Shared attributes of schools implementing personalized learning

Schools all over the country are redesigning their instructional models to provide personalized learning for students. The term personalized learning is used in different ways, often interchangeably with blended or competency-based learning. Susan Patrick and colleagues at iNACOL released Mean What You Say in October, which reviews how these terms are used and proposes a way to integrate them. The paper provides a good overview of the terms and some of the overlap between them.

In our work at the Gates Foundation, we sort out the terms this way for now:

  • Personalized learning — students’ learning experiences are tailored to their individual needs, skill levels, and interests. Students engage in a variety of instructional approaches and are able move at a pace that works best for them. The learning experience is also designed to help students build deep connections with their teachers and other students. For us, this is the big idea that has the potential to drive breakthrough results for students.
  • Blended instruction — personalizing the learning experiences of every student is a difficult task, and no one knows better than teachers how hard it can be. Blended instruction incorporates or “blends” the best of what teachers do with the support of instructional technologies that help strengthen the time teachers spend with their students. Not all blended instruction is personalized — some schools layer technology onto their one-size-fits-most instructional models. But when educators commit to personalized learning, it’s incredibly difficult to achieve it for large groups of students without blended instruction.
  • Competency-based progressions — these are a key feature of school models that make learning paths visible to students and allow them to go at a pace that works best for them, moving on when they can demonstrate they’ve learned a concept or acquired a skill. Some schools have been using competency-based progressions for years, but the growing focus on personalized learning has exposed the idea to a wider audience.

We support many new and redesigned district and charter schools built around personalized learning. Over the next couple of years they will produce meaningful evidence of whether they can consistently accelerate learning for students, including those who have struggled in the past. To complement a multi-year quantitative evaluation run by RAND, we are working with a number of partners to produce more qualitative, descriptive data about what these schools are up to.

One effort underway with a number of educators and thought partners is identifying some attributes shared by personalized learning (PL) schools. It’s still very much a work in progress and will serve as a complement to the helpful blended learning taxonomy developed by the Christensen Institute. By making sense of what the pioneers in the PL school space are doing, we hope to make it easier for the next wave of school design teams to get started. Here are the four shared attributes we’re seeing so far, with brief descriptions:

Learner profiles — Each student has a profile that reflects his or her individual skills, gaps, strengths, weaknesses, interests, aspirations and goals. Profiles are refreshed frequently to provide an up to date picture, and are accessible to students, teachers and parents.

Personal learning paths — Each student follows a path through content and skill progressions, in ways that work best for him or her, through a variety of learning experiences. Students have the tools and support they need to develop ownership of their paths. And while the paths vary by learner, the destination is the same — clear, high standards of academic performance and the cognitive and non-cognitive skills students need for success.

Individual demonstration of mastery — Students move along their learning paths as they demonstrate mastery of content, concepts and skills. They receive constant feedback about how they are doing and can engage in assessments and performance tasks when they feel ready.

Flexible learning environments — Time, space, roles, and instructional methods flex with the needs of students and teachers rather than being fixed variables.

Figuring out whether these attributes are present in a PL school isn’t a yes or no proposition. From school to school, some of the attributes are more fully developed, while others are more nascent. To help reflect what the attributes look like in practice, each will include a number of “how” components, which are still very much under construction. The attributes will continue to evolve over the next few months as educators discuss and debate them, and the “hows” will get firmed up and widely shared and shaped.

Please feel free to share any feedback  you might have about the attributes at this early stage.

With $6m to spend on Literacy, why not just build a product?

Earlier this week my team launched the $6m Literacy Solutions Challenge, open to for-profit and nonprofit providers of online content and tools that support Common Core literacy standards, particularly in writing. You can read more about the specifics of the challenge here.

Why in the world are we doing this? I coauthored a blog at Impatient Optimists with Emily Dalton Smith and Robert Torres that talks about the critical need for students to increase their literacy skills and some of nuts and bolts of the The Lit Challenge. The launch of the Challenge generated some great questions about why we settled on literacy and why we chose the challenge structure. So, I thought I would address those here.

The Lit Challenge is designed to fill an important gap in the digital courseware market. We’ve seen a lot of activity in digital math products in the last few years, but the level of activity for literacy solutions doesn’t come close.

In 2010, the entire K-12 supplemental materials market grew more than 10% to nearly $3 billion in sales, including 20% growth in courseware (instructional software) for all subjects. The supplemental English Language Arts (ELA) materials market for grades 4 through 8 is approximately $800 million, 40% of which is digital in some way.

