President's Corner                                           Page 43


Differentiated or Customized? 




Procrustes, in Greek mythology, was the cruel owner of a small estate in Attica with a peculiar sense of hospitality: He enticed travelers to his home — or abducted them, if necessary — provided them with a generous dinner and invited them to spend the night in a special bed.

He wanted the bed to fit the traveler to perfection. Consequently, those travelers who were too tall had their legs chopped off with a sharp hatchet; those who were too short were stretched to the full length of the bed.

Procrustes was able to provide a perfect bed for each traveler. The only problem, obviously, was that he changed the wrong variable to accomplish his goal.

Perhaps this analogy of changing the wrong variable fits our education system, as well. For decades, we have tried to differentiate learning for our students so they will fit nicely within our educational setting. We have myriad instructional models to address a wide variety of students, settings, educational needs and learning styles.

On the surface, the intentions are honorable — to ensure all students achieve to our standards. Yet we continue to expect dramatic changes in student achievement within the same educational framework we have used for more than a century. We talk about accommodating the needs of individual learners, yet we try to implement the changes within the traditional classroom, grade level, school day and school calendar.

Our methods simply may not be sufficient for the 21st century. We no longer can expect our students to be high achievers when we continue to subscribe to a Procrustean approach of establishing a standard to which we expect — and demand — all students conform.

I believe public education is our best American invention. It is a system perfectly designed to get the results we currently are getting. Unfortunately, those results don’t align with the needs of the 21st century, where every student must exit our schools college- and career-ready. A one-size-fits-all education is not meeting the needs of our learners nor our society. While we must ensure a quality education for all learners, we must courageously transform our systems to meet those needs.

Gone are the days when graduating high school seniors demonstrated a full range of abilities that could be matched with a variety of jobs and career options. Today’s global society requires all students to graduate high school better prepared than ever to be successful in college and career. However, all students likely will also need some post-high school training or education to succeed in a highly competitive workplace. Our schools must become more flexible so we can help students meet those demands.

In the past, we held time, place, space and even staff as our constants and thus accepted student learning outcomes as the variable. But not all children prospered in this one-size system. Not all children fit our Procrustean bed. We must continue to personalize learning for all students, and we need customized systems to do that. Modern technology and courageous leadership will be the elements that change systems and transform education.

In our new way of thinking, learning must become the constant, requiring us to think differently about the variables of time, place, space and how we use staff. If we are serious about success for all students, we must get serious about transforming our century-old system. That’s real differentiation!

As superintendents, we are held accountable for the results of our systems. We also are responsible for the resources with which we have been entrusted. I am hopeful that as courageous leaders, we will use those resources to the best advantage and in new, creative ways.

I am hopeful our students will not be made to fit into our system like Procrustes’ victims. I also am hopeful we will create customized systems that truly differentiate and personalize learning for everyone. Our new world depends on it!

Patricia Neudecker is AASA president for 2011-12. E-mail: Pat.Neudecker@oasd.k12.wi.us


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