RTT-District: Scaling Personalizing Innovations

Last week the Department issued the final guidance on Race to the Top District(RTT-D) competition. It’s a big opportunity to improvement for underserved kids.
Districts will compete for $383 million with awards of $5 to $40 million (based on enrollment) split between 15 to 25 grant winners. The program builds on priorities of the RTT-D state program and requires a coherent “theory of change” and demonstrated progress with a focus on college and career-readiness.
The application appears to require the use of personalized learning tools but will not award single point solutions. Districts will need to proposed blended learning solutions but with attention to student supports, teacher development, culture, and community connections.
What does RTT-D require? Starting with the end in mind, the 40-point “Vision” section and the 40-point “Preparing Students for College and Careers” section require a coherent picture of the desired future state. In my view, responses should describe all students learning inhigh-access environments–access to technology (2- or 3-screen learning day), talented teachers, quality content, and strong supports–in schools blending the best of online and onsite learning incorporating a customized sequence of learning experiences and driven by a comprehensive learner profile.
Winning districts will describe how learning looks different for students (20 points) and specifically how teaching and leaders are better and different (20 points). The language of this section is a nice recognition of Public Impact’s work in developing Opportunity Culture — all strategies for leveraging talent with technology.
Prior record of success and conditions for reform is worth a whopping 45 points and may screen out most applicants. RTT-D includes 30 points for evidence of continuous improvement infrastructure–the most substantial focus on data feedback loops that I’ve seen in a federal grant. That reflects the fact that personalization tools and strategies are still relatively nascent and likely to improve over the four years of the grant program. In other words, this initiative should be viewed at least in part as an R&D effort.
District policy and infrastructure are worth 25 points and stress school autonomy, competency-based learning (see CompetencyWorks.org for a full and ongoing conversation), and access to tools and resources (e.g., SETDA’s Broadband Imperitive).
There is a competitive priority, only worth 10 points, focused on integrated support services and social emotional behavioral outcomes, but that proves to be important in this competitive grant program. Applicants should check out Turnaround for Children in New York City for a sophisticated view of how promoting social emotional health promotes achievement.
There is a four-year timeline, but money can be front-loaded. The budget is based on the initial number of students involved so it may hinder the kind of new school development that should be part of every district plan.
Comments. Here are a mixture of observations and suggestions:

  • Schools. Like NGLC grants (I’m a reviewer), this is a rare opportunity with significant funding available to support innovative blended learning models like Rocketship, Carpe Diem, and the 20 schools we featured this week.
  • Tools. This grant program should be a big boost for adaptive platforms like i-Ready andDreambox and engaging math games like ST Math and Mangahigh.
  • Platforms. I’ve been asking, ” Why Aren’t There Any Next Gen Learning Platforms?”Well, this is an opportunity to advance a couple next gen platforms with rich learner profiles, smart recommendation engines, a big library of learning experiences, interesting learning pathways, and a social learning layer that supports dynamic grouping. Grantees are likely to use learning platforms like EdElementsJunyo, BrainHoney, and Edmodo.
  • Evaluation. Personalization and blended school models will change relationships between teachers and students. Add competency-based progressions where students are moving at different rates and it makes linking data for individual students to individual teacher much more complicated. As I’ve noted, good evaluation requires good data and sound judgment . Increasingly the “teacher of record” will be a team leader with a differentiated staff working with a multi-aged students.
  • Online assessment. It’s odd that the application and backgrounder don’t even mention online assessment. Perhaps the Department of Education was attempting to avoid further entanglement; however, as most American districts boost access to technology to prepare for online assessment in 2014-2015, the two dozen districts winning awards should illustrate the path forward by deploying new technology, new school models, and new support systems to dramatically improve achievement and college/career readiness.
  • R&D. On all of the above, the proposal should address the fact that you are entering into an R&D relationship with partners that are building content, providing assessments, and supporting teacher development.
  • Engagement. This program (like life as a superintendent) requires creative tension between work on the personalization strategy and stakeholder engagement — both must be done well.

10 Questions for applicants. This grant program raises a set of interesting questions that districts, regardless of whether they apply or not, should consider:
1. What will we know about our students in four years that you don’t know now?
2. How will a rich learner profile improve learning?
3. How will we manage competency-based pathways?
4. How will teaching roles change with more powerful tools and better information?
5. How will teachers benefit from personalized development?
6. To what extent will new schools be part of our plan to personalize learning?
7. How will we leverage online learning opportunities to expand student options?
8. How will we create and sustain high-access environments?
9. Will our data, assessment, and tech plan impact the district relationship with schools (i.e., will there be less autonomy across the portfolio)?
10. How will we manage a complex change initiative?
RTT-D, given the laundry list of grant requirements, will primarily result in deployment of existing blended learning models, but a district will take seriously the R&D opportunity and will engage with talented partners to advance personalized learning platforms.
For more, see:

This blog first appeared on EdWeek.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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