While at first glance this is a healthy, growing market, the detailed sales figures for digital solutions are a little sobering. Nearly half of spending on digital 4th-8th-grade supplemental resources in 2010 was on interactive whiteboards. Courseware (instructional software) for all subjects accounted for only 7% of the market, and digital content (digitized materials) for less than 5%.

Math courseware is a bright spot in the segment. Products such as Reasoning Mind, Dreambox, and ST Math are producing demonstrable learning gains for students. Mathalicious is also a great resource.  Khan Academy, a free resource originally built for self-directed learning, burst into the public consciousness and into classrooms. Dan Meyer, a great math teacher, also has a library of free lessons which include instructional videos for math topics like Algebra and Geometry.

New entrants and new products from existing players in the literacy space have been pale by comparison. And few literacy products can provide even moderate evidence that they positively impact student learning. Scholastic’s terrific Read180 is a notable exception. Based on our analysis of the market, which was corroborated in conversations with educators and investors, this gap presents a major challenge to implementing the Common Core and advancing personalized learning.

But still, why a challenge? Why not set some product criteria and just pay a developer or two to build  solutions that meet the market need we think we identified in conversations with users and buyers? Actually, there are lots of reasons not to take the needle in the haystack approach, but I’ll cover the two main ones in this post.

First, my team and I aren’t interested in (and don’t believe in) the one best product. We are more interested in seeing an increasingly competitive, performance-driven market for literacy courseware, with many innovators tackling tough instructional challenges, and with mechanisms for generating and distributing abundant, transparent information about the attributes and effectiveness of products. This goal is different from looking for THE needle in the haystack or silver-bullet product that will meet most everyone’s needs.

Second, the structure of the challenge focuses simultaneously on strengthening the capacity of buyers and users to identify and articulate their needs more clearly and use them to make solid purchasing decisions. The most innovative teachers and school leaders tell us they are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with their existing options for literacy courseware. They also are able to clearly articulate what they would buy if it were available. We and many analysts we talk with believe this is a leading indicator of where the overall demand-side will move over the next few years. By shining a spotlight on these product attributes now, we aim to catalyze innovators to create solutions for a segment that is poised to take off and will eventually begin to eat into the massive basal textbook segment.

So, by mobilizing customers and the product developers in an organized way, we’re trying to foster healthier market dynamics for the long term.  This is different from Gates or any other donor deciding what everyone needs, funding the creation of it and subsidizing districts & schools to use it.

Around 30 schools will participate as test beds during the challenge, and they’ll select which products they want to try from among the entries. Schools will have free licenses for the products, and teachers will incorporate the solutions into their literacy instruction. An outside evaluation team will be tracking implementation issues and product efficacy. At the end a few winners will be named, and all of the product information generated through usage and evaluation will be made public.

This post is longer than my rule of thumb, but if you made it this far I’d love to hear your reaction to the thinking behind the challenge.

Personalized learning and accelerated student outcomes

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about our support for schools that are redesigning their instructional models in order to personalize learning for students. I listed design principles shared by these schools:

  • Student Centered: designed to meet the diverse learning needs of each student every day
  • High Expectations: committed to ensuring that every student will meet clearly defined, rigorous standards that will prepare them for success in college and career
  • Self-Pacing & Mastery-Based Credit: enables students to move at their own optimal pace, and receive credit when they can demonstrate mastery of the material
  • Blended Instruction: optimizes teacher- and technology-delivered instruction in group and individual work
  • Student Ownership: empowers students with skills, information and tools they need to manage their own learning
  • Financial Sustainability: sustainable on public per-pupil revenue within four years
  • Scalable: designed to serve many more students if it demonstrates impact

In the earlier post I wrote a couple paragraphs about “self-pacing & mastery-based credit” and “student ownership.” I received a few emails asking about specific expectations for performance at the school level, since “high expectations” is listed as a principle. We’re thinking a lot about this with our partners.

Most of the schools we support serve high percentages of students who enter with academic knowledge and skills well below the benchmarks for their grade. To help students catch up, the school teams are designing instructional models and using technologies they hope will accelerate learning gains. The new schools we are funding have a goal of achieving an average of 1.5 years of growth for their students each year.

When I said this in a keynote at a conference in October, some folks in the tweet stream said it was illogical — one year is one year, and whatever a kid learns that year is a year’s worth of learning. That’s true in one sense, but we’re saying something different. Independent assessment instruments often have an objective notion of how many concepts students typically master in a school year and at specific grade levels. When students master fewer or more than these, they are said to achieve less or more than a year’s growth.

