Helping CAOs Make the Shift to Personalized Learning

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There are thousands of school district chief academic officers that spent a decade building and running managed instruction regimes. Now they’re trying to pivot to personalized learning or getting a lot of pressure from their boss and teachers to consider an update.

It’s easy to say that managed instruction is old school and personalized learning is the future, but this debate is worth unpacking. The lack of alignment of instruction and assessment, as well as schedule, structure, and support services, is a big problem in education. It leads to poor student performance and frustration on the part of educators.

Charter management organizations brought a built-from-scratch ‘no-excuses’ alignment but did so around the old model of a centralized standards-based curriculum, with a traditional age-cohort school model. Talented teachers, common pacing, and a rigorous focus on execution resulted in pretty good outcomes (at least on traditional measures).

School districts saw this improvement and began implementing similar ‘managed instruction’ (or ‘aligned instructional system’) schemes yielding some improvement. Even with marginal execution, these programs ensure that students are receiving grade level instruction (whether or not they are on grade level) which can improve results on standardized grade-level assessments.

But now it’s possible to create personalized learning environments where adaptive diagnostics pinpoint challenges and gaps and where student progress based on demonstrated mastery. Here’s a quick summary of managed instruction versus next generation learning.

Managed Instruction Next-Gen
Design Centralized Bottom up, top down, inside out
Materials Proprietary print on 7 year cycles Dynamic modular digital OER library
Pacing Uniform Individualized
Assessment Periodic benchmark Continuous & adaptive
Progress Cohort Individual on demonstrated mastery
Competencies Instructional design, pedagogy Learner experience, EdTech, data
Desired Outcomes Math & reading test scores Communications, critical thinking, habits of success, citizenship


This change reflects a dramatic change in the mental model of senior district officials in terms of how they understand systems, what they look for in classrooms, and how they organize roles and goals of staff members. One talent development leader said, “Next generation CAOs must be comfortable with software and data. And, because the transformation includes replacing core processes like textbook adoption with cloud-based platform management strategies, the CAO must also be the chief change management architect.”

Many professions, like doctors, go through shifts in technology-mediated treatment that result in significant shifts in practice.  But this is more like a train conductor becoming an air traffic controller. To complicate things, we don’t really have this new model fully baked yet, so it takes a small leap of faith and a lot of iterating.

A midwestern EdLeader said, “We have identified a need to educate the mid-level managers between the principals and the superintendent, known as “Executive Director of Academics and Director of Curriculum and Instruction,” noting that these positions are responsible for improving and maintain high marks on the state report card. “They seem to be the keepers and protectors of current practices.”

Brooklyn LAB

Following are 10 elements of comprehensive solutions to the challenge of helping chief academic officers reframe their work:

1. Build, don’t break.  Brian Greenberg, Silicon Schools, suggested building CAOs a bridge from managed instruction to personalized and blended learning. That’s good advice since all of the teachers in a managed instruction system will need to make the same trip.

Both systems share goals for high-quality learning every day in every classroom.  Both systems value reliability and productivity.  The CAOs interest in differentiated learning may be just the hook, according to Greenberg.

It would be very difficult to flip a big system from managed instruction to personalized learning, so a phased approach beginning where there is the most leadership makes sense. Work can start at schools, levels, and subjects most ready to make the shift.

2. Host community conversations.The direction the superintendent and board set is obviously important both in terms of vision and organization. This direction should be a product of community conversations. As Tony Wagner has been advocating for 20 years, conversations should cover three important questions about “What’s different?” “What should young people know and be able to do?” and, as a result,  “What kinds of learning experiences do they deserve?”

In El Paso, community conversations resulted in a new graduate profile and vision of Active Learning: challenging, personalized and engaging work with strong supports.

3. Visit schools. “The roadshow is what gets them,” said Brian Greenberg, Silicon Schools. Field trips have been life changing for us. It’s the best way to build a new mental model of powerful learning experiences. (See 100 middle and high schools worth visiting and 30 districts worth visiting.)

4. Support teacher-leaders. CAOs should identify and listen to their best teachers. Given the flood of inexpensive devices, free apps, and open resources, good teachers are doing more to supplement a core curriculum with flipped lessons and blended classrooms.

There are several good examples of cities identifying and cultivating teacher leadership. Fulton County Georgia schools have identified four teachers in every school; the Vanguard Teachers meet regularly, provide real-time PD to other teachers, and support the development of school-based blended learning plans.

5. Make mini-grants. Mesa Public Schools kicked off their transition by hosted an EdTech Conference and invited a select group of vendors. On a release day teachers visited the conference. Teams of teachers were invited to submit applications for mini-grants.

The Denver Public Schools Imaginarium is an incubator that provides mini-grants and technical assistance to teacher teams that want to try a new strategy or design a new school.

In Lubbock, a community foundation provides mini-grants for teachers.

6. Leverage tiered support. A system of earned autonomy and tiered support focuses district resources where they’re most needed and gives high performing schools autonomy to design innovative learning experiences. A tiered accountability system allows a phased shift to personalized learning by allowing top performing schools to select a personalized learning model and by identifying a partner for the lowest-performing schools.

7. Adopt Adaptive. Shifting from periodic benchmark assessments (designed to assess a one speed, one size fits all curriculum) with adaptive assessments (e.g. i-Ready from Curriculum Associates or MAPS from NWEA) provides better information and can be combined with individually targeted instruction that makes up an important part of a blended learning program.

8. Seek school grants. Participating in a regional or national new school grant program can be transformative for a school and a district CAO. NGLC and its regional affiliates supported about 150 next gen models. NewSchools Venture Fund sponsors innovative new schools. Carnegie’s Opportunity by Design supported new school development in Cleveland, Denver, New York, Philadelphia, and Providence.

9. Experiment. Starting small with a few experiments is a great way to learn. 4.0 Schools coaches and invests in people to test new learning spaces and tools with students and families in their local communities.

In suburban Milwaukee, Kettle Moraine kick-started their transformation with four micro-schools.

10. Join networks. Perhaps most importantly, don’t try to innovate alone. Join regional, thematic, and national networks.

El Paso kick-started their transformation with a partnership with New Tech Network and now have 10 great schools to showcase active learning.

In Pittsburgh, leading districts formed the Pittsburgh Personalized Learning Network. They also participate in the regional Remake Learning network and are members of the League of Innovative Schools.

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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