Future of Learning

Why haven’t new federal rules unleashed more innovation in schools?

Boosters of personalized learning hoped for transformations under new ESSA law

Brian Stack is the principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, N.H. 

Brian Stack is the principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, N.H.

The two-story, red-shuttered colonial house where Brian Stack lives in New Hampshire is not too different from the homes where he grew up just down the road and across the border in Massachusetts.

But the state line does make a difference in the schools. “At one end of the street, we’re innovating,” Stack said, but not at the other. “And it has everything to do with the policies of the states.”

Stack is the principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, New Hampshire. His school and his state are trailblazers in personalized learning, a method that tailors instruction to students’ individual interests and learning speeds. Like a handful of states, New Hampshire is taking the opportunity provided by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to revise its accountability measures to further individualize education.

Most other states, including Massachusetts, aren’t making such a leap.

Personalized learning advocates had big hopes for ESSA, enacted in 2015. All states had to submit ESSA plans this fall showing how they intend to measure students’ progress, and the advocates believed that the flexibility in the new law would inspire states to innovate.

But in this first year of planning, experts were underwhelmed by the proposals that came in.

“The bad news is we’re not seeing a lot of innovation or discussion around personalized learning,” said Claire Voorhees, national policy director for the Tallahassee, Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, an advocacy group for personalized learning.

In a personalized classroom, students are taught how to take control of their own learning, so that they can take different pathways to gain understanding of concepts. Often, personalized learning includes technology that adapts lessons to students’ needs and provides data so that teachers can see how each learner is growing.

But to make this approach possible, states need to change how students are evaluated. Before ESSA, schools said that the mandated bubble tests hampered how they could teach because those tests are too simple a metric. Under ESSA, states hold the reins in designing tests, so in theory they should be able to align testing with how their schools want to teach.

Yet, that idea didn’t play out in most states’ first-year ESSA plans. “We’re not quite seeing the bold jump to innovation that we would like to see,” said Chip Slaven, a senior advocacy advisor for the Alliance for Excellent Education, which works to improve high schools.

New Hampshire, Oregon and Vermont are among the few states that have been building personalized learning systems for years. Their ESSA plans detail systemic transformations of assessment methods and other practices, according to Lillian Pace, the senior director of national policy at KnowledgeWorks. About 20 other states sprinkled elements of personalized learning into their plans.

Related: States will soon be free to transform standardized testing, but most won’t

Sanborn Regional High School student Jailee Thibeault does research during her social studies class. Each student chose a different figure from the American Civil War to profile.

Sanborn Regional High School student Jailee Thibeault does research during her social studies class. Each student chose a different figure from the American Civil War to profile.

The previous federal law, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, required states to develop and give standardized tests in third to eighth grade. Each year, districts and schools were rated based on whether their elementary school kids performed better than the prior year’s students in math and English. High schools were rated on standardized tests, as well as dropout, attendance and graduation rates. If schools didn’t pass muster, they had to develop improvement plans or risk takeovers or funding cuts.

Critics of the law said that NCLB’s narrow metrics forced educators to teach to the tests. Parents saw curriculums narrowing. Lunch and recess times were shortened and art and music were pared back to increase the time students spent on math and reading and writing. Reformers said kids weren’t getting a well-rounded education.

ESSA, however, gives states a chance to broaden the way they teach and create new, varied and complex measures of students’ mastery — not just test scores. These new assessment systems are a crucial component of personalization.

But developing such systems is a complicated task.

“We’re not yet to the place of saying ‘Here’s the way we’re going to agree to measure competence that’s something other than a bubbled-in answer [and] that is just as valid as the score,’ ” said James Neihof, superintendent of Shelby County Public Schools in Shelbyville, Kentucky.

“You can’t just decide one day that you want to do personalized,” Stack, the New Hampshire principal, said. “It’s a philosophical shift of pretty much all aspects of your organization.”

New Hampshire is piloting its new assessment system alongside traditional testing. In forerunners like Sanborn High, for example, 10th-grade math students are measured by how well they can design a community water tower and create a proposal that could be presented to the town. Teachers design the project tasks, experts test the tasks’ validity in measuring the required skills and then other teachers are brought in to grade the students’ completed projects.

While some educators laud personalized learning’s benefits, there aren’t mountains of comprehensive studies to validate claims. In 2015, RAND Corporation found that in 62 schools using personalized learning strategies, students progressed faster than their peers. Follow-up research by the same group showed more mixed results.  Yet many of those steeped in the work are convinced. “Personalized learning is the core of what good learning and education has always been about,” said Jennell Ives, an Oregon state education official.

Seventeen states submitted ESSA plans in April, and 33 others submitted plans Sept. 15, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Over the last six months, Pace has led a team of five at KnowledgeWorks, spending countless hours combing through those plans. (KnowledgeWorks is a nonprofit national organization based in Cincinnati that partners with schools to implement personalized learning models, and produces studies and reports about the benefits of personalized learning.)

