What Role Should States Play in the Shift to Personalized Learning?

By Lisa Duty and Tom Vander Ark
New tools and school models present a historic opportunity to better prepare young people for college, careers, and citizenship. It’s not unreasonable to think that we could double the percentage of well-prepared teens before the end of the decade.
But it won’t be easy.  The shift to personalized learning in schools that blend online and onsite learning in creative and productive ways is a bit complicated.  We could keep adding technology to the schools we have but that would just create a more expensive version of what we have.
In American education, the state context matters.  Over the last twenty years states have taken on new or expanded roles in 7 important areas: standards, assessments, accountability, talent development, data, funding, and authorizing.  Unfortunately, they have added this outcomes focus on top of a convoluted compliance system.
We spend most of our time thinking about how to rapidly and effectively support the implementation of blended learning—so does Michael Horn of the Christensen Institute.  Michael has long-called for proof points that lead to positive PR that builds public support which allows for policy changes. We like this policy, proof points and PR formulation and we weave in another two key foundational elements: leadership and capacity.
Policy.  New blended learning models that develop a constituency have a chance to influence state policy. New options require champions and advocates appreciate solid proof points. While much attention is given to states’ abilities to impede innovation at the local level, they also have numerous opportunities to catalyze and accelerate high quality blended learning through enabling policies.
Digital Learning Now notes that the volume of state policies associated with digital learning across states is at an all-time high with an astounding 800 digital learning bills introduced in the last year, with 151 of those bills being signed in to law.  We need this same kind of energy and determination aimed at supporting blended learning implementation at scale.
Proof points. Schools that personalize learning work differently than traditional schools where kids march through the system in age cohorts.  State leaders should find schools that are early examples of the desired future state—promising results and an innovative model. States have a role to play in identifying, documenting, promoting, and legitimizing local pioneers.
State leaders should create philanthropic partnerships to support the development of innovative new schools like the Next-Generation Learning Challenge (NGLC) programs in Chicago and Washington D.C.   State improvement districts (e.g., LA RSD, TN ASD, MI EEA) have also become an important space for innovation.
Every state needs an innovation Infrastructure and process for identifying what current blended work is potentially an on-ramp for others’ success, and for identifying what policies or practices need to be off-ramped from the current system. Such infrastructure is imperative if we want to change the system, it is often said, pilots and new models are designed to transform.
Let’s re-frame PR as communications and engagement.  States need to map out a clear picture of the ecosystem of people, organizations and resources both influencing and impacted by blended learning, and consider how they can work with others to promote a vision and build the case and public will for change. Effective leaders, especially Governors and state chiefs, have an opportunity to frame the conversation, set a high bar for blended learning, translate a compelling vision, and crystallize key messages for the public.
State leaders have an important role in highlighting schools where its more about learning than time, where students show what they know, and where students tackle real challenges rather than test prep drills.  Oklahoma chief Janet Barresi and Rhode Island’s Deborah Gist are both great at highlighting success.
NGLC published profiles of 20 breakthrough high school models.  It’s detailed maps like this that are most helpful in illuminating the shift to personalized learning.
Leadership. Real transformation will require real leadership from the classroom to the governor’s office. The shift to blended learning is too big and too complex for a single organization to address on its own.  Challenges associated with transforming to a blended education system requires a span of competencies and resources that can be obtained only from a broad combination of actors across different agencies, memberships, sectors and networks.
Leadership must establish a vision of blended learning that helps all stakeholders see what learning and schooling could look like. The vision and a roadmap to get there should identify some current priorities that will change or be decommissioned as evidence that the goal is not to layer new efforts on to, or to sustain, existing patterns of teaching and learning.
States can create an ecosystem framework (like the one being developed by The Learning Accelerator) that identifies resource needs in addition to money that are required to facilitate the shift to blended so that schools, districts, and other players in the ecosystem understand the resources needed to reach systemic blended learning implementation.
Along with clear expectations, the most important aspect of the roadmap is the timeline.  State leaders need to add as much certainty to the timeline as possible.  We’ve argued that the shift to online assessments in 2015 is a useful pivot point for creating high access environments (where the learning environment matches the testing environment).  The Florida legislature (which has an unusually strong role in content adoption) set a useful example by signaling a shift to predominantly digital instructional materials by 2015. 
Capacity. The roles states have taken on require capacity.  With the budget cuts of the last five years, every state education agency lacks the resources to effectively lead the shift to blended learning—if they go it alone.  Partnerships with local funders can play a critical role for states.  The Rodel Foundation has advised and supported comprehensive reform in Delaware. The Morgridge Foundation and Colorado Legacy Foundation are supporting the shift to digital in Colorado.
State education agencies and their partners can have a positive impact on implementation by understanding the problems to be solved by schools and then figuring out the right level or approach to support with locals—even when it includes getting out of the way.  States need a process for determining high pay-off strategies related to enabling local creation and delivery of effective new learning opportunities in relation to scale and sustainability.  States need to quickly shift from forums and events that simply describe blended learning to contexts that enable schools with the ‘how’ of blended learning. Shifting from a compliance monitoring to a performance authorizing role could reposition some resources toward change management.
Designing a high performance school model with an aligned and integrated IT stack is a tall order.  State agencies, improvement districts, and funders should encourage schools to work together in networks that share school models and platforms.
States that develop the ability to execute across a comprehensive set of strategies related to policy, proof points, communications/engagement, leadership and capacity– and manage the linkages between them– will have a competitive advantage in scaling high quality blended learning.

Lisa Duty is a partner at The Learning Accelerator leading state strategy, partnerships and investments.  Find Lisa on Twitter @lisaduty1.



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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