Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Is Customized Education The Future?

My daughter is 5, and I'm starting to teach her double-column addition. She also is progressing pretty well with her reading. Today she read a story that included the passage "One day Gray Fox and Trapper Joe rode into the camp. The men were not surprised to see Father in bed."

My daughter is not a genius. Far from it. When she was 13 months old, we had her tested for learning deficiencies. In some areas, she tested at the level of a 3 month old. In most areas, she tested right around that of a 6-9 month old. I could have pursued state help for her, but we were moving from Italy to Arizona at the time, so I never got around to it. I still have the paperwork though, more for a good laugh now than anything else.

At 26 months, I started taking her to Kindercare. She started to catch up, but she was still behind most of the other kids. While most of the other kids in her class learned their colors several months before they turned 3, I was beginning to think that she wouldn't learn her colors until after she moved into the 3 year old classroom. A couple of weeks before she turned 3, she figured out her colors.

When she was 3, she started learning her letter sounds, like all the other kids. But then at 3 1/2, we started doing something that would eventually lead her to learn adding 2 column addition and reading simple paragraphs before she left what would normally be her Kindergarten year... I started teaching her individual instruction and letting her learn more at her own pace.

A lot of kids stall at letters, numbers, shapes, and colors until they're most of the way through Kindergarten. Towards the end of Kindergarten, they often start blending and learn sight words. In your typical Public School model, it's necessary to do this. Not every kid comes to Kindergarten learning colors, shapes, numbers, and letters, and so the whole class needs to be taught all these things, even if they learned all of this back when they were 3 years old.

At four years old, I left Kindercare and my daughter was being taught full time. We went through a Kindergarten math book. We skipped past several lessons because they covered things that my daughter already knew, and I didn't see the point of reteaching it. Before she turned 5, we started the 1st Grade Math book. She wasn't really ready to read words yet, but we worked on some Now I'm Reading books... these are really great. By the time last fall arrived, she was already 30 lessons into her 1st grade math book, and was ready to start the 1st grade reading book.

So what was the difference between a 13 month old that was testing in some areas as a 3 month old, and a 5 1/2 year old getting ready to finish a year of 1st grade work? Customized education. As a homeschooling student, she is able to move ahead when she is ready, and spend extra time in areas that she has trouble on. With our current public school model, customized education isn't exactly feasable. All the kids in a particular class move at the same pace, doing the same lesson on the same day for the entire year.

In the early days of public education, children could learn at their own pace. The one-room schoolhouse would have several different grades in one room, and they would do a lot of learning at a pace that suited them. Most homeschools with more than one school-aged child use the same model today.

Although public schools currently move everybody along at the same pace, they don't necessarily have to. And sometimes they don't. When I was a kid, they had one classroom that was a grade 2/3 classroom, where the exceptionally bright 2nd grade students went to the same grade along with the 3rd graders that needed more help. We all went to different classrooms, based on levels, for our reading classes. We even had individual reading times where we read booklets at our own pace, and moved up in levels. As children get older, they might find themselves in remedial classes, gifted classes, honors classes, or AP Classes. In high school many students pick and choose their courses, and might find themselves, in their senior year, taking Calculus 1, or Algebra II. Some high schools have programs where you can be dual-enrolled at a local community college, and you might even be able to finish your associate's degree before you reach age 18, if you are motivated enough.

All those programs, for all those different classes, cost money. Today technology can make learning even more customized in a more cost-effective way. As a Senior in high school, I took Russian via satellite. Our school also offered Japanese this way. Back then, it cost $5500 per student that enrolled in these programs, but prices have probably gone down. There were only a couple of students in the class, and we took the class in a little room in the library. Our librarian made sure that we showed up, but our primary teacher was the satellite teacher that lived a couple hundred miles away. I also took an independent study course in high school, where I would write computer programs at one computer while everybody else in the room was being taught something else by my teacher. In that class, my teacher would check in with me periodically to make sure that I was learning and my work was progressing.

Public schools could make customized education possible for everyone with advances in technology and the internet. There are DVD courses, satellite courses, and internet courses that homeschool students can take. Often that can be a good choice for a parent that has several children that are at several different levels. Children can now even take public school classes in their own homes. Some of these programs have to follow a pace directed by an overseeing teacher of the whole program, but there's no reason that they can't be allowed to advance at a faster pace if they are able.

Currently, 4% of school-aged students are being homeschooled, and that is a growing number. The public schools are in competition with private schools and homeschools for students. While some (like my kids) will always stay in private and/or home schools because of the religious aspect, customized education could potentially raise interest in public schools. The public school could combine individualized instruction in reading, math, and spelling, while teaching classes like history and science as a group. They would still be able to do things like show-and-tell and art classes as a group as well. During individualized instruction, the teacher could oversee the group of students to make sure that they were not goofing off, that they were actually progressing, and answer any questions and troubleshoot technical difficulties.

While I'm not a big fan of public schools and think that there's a lot more problems than just the kids not being able to work at their own pace, using technology to customize a child's education might help a lot to boost the educational level of kids in our country. Imagine if kids that were math whizzes could start taking pre-algebra in grade 5 if they were ready. Or perhaps a child was really good with languages and was able to learn Spanish, German, and Arabic before they got out of high school. All of this could be done with the technology of today, if schools were willing to think outside of the box a little.

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