big data” collected by the school becomes an integral part of the school’s growth and success.
  • Schools can measure improved ROI for existing big data solutions.

Scholarly research supports the idea that personalizing instruction for each student improves student outcomes. Two studies reinforce bringing big data down to the individual level in our schools.

A Carnegie Mellon study published in 2010 that examined personalized reading instruction showed that when students were assigned reading passages aligned with “authentic connections” to their interests, their reading comprehension improved.

Similarly, in a study that will be published in the August 2013 Journal of Educational Psychology, researchers examined the idea of placing Algebra instruction in contexts relevant to students’ out-of-school experiences. The study found that personalized math problems not only made it easier for students to understand what was being asked, but also helped to boost the confidence of students who may have been intimidated by the subject.

Practical Data Use

So just how do educational leaders implement customized student curricular experiences? First we must evaluate what we have always done and overlay the insights technology provides to help prepare students for the world as it is. This process begins with the data.

Every school has identified different needs for their student population and, to varying degrees, data about their students’ learning profiles. Many aggregate data sources into a holistic portrait of each individual student. How do we analyze and use the data to develop an implementation plan to position our school to better meet the needs of our students?

In order to apply learning profile data in a practical way, we don’t just need the data. Personalizing data requires schools to view students as individuals who can achieve more with a differentiated approach. Many educational institutions use a combination of the following data sources to build individual student learning profiles:

  • Student feedback
  • Grade reports
  • Teacher evaluations
  • IQ tests
  • Personality tests
  • Learning style assessments
  • Diagnostic assessments
  • Milestone assessments
Assessments that Support Learning

As a private online school, Laurel Springs has more than 20 years of experience in developing personalized academic programs to meet each student’s needs based on their learning preferences. The following is an example of how our school applies big data about student learning in a practical way to increase student outcomes.

All students participate in Performance Series assessments in the first and last lessons of their English and Math courses. These assessments play a crucial role in monitoring student growth and measuring school improvement.

Laurel Springs adopted this assessment program in part because it matches our student-centered approach and virtual course delivery. The program provides adaptive content so that each learner is assessed according to individual skill levels.

In addition to being convenient and suited to personalized learning, the assessments give immediate feedback on students’ individual progress toward core objectives. Post-assessment detailed reports feature norm referencing to compare our school’s results to national statistics. A parent summary also is included so that our families can work with their children to focus on improving areas of challenge.

The benefits of this program are both immediate and long-term and work well within our personalized learning framework.

The Performance Series benefits students by:

  • discovering individual content area skills students have
  • providing specific skill sets to build on in Math/Language Arts/Reading/English
  • demonstrating the progress achieved during the year

The Performance Series benefits teachers by:

  • providing data to customize learning to meet individual student goals
  • providing teachers with the necessary information to help students increase achievement levels
  • helping teachers discover learning needs shared by groups of students that may be addressed by broad improvements to teaching and curriculum

The Performance Series benefits the entire school by:

  • aligning assessment scores with semester exams to enhance courses and provide a foundation for the creation of new ones
  • ensuring accurate student placement
  • guiding teacher training topics based on student achievement
  • evidencing school-wide progress

Our goal should be to leverage data and technology to meet student needs in real time. If a student has mastered a concept before the rest of her classmates, there should be no need to wait until the end of the unit to progress, nor should the struggling student simply continue without the time to grasp more important building blocks.

Students Experiencing Success

One of my favorite pearls of wisdom from Disrupting Class is that unless students (and teachers) are motivated, they will reject the rigor of any learning task and abandon it before achieving success.

We believe that personalized learning driven by digital technology has the power to transform our education system. This transformation reaches across the boundaries of economic and social barriers to meet the needs of a diverse group of students with a focus on student growth and individual learning goals. With our approach to personalizing big data about learning, each student has the potential to succeed.

In summary, as school leaders we should be dedicated to building a platform for learning that encourages student success and mastery of concepts to ensure each individual student’s achievement. We know from research that every student learns in a different way, and our focus should be on customizing an education to match the way that each child learns best. We need to move away from one-size-fits-all instruction and move towards a modular, student-centric approach. As we reinvent our learning environments and leverage technology to impact academic success, we find that technology affords us the opportunity to personalize the learning experience for each individual student.

It is our mission to honor our promise to prepare the students in our care for their journey beyond our school walls and into the world of the 21st century. I believe there is more we can do.


Evans, Meg (2012) Innosight Institute, A Guide to Personalized Learning, p.1

Clayton M Christensen; Michael B. Horn; Curtis W Johnson (2008) Disrupting Class

Journal of Educational Psychology, Special Issue: Advanced Learning Technologies (2013)

International Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education (2010)

Education Week (September 26, 2012)

Darby Carr, President of Laurel Springs School, an online private school, has more than 15 years of education experience. Carr has served as Head of School for an international distance learning program, as well as Chief Administrative Officer and School Principal for a charter school. She is a member of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), the Academy of International Schools Heads (AISH), Association of International Educators (NAFSA), and the Association for the Advancement of International Education (AAIE). She holds a B.A. from Bates College in Psychology/Economics.