A more practical way to think about it is this: Imagine a 9th grader arrives at high school with 7th grade reading and math knowledge and skills.  Unfortunately this is a pretty common phenomenon in low income communities. The only way for this student to graduate in four years meeting 12th grade academic expectations is to learn 1.5 years of material every year.

To evaluate whether their approaches are working, the new personalized school models we fund agree to participate in a common, multi-year research and evaluation study conducted by RAND. The study focuses on learning outcomes, implementation issues, and financial sustainability.

For learning outcomes, “years of growth” will be measured at the student and school level in math, language arts, and problem-solving using the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) adaptive assessment, given at the beginning of the study to establish a baseline and then at the end of each academic year to evaluate growth. RAND will also collect and analyze state test scores, attendance, behavior, and graduation rates and compare them to matched comparison groups, along with non-cognitive measures of grit and academic mindset.

But back to the main idea of the post — regardless of the specific measurement instrument, what do you think about this 1.5 years of growth concept?

Design principles for personalized learning in schools

Over at Impatient Optimists, the official Gates Foundation site, my teammate Scott Benson and I blogged about our investments in personalized learning in schools. It’s a solid high-level overview of our approach, but the IO editorial process resulted in a bit of a formal tone.

So, I wanted to use this blog to spark a more direct dialogue about the set of design principles we look for in schools we’re investing in:

  • Student Centered: designed to meet the diverse learning needs of each student every day
  • High Expectations: committed to ensuring that every student will meet clearly defined, rigorous standards that will prepare them for success in college and career
  • Self-Pacing & Mastery-Based Credit: enables students to move at their own optimal pace, and receive credit when they can demonstrate mastery of the material
  • Blended Instruction: optimizes teacher- and technology-delivered instruction in group and individual work
  • Student Ownership: empowers students with skills, information and tools they need to manage their own learning
  • Financial Sustainability: sustainable on public per-pupil revenue within four years
  • Scalable: designed to serve many more students if it demonstrates impact

Obviously not every school we’re investing in has every principle figured out. The two that are wide-open for innovation right now are self-pacing & mastery-based credit and student ownership. We think both are important and we’re following their evolution closely. Here’s a little more about what we mean by each:

Self-pacing & mastery-based credit

As soon as students learn something and can demonstrate it, they should get credit for it and move on. Move on to the next set of concepts and skills on their learning path, and move on to deeper engagement in topics they’re interested in. No more sitting through hours of classroom instruction that’s too basic or too advanced. No more tyranny of the clock and the calendar. This is such a compelling idea, and really hard to implement in a school, a network, or a district. It requires a rethink of time, classroom organization, teacher roles, student support, and curriculum & assessment. Some school leaders and policy-types are doing and saying important things on this topic. Diane Tavenner, CEO at Summit Public Schools, recently blogged about their efforts on this front over at Blend My Learning . The folks over at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation are supporting several schools that are experimenting with what they call competency-based curriculum and credit – you can read more about it here.

Student ownership

The NYT recently chronicled the college-going experiences of three low-income girls from my neck of the woods (or rather, coastal plain) in Galveston, Texas. Even though they had done well academically in high school, the girls struggled with all sorts of challenges at college. A growing body of research and practice is focused on the kinds of factors that contribute to stories like theirs. Paul Tough wrote about it in How Children  Succeed, my favorite education book last year. Some critics of high performing charter networks say the “no-excuses” model of intensive teacher support employed to help students score well on state exams and graduate fails to develop the habits and initiative required to successfully navigate learning opportunities after high school. Many of the same school leaders are dismayed by the college completion rates of their graduates. While their completion rates are often higher than others like them, these students still graduate at a rate far below those of higher-income students with similar academic records.  A number of these schools are tapping into a body of research that might help set students up for longer-term success.

The research team at the Chicago Consortium for School Research produced a great literature review  on “non-cognitive” factors that lead to better academic performance, and Carol Dweck and colleagues reviewed the research on what she calls academic tenacity. Both have extensive bibliographies if you’re interested in reading more. For a look at what a couple of schools are doing to implement the ideas, check out the KIPP NY initiative and Diane Tavenner’s description of what they are doing at Summit.

We’re at the beginning of our learning curve on these aspects of personalized learning and privileged to be working with so many innovators. What do you think about our list of design principles? Have you seen interesting implementations of self-pacing & mastery-based credit or student ownership we should know more about?