Scale What?

Student impact at scale is the panacea for those of us who have devoted our careers to improving K-12 education. We desperately want to make a difference in the lives of all students, and although it’s always heartening to see small pockets of success in individual schools and classrooms, we are always seeking ways to catalyze a massive, nationwide improvement in student learning. Scale must be the solution.

As it relates to the emerging area of Personalized Learning (PL), I am often asked how to achieve massive scale, to which I respond, “Scale what?” The reality is that this work is nascent, and while there are promising approaches emerging that combine blended instruction with competency-based progressions, none of the models are yet ready to scale across thousands of schools and millions of students. The reason is that our bar for massive scale must be sustained, replicated results across a diverse array of schools over a period of several years, which we do not (yet) have.  

Even though no single PL model, aside from 1:1 mastery-based tutoring which is prohibitively expensive, is ready to be scaled, we should not just sit on our hands and wait for magic to happen. Instead, states, districts and charter networks should consider a framework for approaching scale. I suggest a three-tiered approach:

  1. Start by scaling only foundational elements (a.k.a. building blocks) that allow all schools to pursue innovations if they so choose, while at the same time piloting bold PL designs in a limited number of early adopting schools,
  2. As data emerges from the early pilots AND those schools that experimented on their own, begin to spread/replicate the most promising approaches (defined by impact on student learning) to more schools (note: how to do this effectively is worthy of another blog post, if not a book), and
  3. Scale only the instructional practices or school models that produce sustained results over a period of multiple years.

With this framework in mind, below is a way that states, districts and charter leaders might divide those activities that are ready for scale versus those that are not:

Scale Now

  • Design principles that provide some direction and guardrails around the innovations that you are seeking from early adopting schools and educators.
  • A comprehensive, trusted system-wide assessment and performance measurement system for schools with two key components: (1) a precise, multi-faceted definition of college and career readiness for each student that includes, but is not limited to, academic knowledge and skills and (2) the ability to accurately and adequately measure each student’s individual growth/progress toward that definition of college and career readiness on an annual basis, if not much more frequently.
  • Research and evaluation focused acutely on understanding the degree to which schools and the instructional approaches they adopt are having an impact on each student’s progress toward college and career readiness.
  • Technology infrastructure (e.g. broadband, Wi-Fi) that can adequately support a range of technology-mediated instructional models.
  • IT capacity to manage multiple types of devices (e.g. tablets, laptops).
  • Reasonable policy changes to allow innovative schools to pursue different types of models (e.g. proficiency-based graduation, seat time waivers, lifting onerous human capital rules).
  • Reasonable changes to procurement rules and adoption processes to give schools, teachers and perhaps families more agency in selecting digital and non-digital instructional materials.
  • Clear guidelines for schools that define the autonomies (e.g. budget, materials, assessment, staffing) they have and the outcomes they are being held to.
  • Software infrastructure (e.g. LMS, middleware) that creates the enabling conditions necessary for schools to adopt PL without forcing them into a specific instructional approach. Note: this one is particularly tricky because too often software locks schools into a particular instructional model.

Not Ready for Massive Scale Now (If Ever?)

  • Unproven instructional models: as I suggest above, few if any of the PL models that have emerged thus far are ready for widespread scale, particularly in the context of existing schools that have legacy systems and structures that often make change difficult. For that reason, I would caution any district or charter network against picking a single instructional approach and attempting to scale it across many schools.
  • Specific devices (e.g. laptops, tablets): the classic mistake districts and networks make is to scale a single type of device to all schools before they have designed the instructional model(s) that those devices will support. See Hardware is Not a Strategy for more of my perspective on this.
  • Specific digital content (e.g. adaptive learning programs): as with devices above, requiring all schools to implement content from a specific set of providers will inevitably stifle school-level innovation. That said, some districts (e.g. NYC) have centrally procured content from multiple providers and made it available to a group of schools, which is an interesting approach that retains school-level autonomy without sacrificing centralized purchasing power.

Seed Now, Spread with Results, Scale Only When Proven 

  • A limited number of whole-school designs: offer incentives for a coalition of the most visionary and eager among your school leaders – either new or existing schools – to pursue bold new approaches to PL. The expectation must be that these schools will pursue breakthrough results in learning growth and ultimately college readiness rates, but be realistic about the time required to iterate to achieve those results. Consider using the Next Generation Learning Challenges model for inspiration on how to structure a competitive school selection process.
  • Partnerships with promising 3rd party providers that have had success elsewhere.
  • Educator fellowships that allow a coalition of the willing to implement new instructional approaches in their classrooms. The expectation is that successful pilots in this initiative will ultimately lead to school-wide implementations in future years. CityBridge Foundation in D.C. and Chicago Public Education have sponsored these types of fellowships for teachers. 
  • Permission for school leaders and educators to test new approaches without being part of a formal system-wide program.

