Can two conferences held thirty-five miles apart indicate that a personalized learning movement is growing, especially if they take place in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley? And is there a common message when talking to wide-ranging audiences of teachers, ed-tech entrepreneurs, cutting-edge educators, and district leaders who must confront constant challenges of running a district while envisioning the future of learning?
Last week I started with the Fusion conference organized by EdSurge and Digital Promise in Burlingame and finished on Friday with a workshop on the future of personalized learning at an Association of California School Administrators’s (ACSA’s) conference in San Jose. Both events were inspiring because of the determination and commitment demonstrated by so many practitioners to create a much-improved learning experience for all students, including those who historically have been left behind in experiencing state-of-the-art education. The Fusion conference had 600 attendees from across the nation; ACSA brought together the district leaders in California charged with the everyday running of the state’s diverse schools.
From these different conferences I came away with an increased appreciation of the growing communities of education and local leaders desiring to bring a personalized learning experience to their schools. The time is ripe for transformation that replaces the “one-size-fits-all” approach to education with personalized learning. With growing research and increased demand for better student deeper learning outcomes, improved pedagogy incorporating technology, and teachers acting as “educational designers,” the stage is set. Actually, it is more than set with the increasing number of schools and learning environments that steadily are building a base for widespread implementation.
But in the practical world of K–12 education, the best research and practice often can be frustrated by lagging policy. Recent memories of adequate yearly progress and strict federal requirements for turning around low-performing schools still may cause some to hang back from taking bold action to move toward student-centered learning.
For those feeling weighed down by fourteen years of federal compliance under the No Child Left Behind Act, I have two words: permission granted.
The next two years present district leaders with an unprecedented opportunity to put their often-suppressed aspiration into planning and implementation. Under the relatively new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), every school district soon will be required to develop a plan for turning around its lowest-performing schools. The requirement exists; after that, the details and implementation are up to the district and school leaders.
I already see major commitment by schools and districts. More than 3,100 school districts have signed on to transform learning with Future Ready Schools® and 1,000 of those districts actively are working through the planning and implementation process of research-based digital learning strategies. The Fusion conference included many of the education leaders from Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools.
In response to complaints about federal intrusion, ESSA provides significant flexibility to state and district leaders. Now factor in the new leadership in the U.S. Department of Education and it is difficult to see how the federal government will be interfering in any decisions. If you want to begin taking steps to implement personalized learning in your classrooms based on evidence and a desire for greater student learning outcomes then I say, “Go for it.”
With enthusiasm, interest, and experience building, I heard another common refrain from both gatherings. How can educators and community leaders connect to the resources they need to begin planning and implementing personalized learning? One district leader can call her accomplished colleague in another district to get advice, but where is the ability to match each district leader with the tools and experts they need to move forward? “Is there any way to connect with each other,” asked one ACSA participant.
More to come on this subject. A number of organizations, including the Alliance for Excellent Education, are working to create a matchmaking service that provides immediate access to the resources each district or school leader needs. For the almost 14,000 school districts that soon will be planning how to turn around low-performing schools, having this kind of matching resource available could make the difference between just another compliance exercise to feeling supported to create a bold vision and implementation plan.
The crowded Fusion ballroom and the forty committed ACSA district leaders gathered in the common purpose of personalizing learning for all students would not have occurred ten years ago. Now we have an unprecedented opportunity to drive the policy and practice to achieve deeper learning outcomes for all students driven by personalization. No federal entity stands in the way. So, state and district leaders — permission granted. And for many of us, the same permission is granted to work together in unprecedented collaboration to support these bold education leaders.
Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia.
Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action