Map courtesy of KnowledgeWorks

Pace’s team found evidence of some degree of personalized learning in almost every state’s plan. “Are we seeing every state shoot for the moon? No, but we need to look at the ESSA process as a long-term game,” she said.

Only seven states “knocked it out of the park” with personalized learning in their plans, Pace said. Another 20 states set the stage, with personalized elements or with placeholders for systems that they’re still working on.

The KnowledgeWorks group created an interactive online map (above) highlighting how some state plans incorporate personalized learning.

Related: In one state, students are ditching classrooms for jobs

Oregon is ahead of the curve nationally, having delved into the method in 2003. Almost all classrooms in the state have some elements of it in place already, said Ives, an education specialist at the Oregon Department of Education, noting that there’s still work to do.

“Our ESSA plan is a guidance document for our districts on how to braid federal funding together to make transformations,” Ives said.

Oregon’s plan expands the federal definition of a well-rounded education, and details how they will use data to improve learning.

The state will give teachers training both on how to assess students and how to use the assessment results. Oregon’s ESSA plan also personalizes teacher training itself. The training will be driven by teachers’ individual needs, will be ongoing and will include online platforms to allow teachers to share material.

Another way in which Oregon’s plan pushes schools toward personalization is by focusing on cultural competency. The goal is to help teachers make their lessons relevant to students from different backgrounds.

Inside Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, N.H.

Inside Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, N.H.

“At the core of personalized learning is a learner profile where teachers get to know their students, their strengths, interests, background, goals and learning preferences,” Ives said.

Vermont’s ESSA plan ties together priorities the state has been developing for about four years, and builds on the state’s already-rich framework of laws and policies on personalized learning, including different graduation paths, ways to determine when schools are struggling and how to use personalized learning to improve.

“What ESSA gave us the flexibility to do is articulate personalization as part of the federal plan, and raise the profile of personalized learning statewide,” Chris Case, a project manager for the Vermont Agency of Education, said.

Vermont will introduce a range of college and career assessments from which students can choose to reflect their progress toward desired career paths. The state’s ESSA plan also includes a way to hold schools accountable based on how students perform after they graduate from high school, by looking at whether they’re employed or pursuing a degree.

In addition, the Vermont plan details a rigorous and continuous way to evaluate whether its schools are making progress toward the state’s 2025 benchmark for academic achievement. Schools have to hit incremental targets every three years.

Sanborn Regional High School social studies teacher Donna Harvey-Moseley works with sophomore Zoey Emerson on a research project about the American Civil War.

Sanborn Regional High School social studies teacher Donna Harvey-Moseley works with sophomore Zoey Emerson on a research project about the American Civil War.

Each school will get a report card with a rating such as “on target” or “near target,” and parents and educators will be able to drill down into how the schools are performing on eight different measures used to calculate the rating.

If a school struggles, Vermont will offer improvement supports that emphasize personalized learning strategies to help get the students back on track.

“We hadn’t formulated what we wanted to get out of personalized learning until more recently,” Case said. “It wasn’t something that we had this consistent statewide vision around. ESSA gave us the ability to formalize our personalized learning vision.”

Related: States can change the way they think about education, but will they?

Although KnowledgeWork’s Pace clearly wishes that more states would use ESSA to make a transformation, she said that there is evidence that some were spurred into new thinking by drafting the plans. States held discussions with educators, parents and administrators, and personalized learning often came up.

“You’re seeing other states taking the first steps” through their ESSA plans, Pace said. “They set up a vision in their plan, and they say they’re working on figuring out how to do it.”

Massachusetts, for example, surrounded by states that are leaping into personalized learning, is “in a learning mode,” said Kenneth Klau, the director of the Office of Digital Learning at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Sanborn Regional High School art teacher Jillian Swist works with students.

Sanborn Regional High School art teacher Jillian Swist works with students.

“We’re taking the opportunity to learn from what other states are doing,” Klau said. Massachusetts is hashing over a new high school graduation standard that would consider competency in various subject areas, rather than having just one standardized graduation requirement.

Delaware’s ESSA plan has only a sprinkling of personalized learning elements, said Michael Watson, chief academic officer for the Delaware Department of Education. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a priority.

“We should be designing policies and practices to allow for personalized learning to happen, but the locus of control is in the classroom and in the school,” Watson said. “That’s also part of the reason why you’re not seeing a ton of deep thinking happening [at the state level] in ESSA plans. It doesn’t mean that states aren’t doing this.”

Delaware officials want to create new assessments for science courses using the flexibility of ESSA, for example, but Watson said that those tests take time to create and must undergo a peer-review process.

In Kentucky, the ESSA talks began with innovative and creative thinking, Neihof said, but the end result wasn’t transformative.

“As the revisions continued, we migrated back from the innovation edge, into a safer, more traditional assessment recommendation,” said Neihof, who was on the committee to design the state’s new system for the ESSA plan. “I feel like if transformation is a cliff, we scaled back to a reformation place.”

New Hampshire’s Stack said that innovation in his school and across the country will require time and persistence.

“It’s a lot of work,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years in the same high school, and I don’t think we’re there yet. But I’ve got another 25 years to go in my career.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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