In sum, states, districts and charter networks can take critical steps today to encourage PL by setting the stage for schools and educators to innovate without jumping too quickly to scaling unproven instructional practices. Challenging as it may be to proceed cautiously, waiting to scale based on proven results is the wise approach for this movement and the students we aim to serve through it.


New Year, New Blog Name

I decided with the New Year should come a new name and a cleaner interface for the blog formerly known as “Maximize Potential.” Henceforth this blog will be known as iPersonalize(.org).

Hopefully with the new year will come more frequent postings. I’ve clearly been delinquent over the past several months despite the fact that this field continues to race forward at breakneck pace.

Happy 2014,

Promoting Civil Debate in Education

Much has been made about the lack of civil debate in our society today, particularly in politics. In K-12 education specifically, I listen to speeches and read blog posts and opinion pieces that criticize ideas and/or the individuals that hold them in a way that feels less civil than necessary. Accepting that there will always be fundamental differences of opinion, it still seems there are simple ways to promote civil, rational debate.

One of my favorite podcast series, Intelligence Squared U.S., follows a standard procedure – the Oxford Style Debate – to balance opposing viewpoints to thoroughly examine a topic. While I would love to see actual debates on K-12 education topics follow that protocol, I also think the general philosophy could be applied to writing as well. Here are a few ideas on steps we could all take when writing about an idea with disagree with:

Step 1: Clearly Identify Your Disagreement
Start with, “I disagree with <insert detailed description of the idea without using loaded terminology, strawman arguments and/or criticizing individual(s) who espouse that idea>.”

Step 2: Explain Why You Disagree
Provide the rationale for why you disagree with the idea, using objective evidence where possible. Also, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. If there are elements of the idea that you do agree with, be sure to mention those as well.

Step 3: Offer an Alternative Idea
Avoid criticizing without offering solutions. Offer an alternative idea that you feel is superior to the idea you disagree with. As with Step 1, provide a detailed description of your idea.

Step 4: Explain the Merits of Your Idea
Similar to Step 2, provide the primary reasons why you support your idea, using objective evidence where possible.

Step 5: Admit the Limitations of Your Idea
Rather than ignoring the limitations of your idea, be straightforward about them. If you have ideas on how to mitigate these limitations, list them.

Step 6: Be Open Minded
As new information emerges that refutes your idea, be open to changing your mind. 

Starting today, I am making a commitment to follow my own guidance. I hope others will join me. After all, if we cannot engage in civil debate as K-12 education leaders, how can we possibly expect our students to act any different?

What is Personalized Learning? A Working Draft.

A little over three years ago when I started as a Program Officer on the Gates Foundation’s Next Generation Models (now called Next Generation Learning) team, we were debating whether we should use the terms hybrid or blended to describe the kinds of school models we believed would reshape our educational system. I still remember someone at a conference commenting in defiance of both terms:

“Hybrid sounds like a car and blended sounds like a smoothie.”

It wasn’t that this person disagreed with the idea that combining face-to-face instruction with online learning was a powerful concept; she just was not convinced these were the right terms to describe the innovation that she wanted to ignite.

Evolving Terminology

Over the course of the last three years, we have thought deeply about the terminology we use to describe this nascent field. We reflected on our theory of change, which is rooted in an evidence base that indicates that student-centered, mastery-based learning is an optimal instructional approach. Implicit in our support of blended/hybrid schools was a hypothesis that this approach would lead to more personalized (a.k.a. individualized, customized, differentiated) learning for every student. Unfortunately, we noticed that underlying hypothesis was frequently lost in translation. We found that too often people focused on the technology instead of students’ learning experiences, which missed the point. In response, we reasoned that using a phrase that connoted our student-centered theory of change might mitigate that. And so, after a lot of deliberation, we began to lead with the phrase Personalized Learning earlier this year. In making that choice, we were cognizant of the fact that we might signal a move away from supporting Blended Instruction (as we now call it), which was not our intent. In fact, we are not convinced that Personalized Learning is possible at scale without Blended Instruction, at least not with the level of per pupil spending we currently allocate to public K-12 education.

