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Customizing Education in a Pennsylvania School District

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By Dr. Michael Snell, Superintendent of Pennsylvania's Central York School District 

Two roads and seven themes to customize education

What if there were only two roads for today's public educators?

One road leads to what we have been doing for the past 120 years. We'll call that the Industrial-Based Road.  You will recognize this by grade levels and courses that have paved the way for generations.  It is just the way we do things around here.

Now, imagine another road. We'll call it the Road Less Traveled.

The Road Less Traveled is unfamiliar, difficult and to some, a threat.  It lacks the well-worn grooves needed for an easy, familiar passage. It is a road that our parents have not traveled, nor their parents, nor most of us!  

The Road Less Traveled leads to Mass Customized Learning, where we meet our learners at their levels - based on their learning styles - challenge them and support them in achieving success at school each day. This is the "ideal learning experience" described by authors Chuck Schwahn and Bea McGarvey, in Inevitable. 

Whether you like it or not, and most of us like it, the world's industries are customizing for consumers ... except public education.  The real question for public education now  - and in the future - is this: If we keep doing what we have always done, while everyone else and everything around us changes ...will they chose us?

In Central York School District, we are working to be THE choice for our learners and their parents by taking the Road Less Traveled. Here are seven areas we are focusing on in our journey to Mass Customized Learning:

  1. Curriculum - A learner's 13-year progression through our system still remains a mystery for most parents. Why can't those 13 years, various grade levels and courses, provide easy access for parents to truly be partners in the process?  If you can follow your child's whereabouts using GPS and a cell phone, shouldn't you be able to dial into what your child is learning on any given day? This would effectively put to rest the famous answer to "what did you do in school today?"
  2. Instruction - What does instruction look like today?  Is it classrooms filled with neat rows of desk and pupils anxiously awaiting the teacher's directives, worksheets, and tests?  Or should we embrace the fact that learning takes place anytime and anywhere?  Shouldn't we dispense with the worksheets and tests and have our learners solve real world problems and projects?  Information is everywhere and more accessible than ever before.  The school day no longer defines instruction, and learning
  3. Assessment - We can recall the period of time, usually four times per year, that we received a report card.  In today's schools, most parents already have this information thanks to online grade resources. So how can we embrace technology and e-portfolios that provide a warehouse of student work that meets the standards?  How can we embrace mastery learning, so that when a student can demonstrate a skill or piece of knowledge, they may move on at their own pace?
  4. Learner Work - What kind of work should our students complete?  Worksheets and poster boards?  How about opening and running a business?  Let's make sure our students embrace future ready skills - collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking.
  5. Structures - What are those structures that need to change to move beyond the industrial based procession of schooling?  Why is the school year 180 days?  Must the school day end of 3:30 pm?  Does High School have to be four years?  And why must you remain in second grade when you are really ready for third grade work? 
  6. The Human Element - While technology is disrupting everything, the human element - teachers, students, parents, principals, board members and the business community, must always remain the linchpin in education.  How do we engage with all stakeholders and embrace the changes around us.  The human element must always remain central in the educational experience and shame on us if we forget that ... for a machine. 
  7. Technology - A device in the hands of each learner is either here for you or just around the corner.  Everyone uses technology to manage their lives in mostly positive ways - think about the last time you "You-Tubed" how to fix something or shared a photo on Instagram with friends and relatives.  Why should our students be denied the power of the device and access to the sum of human knowledge?

Changing lanes or refocusing your school district's vision to embrace Mass Customized Learning may seem intimidating, but the alternative - losing your learners and parents to other institutions offering customized education - is a far more daunting future.


Dr. Michael Snell became Superintendent of Pennsylvania's Central York School District in January 2009. Previously, he served as Central York School District Assistant Superintendent. In addition to his experience with the District, Dr. Snell also served as Assistant Superintendent of West York Area School District from 2003 through 2007. Dr. Snell received his Doctorate in Educational Leadership and a master's degree in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from Temple University.  They have chosen online curriculum from Odysseyware for the road less traveled. He blogs at www.cysdecosystem.com

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