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.


Race to the Top for Districts: $400m for Personalized Learning

The U.S. Department of Education’s latest Race to the Top application is out. With a whopping $400m for approximately 20 winning proposals from individual LEAs or consortia of LEAs to implement “personalized learning environments” (described below), this is a huge opportunity for innovative LEAs to drive their agendas forward quickly. Grant awards range from $5-10m for schools serving 2000-5000 students to $30-40m for LEAs serving 25,001+.  I think it goes without saying, but this is a lot of money for a concept that LEAs are only just now beginning to embrace.

Absolute Priority 1: Personalized Learning Environments. To meet this priority, an applicant must coherently and comprehensively address how it will build on the core educational assurance areas (as defined in the notice) to create learning environments that are designed to significantly improve learning and teaching through the personalization of strategies, tools, and supports for students and educators that are aligned with college- and career-ready standards (as defined in the notice) or college- and career-ready graduation requirements (as defined in the notice); accelerate student achievement and deepen student learning by meeting the academic needs of each student; increase the effectiveness of educators; expand student access to the most effective educators; decrease achievement gaps across student groups; and increase the rates at which students graduate from high school prepared for college and careers.

If you are interested in applying, you will need to move quickly as the Intent to Apply is due on August 30 and the Application is due October 30. For those of you who decide to apply, I strongly recommend reading at least the following to inform your thinking. The list below is a subset of a larger list of resources on blended and personalized learning that I’ve compiled on this blog.

If you are looking for help with your application, I have compiled a list of both boutique and generalist consulting firms and technical assistance providers that have some background in personalized learning. This list is not comprehensive and is not an endorsement of any of these firms, but it should be a helpful start.

Good luck!

Mind/Shift Article on NMC Horizon Report: 2012 K-12 Edition

Mind/Shift has a good synopsis of challenges to ed tech adoption described in the 2012 edition of the NMC Horizon Report (which requires registration).

Below are the six so-called “common” challenges that span across K-12:

  1. Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession, especially teaching.
  2. K-12 must address the increased blending of formal and informal learning. 
  3. The demand for personalized learning is not adequately supported by current technology or practices.
  4. Institutional barriers present formidable challenges to moving forward in a constructive way with emerging technologies. 
  5. Learning that incorporates real life experiences is not occurring enough and is undervalued when it does take place.
  6. Many activities related to learning and education take place outside the walls of the classroom and thus are not part of traditional learning metrics.

A few reactions:

  • I believe that #2, #3 and #4 (in red) are the biggest barriers with #3 being the biggest constraint to massive scale.
  • I am not convinced that #2, #5 and #6 are all that different. In my opinion, all of these focus on the blurring of the lines between “formal” and “informal” learning, and what actually should constitute “formal” learning. I agree that these are important but perhaps can be collapsed into one.
  • I would add “limited evidence base” and “common success metrics” to this list.
  • This list leaves off what the authors describe as “local” barriers such as bandwidth and procurement challenges. Despite the fact that these barriers are not included in this list, they are no doubt important and will impede innovation.

Terry Ryan (Fordham) Reflects on a Bay Area Blended Learning Tour

I recently spent two days in the Bay Area touring blended schools and meeting with providers along with a group of organizations focused on city-based innovation that CEE-Trust sponsored. Since Terry Ryan of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute penned this nice write up on the visit, I will just refer to it. A few of his many insightful takeaways are below:

  • The blended learning sector is still very much in its infancy
  • The Common Core offers the hope of scaling out rapidly and across many jurisdictions new products and blended learning models
  • Blended learning changes the nature of teaching
  • “Teaching is moving towards tutoring here”
  • School leaders and teachers worry most about “tech dramas and nightmares.”
  • The kids like the freedom and flexibility of blended learning.
  • Blended learning can be a teacher-driven reform.

Check out Terry’s post – Peering into the future of blended learning – for more.

New Book: Education Reform for the Digital Era by the Fordham Institute

The Fordham Institute recently compiled a series of previously released papers by thought leaders into a free book titled “Education Reform for the Digital Era.” In keeping with the digital theme, they make it available in a variety of digital formats for e-readers like the Kindle, Nook and iPad.

The book includes the following chapters:

Introduction, by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Daniela Fairchild

Chapter One: “Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction,” by Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel

Chapter Two: “Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Solutions,” by Frederick M. Hess

Chapter Three: “The Costs of Online Learning,” Tamara Butler Battaglino, Matt Haldeman, and Eleanor Laurans

Chapter Four: “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era,” by Paul T. Hill

Chapter Five: “Overcoming the Governance Challenge in K-12 Online Learning,” by John E. Chubb

Cautious Optimism vs Irrational Exuberance in Digital Learning

My view about the potential for education technology to produce dramatic improvements across our K-12 system, particularly for low income students, is one of cautious optimism. I am optimistic enough that I have devoted the last two years of my life to investing in blended learning models at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and will happily continue do so, but I am cautious in the sense that I want to see results at scale before I make sweeping claims. I contrast this hopeful, but measured, perspective with what I view as a rising tide of irrational exuberance (thanks Alan Greenspan), which I define as overpromising future performance without an existing evidence base to support those claims. To that end, below is a list of what excites me and makes me nervous about the emerging digital learning movement:

What Excites Me

  • Learning models that are designed to personalize learning experiences for each student, every hour of every day (regardless of whether they incorporate technology or not)
  • The emergence of new blended learning models that optimize the balance between teacher and technology-facilitated instruction (see Next Gen Learning Challenges: Wave IIIa winners et al)
  • The potential for learning models to become so efficient and effective at teaching core literacy and math skills that teachers and schools have ample time to focus on other important areas that they may now neglect – project-based learning, art, music, sports, field trips, early college programs and the like
  • The possibility that providers like Khan Academy will accelerate the move away from a system built upon outdated notions of courses, grade levels and seat time toward mastery-based progressions (i.e. students move to the next lesson as soon as they prove they know the previous one)
  • Blurring the lines between informal and formal learning with initiatives like Mozilla’s Open Badges so that students can receive credit for mastery regardless of where they learned it
  • Rapid and continuous improvement cycles for digital content that are driven by sophisticated learning analytics
  • The ability to provide all students and families with a full suite of online courses and supplemental digital content from multiple providers, with transparency about prior student performance, at no cost
  • Charter school networks like Rocketship Education that are built to scale rapidly without sacrificing high performance
  • The emergence of model/technology/consulting partners like New Classrooms, JunyoEducation Elements and 2Revolutions that assist schools and networks in making the transition to new models
  • Rapidly declining cost of devices and internet access makes anytime, anywhere access to technology available to more students

What Makes Me Nervous

  • Schools and networks that cram expensive technology into the existing factory model without rethinking their core instructional practices
  • The lack of useful data to support schools and networks in making informed purchasing decisions about content and courseware
  • Outdated policies, rules and regulations that prevent schools and networks from implementing thoughtful approaches to blended learning
  • Implementations of technology that increase demands on teacher time as opposed to making it easier for teachers to be more effective
  • When pure online programs, particularly full-time virtual schools, are sold as viable schooling options for undeserved students who need services they cannot offer
  • State policy that does not regulate and reward online course providers based on independently verified student outcomes (e.g. valid, reliable and trusted 3rd party assessments)
  • Online initiatives that are operationally efficient but do not serve students well (e.g. many online credit recovery programs)
  • Technology overload for kids

Fordham Report: Overcoming the Governance Challenge in K-12 Online Learning

Fordham has released the fifth and final paper in its series on digital learning. This report, Overcoming the Governance Challenge in K-12 Online Learning, puts forth the following 10 policy recommendations for a “brave new governance system”:

  1. Set K-12 Online-Learning Policy at the State Level
  2. Create a Public Market for K-12 Online Learning
  3. Provide Students the Right to Choose Online Learning Full Time
  4. Provide Students the Right to Choose Online Learning Part Time
  5. Authorize Statewide Online Charter Schools, Overseen by Statewide Charter Authorizers
  6. License Supplementary Online Providers
  7. Fund All Learning Opportunities Equally Per Pupil
  8. Exempt Online and Blended Teaching from Traditional Teacher Requirements Including Certification and Class Size
  9. Establish Student Learning as the Foundation of Accountability for Online Schools and Providers
  10. Address Market Imperfections by Providing Abundant Information to Students, Families, Schools, and Districts

While questions of state-level governance are extremely important, I am particularly interested in #9, which I believe is absolutely essential to a well-functioning system of multiple providers regardless of which entity governs them. Specifically, the paper suggests the following approach to independently validating student outcomes:

States can gain maximum advantage from this resource by creating standardized examinations for all courses in a state’s core high school curriculum. Students could be required to pass the state exam to receive credit for each course toward a high school diploma. The exams could be delivered online. Their content could be part objective, closed-ended, electronically scored items—ready-made for online courses—and part extended-response questions or problems, scored by state-led teams of online and traditional teachers. For academic standards below the high school level, states should consider using their grade-level reading, math, and science assessments to award grades or credit. States should also consider requiring end-of-course exams for credit in brick-and-mortar and blended courses.

I strongly agree with this suggestion; supplemental online providers and full-time virtual schools would address quality concerns by endorsing a move toward a set of independent, valid, reliable and trusted assessments. Imagine if the assessments were universally regarded as high quality – think AP or IB tests for all core academic courses – yet could be taken on-demand for credit once a student has mastered the concepts and skills in a particular course. Given the costs associated with creating assessments of this quality, there may be a play for multiple states to band together to form buying consortia. Irrespective of how they are created, these assessments are critical to enabling a healthy ecosystem of multiple providers. Without them, it’s the wild wild west and questions of quality will undoubtedly persist.

State Legislative Action in Support of Online Learning in 2010 and 2011 (Keeping Pace)

The team at Evergreen Education Group that produces the annual Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning has a new blog post that compiles all of the state legislative activity in support of online learning 2010 and 2011. In total, they found 16 states that enacted major legislation in support of online learning.

The quote at the bottom of the post says it all:

This is a large number of bills, many of which had a significant impact on a large number of students. We are concerned that in some states the legislation is reactionary, and pieced together quickly in response to misinformation or a lack of information. That is not the case in all states, and we certainly see examples of legislation modeled on existing policy or that is thoughtfully developed in response to a specific state’s situation, that will have a positive impact on students.