Personalized Learning

Ten Cities Seek to Bring Personalized Learning to Scale

By Benjamin Herold — December 17, 2014 4 min read
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Can the lessons of individual schools and school networks that have shown success with “personalized” models of education be applied to whole systems?

That’s the hope of a new partnership between Next Generation Learning Challenges and Education Cities. The organizations have joined forces to provide 10 city-based nonprofits and foundations with access to experts, in-kind support, and each other in the hopes of helping them scale up school models predicated on catering to each student’s interests and abilities; allowing individuals to learn at their own pace; making advancement contingent upon mastery of defined skills and competencies; and using flexible learning environments that often diverge from the traditional school structure.

The local groups that have been designated “emerging harbormasters” as part of the new effort are:

  • Battelle Education (Central Ohio)
  • Center for Collaborative Education (Boston)
  • Choose to Succeed (San Antonio)
  • Excellent Schools Detroit
  • The Marshall L. and Perrine D. McCune Charitable Foundation (Santa Fe, N.M.)
  • The Mind Trust (Indianapolis)
  • New Schools for Baton Rouge
  • Project Renaissance (Nashville)
  • Rhode Island Mayoral Academies
  • Schools That Can Milwaukee

“There are two dimensions of innovation that are critically important to the effective distribution of personalized learning,” said Andrew Calkins, the deputy director of NGLC, a grant-making group that is managed by a committee that includes the nonprofit EDUCAUSE and the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, as well as the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, which provides the bulk of its funding.

“One is the development of these very good, very different school models. There is now a fair amount of that going on,” Calkins said. “But equally important is innovation in the scale-up.”

Over the past three years, NGLC, based in Washington, has awarded about 45 grants to individual schools using personalized, competency-based models, Calkins said.

Beginning last year, the group also began a $25 million effort to establish “regional incubators” charged with spurring the development of clusters of such schools in their own locales. Six such incubators are currently in the process of awarding grants to schools.

The new “harbormasters” will be expected to play a similar role, Calkins said. The partnership with Education Cities (until recently known as the Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust, a national network of mostly nonprofits and foundations) was established, he said, because the group was already supporting a strong network of organizations with track records of helping expand new school models.

But the focus on personalized learning will be a bit new for some of the groups, including the Mind Trust, a nonprofit in Indianapolis.

Historically, that organization has been focused primarily on “empowering entrepreneurs” to pursue their own visions for schools, said Ken Bubp, the group’s executive vice president. Some of the resulting schools have included models that blend face-to-face and computer-mediated instruction, but most have not.

As the result of a recently passed state law in Indiana, however, the Mind Trust now has a memorandum of understanding with the 33,000-student Indianapolis public school district to transform nine of its schools. More could come.

“Because of the sheer number of schools we might need to grow in the next two years, we need to make sure we’re able to provide some more specific or targeted pathways” for school operators,” Bubp said.

Both Bubp and Calkins acknowledged the tension between trying to support autonomous, experimental school models and trying to provide prescribed pathways for bringing those models to scale.

It’s an issue Education Week has looked at extensively, both in the context of traditional school districts (for example, Philadelphia’s effort to replicate and grow “innovative” schools) and a large charter-school network (Rocketship’s struggles attempting to go national without sacrificing quality.)

“One of the things education has never really figured out how to do well is to scale up really good proof-point examples,” Calkins said. “It’s among the things we’re talking about.”

The hope is that technology can play a key role.

“When people picture tech in the classroom, they think of kids being in front of monitors,” Calkins said. “But a lot of [scaling up] has to do with the back-office platforms that are needed in order to help teachers be radically more informed about each student.”

Each of the newly designated harbormaster groups will receive a $20,000 stipend, a dedicated expert consultant, and access to a wide range of online and in-person gatherings and resources.

The groups’ first goal is to develop a plan of action for supporting the system-wide growth of personalized learning in their region.

All told, Calkins said, the effort will cost NGLC and Education Cities $850,000, the majority of which is being provided by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

Ken Bubp of the Mind Trust (holding paper), Bing Howell of New Schools for Baton Rouge, and Armen Hratchian of Excellent Schools Detroit at a brainstorming session for the new “emerging harbormasters network.” Photo courtesy of Mind Trust.

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