School & District Management

Rhode Island Announces Statewide K-12 Personalized Learning Push

By Benjamin Herold — February 22, 2017 4 min read
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Rhode Island is moving forward with a statewide personalized learning initiative that aims to support a variety of efforts to tailor education to the unique needs of each student.

The $2 million public-private effort is being headed by Richard Culatta, the state’s chief innovation officer and the former director of the office of educational technology at the federal education department.

In an interview, Culatta said the early focus is on developing a common statewide vision for what personalized learning entails, supporting and expanding related models in Rhode Island schools, and establishing a research network that can help guide implementation.

The initiative could also signal broader shifts. With strong proponents of a smaller federal government now in the White House and U.S. Department of Education, the push for educational innovation will likely come from states, rather than Washington. And in Rhode Island, at least, the next stage of the personalized-learning movement appears focused on helping traditional schools to evolve, rather than attempting to create entirely new school models from scratch.

“What we’re really interested in is the people who can’t blow up the whole system,” Culatta said. “What does personalized learning look like in schools that don’t have new buildings, where there’s no waivers out of state regulations, and where there are union teachers?”

The state’s first major step in that direction was the release this week of a report, Creating a Shared Understanding of Personalized Learning for Rhode Island. A main focus is sifting through the competing and constantly shifting definitions of what personalized learning actually is. The document settles on three main components:

  • Pace of learning, or the amount of time students have to move through a given lesson or activity before moving on;
  • Learning objectives, or the actual goals a student is working towards; and
  • Instructional approaches, meaning the ways a student is actually taught

All can be optimized for individual students, the report contends.

Such a definition is unlikely to satisfy some personalized-learning proponents (and skeptics) who prefer a more open-ended approach driven more by student interests and passions than by the need to master standards.

Culatta said the state wants to support a number of personalized-learning approaches, while also putting some parameters on a term that has been used to describe everything from afterschool clubs to “blended” classrooms that mix computer-based and face-to-face instruction.

“The crux for us is that we believe there can be a whole bunch of different implementation models that all meet the same key goals,” he said.

Some Rhode Island districts and schools are already experimenting with approaches the state innovation office considers promising.

The new initiative will eventually include direct funding to such “lighthouse” schools, to be funded primarily by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, created by pediatrician Priscilla Chan and her husband, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. CZI is a limited-liability corporation that serves as a vehicle for donating and investing the couple’s multi-billion dollar fortune to a number of causes, including personalized learning.

The donation marks CZI’s second gift to a statewide educational initiative. In November, the Californians Dedicated to Education Foundation announced a $2.3 million grant from the group, to be used to support the sharing of technology resources and teaching strategies among the state’s teachers.

The Rhode Island initiative has also received funding from the Jaquelin Hume Foundation, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, and the Overdeck Family Foundation. Some of that money will go to support the Rhode Island Education Research Network, which aims to “gain further clarity on the specific best practices around elements of personalized learning,” according to the report.

Though hundreds of millions of federal and philanthropic dollars have already gone to researching personalized-learning models, evidence remains thin that such whole-school approaches positively benefit students.

Culatta, however, said there is a stronger research base to support some of the discrete elements of personalized learning that Rhode Island seeks to support, such as providing students and teachers with real-time feedback on student learning.

And he described the Ocean State as an ideal laboratory to quickly test out new ideas and get answers, a philosophy embraced by Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat.

“In Rhode Island, we can literally get all our superintendents around the same table,” Culatta said.

“We want to use our size and nimbleness to our advantage.”

An earlier version of this story misstated Priscilla Chan’s first name.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.