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States Take Steps to Fuel Personalized Learning

By Daarel Burnette II — November 07, 2017 6 min read
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How do state lawmakers encourage the use of such an ill-defined, yet potentially transformational concept as personalized learning?

More state legislatures are trying to do just that, with some bills becoming law, according to an Education Week review.

At least 15 states since 2012 have taken steps to waive regulations, set up innovation zones, or prop up task forces to encourage use of personalized learning.

State lawmakers’ recent burst of effort to fold personalized learning into students’ days comes amid stagnant standardized test scores, public anxiety over testing, and more power under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act for states to shape their own destiny.

Personalized learning generally means closely tailoring curriculum, standards, and teaching approaches to students’ individual strengths and weaknesses.

But there’s fierce debate among researchers and practitioners about what personalized learning should actually look like, and it’s still unclear whether the expansion of personalized learning will ultimately lead to better academic outcomes.

That creates a challenge for state policymakers, said Julia Freeland Fisher, the director of education for the Clayton Christensen Institute, a think tank that advocates for better uses of personalized learning.

“One of the dangers is that we treat personalized learning as a tweak to the traditional system as opposed to a full-fledged rethinking,” Fisher said. “It’s hard to name a single barrier versus thinking about how the traditional system is propped up in all the ways we fund, sort, and assess students. At its best, personalized learning marks an ambition to depart from all of those things.”

The personalized learning laws passed in recent years vary in breadth, approach, and scope, according to the Education Week review.

In most instances, states provide for flexibility from existing course completion and high school graduation requirements and encourage districts to explore somewhat ambiguous goals, such as “more engaged students” or “students prepared for the 21st century.”

Sometimes, as in Iowa’s case, task forces have asked the legislature to fund more study of personalized learning.

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And then there is the bigger question: Do districts and schools need state laws to experiment with personalized learning?

Not necessarily, Fisher said.

She pointed to the 4,200-student Lindsay Unified School District in California, which tossed out traditional grade level approaches and instituted other measures to give learning a more personalized touch.

“Schools and school systems have made a lot of headway without radical policy change [at the state level],” said Fisher. “States can actually open up more opportunities for innovation and also start to incentivize school systems to focus more on student mastery.”

Following are some examples of state laws that encourage personalized learning. (A deeper look at how a state law is playing out at the classroom level in Vermont):

Florida | Pilot Program

Florida in 2016 established a pilot program for the P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School and the Lake, Palm Beach, Pinellas, and Seminole County school districts to waive the state’s traditional graduation and grade advancement requirements—if a student can prove through a series of tests that he or she has mastered certain concepts and skills.

The law was criticized for amping up testing and lacking data privacy provisions. But its supporters, including the Foundation for Florida’s Future, founded by former state Gov. Jeb Bush, said the law could lead to new ways to “reduce boredom, frustration, and failure.”

Illinois | Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Act

Illinois in 2016 passed a “Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Act” in order to reduce the number of high school graduates who require remedial education in college. The act sets up a pilot program for high schools to alter graduation and course completion requirements in order to, in part, reengage at-risk students in the state. Schools participating in the pilot program are asked to work with their local community colleges and universities and to experiment with ways for students to prove they’re graduation ready.

Michigan | Grants

In the 2017 legislative session, Michigan set aside $500,000 in grants for districts over the next three years to expand how students between kindergarten and 12th grade complete state requirements.

The bill encourages select districts to experiment with giving students credit for public presentations, research papers, attaining workforce credentials, and mentoring other students, but says the new approaches must be aligned to state academic standards. The legislature directed state education leaders to determine, after three years, whether districts’ experiments improved student learning. and whether to expand the program.

Iowa | Graduation Credits

An Iowa law passed in 2012 expanded the ways in which students can earn credits toward graduation and it set up a task force to, among other goals, “develop supports and professional development for educators to transition to a competency-based system.”

That resulted in a 2013 paper written by the task force that concluded that personalized learning needs to be further studied to figure out its impact.

“Even our current student management systems are not enough, but there are companies developing some highly interactive, quality products that will give teachers the tools they need to record and then make sense of all the diverse data they will be collecting, as well as provide 24/7 access to data for students and parents,” the task force said in its 2013 paper. “Providing personalized instruction for even a handful of students was mind-boggling before the internet brought the world into a handheld device—and before a generation of technologically savvy students moved into our classrooms. Now they can take ownership of their learning at school just as they do outside of school.”

In 2013, the legislature passed a law that awards 10 school districts grants to develop, implement, and evaluate competency-based education pilot and demonstration projects.

Minnesota | Innovation Research Zones

Minnesota passed a law this year that establishes “Innovation Research Zones,” in which selected school districts can test new programs that allow students to “excel at their own pace according to their interests, aspirations, and unique needs.”

The law gives districts some of the same flexibility from state laws that the state’s charter sector has and encourages the use of “an emerging practice not yet supported by peer-reviewed research.”

That includes programs that involve “real-world, inquiry-based, and student-directed models designed to make learning more engaging and relevant.”

Nevada | Competency-Based Education Network

Nevada established in 2017 a “Competency-Based Education Network” that allows students to complete a course without attending the course’s classes. Leveraging personalized learning techniques, participating schools are to experiment with ways of measuring students’ understanding of classroom material. Schools must collect data, and the state board of education must report to the state legislature and governor examples of successful initiatives.

Utah | Personalized Learning and Teaching Bill

Utah’s legislature in 2016 passed a “Personalized Learning and Teaching” bill that provides a total of $220,000 in grants to districts to experiment with digital teaching, assessment, and learning. The bill encourages the state to identify better professional development to enable teachers to use online resources for teaching, and tasks the state’s board of education to monitor, evaluate, and figure out ways to expand successful programs. It also sets up a task force to study ways that schools can more effectively use online teaching and learning.

Virginia | Exemptions

Virginia passed a law that exempts some school districts from state laws to better meet the “diverse needs of students.” The law encourages “school divisions of innovation” to experiment with different curricular choices, community service projects, internship opportunities, and job shadowing. The state school board in September set up an application process and said chosen districts would get five years to be exempt from a limited number of regulations to experiment with new teaching and learning methods.

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Coverage of learning through integrated designs for school innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2017 edition of Education Week as States Waive Regulations, Create Innovation Zones

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