School & District Management Opinion

Scaling Personalized Learning: Alex Hernandez on Creating a Shared Vision

By Tom Vander Ark — June 13, 2017 6 min read
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“There are two things school networks need to get right early: 1) a shared vision for what excellence looks like in schools, and 2) the supports needed to help educators realize that vision.”

Alex Hernandez thinks charter school networks are one of the most important developments of the last two decades. “Charter schools are answering the question: what can great public school systems look like at scale? In the best charter networks, there is a lot of coherence. All the adults are rowing in the same direction and different parts of the school program reinforce each other.”

Hernandez leads efforts to create new school networks for the Charter School Growth Fund.

Compared to voluntary affiliations of like-minded schools, Hernandez sees looser networks producing more variability and less value. “It’s hard to get good at anything if educators can’t agree on what is important. I don’t see truly great schools where each teacher closes the door and figures it all out for their own kids.”

At the top of his list of things good networks share is common expectations for what great teaching and learning looks like. Schools may have different philosophies. Success Academies (New York) deeply believes in conceptual math. STEM Prep (Los Angeles) preaches inquiry-based learning where students wrestle with questions and listen to fewer lectures. Valor Collegiate (Nashville) uses social-emotional learning to support deep academic exploration.

But these schools use different approaches to the same end: students are intellectually challenged and deeply engaged. Classroom conversations are vibrant. There are clear strategies to help students who need more support. “It’s comforting to think that all schools basically do a good job for kids,” says Hernandez, “but the truth is some schools and school networks are leaps and bounds better than others.”

“We love to say our schools will do project-based learning and let students move at their own pace and teach social-emotional skills, but getting good at any one of those things takes a massive investment to do well,” argues Hernandez.

Great networks make huge organizational investments to create these types of classroom experiences - it takes size to solve big problems in education. Hernandez says great networks often develop carefully-sequenced curricula, record videos of excellent instruction, curate thought-provoking readings, develop questions that encourage students to think deeply, create assessments that set a high bar for learning, and train teachers on specific classroom moves, among other supports.

While Hernandez sees the best networks getting tighter, it feels less oppressive than the scripted, managed instruction regimes of the last decade. The purpose-built networks in his portfolio are well engineered systems. “In our best networks, expert teachers are distilling resources and practices that have produced great outcomes,” says Hernandez, “and then these resources are refined as teachers across the network use them and provide feedback.” Teaching roles are intellectually demanding but, like doctors in a health care system, the moral authority of best practice and proven success is recognized.

Contrary to a common meme these days, Hernandez doesn’t think we can assume that if we just leave teachers alone they’ll figure out how to personalize learning for 30 kids. “Teachers cannot be experts in everything. If we are serious about personalization, there are a whole bunch of other things we need to take off of teachers’ plates. It takes a lot of time to intellectually prepare for a lesson and think through how each student will respond.”

Learning platforms provide the infrastructure for innovation

Just like charter school networks build infrastructure to support great classrooms, they also are building infrastructure to support innovation.

A few intrepid networks--including Summit Public Schools and Brooklyn LAB School--have developed their own learning platforms, giving them the infrastructure to support new innovations. And they are generously sharing their platforms with other public school systems.

The challenge is these platforms are incredibly difficult and expensive to build right now. “It’s easy to invest over $100 million in a quality learning platform, so, unless something changes, there will only be a small handful of platforms for schools to choose from,” notes Hernandez. He thinks this will slow the growth of school innovation in the near-term until several platforms become well-established.

Most traditional charter networks are digitizing curriculum and sharing it on a learning management system but are early in the shift, according to Hernandez. But he is excited about the opportunities this is creating to open source curriculum and other resources.

Sharing open resources

Hernandez is encouraged that a handful of charter networks are creating great curriculum resources and sharing them. “There is a small number of amazing producers. Achievement First, for example, is making great strides in math and sharing that content with other networks.” (See our recent Achievement First case study).

Hernandez doesn’t think the state adoption game has improved curriculum resources but purpose-built resources vetted by high-performing networks seems to be working. “But it’s a big mindshift to adopt stuff developed by other schools,” added Hernandez.

After several states shifted to the ACT test, school networks went scrambling for aligned materials. The Chicago-based Noble Network freely shares its ACT-aligned resources with other schools. “The generosity is crazy,” said Hernandez, “and the willingness to adopt is a astounding.”

But there are also other important resources being created by non-traditional curriculum providers. Hernandez is intrigued by how high schools can use the new suite of Advanced Placement classes and SAT tests as infrastructure for innovative new secondary programs. And he sees schools using resources from programs like Project Lead the Way so they do not have to reinvent the wheel in STEM.

Lessons for districts

What can school districts learn from charter management organizations?

The first lesson from great charter school networks, according to Hernandez, is define what excellence looks like--a shared vision for powerful learning experiences--and build an organization completely in service of that vision, from hiring to training to coaching to curricula development, etc.

Second, districts should make the investments necessary so schools across the system can become world-class in chosen areas. Sometimes that means building new infrastructure in-house, but for most districts this means using infrastructure built by other high-performing school systems or support organizations. This process works best when the central team provides training and resources that schools find useful and, in turn, classroom educators improve those resources for the rest of their colleagues based on what is working for kids.

Finally, large school districts could shift their focus from operating schools to authorizing high-quality networks of schools. At some point school districts can get so large, getting adults to agree on a concrete vision for classroom excellence becomes nearly impossible. Districts can empower networks of schools who can align around a vision for excellence and resource them to build the infrastructure they need to make their schools great.

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The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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