Future of Learning

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

Organizations rally to help states, as more control over education returns to the local level

A New Hampshire student shows one of his assignments to his mother, biology teacher and math teacher during a personalized learning meeting.

When it comes to influencing education policy and cultivating innovative schools, all eyes are on the states.

A new federal law hands more control to state leaders, untethering them from rules that threatened dire consequences for failing to achieve certain test scores. But in return for this freedom, states must come up with their own ways of ensuring that their schools give all students a high-quality, equitable education.

And this is why state education commissioners and board members are finding an army of inside-the-beltway advocates suddenly interested in local goings-on. They are releasing a flurry of policy papers and hosting events meant to persuade states to try new models of education. State leaders, faced with the task of drafting complex accountability systems that will influence what happens in classrooms, will likely need the help as they navigate the 449-page law.

“Our members are eager for guidance,” said Jennifer Davis Poon, director of the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Innovation Lab Network, which provides technical assistance to state leaders. “I know there are a number of organizations that had convenings for states, to help lay out tools.”

The new federal law, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, provides money and guidance for states to pursue new models of education. Notably, the law provides financial and regulatory support for policies compatible with “personalized learning,” a teaching method that gives students custom-fit lessons, the choice to pursue individual passions and the ability to move as quickly (or slowly) as needed to master skills and concepts. Similarly, the use of technology to enhance in-person lessons, known as blended learning, is also included in the law, with language that specifies that schools can use federal money to pursue that strategy.

“We want to see states really succeed and knock this one out of the park and build systems we can all learn from,” said Lillian Pace, senior director of national policy at KnowledgeWorks, an organization that advocates for more use of personalized learning. “That’s a tall order from states. If we don’t see this … there’s a risk that we swing back to federal control.”

For 15 years, student test results and graduation rates have served as the main measures of success – or failure – for public schools. Annual test scores in math and reading helped determine the future of teachers’ jobs, classroom funding and, in the most dire cases, whether or not a school remained open. Students were tested on how well they measured up to grade-level expectations.

Related: NCLB’s legacy: As the ESSA era begins, have policymakers, educators learned from the past?

The new federal rules will upend that system. And ESSA could serve as a catalyst to super-charge new ways to educate children without tying schools to the old model that had students marching in lock-step through kindergarten and the subsequent 12 grade levels.

Providing students personalized lessons has been a strategy “accessible to people with the means for a while,” said Maria Worthen, vice president for federal and state policy at the International Association for Online Learning, or iNacol, a nonprofit advocacy organization that promotes online and blended learning. Thousands of educators from across the country are in San Antonio, Texas, this week for the annual iNACOL conference that seeks to explain and promote these methods to a broader spectrum of schools.

Under the old system, critics say, teachers had an incentive to fixate on preparation for end-of-year tests. And by the time those test scores were released, students had already moved on to another grade level, where they were expected to have mastered concepts and skills needed to tackle more challenging courses.

The new federal law no longer requires a rigid focus on test scores. States now have more freedom to create their own ways to measure and track student progress.

Some states got a head start. New Hampshire is frequently cited as a cutting-edge leader in giving students lessons that match their individual needs and interests. In 2005 the state abolished “seat time” rules – which gave students credit based on how many hours they sat at a desk in front of a teacher; instead students must show mastery over the subject before moving on. This means schools have more flexibility to teach students at their own learning pace, rather than following a regimented schedule. And the state is working on developing new tests that measure student progress. Six New Hampshire schools have no grade levels – a traditional hallmark of just about every school.

“It’s really a cultural shift,” said Virginia Barry, New Hampshire’s commissioner of education.

Related: Personalized learning: How kids are getting into college by mastering their skills

Like many New England states, New Hampshire has struggled with a lagging economy and an aging population. The idea to reinvent the education system began about ten years ago, and enjoyed long-term support because people rallied around the idea that schools could help improve communities, Barry said. And the state’s leadership has remained consistent.

“They have to have confidence and trust that the state at large is committed to this new way of thinking,” said Barry, who has been commissioner of education for eight years.

The progress toward a new way of educating students and measuring results in New Hampshire is rare, experts say.

“A few of them are aggressively pursuing a new model, but just a few,” said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the National Center for Innovation in Education at the University of Kentucky’s College of Education. “Most are trying to figure it out. There is a sense of freedom, but also a sense of responsibility.”

States must submit plans for how they will measure and improve student achievement to the federal government in the spring. The U.S. Department of Education has the power to accept or reject state plans. And just how innovative states may get with these plans remains an open question. It’s not just a matter of state education leaders’ will; even the most progressive state leadership might have a recalcitrant state legislature, hesitant parents or skeptical teachers. And then there’s the practical matter of training teachers and administrators to make the most of new methods.

Related: Blue-collar town leads Rhode Island’s tech-assisted learning revolution

The previous law didn’t prevent states from pursuing these methods, said Joseph South, director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, but the new law helps people see the possibilities, because they are specifically mentioned, defined and promoted in the new law.

“I think it raises the profile of what technology can do to be able to be helpful to a teacher,” South said.

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 to get a weekly update on blended learning.

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Nichole Dobo

Nichole Dobo is the senior engagement editor and a writer. Her work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic's online edition, Mind/Shift,… See Archive

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