The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

The Department of Education’s latest foray into digital learning is a big deal.

The Race to the Top-District competition’s “Absolute Priority 1” is personalized learning. For those who have been working to personalize learning through digital learning in the field, this endorsement and what it means for online and blended learning may seem like old hat, but it’s important to note that this is relatively new territory for the Department.

It is the first time such a significant tranche of federal dollars will be used expressly to fund blended learning. Past federal initiatives have, in essence, cast technology as tools to be integrated into traditional classrooms—e-textbooks, broadband, and one-to-one laptops, for example. The emphasis has been on the tools rather than the learning.

Although I have some doubts about the wisdom of the Race to the Top competition, and there are other steps that I think the federal government could take that would support a more systematic transformation of our education system, this Race to the Top competition does have the potential to reset American schools’ relationship with technology by encouraging a transformation from a one-size-fits all schooling model to one that can customize affordably for each student’s unique learning needs. The Department’s recent revisions to the competition’s rules were also smart and increase the chances of the competition’s success.

Whether the competition ultimately delivers the goods though depends on the follow through. Done poorly, it could set the movement back ten years by propping up models that perpetuate and sustain the status quo rather than reimagining it, which would have significant negative ramifications. Done well, the competition could be just the national motivation the digital-learning movement has needed to see large-scale adoption of high-quality blended-learning programs.

In the hopes of encouraging that positive change, we at Innosight Institute recently published “A guide to personalizing learning: Suggestions for the Race to the Top-District competition.” The paper, written by our research assistant Meg Evans, lays out what we believe a successful application ought to include: the smart design of new schooling models, the leveraging of human capital in path-breaking ways, system-wide shifts in school management, effective data systems, competency-based learning, and community engagement. The document is grounded in the language of the application, and we hope that it will be helpful as districts craft their own vision for their application.

Ultimately it will be those visions, applications, the judging of the applications, and, most importantly, the execution of the winning visions by the school districts themselves that have the potential to set the country on a path toward transforming the education system into a student-centric one and bolstering the achievement of every child.

This post originally appeared on

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *