I grew up in Chicago, attending all-Black public schools. My parents and most of the adults in my extended family were educators. My dad grew up in Atlanta and attended grade school with a young Martin Luther King, Jr. I can't help but think, If Dr. King were alive today, what would he say about public education? Here's what I think. He would look for fairness and find inequity in funding. He would look for justice and find inequity in discipline, access to great teachers, and rigorous curricula. He would look for hope and find inequity in student achievement, graduation rates and college enrollment. Above all, however, he would look for answers and he would find islands of Black and Brown excellence. He would call out the defenders of institutional indifference who ignore stark gaps between the education provided to mostly White, wealthy students and the education provided to mostly Black and Brown, poor kids. Dr. King would hold up good schools serving low-income Black and Brown children as proof that progress is possible. And he would challenge us to work harder, rise above our differences and march forward together to fulfill the highest aspirations of every low-income Black or Brown student. I was one of those students.
The Unlimited Possibilities
Today, I work in Chicago trying to advance a common-sense idea that honors Dr. King’s dream of a world in which we’re all judged by our unique strengths rather than our perceived limitations. It’s called personalized learning and, in simplest terms, it means meeting each child where they are. No two kids are exactly alike. The belief that we can somehow effectively educate all children with the same, uniform approach may be the single biggest reason that America has been unable to close achievement gaps. Good teachers have always understood this. But the context of teaching has become increasingly complex. In Chicago, the average teacher is grappling with a range of four to five levels of academic proficiency within one classroom. Not to mention the growing level of social-emotional needs. This increased complexity creates a paradigm in which struggling students are left behind and advanced students are increasingly bored. My organization is working with Chicago educators to take personalized learning to scale. The work is hard and challenging, but teachers will tell you that it is worth the effort when you see children meeting their own potential and envisioning their future far beyond the walls of their classroom. More than 120 Chicago schools are among the pioneers in a growing, national movement to personalize learning. Teachers at schools like Belmont-Cragin Elementary School on the West Side of Chicago are now using personalized learning practices. “We have 300 children who come here every day with the desire to learn and be successful,” says Belmont-Cragin principal Stacy Stewart. “Every child matters. Every moment counts. Making sure that our teachers create pathways for every child is at the heart of what we do.” Dr. King believed in the unlimited possibilities for people of color. If he were here today he would look at the schools failing to prepare Black and Brown children and ask why we accept it. He would ask us why don’t have an education system that allows each student to reach their full potential, competing equally for the best jobs and opportunities. In his honor, the work continues.
Phyllis is CEO of LEAP Innovations, a Chicago-based education technology hub that advances personalized learning to prepare Americans for 21st-century skills. The nonprofit organization helps to identify, pilot, research and expand the use of innovative teaching and learning technology tools from pre-K to early college.
Before starting LEAP, Phyllis was a driving force behind Chicago’s charter ...