Why and How Personalized Learning is Transforming Texas Education

This post first appeared in the spring 2016 issue of INSIGHT, the professional journal of the Texas Association of School Administrators.
Texas schools are shifting rapidly from print to digital content. Cheap devices (especially $200 Chromebooks), engaging and dynamic content, and open resources are driving this historic shift in how children learn.
The first decade of the shift to digital (1996-2005) was characterized by technology integration–adding computers to the way we’ve always done school. The return on investment wasn’t great because computers were expensive and their use wasn’t always transformational.
During the second decade of the shift (2006-2015), Texas schools began incorporating blended strategies that combined the best aspects of online and face-to-face learning into an integrated learning experience, while providing students, as Christensen Institute says, “some element of student control over time, place, path and/or pace.”
Blended environments enable a new level of personalization. Raise Your Hand Texas explains:

Personalized learning is learning tailored to an individual student’s needs and abilities. All students are held to high expectations, but each student follows a customized path that adapts based on the student’s individual progress and goals. Personalized learning is competency-focused. Each student’s progress toward clearly defined goals is continually assessed. Students advance and earn credit as soon as they demonstrate mastery.

Raise Your Hand cites six benefits of blended environments: teacher support, personalized learning, more small group instruction, student ownership, continuous feedback and student engagement.

Broader Aims

Two decades of higher standards and common assessment led to higher achievement among low-income and minority students in Texas, but in many places it came with the unintended consequence of scripted teaching, a narrowed curriculum and lots of test preparation. Art, music, electives and career preparation were trimmed or eliminated. Spring meant weeks of test prep and standardized testing. Pacing guides and test-based accountability reduced teacher satisfaction.
To move past a test-prep culture, leaders in El Paso ISD held dozens of community conversations about what graduates should know and be able to do. The conversations resulted in a vision for active learning: challenging, personalized and engaging work with strong supports. El Paso ISD also began embracing a broader measure of student success, including the abilities to self-manage, collaborate and be persistent. In addition to incorporating new learning strategies such as project-based learning, El Paso ISD revised its discipline policy from quick punishment to constructive dialogue.
A recent ASCD report illustrates how schools can cultivate empathy, cooperation, flexibility and good decision-making. Many of the interviewed school districts use surveys to assess social-emotional learning (SEL) outcomes–some focus on the effects of teaching, while others use an SEL rubric and still others monitor character strengths.
The report notes that in Austin, Eugene, Ore., the California CORE districts and Fall River, Mass., “students take surveys that include various SEL indicators. These districts also survey other stakeholders, like parents and teachers, about topics such as school climate and student performance. Although data is self-reported and, therefore, cannot independently measure growth, respondents cite them as a key window into SEL progress.”
Austin ISD uses an SEL implementation rubric for evaluating schools. Principals and a district SEL coach routinely observe teachers and provide written descriptive feedback.
Mayerson Academy in Cincinnati, Ohio, developed the Thriving Learning Communities program to implement a character-strengths approach that improves engagement, learning and college/career preparation. Piloted in more than 40 Cincinnati schools, the program uses the Happify app to promote and track development of character strengths.
When considering broader aims, Next Generation Learning Challenges, an EDUCAUSE initiative, suggests starting with three big questions:

  • How well are we defining and articulating what success looks like for students attending our school?
  • How well does our design for learning and the organization of our school directly support students’ attainment of that richer, deeper definition of success?
  • How do we gauge students’ progress in developing those competencies?

Houston Case Study

Efforts to personalized learning in Houston were integrated with school improvement plans and an initiative to boost student access to technology.
In 2010, Superintendent Terry Grier launched a school improvement effort based on five factors that contributed to high performing school networks. The turnaround effort, called Apollo 20, added a dose of blended learning. In addition to targeted tutoring for struggling students, Apollo schools piloted class rotations in high school STEM classes (picture below).

In 2013, HISD committed to providing laptops to every high school student through the PowerUp initiative. The project was so well planned it was featured in the Digital Learning Now Guide to EdTech Procurement. The Learning Accelerator said, “HISD’s approach combined thoughtful goal setting, thorough planning and robust support.”
Three years into PowerUp, Superintendent Grier summarized three lessons:

  • Purpose and vision must be aligned with student goals: It was critical that PowerUp not be in isolation from the academic goal to propel global graduates (discussed below).
  • Challenging traditional systems can spur innovation: PowerUp pushed Houston ISD to collaborate more to better support schools and teachers.
  • It is not about the tool, it’s about powerful learning: The district is working together to use technology so that its classrooms remain student-centered and students become critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and leaders — all traits of the global graduate.

As Houston ISD became more diverse and as global trade became increasingly important to the economy, Superintendent Grier initiated an update of the district’s graduate profile, which defined the knowledge, skills and characteristics critical for student success. With input from the community, local businesses and higher education partners, Houston ISD arrived at a Global Graduate profile that entailed six attributes: leadership, communication, responsible decision making, adaptability and productivity, critical thinking, and college-ready.
Screen-Shot-2016-02-02-at-1.54.18-PM.pngPersonalized learning initiatives often start with a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy but, as Superintendent Grier identified, it is a great opportunity to embrace a broader and more appropriate definition of college and career readiness. However, broader goals and new instructional strategies require substantial educator development.

