States Opinion

How do We Set Guardrails Around Personalized, Deeper Learning?

By Contributing Blogger — June 01, 2018 6 min read
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This post is by Joey Hunziker, who leads CCSSO’s Innovation Lab Network.

There are countless articles, blogs, white papers, and studies that explore the role that the state education agency (SEA) plays in public education. It seems as though there is no consensus on the nature and scope of that role. Does an SEA enforce school laws and monitor funding? Is the SEA the “last stop” for school accountability and the implementation of high-quality standards? Does the SEA lead school systems in the adoption of instructional strategies for improvement, technology systems, and more? The answer to all of those questions is yes, depending on the state. In fact, some SEAs serve all of those roles and more throughout the course of one school year, usually without much fanfare or public knowledge of the complex work going on behind the scenes. For more on this, see our Leadership Playbook.

State leaders also play a critical role in ensuring innovation is possible at the local level, and many support personalized, competency-based education with state policy, systems, and practices. And, most notably, state education leaders play a critical role in ensuring equity and access for our students across the country. How they do that, particularly in the context of personalized, competency-based education, varies significantly from state to state.

To begin, it’s important to understand a little bit of the policy landscape out there today in personalized, competency-based education:

  • 43 states have some level of flexibility or adoption of policies that enable competency-based education. This could look like seat-time or credit waivers, official pilots, or a combination.
  • Several states have adopted some form of legislation permitting schools or districts of innovation, which are predicated on the belief that schools/districts need special exemptions to state laws in order to be innovative.
  • A small number of states have adopted state-wide legislation that phases in requirements for local school systems to enact competency-based graduation requirements.
  • Numerous states prioritize personalized or student-centered learning as a foundational practice in their work supporting schools and districts, but don’t have official policy.

This is not an exhaustive list of policies states have adopted in the last decade or so, but it does provide a brief picture of the policy landscapes across the states that necessitate state agencies of education to adopt new roles to support innovation at the local school system level. In CCSSO’s Innovation Lab Network, state leaders are thinking deeply about their responsibilities in implementation of state policies. Many in the ILN agree that the state education agency plays a critical role in the development of guardrails for equity and access in education innovation. Furthermore, the state agency can’t rely on historic state implementation mechanisms, such as command-and-control tactics or mandates from above, to facilitate community-driven change that centers the needs and assets of our students. States are still figuring out what guardrails are most effective, how the state can develop those guardrails without being prescriptive or dismissive of local needs, and how these guardrails can support implementation? Some preliminary discussions with our states show a few promising examples of state implementation techniques that are effective:

  • Creating multi-modal stories of school and district successes that communicate the experience of how schools make change happen
  • Developing programs that are opt-in and let local school systems make the work meaningful in their local context while receiving guidance and support from the state agency
  • Engaging in listening tours and other community-based initiatives that engage local school leaders, educators, and families
  • Supporting local school systems with criteria for comprehensive local assessment systems that better measure deeper learning skills, knowledge, and dispositions
  • Using data collection mechanisms to tell deeper stories and provide useful information for decision-making

Our conversations to date have stimulated deeper thinking among state leaders who are grappling with their own unique state-specific challenges, and the level of peer-to-peer collaboration and problem solving within the ILN allows states to share stories of what works, what has gone poorly, and the unintended consequences of state action. The implementation strategies were gathered through discussion and peer consultation among state leaders within the ILN, and don’t cover every implementation strategy employed by state education agencies. We are working to collect and analyze these reflections in a more comprehensive way, but until then it’s a good place for us to start to think deeply about how states can support school systems in the implementation of personalized, competency-based education, what strategies are most effective depending on context, and how states can use this knowledge to build effective guardrails for historically underserved students.

What Makes a Good Guardrail for Equity?

In 2017, state chiefs came together and renewed their commitment to creating a more equitable education system for every child through the foundational Leading for Equity report. This report now forms the foundation of CCSSO’s new strategic plan and is used as a guiding document for CCSSO’s work going forward, including the work of the Innovation Lab Network.

Creating guardrails for equity in personalized, competency-based education necessitates a new conversation in states. States in the ILN have different goals for ensuring equity and access. Using the Leading for Equity report, states are prioritizing certain levers and actions to ensure historically underserved students can access rigorous, high-quality personalized, competency-based education. Through the ILN, we are supporting states in the ILN to see current education laws and policies as foundational for ensuring equity, and to employ some of the effective strategies listed above to build upon those laws and policies. Other states see a need to revise statute and remove barriers for innovation, but are equally concerned that those actions could create more inequities.

In our Advancing Equity through Personalized Learning series, we describe some of the early stage supports state agencies use to ensure guardrails for equity in personalized, competency-based education. Idaho, Kentucky, and Ohio have convened their schools and districts pursuing innovative practices into formal networks, as a way of providing these school systems resources, support, and coaching without enforcing top-down requirements for innovation. Vermont employs an innovative model of Education Quality Reviews--which include multiple measures of student success and school quality and on-site integrated field reviews--that provides useful information for the state agency and local school systems, parents, and communities to understand what’s happening in schools across the state that are engaging in personalized, competency-based education. These efforts are some ways that states provide guardrails to ensure equity and access, without being prescriptive of how schools and districts should adopt or change behaviors for personalized, competency-based education.

Our state leaders have not come to consensus on what makes a good guardrail for equity and access in personalized, competency-based education. That is a long term goal of our current work in the ILN. But addressing these tensions--between removing barriers, mandating policy and rules, and guiding implementation with good examples and support--is the first step in the complex process that is implementation of personalized, competency-based education. I don’t believe all state leaders will adopt the same guardrails for equity within an innovative education system, but I do believe that we will make progress as a direct result of their dialogue and our work at CCSSO to capture and analyze effective state implementation strategies. Stay tuned for more, as we will be sure to share our lessons learned and suggestions for state leaders soon.

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