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Students attend classes at Brooklyn Lab School Credit: Submitted photo

SAN FRANCISCO — Erin Mote is a technologist and hands-on middle school principal with a strong belief in the power of personalized learning. Yet when she talks about the future, she is clear about how hard looking ahead can be.

“We need to be honest, this is super new,” Mote told a packed audience during a session at the New Schools Venture Fund Summit on Wednesday, where she described how letting students learn at their own pace is transforming Brooklyn Lab School, a New York City charter school she co-founded in 2014, which has a waiting list of 1,600. “We as a movement need to not just talk about where we are successful, but where we are struggling.”

Struggles and triumphs are all part of the conversation at this annual conference by NSVF, a venture philanthropy that supports education reform and puts on a conference filled with networking, internal debates and plenty of soul searching about what is working in schools.

The conference comes at a time when there is so little direction from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that her name rarely came up, although the travails of President Donald Trump certainly did.

Related: Betsy DeVos likens education technology to letting a thousand flowers bloom

Instead, the crowd of well-known education reformers and charter advocates, along with lots of teachers from across the U.S., spoke about their struggles to figure out a new era of education post-Common Core standards, one that recognizes the frustration many teachers felt about a hyper-focus on standardized testing.

“These are folks trying to do something different, for academic progress and social and emotional progress and measuring things like that are hard. Does it work? We’ve got very little to go on.’’

The new approaches come with some new buzzwords – such as student agency, technology-enabled learning and social and emotional learning, for example – but also with a lot of willingness to acknowledge a lack of answers.

“These are folks trying to do something different, for academic progress and social and emotional progress, and measuring things like that are hard,” said Betheny Gross, who is leading a study of personalized learning at the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) in Seattle. “Does it work? We’ve got very little to go on.”

Gross acknowledged that researchers are struggling, even as hundreds of school districts are recognizing that students “should be self-aware, know their own strengths, interests and pursue their personal and academic goals and learning passions,” (according to a definition from the Henry County Schools in Virginia passed out during the summit).

She also made it a point to note how enthusiastic many teachers seem to be about personalized learning.

Related: A statewide reform gains fans and concerns while letting students learn at their own pace

“I see teachers who say to me, ‘This is why I got into teaching, not to make sure kids pass the state test,’ ” Gross said. “So there is a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and a sincere hope to get this right. At the same time, I see teachers who are struggling.”

At Marshall Pomeroy Elementary School in Milpitas, California, Deanna Sainten leads sixth graders in a Socratic seminar about A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park while students at other tables work on book reports or online lessons in several subjects during personalized-learning time. Credit: Chris Berdik

That struggle has also been noticed by Jessie Woolley-Wilson, the CEO of Dreambox, an online K-8 math program, who told panelists at a personalized learning session that teachers are often inundated by all the data they are collecting, and may need help making sense of it.

Mote of Brooklyn Lab had a good answer: Build data dashboards – and simplify them. The school also gives teachers time during the school day to look at what the data they’ve collected on students is telling them, so they can focus on what students need to learn.

“We want teachers to have their Sundays back,’’ she said.

It’s not just data that is overwhelming teachers, said Jessica Berlinski of SEL Tech Consulting, which works with education leaders across the country to help match their needs (and those of their students) with the best tech tools and digital interventions available.

“We have an equity problem, and if you want to look at lifting up and identifying barriers to learning, we have to personalize tools to help them [students and teachers] with social and emotional learning,” Berlinski said. “But we don’t have enough people who know what the best tools are.”

Related: District says 24 credits and a D-minus average aren’t good enough

At The Hechinger Report, our own reporting on various forms of non-traditional learning has found an array of new names taking center stage, like deeper, flexible, innovative, student-centered, learner-centered, personalized, project-based, purposeful, real-world, mastery-based, competency-based and individualized.

We see it as part of our job to help the public understand why different ways of learning are essential to solving an urgent need: improving U.S. schools so they do a better job of preparing citizens for solving the complex problems of a future many of us can’t even imagine.

And that includes jobs, Mote said, that do not even exist yet, as technology continues to change how we educate and how we measure success.

“We are trying to innovate in a system that is judging us by old metrics,’’ she said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Blended Learning.

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