Start with Teacher Learning

A study of urban education ecosystems, Smart Cities That Work for Everyone, found that talent develop, particularly professional learning, was a critical success factor in providing access to quality student learning. Houston was noted as one of the best regional examples in the country for district and charter network efforts to recruit and develop talent.
Teachers often teach the way they were taught. A great place to introduce positive change is to provide bite-sized learning experiences and give teachers ways to demonstrate new knowledge and skills.
“As an emerging professional development strategy, educator micro-credentials can enable our public education system to continuously identify, capture, recognize, and share the best practices of America’s educators, so all teachers can hone their existing skills and learn new ones,” says Digital Promise, a national nonprofit sponsor of micro-credentials.
Hosted on the Bloomboard platform, the process to earn a Digital Promise badge models the blended, personalized and competency-based environments many districts want to create for students. (See a new report on micro-credentials.)
Houston ISD has globally themed, online professional development and a customized digital badging system. Since August 2015, more than 1,800 Houston ISD teachers in 55 schools have earned 4,300 badges. (That’s about 43,000 hours of global professional development). There is no other large-scale digital badging effort for K-12 educators right now. [l]
Seeking better literacy results at her campus, Principal Laura Flores introduced Laredo’s Cigarroa High School staff to the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) two years ago, which included implementation support from SREB. LDC is an open library of literacy lessons. Each lesson is teacher-created, standards-based and peer-reviewed. Core Tools is LDC’s collaborative, lesson-authoring environment.
Teacher Arturo Garcia found the design-based work different than most professional development he had experienced. He saw quick student benefits.
“By improving their literacy skills, the students will be able to comprehend the content much better,” he says. “This, in turn, will be of great benefit for performance on state assessments, as well as for college readiness.”
It turns out that designing engaging, standards-based learning experiences is also a powerful professional learning experience. Garcia has become a facilitator of learning with LDC, extending his leadership skills to his peers.
Another proponent of LDC, Chadd Johnson, principal last year at Young Men’s Leadership Academy at Kennedy Middle School, in Grand Prairie ISD, says: “LDC has opened that portal for teachers to question their instruction, methodology, and its effectiveness in student academic success.” Johnson says he appreciates that LDC “is an instructional process where professional learning and student learning go hand in hand.”

Entry Points

Some Texas districts have launched system-wide initiatives to simultaneously improve access to technology and introduce new instructional models. Other districts are only getting started with blended learning or working their way out of a “patchwork” of technology. Many districts are still looking for ways to achieve real personalization in path and pace for struggling learners.
But developing competency-based models in which learners progress based on demonstrated mastery is a lot harder than simply bringing electronic devices into the classroom. For districts looking for a place to pilot personalized and competency-based models, there are five low-risk, potentially high-reward entry points:

  • Run small pilots: Adding adaptive math and English software in a lab or class rotation model providing hour or two of personalized learning each week as well as valuable real time data. Alief, Fort Bend, Katy, Lamar, and Northside have shown positive results with i-Ready. Many Texas districts use iStation with great success.
  • Reach under-served populations: High school credit recovery is a great place to pilot personalized and competency-based learning  A recent report on How To Successfully Scale Personalized Learning confirmed that credit recovery remains a common entry point that can be the catalyst for scaling blended learning across schools and districts. Widely used solutions include ApexGradPoint from Pearson and Edgenuity.
  • Academy: Launching a school-within-a-school is a great way to expand options while showcasing next generation learning. Nonprofit New Tech Network supports nearly 200 personalized project-based schools including 13 Texas schools in Belton, Carrollton, Coppell, Dallas, El Paso, Manor, Mesquite, New Braunfels, Plano, and San Antonio. Ninety percent of New Tech schools are district operated and half of those are co-located with other schools. Almost all of the 667 NAF career academies are co-located.
  • Projects: Piloting big integrated projects as a capstone, intersession, or two teacher collaboration can yield big benefits. Students addressed the scientific, political, economic, and cultural challenge of pandemic diseases in big integrated projects at Rocket New Tech in Irvin and Bush New Tech Odessa. Rocket students prepared an emergency broadcast to warn the planet. Odessa students completed individual reports and group presentations but the principals said “The best part may have been how the project impacted learners outside the classroom; learners discussed content during lunch and in the hallways.”
  • Course access: adding supplemental online courses in world language, STEM, and electives expands learning options and can demonstrate next-gen learning. (Read how Gutherie Virtual School increased access to Spanish language instruction across Texas).
  • Career and technical education: CTE pathways and internships are not only great job preparation for students, they can be a great entry point for personalized learning. For example, Wunsche High School in Spring ISD is a blended career focused high school (pictured below).

Grant opportunities are also a good excuse to start a conversation and draft a plan. Raise Your Hand has great learning materials at the Blended Learning Resource Portal.

Good to Great

In addition to the school districts discussed above, Texas school networks are innovating to achieve even better results. Houston A+ Challenge piloted a blended middle school program called Unlimited Potential (UP). Students ride public transit to visit an amazing network of museum and community partners. The program will be expanded to three campuses this fall. (See a 2015 trip report.)
Harmony Public Schools used a federal Race to the Top grant to add high engagement maker activities and project-based learning to their blended STEM secondary schools. Harmony won early support from Educate Texas. Executive Director John Fitzpatrick said, “Harmony is a great statewide public charter school success story in Texas. We love their model of rigorous academic coursework, project based learning and an emphasis on engaging extracurricular activities like robotics competitions and science olympiads.” (See recent trip report.)
With 44 schools serving 23,000 students in San Antonio, Austin, and the Rio Grande Valley,  IDEA Public Schools is the fastest growing school network in the country. It took them nine years to serve 5000 students and they added that many in September. An early leader in the “no excuses” movement is now working hard at getting better at differentiated instruction, diversified learning opportunities, and student ownership of learning.
Personalization at IDEA isn’t all about technology, it starts with a handshake and a greeting from every college prep teacher every day. While committed to smart innovation, the IDEA secret sauce is equal parts expectations and execution. (See recent update on their hybrid learning model known as BetterIDEA.)
Texas has some of the best school districts and most innovative school networks in the country. Blended and personalized learning is helping to meet new challenges and get even better.
For more see:

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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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