Phrases De Jure

Reflecting on past movements in education, the issue with the latest phrases De jure is that they start off strong, typically backed by early evidence of success, yet they quickly become overused to the point that they lack real meaning (i.e. data-driven instruction, professional learning communities). The consequence is that the once-powerful idea becomes watered down, and it becomes too easy for everyone to claim that they are implementing it. Inevitably, positive results do not follow, and we then move on to the next big thing. 

To counteract that, we decided to take on two important pieces of work. First, we are working to articulate more clearly the student outcomes we hope these models will achieve, grounded in college readiness and the concept of learning growth (** stay tuned for a forthcoming blog post on that topic). Second, we are seeking to define “Personalized Learning” using nuanced, yet accessible language. With a lot of help from our friends, we developed a working definition and a set of essential attributes. In the spirit of transparency and continuous improvement, we are seeking feedback from you today. Please take a look at the draft language below and let us know what you’d add, delete or change.

What is Personalized Learning? A working draft. 

In a Personalized Learning environment, students’ learning experiences – what they learn, and how, when, and where they learn it – are tailored to their individual developmental needs, skills, and interests. Although where, how, and when they learn might vary according to their needs, students also develop deep connections to each other and their teachers and other adults.

Furthermore, each of the following are essential attributes of a personalized learning model:

  • Learner Profiles: Captures individual skills, gaps, strengths, weaknesses, interests & aspirations of each student.
  • Personal Learning Paths: Each student has learning goals & objectives. Learning experiences are diverse and matched to the individual needs of students.
  • Individual Mastery: Continually assesses student progress against clearly defined standards & goals. Students advance based on demonstrated mastery.
  • Flexible Learning Environment: Multiple instructional delivery approaches that continuously optimize available resources in support of student learning.

Again, we are very interested in your feedback on the language above, as well as other ideas for moving this nascent field forward. Please share thoughts in the comment section below.

Hardware is Not a Strategy (and Other Advice for School Developers): Part 1

Our team at the Gates Foundation funds a variety of innovative schools as part of our Next Generation Models strategy. Because of that, people who are developing new schools (let’s call them “School Developers”) often ask us how they should get started.

Since these types of questions come up frequently, I thought it might be helpful to write a series of blog posts to share what I know (and do not). In full disclosure, I have never actually designed or launched a school, but I have had the good fortune of funding and supporting many highly capable people who have. Please take this advice with that caveat in mind.

In Part 1, I will start with what I hope is some practical advice to help School Developers get started:

1: Defining Academic Goals

Even though much of my work involves education technology, I often say, “Hardware is not a strategy.” A School Developer should never start with hardware-centric questions like, “Should I buy iPads, Netbooks or Chromebooks for all of my students?” or “What is the optimum device to student ratio – 1:1, 1:2 or 1:3?” For more insight into why these are the wrong questions to ask, consider reading Cramming Computers: It’s the Same Old Story by Michael Horn.

Instead of starting by selecting hardware, School Developers should begin by defining a specific, measurable set of academic goals that they want their students to achieve. This should include a long-term goal that reflects the summative outcome you want your students to achieve (e.g. 100% matriculation to a competitive four-year institution).

In addition to setting clear long-term goals, you should also set interim goals that you believe will directly lead to your long-term goals. These shorter-term goals should also allow you to measure progress frequently, as well as helping provide the data you need to improve your design. For instance, I believe that the most powerful shift that school leaders can make is to set interim goals that focus on accelerating learning growth toward college readiness for all students. Although this sounds logical, this shift represents a major paradigm shift away from our current assessment and accountability system that prioritizes grade-level proficiency over learning growth.

Moreover, we are currently caught in an unfortunate debate – one side argues that schools should focus on foundational literacy and math skills while the other advocates for developing more complex skills such as creativity and critical thinking (as though they must be mutually exclusive). As Alex Hernandez writes in The Future of Education: It’s a Love Story, this does not have to be an “either…or” debate. I would encourage School Developers to set goals that both ensure that all students master basic skills AND develop more complex skills that will prepare them for college and beyond.

Only after School Developers have defined a set of long and short-term academic goals does it makes sense for them to develop their school models. Again, this is one of those statements that seems logical but it’s amazing how many smart, well-intended School Developers start making crucial academic, financial and operational decisions without a clear sense of the outcomes they hope to achieve.

** Note: kudos to our friends at Alliance for Excellent Education for strongly encouraging this “define goals first” approach in their Project 24 initiative .

