Tennessee Bets Big on Personalized Learning, Launching Pilot Program & Eyeing Big 2020 Goals
Jeran Tenpenny, a teacher at Cannon County High School in Tennessee, faced a problem with his algebra students. Although they understood basic concepts, they struggled to communicate their misunderstandings when faced with more challenging algebraic equations. Tenpenny collaborated with a teaching coach from BetterLesson, an education technology company, to find a solution. They devised a plan to improve student learning by encouraging struggling students to seek help during lunch and write explanations of their mistakes on tests and quizzes. If they were unsatisfied with their performance on the first attempt, they could retake the test to demonstrate their understanding of the material. Tenpenny’s aim was for his students to prioritize mastery of the concept rather than just their grade.
This change in classroom strategy aligns with the Tennessee Department of Education and BetterLesson’s partnership to help educators adapt their teaching styles to cater to diverse student groups. The pilot program is part of a larger commitment by the state of Tennessee to incorporate personalized learning in classrooms with specific goals in mind. These goals include ranking in the top half of states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress by 2019, achieving an average student ACT composite score of 21 by 2020, and ensuring that the majority of high school graduates in the class of 2020 earn a postsecondary certificate, diploma, or degree.
A state task force released a report in November outlining strategies to achieve these goals. These strategies include using data to track student progress and inform instruction, allowing students to set their own learning pace by demonstrating competency, providing professional development opportunities, awarding teachers micro-credentials for excellence in teaching, and improving instruction in STEM fields. The Algebra I/Integrated Math I Blended Learning pilot program that Tenpenny participated in falls within this plan.
Deputy Education Commissioner Kathleen Airhart emphasized the department’s goal of supporting districts and schools in meeting the unique needs of Tennessee students. She views the pilot program as an opportunity for teachers to explore tools that can help them personalize their instruction, a challenge that is particularly prevalent in high school settings.
The pilot program, which began in the summer, involved 50 math teachers from over 30 Tennessee schools. These teachers attended a three-day crash course on personalized learning and are currently implementing blended learning techniques with their 5,000 students. They receive guidance from a BetterLesson coach throughout the year. The department hopes that this program will narrow the achievement gap, improve student test scores, and increase student engagement. In the upcoming school year, an additional 50 teachers will be added to the BetterLesson training program as the one-on-one coaching for the current cohort comes to a close.
As part of the training, educators must identify specific challenges they face in the classroom and develop strategies to overcome them. They also have biweekly virtual meetings with their BetterLesson coach to monitor their progress. Using BetterLesson’s web tools, teachers can upload videos of their classes for the coach to review and explore various educational resources and lesson plans.
The effectiveness of personalized learning has been a topic of debate, with different definitions offered by educators and executives. Additionally, research on its effectiveness is limited. However, in Tenpenny’s classes, BetterLesson has made a positive impact. Since implementing the retesting policy, fewer students require additional review after assessments. More students are taking ownership of their learning and seeking the necessary help to understand the material. Tenpenny acknowledges the role his BetterLesson coach played in these improvements and has observed the positive changes in his students’ grades throughout the year.