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Professional Development Opinion

Measuring the Impact of Personal Learning

By Contributing Blogger — March 22, 2018 4 min read
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By Dr. Matt Doyle, Interim Superintendent, Vista Unified and Gerri Burton, Managing Principal, New Learning Ventures LLC

In April, we will celebrate the opening of iCERP, a new International Center for Educational Research and Practice. The Executive Director of the Center is Dr. Matt Doyle, author of this blog and Assistant Superintendent of Innovation at the nationally recognized Vista Unified School District. iCERP is a three-way partnership of the University of California at San Diego, the San Diego Workforce Partnership and Vista Unified. iCERP’s mission is to create a real-time collaborative between researchers and practitioners, reducing the time it takes for new research to improve learning for students. iCERP is focused on the three brushstrokes of transformation: early, personal and relevant. In this blog, we focus on the impact of the Personal Learning Challenge, now in its third year of implementation.

At Vista Unified, personal learning has been embraced by all of our schools, offering each student the opportunity to start driving their learning experience. Following the ethos of iCERP, our Personal Learning Challenge is anchored by a solid research collaborative with three researchers without whom this transformation would not have taken place. Allison Zmuda, Bena Kallick and Heidi Hayes Jacobs are members of the iCERP Advisory Board, authors and highly respected experts in their field. They are supporting our transformation from traditional to modern learning environments with a specific focus on engaging students through the 16 habits of mind, the four attributes of personal learning, and contemporary literacies.

These three researchers interact with Vista Unified practitioners (teachers and principals) on a regular basis in classrooms and professional development settings on campus and through virtual workshops. Their presence on our campuses has helped to accelerate the shift from a teacher-centered to a learner-centered approach to education. Sponsored by iCERP, this research project is producing a record of excellence. Qualitative and quantitative measures of success tell us that our innovations are moving the needle forward for students. (Below, we share data reported from three Personal Learning Challenge schools in our district, which is clearly demonstrating this progress.)

Nicole Miller is the principal of Mission Vista High School, a two-year participant in the Principal as a Change Agent Leader program, and a member of the iCERP Action Council. Mission Vista High School is moving quickly toward a personal learning environment. As a result of increased student ownership and innovative teachers, Mission Vista High School is showing impressive gains.

Impact of a transformed learning environment at Mission Vista High School:


  • 70% of students are enrolled in at least one AP or honors course each year

  • 88% of students met or exceeded standards on English Language Arts state assessments

  • 480 students earned above a 4.0 GPA for the last term’s grades

  • 66% of students enroll in one or more Career and Technical Education classes

  • 85% of graduates report attending a two- or four-year college or university

Even more importantly, consider the social-emotional impact of Mission Vista’s transformation:


  • Three years of student-created TEDx talks focused on the social/emotional aspects of students’ lives

  • 88% of ninth graders felt there were caring relationships at school based on the California Healthy Kids Survey

  • 94% felt they were connected to the school based on the California Healthy Kids Survey

Kim Morton is principal of T.H.E. Leadership Academy, a two-year participant in the Principal as a Change Agent Leader program, and a member of the iCERP Action Council. T.H.E. Leadership Academy is a public elementary school that is leading the way toward a student-centered approach to learning. With more than the majority of the student population economically disadvantaged, this school is on the move.

Impact of a transformed learning environment at T.H.E. Leadership Academy:


  • 7% overall growth on the state assessment in English Language Arts

  • 9% overall growth on the state assessment in Mathematics

Social/emotional impact of the personal learning transformation:


  • 79% of students reporting improved school connectedness based on the California Healthy Kids Survey

  • 50% reduction in disciplinary incidents since implementing personal learning

Eric Chagala is the principal of VIDA Middle School, a mentor in the Principal as a Change Agent Leader program, and a member of the iCERP Action Council. VIDA stands for the Vista Innovation and Design Academy, a public middle school that has a waiting list of over 500 students.

The impact of a design thinking approach with a personal learning touch is impressive:


  • 21% increase in overall student achievement meeting or exceeding on the state assessment in English Language Arts

  • 16.6% increase in overall student achievement meeting or exceeding on the state assessment in Mathematics

The social/emotional impact of the VIDA experience is equally impressive on the California Healthy Kids survey:


  • 17% more students are connected to school than the district average for seventh graders

  • 13% more students report meaningful participation at school than the district average for seventh graders

  • 10% more students are connected to a caring adult on campus than the district average for seventh graders

All three of these public schools have shifted their approach to education through strategic transformation infused with personal learning. In an era of school choice, our shift as a district toward personal learning environments is moving the needle in elementary, middle and high school.

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