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Jeffrey and Hillary Bowen

Having spent our professional careers either studying or applying trends in education, we look for unifying themes and big ideas. At the top of our list is overwhelming evidence that education works best when it is personalized. This means fitted to the needs, interests, talents and aspirations of each student.

Special educators rely on individual educational plans, but somehow the idea gets diluted when mixed into the educational mainstream. State and federal policy makers, holders of purse strings and others who have little direct contact with students seem to ignore certain realities.

For one, we will never personalize education as long as we confuse achievement with proficiency scores on state or national assessments, and use undifferentiated instructional methods.

For another, we will fail as long as we mistake readiness for postsecondary education with readiness for life, and use uniform learning standards as a substitute for nuanced, comprehensive judgment.

Finally, student motivation is kindled by caring relationships with teachers, personally relevant curriculum and confidence that material can be mastered. The will to learn cannot be externally imposed.

Clear standards are needed, but they are essentially guides to assure accountability, document results and, by no coincidence, to generate profit for marketers of testing and teaching materials. Common Core standards raise the bar, but not everyone is ready to jump over it at the same time, or in the same way. We need to sharpen our focus on educational programs, support systems, technologies and assessment strategies that are richly varied and tailored to the unique vision and plans for what each student can become.

This is no easy task for at least two reasons. First, it is hard and complex work to meet the challenges of treating students as uniquely equipped individuals. Second, we still are trapped in a century-old paradigm of schools as sites of efficiency and standardized productivity. Bureaucrats reinforce the trap by trying to convince us that test results show us falling hopelessly behind in a worldwide economic competition. It is exceptional to find schools where students’ individuality is celebrated and strengthened by providing a full range of personally formative learning experiences.

Our communities will see improved results from schools when educators are encouraged, and professionally prepared, to treat each child as a potentially unique success story. Students ultimately have to choose their own routes toward success or failure once they leave school. While they are still with us, why can’t we complement rather than mismeasure and override their emerging destinies?

Jeffrey and Hillary Bowen are former superintendents at Pioneer and West Valley School Districts, respectively.