Districts Racing to Personalize Learning

Helping school districts make dramatic changes to boost achievement is hard. I have a lot of experience trying and more failure than success to show for it. That’s why when I heard that the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) grant program was moving from a state focus to a district focus, I was a bit apprehensive.

You may recall that RTTT was a $4 billion part of the $787 billion (now $831) 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Before the feds spent a dime I declared it the most productive EdReform grant program in history because three quarters of the states improved their plans, policies and laws before making application.

The Race to the Top-District (RTT-D) program was launched in 2012 with a focus on personalization. Grants totaling $504 million were awarded in 2012 and 2013 to 21 organizations representing 68 school districts.

The goal was to support districts to, “Serve as innovation laboratories, advancing new ways to educate students across a range of contexts.” Grant awards range from $5 million to $40 million per grantee determined primarily by the number of students that would be served.

Associate Assistant Deputy Secretary Ursula L. Wright said that many grantees are interested in creating digital personalized learning plans, but most have experienced challenges because learning platforms aren’t up to the task. (Here’s a comprehensive description of what learning platforms should offer developed with Charlotte-Mecklenburg)

The majority of the districts used some of the funds to sponsor their digital conversion. The majority of secondary environments choose Chromebooks. Six districts use Google Apps.

DreamBox Learning, Think Through Math, and Edmodo are used by four districts. (See a full technology inventory that documents what devices, applications and platforms are in use).

The districts are an interesting mix of big urbans (Guilford, Houston, Miami), innovative rural districts (Lindsay, Middletown), cooperatives (KVEC, PSESD, GRREC) and networks (Harmony, IDEA, KIPP DC). See summaries of grantee projects.

Signs of progress. “One of our greatest progress areas is in our high school to college strategies,” said Puget Sound ESD superintendent John Welch. He cites more rigorous course taking, more students taking college bound tests, and more college scholarship applications. “There is a sense of hope that is created in middle school when signing up for the scholarship,” added Welch.

Pablo Mejia, IDEA Public Schools, said the grant allowed the network to expand personalized learning initiatives in secondary schools and develop an Actionable Dashboard to guide student grouping and the next best intervention, to support a collegiate experience for juniors, and to develop socio-emotional support structures at IDEA.

Houston also aimed the RTT-D grant at high school transformation. “The RTTD grant is providing the support we needed to transform our high schools,” said superintendent Terry Grier. (The district has been cited for exemplary EdTech procurement). With a focus on college and career readiness, grant manager Adam Stephens said, “We are trying to identify solutions that are simple, scalable and sustainable so that we can continue our work long after the grant is gone.”

Attempting a package of innovation and improvement initiatives simultaneously (standards, assessments, evaluation, and blended learning) has been a challenge according to Welch. Suggesting that alignment can relieve some of the pressure created by too many efforts at once, he notes, “Quality implementation takes time and too many initiatives can feel overwhelming if they are not aligned.”

Lack of sustained leadership is also a factor. Leadership changes in six of seven participating Puget Sound districts has thwarted the pace of progress. Welch explains, “Change at the top leads to change in other key positions so implementation can sometime go slower than planned.” Our Smart Cities study found that innovation takes sustained leadership.

“The grant has really helped us ensure that successful innovations, formerly living with individual teachers and teams, became standard practice across our [five early childhood and five elementary] RTT-D funded schools,” said KIPP DC Director of Innovation & Instructional Technology Adam Roberts. Professional learning and coaching is provided by school leaders, Roberts’ Innovation Team, the Capital Teaching Residency team, and the Data team. Roberts said the PD and coaching is powered and aligned by, “An incredible amount of data that teachers and school leaders now have available at their fingertips.”

Emerging Roles. As the sector shifts to personalized learning and blended environments, new roles are emerging for teacher leaders. See our feature on multi-classroom leadership in Nashville.

In addition to new district roles that bridge curriculum and technology (e.g., Director of Personalized Learning Environments, Blended Learning Administrator), RTT-D grantees are creating new teacher roles. Examples of new school and district leadership roles include:

  1. Content-focused Instructional Coaches, most typically in math and literacy.
    • Example: Math Coaches in New Haven Unified School District (CA) at each school help plan and co-teach lessons, identify digital and non-digital resources, and provide professional development tailored to team’s needs.
  2. Strategy-focused Instructional Coaches such as Personalized Learning, Data, or Digital Learning Coaches.
    • Example: Blended Learning Coaches in Iredell-Statesville Schools (NC) meet regularly with instructional staff and professional learning teams to model innovative teaching and learning, help align instructional practices with digital resources and assist teachers in using student learning profiles to support student mastery development.
  3. Instructional Technology Coaches, focused on the use of personalized learning or instructional technology.
    • Example: KIPP DC has two Instructional Technology Coaches that provide both informal 1-1 professional development and more formal training for teachers and school leaders focused on technology integration. (See lessons from KIPP blends).
  4. Master Educators such as those on special assignment or otherwise serving as mentors to their peers.
    • Example: Carson City School District (NV) has created a cadre of Implementation Specialists that guide teacher teams in the development of common unit and semester assessments. They serve as instructional coaches and help teachers transition to the district’s new mastery-based system, including through the use of the Mastery Connect platform.
  5. Individualized Learning Specialists that are hybrid teacher-leaders.
    • Example: Individualized Learning Specialists in IDEA Public Schools (South Texas, see feature) split their time between targeted instruction and program management (i.e., data analysis, student grouping, coaching teachers, acquiring resources).
  6. Teacher Assistants and other part-time educators that are necessary to accommodate larger classes in technology-rich environments
    • Example: the iPrep Math middle school program in Miami-Dade Public Schools (see feature) accommodates 60 students in a blended learning environment consisting of two full-time Math teachers and one part-time teacher envisioned as a “roaming conductor” to assist with students working on self-paced tasks.

These new roles are a great way to leverage early adopters. They also provide a developmental pathway to the principalship and enable more precise professional development. A grant can help initiate these new positions but new staffing models will be required to sustain them.

“As the grant period comes to a close,” reflects KIPP DC’s Adam Roberts, “I think our most exciting work will come in this last year. We are shifting our focus to high-fidelity implementation; coaching conversations have underscored that it is critical for students and teachers to frequently interact with their data. By making this data more accessible to students, we are interested in seeing how that agency translates to faster progress and results. We think that we will see the biggest difference with the oldest students served by the grant [3rd & 4th graders].” KIPP DC is building a student and parent portal that will boost interaction with achievement data via mobile devices. Roberts adds, “There is a ton of opportunity to authentically engage parents and students in their student’s progress in everything from ST Math syllabus progress to homework grades in PowerSchool, well beyond the typical constructs of conferences, and report cards alone.”

For more see:

DreamBox Learning is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner. Edmodo is a portfolio company of Learn Capital where Tom is partner.

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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