2: Develop A Set of Design Principles

Developing a set of design principles that can guide the academic, financial and operational decisions that a School Developer must make is an extremely useful exercise. The ideal is that these principles are broad enough that they can stand the test of time, but specific enough that they guide critical design decisions.

For example, we believe that schools that are more effective at facilitating personalized learning for each of their students will be more successful than those that do not. To inform and bound our grantmaking in this area, we developed the following principles:

  • Student Centered: designed to meet the diverse learning needs of each student every day
  • High Expectations: committed to ensuring that every student will meet clearly defined, rigorous standards that will prepare them for success in college and career
  • Self-Pacing & Mastery-Based Credit: enables students to move at their optimal pace, and receive credit when they can demonstrate mastery of the material
  • Blended Instruction: optimizes teacher- and technology-delivered instruction in group and individual work
  • Student Ownership: empowers students with skills, information and tools they need to manage their own learning
  • Financial Sustainability: sustainable on public per-pupil revenue within four years
  • Scalable: designed to serve many more students if it demonstrates impact

For further context regarding these principles, read our blog post on The Next Generation of (Personalized) Learning. Our hope in sharing our principles is not to convince you to adopt them verbatim, but rather to offer an example of the type of principles that are useful in guiding major and minor decisions, both at the outset of the school design process and thereafter as you adapt your model.

3: Design an Instructional Model

Once you have developed specific, measurable goals and a set of design principles to guide your school design, then by all means start designing the school. Organizations like CEE-Trust, Charter School Growth Fund, IDEO, Alvo Institute, 2Revolutions, Silicon Schools, Public Impact and Ed Elements are all starting to offer design sessions to facilitate design thinking among early-stage school developers. There are many ways to approach this process, but below are a few approaches that may be useful for an individual or team interested in engaging in this process on their own:

  • Blank Slate: Allow yourself the freedom of designing a school from scratch. Ultimately, you may have to deal with real constraints that might prevent you from implementing your design within an existing school, but do not start this process feeling constrained by things like bell schedules and facilities.
  • Student-Centered Design: Start by picking 3-4 actual students that are underserved by the current education system, and dive deep into the root causes of why those students struggle. Use their experiences as the driving force to push your thinking about what “school” would need to look like to ensure they achieve the goals you set.
  • Ask Questions, Answer Them: Joel Rose, founded of New Classrooms and School of One, kick-started his design process by asking 700 questions about how it would work. Then, he and his team systematically answered and re-answered each of those questions to develop and improve the model.
  • Design With the End In Mind: Use the long-term goals that will drive your school to inform your thinking about the types of experiences that students will need to have to achieve those goals. For example, if you want students to succeed in college, you will likely need to develop their ability to take full responsibility for their learning. What specifically would your school need to do in order to accomplish that?
  • External Facilitation: Leveraging an external facilitator like the ones mentioned above can be enormously helpful in driving this process. We have seen that a day-long, roll-up-your-sleeves design session can really generate enthusiasm and catalyze a movement. 
  • Look to Others for Inspiration: While I suggest starting the design process with a blank slate, it may help at later stages in the design process to seek inspiration from the trailblazers. I encourage taking a look at the following resources profiles of innovative schools: The Next Gen Learning Challenges: Wave IIIa, The Dell Foundation’s Blended Learning Case Studies and The Innosight Institute’s Blended Learning Profiles. In addition, the blogging site,, features writing from a wide variety of educators that are deeply engaged in this work.

I am positive there are other techniques that School Developers can use to start this process, but hopefully these ideas offer a helpful starting place. 

Coming Soon: Part II

In Part II of this series, I will focus more deeply on blended instruction to provide more detailed guidance to School Developers who are interested in taking that approach.

My Advice to Education Entrepreneurs at Harvard

Yesterday I wrote a blog post titled Business Models in K-12 Education that was inspired by judging the Education Innovation Pitch Competition at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Today, I want to share a some advice that I offered to a group of students that evening. The student organizers were gracious enough to give me the opportunity to share a few reflections about the current state of education innovation with the audience – a bright-eyed group of 200 students that came from practically every school in the university.

Below is a summary of my remarks (embellished a bit since I now have the benefit of hindsight):

I started by admitting that the outline for my remarks was handwritten on the back of a drawing that my five-year-old daughter, Ella, had given to me to put up in my office. That was the only clean white sheet of paper I had on the flight from Seattle to Boston, and I didn’t think Ella would mind as long as I avoided scribbling across her drawing. “Nothing puts the importance of education innovation in perspective like giving a speech from your own child’s artwork,” I said.

