Growing up, Justin Crouch experienced a personalized education first-hand.
“When I was in third grade I had a teacher that personalized for me and it completely changed my outlook on school,” he said. “Mrs. Coad challenged and pushed me according to my abilities rather than just ‘teaching to the middle.’”
The experience inspired him as a teacher to do the same thing for his own students.
In Crouch’s classroom, personalized learning worked, and test scores back it up.
Prior to implementing personalized learning, Crouch said his students scored in the 70s. After the implementation, they scored 10 percentage points higher. Critics of personalized learning argued results elsewhere in Lake County Schools were mixed.
But Crouch said the right mindset helped his high school social studies students succeed.
“The reason I found success in my classroom is because any decision I made in the classroom always went back to, how is this going to benefit the student? How can a student prove mastery to me through the standards?” Crouch said. “I had to provide them with a clear goal of how they are going to do that. My students knew upfront if you don’t follow through on your end of the bargain there is accountability on the back end.”
Since then, Crouch has moved on to Florida Virtual School. The online enterprise started as an experiment in the late ’90s. It now functions like a statewide school district, with personalized learning in its DNA.
Prior to his work with FLVS, Crouch was involved with the rollout of the personalized learning grant at Umatilla High School from 2014-17. He said the program made a difference for the district and for his students.
“I felt this was an opportunity for Lake County schools to become a leader rather than a follower in education,” he said. “I was able to see firsthand in a handful of pilot schools around the country how personalized learning was radically changing the lives of students and I wanted us to be one of the few that would lead the change.”
Located in Central Florida, Lake County was one of six school districts in the nation in 2014 to receive a three-year $3.1 million three-year grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Next Gen Systems Initiative. The district recently decided to pull back from the initiative.
Crouch received Lake County’s Teacher of the Year award in 2016. He said personalized learning has evolved since the days of the one-room schoolhouse.
“The whole idea behind the personalized learning movement is students have terabytes of data at their fingertips,” said Crouch. “We need to teach them how these facts apply to their lives and how they can use them in their career fields.”
The training provided to Lake County teachers through the Gates grant was invaluable, Crouch said. It helped him understand how to make the idea of personalized learning real in his classroom. And it showed him how to help other teachers do the same.
“The whole idea of this grant, to begin with, was they wanted schools to be self-sufficient,” he said.
Without the right coaching, he said, managing the shift could prove difficult for teachers.
Crouch said he is adamant in investing in his students, a hallmark of what he refers to as good teaching. He takes the time to learn about their specific interests. Then, it is up to the student to take ownership of their learning.
Students need to know it’s safe to fail a standard — at least at first, Crouch said. They need to feel motivated to keep working until they master it.
After six years at Lake County Schools, Crouch said he decided it was time to transition as his wife had just given birth to their second child.
“I was looking for a way to spend more time at home,” he said. The pay at the online school was considerably higher and health insurance improved. “I also felt the teacher evaluation system was more reflective of the individual teacher’s performance.”
He communicates with students individually, by phone and through digital messages, which allows him to work anywhere.
And FLVS supports his passion for personalized learning, he said, by providing teachers training based on their interests.
Crouch said students move at their own pace and assignments are geared toward their interests with the Florida State Standards in mind.
“The biggest difference is that when I’m on the phone or texting a student, in their mind they’re the only one in that virtual classroom and my focus is solely on their success,” he said. “That individualization is hard to achieve in a room full of 25 kids.”