In Iowa, one school district has created strong external partnerships to offer internships, wrap-around services and other out-of-school learning opportunities that align with economic and social needs of the community. At a school district in Colorado, the superintendent is focused on tailoring learning for students by creating multiple pathways to better support learning. In Indiana, a school district used an old auto parts warehouse to build a school with flexible, glass classrooms to allow for multi-purpose use and greater transparency.

Each district should implement a comprehensive assessment system that is aligned with the district’s vision for teaching and learning. Assessments should include formative, interim, and summative assessments.

While there are bright spots across the country, personalized learning, broadly speaking, is stuck in the school pilot phase. There are countless pockets of excellence from coast-to-coast implementing personalized learning. There are schools throughout the country establishing college- and career-ready standards, customizing instruction at varied paces based on student needs, using formative assessments to drive instruction, and giving student and parent access to clear learning objectives. But we have yet to scale personalized learning to serve all students.

Why is scaling personalized learning so difficult? Our current system is designed for a time that is long since passed, a relic of the industrial age where low graduation rates were absorbable into an economy brimming with and driven by industrial era jobs with union protections and benefits. The structures of our current system push against innovation, often thwarting it and blocking change beyond incremental tweaks while creating even larger divides between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

So what about the students who don’t attend schools focused on personalized learning? How do we improve their educational experiences? One important step is to identify the conditions that a K-12 district should implement to support the scaling of personalized learning.

When we began to conceptualize the work that led to the “District Conditions for Scale: A Practical Guide to Scaling Personalized Learning,” we wanted to get a sense of the conditions that needed to be in place at a district level to scale personalized learning. We spoke to district leaders across the country. As we did, common themes emerged and moved beyond the diverse geographies and local contexts of each district. These conditions began to be universal. This is certainly common in other fields, for example, in music. During the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony this year, it was evident with the induction of artists such as Joan Jett, Green Day, Bill Withers, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Lou Reed and Ringo Starr. Each of these artists had a unique sound; however, what was most striking was that they had many of the same qualities. Obviously they had creativity but they also had perseverance, vision, courage and a collaborative spirit. The same can be said for the district leaders that we interviewed. Each was unique but used common practices and processes to begin to scale personalized learning in their school district.

District Conditions for Scale

Based on extensive primary and secondary research, the following 10 district conditions would work to scale more traditional educational approaches; however, we maintain a bias that personalized learning is and will be the catalytic force for educational change in the United States.

1. Curriculum

Curriculum must be aligned to the district’s vision for teaching and learning and should be reviewed regularly to ensure alignment. The standards and learning targets contained in the curriculum should be consistent and easily understood for every student, although the ways in which students meet those standards may differ in order to provide a personalized learning experience for each student. These multiple pathways to meeting standards should be informed by real-time data on student performance and engagement, students’ learning styles and interests and the goals of the student and parents.

2. Instruction

Instructional practices must be aligned with the district’s vision for teaching and learning. Instruction should be focused on teaching students how to learn, shifting from a teacher-led to student-led model incorporating differentiated instruction (i.e.,direct instruction, mastery learning, blended and project-based learning, flipped models, etc.). Finally, instruction should be rigorous and relevant to students’ needs and interests, and progression should be based on mastery, avoiding the “mile-wide, inch-deep” phenomena.

3. Comprehensive Assessment System

Each district should implement a comprehensive assessment system that is aligned with the district’s vision for teaching and learning. Assessments should include formative, interim, and summative assessments. Instant feedback from ongoing embedded assessments — including, but not limited to portfolios, capstone projects, performance-based assessments and curriculum-embedded assessments — should be used to monitor student progress and adjust day-to-day learning activities. Summative assessments should be offered multiple times a year, when students are ready to take the exam, and students should have multiple opportunities to show mastery of the assessment.

4. Learning Environments

Districts should cultivate learning environments, both inside and outside the school walls that support high expectations for all students while fostering a culture of trust, support, equity and inclusiveness. Continuous improvement should be embedded in the culture of the district and driven by student achievement data and other success indicators. Lastly, real efforts should be made to celebrate district and school successes.

5. Student Supports

Students should get the supports and interventions they need to be successful when they need them, not after they’ve taken a summative assessment at the end of the year. These supports should be informed by instant feedback based on frequent formative assessments and, to the extent possible, be embedded in learning. Schools should be given the flexibility to use the time in the school day/year as they see fit in order to provide these supports.

6. Professional Development

Each district should offer a job-embedded professional development program that aligns with the district’s vision for teaching and learning and to student needs. The professional development program should foster a culture of collaboration and continuous improvement while leveraging technology that creates a customized experience for each teacher that is available at any place and time.

7. Leadership Development

A district should have a leadership development program that identifies and trains leaders at the classroom, school and district level. This includes involving educators and other staff members in the visioning process, strategic planning, partnership cultivation and curriculum review.

8. Technology Policy

Districts must have a technology policy that allows for ubiquitous, safe access to the Internet at all times of the school day. Districts should also address deficiencies in infrastructure in order to support a more connected student population at scale.

9. Comprehensive Data Systems

Districts should maintain a comprehensive data system consisting of learning management, assessment and student information systems. These systems should be able to track student achievement history, teacher comments, supports and interventions and other indicators while protecting student-level privacy.

10. Partnerships

Each district should cultivate partnerships with business, community and higher education constituents in their communities — including local and county government, recreation, juvenile justice, faith-based, etc. These entities should be involved in creating a district vision and strategic plan that is aligned with a broader economic and workforce development plan for the community. All aspects of teaching and learning within the district — curriculum, instruction, assessment, professional development, etc. — should be aligned to this vision. In addition, these partners should assist with creating various learning opportunities — internships, mentor programs, work-based experiences, service learning, etc. — and publish a list of these opportunities for all learners.

One might ask why focus on scaling personalized learning at the district level. First, in the U.S., the district is the level of implementation, having the most control over system vision, curriculum, instruction, formative assessment and student supports. Secondly, by solving for scale at the district level we gain a clearer vision for what supportive, enabling, and catalytic policy can look like at both the state and federal level. This begins to solve for a better-aligned, more supportive education system that is oriented towards putting the student at the center of the system through a vision and focus on personalized learning. To move to truly focusing on personalized teaching and learning, it demands a coordinating move from pilot phase to true scale.

Matt Williams is Vice President of Policy and Advocacy at KnowledgeWorks.

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