Then, I described what I see as the confluence of several Uber Themes in K-12 education:

  • Ed is sexy; smart, hard-working, visionary students are flocking to this sector like never before (Exhibit A: the full house that evening)
  • The adoption of the Common Core by 46 states has created national momentum toward rigorous college readiness goals for all students, as well as the new types of content, tools and school models needed to achieve them
  • Parents, educators and industry are joining forces to demand that students also master more complex skills such as creativity and critical thinking, and non-cognitive skills such as tenacity and grit
  • The teacher effectiveness and teacher voice movements are bringing new attention to the science and art of teaching, and offering a platform for educators to share multiple perspectives
  • Technology is simultaneously improving, getting cheaper and proliferating rapidly in schools across the country; excitement is building over the potential of technology to facilitate personalized learning (my focus at Gates)
  • Funding in the form of government grants, philanthropic dollars and private capital is increasingly being channeled toward spurring early-stage innovation; at the same time, however, school and district budgets have been cut to the bone in many places

The confluence of each of these is giving rise to the enormous potential for entrepreneurs who are willing to pursue innovative ideas. However, I also advised caution based on the following:

  • Some good ideas may not translate into viable products; just because your solution alleviates a problem for a few teachers does not mean that there is a mass market for it
  • Business models in K-12 education are frequently unclear or unsustainable; this is largely due to the fact that the market is highly fragmented and difficult for small vendors to sell into (read this post for more)
  • Though it holds tremendous promise, technology is not a panacea; too many people are irrationally exuberant at this stage of the innovation curve and are overpromising results (read this post for more on Cautious Optimism vs. Irrational Exuberance)

Reflecting on the themes and the words of caution above, I then offered the following advice to the aspiring entrepreneurs in the audience:

  • Identify real problems; ideally those close to the instructional core so you can measure real impact on student learning
  • Talk to a LOT of real people – teachers, school leaders, parents and especially students – who currently face these problems; be prepared for them to tell you that your idea will not work
  • Do not feel constrained by the existing system; it’s almost always easier for innovations to gain traction outside of the existing system (e.g. summer and after-school, charter schools, tutoring, etc.) before trying to change what happens in the classrooms of traditional districts
  • Develop a realistic business model that can sustain your product or service at scale; this generally requires lots of customers to pay full value for the product or service you provide, which they are often unwilling or unable to do (read more)
  • Finally, start piloting as soon as you have a minimally viable product (MVP); you’ll learn a lot more much faster implementing a solution with real customers than you will drawing prototypes on a white board

In closing, I offered the following observation to the large audience in front of me, “Now is a great time to be in those chairs.” It really is, especially for the education entrepreneurs that have a realistic understanding of the market and build compelling solutions to real problems that customers are willing to pay for.

Reblogging Stacey Childress’ post on student outcomes in personalized learning. Join the discussion – what do you think the goals should be?

Thinking Out Loud

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about our support for schools that are redesigning their instructional models in order to personalize learning for students. I listed design principles shared by these schools:

  • Student Centered: designed to meet the diverse learning needs of each student every day
  • High Expectations: committed to ensuring that every student will meet clearly defined, rigorous standards that will prepare them for success in college and career
  • Self-Pacing & Mastery-Based Credit: enables students to move at their own optimal pace, and receive credit when they can demonstrate mastery of the material
  • Blended Instruction: optimizes teacher- and technology-delivered instruction in group and individual work
  • Student Ownership: empowers students with skills, information and tools they need to manage their own learning
  • Financial Sustainability: sustainable on public per-pupil revenue within four years
  • Scalable: designed to serve many more students if it demonstrates impact

In the earlier post I wrote…

View original post 413 more words

Running List of Blended Learning Resources: Nov 2012 Edition

General Articles, White Papers, Thought Pieces …

General Videos

School-Specific Articles, Cases and Videos

Alliance for College Ready Schools: BLAST
Carpe Diem
FirstLine Schools
Flex Academy
Khan Academy
New Classrooms  & School of One
Seton Partners
Summit Public Schools

Blogs | Social

Books Relaunch

The practitioner-centric blended learning blogging site,, has been redesigned and relaunched. Kudos to the team at the Next Gen Learning Challenges (with support from others) for helping to drive this effort and to the first round of bloggers – Achievement First and Alpha Public Schools – for posting some fantastic, in-depth blog posts.

I’m looking forward to seeing activity on this site continue as these school networks and others capture and share their latest thinking on blended learning.