June 24, 2014

A Policy Playbook for Personalized Learning: Ideas for State and Local Policymakers

By Carolyn Chuong | Sara Mead

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A new generation of education technology is gaining traction in America’s schools. Yet the most highly touted uses of education technology barely scratch the surface of its potential impact on education. Technology-based tools can make teachers’ jobs easier and improve student learning, but they do not fundamentally alter how students learn or how teachers do their work.

A small number of models are emerging that meaningfully shift the structure and organization of schooling in order to reimagine the classroom itself. Rather than simply adding on to what schools already do, these models leverage technology to change teachers’ roles and create a much more personalized learning experience for students. These models, which have emerged in communities across the country, vary in the extent to which they use technology and whether they seek to transform whole schools or individual courses. Summit Public Schools in California, for example, represents a new approach to organizing and staffing entire schools. In contrast, Teach to One: Math, which has been implemented in several urban districts, focuses on transforming students’ educational experiences in a particular subject or grade level. But whether they transform an entire school day or just one subject area, these models represent a fundamental change in how schools design and deliver student learning experiences.

By customizing learning experiences to students’ interests and learning styles, these models have the potential to improve learning outcomes—giving students more support in areas where they struggle and accelerating their progress in areas where they excel. They also enable teachers to use their time more efficiently and achieve greater success in meeting students’ needs.

Yet such comprehensive personalized learning models are still relatively rare, and are unlikely to achieve greater scale in the absence of policy changes to support their growth. In a publicly funded, heavily regulated field like education, entrepreneurship and markets alone are not enough to drive or scale transformational change. Federal, state, and local policies limit the ability of the private market to enter the education sector and work directly with schools and students. Bringing new or existing models to a broader scale will require not only technological and educational innovation, but also public policy change.

Bellwether Education Partners’ Policy Playbook for Personalized Learning is designed to help state and local policymakers identify the policy changes needed to expand access to quality personalized learning in their states and communities, and to give them the tools to make those changes. Each of the 15 policy ideas, or “plays,” in this playbook provides background context on the challenges it is designed to address and the benefits it will produce; examples of places where similar policies have been implemented; and a discussion of the policy or implementation considerations that must be taken into account. Because of the wide variation in each state’s policy context, these plays offer broad ideas, rather than detailed language, which policymakers can take as a starting point to customize the plays to their own state or district and its unique circumstances.

There are at least three crucial ways in which policymakers can help fuel the growth of innovative approaches to personalized learning.

Build the supply of personalized learning models: Although a handful of personalized learning models exist, more models and providers are needed to meet the full range of school contexts and student needs. State and local governments can build the supply of personalized learning models by investing in schools, districts, and third party providers—such as nonprofit organizations and higher education institutions—that want to develop new personalized learning models in response to identified state and local needs. Policy plays to build the supply of personalized learning models include:

  1. Create an innovation fund to support the development, iteration, and implementation of new models
  2. Establish an “approved model” designation for providers and models that meet certain parameters regarding quality and innovation

Foster demand for personalized learning: Relatively few educators and parents are currently seeking access to cutting-edge personalized learning models, either because they are not aware that these models exist, or because they do not understand what these models look like. Most parents and educators have experienced education technology primarily as tools or products added on top of the existing educational model—not as a way to fundamentally transform the educational experience for students. Policymakers can help foster demand by building awareness around what truly transformative personalized learning models look like and by seeding creation or replication of these models. Implementing personalized learning in a handful of cutting-edge schools will create proof points and models that spur other schools and districts to follow suit. Policy plays to foster demand for personalized learning include:

  1. Create funding mechanisms for schools to cover one-time start-up costs involved in implementing innovative models
  2. Incubate or create a nonprofit organization to support personalized learning in schools and districts
  3. Publish annual accountability report cards on approved models
  4. Cultivate a portfolio of providers
  5. Support the development of district consortia to foster personalized learning in small or rural communities

Eliminate barriers to personalized learning: Many existing policies—from school funding formulas, to class size limits, to graduation requirements—create barriers to new personalized learning models that use time, resources, and human capital in new ways. By eliminating these barriers, policymakers can accelerate the growth of personalized learning models. Policies that eliminate barriers to personalized learning include:

  1. Create a state office of innovation
  2. Create greater flexibility in class configurations and in how schools allocate and use staff resources
  3. Modify teacher evaluation frameworks to foster the collaborative teaching that occurs in personalized learning contexts
  4. Provide automatic waivers from certain policy provisions for schools implementing approved personalized learning models
  5. Waive or eliminate seat-time requirements to enable implementation of competency-based models
  6. Create accountability mechanisms that give schools credit for advancing students who are far behind grade level
  7. Ensure third-party providers are able to access the data they need to support personalized learning, while also protecting students’ privacy and FERPA rights
  8. Reform procurement regulation to foster implementation of personalized learning

Although policymakers in several states have taken action to remove barriers to personalized learning, these barriers remain in many states and districts. Moreover, simply removing barriers is unlikely to produce transformative results at scale. Bringing high-quality personalized learning to scale will require both removing barriers and addressing the underlying factors of demand and supply for personalized learning. Policymakers are only one of many groups of stakeholders who must come together to expand students’ access to high-quality personalized learning—but they have a crucial role to play. This playbook is designed to help them do so.

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