(TNS) — Five Lake County schools are working this year to give students more personalized lessons, ones that allow them to move ahead faster if they are ready, or to get more tailored help if they are struggling.
It is an approach that has won support from national education foundations, Florida lawmakers and the eighth graders in advanced language arts at Windy Hill Middle School in Clermont.
"If one kid didn't understand ... it's not like the teacher has to repeat the lesson to the entire class," said Neisha Hassan, 13. "The personalized learning is very good."
But the national push for more "competency-based education," as the effort is also known, has prompted harsh criticism from some parents and school advocates who fear it will lead to more testing and more online instruction, to the benefit of corporations selling software and the detriment of students.
"The testing industrial complex is not giving up easily, working eagerly to establish what could mean testing every day. It is called competency-based education," wrote Stephen Krashen, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California and education activist, on his blog last month.
He went on to call the effort a "a radical and expensive innovation" to replace "regular instruction" with online learning,
Florida's Republican leaders, on the other hand, say it allows students to work at their own pace and advance when ready. They are pushing bills (HB 1365, SB 1714) in the Legislature this year that would expand the current personalized learning pilot programs under way in Lake and Pinellas county schools to a University of Florida laboratory school and possibly other school districts, including Palm Beach County's.
Lake and Pinellas are two districts among six nationwide — the others are in California, Colorado, Georgia and Texas — already working on personalized learning with money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Lake began its effort in 2013, with its $3.1 million grant.
Lake administrators say personalized learning gives students more say in their education and teachers ways to tailor lessons to diverse groups of students. They are aware of the criticism, but say it doesn't mesh with what is happening in their schools.
"It's not about putting students on computers. It's not about having students learning by themselves, where they have a packet of information," said Kathy Halbig, the school district's coordinator of personal learning for students. "The whole idea of personalized learning is meeting students at their level."
Lake schools would benefit from the extra flexibility proposed in the bills, Halbig added.
At Windy Hill, an A-rated middle school with about 1,300 students, a bulletin board in one classroom describes the basic procedure: Take a pre-test online and, if you score very well, start an "above and beyond" activity; if your mark was more average, do "must-do" work until you really know the material; and, if you fail, get individualized help from the teacher.
Students work on computers or their smartphones, but also listen as the teacher provides "direct instruction" and tackle assignments in more old-school ways, such as writing essays or making hand-drawn graphs.
If the bills become law, participating districts would be freed from some state rules, so they could let students move ahead academically and earn credit based on mastery of standards, not time spent in a grade or course.
Florida's standardized tests could be given whenever a student was ready, rather than during state-scheduled times, though Florida House staff members warned that plan could be costly and create test-security problems.
The bills also say schools would be encouraged to use technology to "enhance" student learning.
"The goal is to remove restraints in education," said Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, sponsor of the House bill.
"It offers maximum flexibility to meet the individual needs of a kid," said Karla Phillips, a policy director at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, one of former Gov. Jeb Bush's education groups, which is lobbying for the bills.
But the whole concept makes parents such as Sue Woltanski, a Monroe County mother active in the group Minimize Testing Maximize Learning, worried. She's called it the "planned destruction of public school as we know it."
Florida schools, Woltanski said, already require students to spend lots of time on computer programs that provide self-paced instruction and regular tests of progress. The bills, in her view, would mean more of that, diminishing the important role of teachers.
"A computer doesn't get when you answer a question in creative, but different way," she said.
But at Windy Hill, administrators say teachers and creativity remain key. "Yes, the teacher is teaching, it just looks different," said Principal William Roberts.
Since the school began phasing in personalized learning, discipline problems have dropped, likely because students are more engaged in their classes, which emphasize student choice in assignment, projects and collaborative work, Roberts added.
"You have more control," agreed eighth-grader Carlos Molina, 13. "You can do your own work at your own pace."
©2016 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.