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Personalized Learning: Why & How It's Transforming Texas Education

Tom Vander Ark The following article is from the spring 2016 issue of INSIGHT, the professional journal of the Texas Association of School Administrators. It was written by Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Getting Smart, a learning design firm, and partner in Learn Capital, an education venture capital firm.

Texas schools are shifting rapidly from print to digital content. Cheap devices, open resources, and engaging and dynamic content are driving this historic shift in how children learn.

Technology integration — adding computers to the way we’ve always done school — characterized the first decade of the shift to digital (1996-2005). The return on investment wasn’t great because computers were expensive and their use wasn’t always transformational.

During the second decade of the shift (2006-2015), Texas schools began using blended strategies that combined the best of online learning and face-to-face instruction. The integrated learning experience, as Christensen Institute puts it, provided students some element of control over “time, place, path and/or pace.”

Blended learning environments enable a new level of personalization. Raise Your Hand Texas explains: “Personalized learning is learning tailored to an individual student’s needs and abilities. All students are held to high expectations, but each student follows a customized path that adapts, based on the student’s individual progress and goals. Personalized learning is competency-focused. Each student’s progress toward clearly defined goals is continually assessed. Students advance and earn credit as soon as they demonstrate mastery.”

Raise Your Hand Texas cites six benefits of blended environments: teacher support, personalized learning, more small-group instruction, student ownership, continuous feedback, and student engagement.6 Benefits of Blended

Two decades of higher standards and common assessment led to higher achievement among low-income and minority students in Texas. However, in many places, this came with the unintended consequence of scripted teaching, a narrowed curriculum and lots of test preparation. Art, music, electives, and career preparation were trimmed or eliminated. Spring semester brought weeks of test prep and standardized testing. Pacing guides and test-based accountability reduced teacher satisfaction.

Broader Aims

Not to be deterred, leaders in El Paso ISD aimed to move past a test-prep culture by hosting dozens of community conversations about what graduates should know and be able to do. The conversations resulted in a vision for “active learning,” or challenging, personalized, and engaging work with strong supports. The district also began embracing a broader measure of student success, including the abilities to self-manage, collaborate and be persistent. In addition to incorporating new strategies, such as project-based learning, El Paso ISD revised its discipline policy from quick punishment to constructive dialogue.

When considering broader aims, Next Generation Learning Challenges, an EDUCAUSE initiative, suggests starting with three big questions:

  1. How well are we defining and articulating what success looks like for students attending our school?
  2. How well does our design for learning and the organization of our school directly support students’ attainment of that richer, deeper definition of success?
  3. How do we gauge students’ progress in developing those competencies?

A Houston ISD Case Study

Houston ISD integrated its efforts to personalize learning into school improvement plans and an initiative to boost student access to technology. In 2010, Superintendent Terry Grier launched a school improvement effort based on five factors that contributed to high-performing school networks:

  • focus on human capital,
  • use student data to drive instruction,
  • implement high-dosage (intensive, two-on-one) tutoring,
  • extend the school day and school year and
  • establish a culture of high expectations.

The turnaround effort, called Apollo 20, added a dose of blended learning. In addition to targeted tutoring for struggling students, Apollo schools piloted class rotations in high school STEM classes.

As Houston ISD became more diverse and as global trade became increasingly important to the economy, Grier initiated an update of the district’s graduate profile, which defined the knowledge, skills, and characteristics critical for student success. With input from the community, local businesses and higher education partners, Houston ISD arrived at a “global graduate” profile that entails six attributes: leadership, communication, responsible decision making, adaptability and productivity, critical thinking, and college-ready.

Furthermore, in 2013, Houston ISD committed to providing laptops to every high school student through its PowerUp initiative. It was so well-planned that it was featured in Digital Learning Now’s “Guide to EdTech Procurement.”

Three years into PowerUp, Grier summarized three lessons:

  1. Purpose and vision must be aligned with student goals. It was critical that PowerUp not be in isolation from the academic goal to propel global graduates.
  2. Challenging traditional systems can spur innovation. PowerUp pushed Houston ISD to step up collaboration to better support schools and teachers.
  3. It is not about the tool; it’s about powerful learning. The district is working together to use technology so that classrooms remain student-centered and students become critical thinkers, problem solvers and leaders — all traits of the global graduate.

Start with Teacher Learning

Personalized learning environments often begin with a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy, but, as Grier identified, it is a great opportunity to embrace a broader definition of college- and career-readiness. Broader goals — and new instructional strategies — require substantial educator development.

Smart Cities that Work for Everyone, a study of urban education ecosystems, found that talent development, particularly professional learning opportunities, was a critical factor to ensuring quality student learning. In this study, Houston ISD was noted as one of the best regional examples in the country for district and charter network efforts to recruit and develop talent.

Teachers often teach the way they were taught. A great way to introduce positive change is to provide bite-sized learning experiences that offer teachers opportunities to demonstrate their newfound knowledge and skills. This can be accomplished through earning “micro-credentials,” a digital form of certification that indicates when a person has demonstrated competency in a specific skill set.

“As an emerging professional development strategy, educator micro-credentials can enable our public education system to continuously identify, capture, recognize, and share the best practices of America’s educators, so that all teachers can hone their existing skills and learn new ones,” according to Digital Promise, a national nonprofit sponsor of micro-credentials.

Houston ISD has globally themed, online professional development and a customized digital-badging system. Since August 2015, more than 1,800 Houston ISD teachers in 55 schools have earned 4,300 badges. (That’s about 43,000 hours of professional development.) There is no other large-scale digital badging effort for K-12 educators as of the posting of this article.

Down in the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo ISD Principal Laura Flores two years ago introduced Cigarroa High School staff to the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) in her search for better literacy results on her campus. With support from the Southern Regional Educational Board, Flores implemented LDC, an open library of literacy lessons that are created by teachers, based on standards and peer reviewed.

Teacher Arturo Garcia found the design-based work different than most professional development he had experienced. He saw immediate student benefits too.

“By improving their literacy skills, the students are able to comprehend the content much better,” he says. “This, in turn, will be of great benefit for performance on state assessments, as well as for college-readiness.”

With LDC, Garcia has made discoveries about his own teaching: It turns out that designing engaging, standards-based learning experiences is a powerful professional learning experience. Garcia is now an LDC facilitator, extending his leadership skills to his peers.

Chadd Johnson, another LDC proponent and a former principal of the Young Men’s Leadership Academy at Kennedy Middle School in Grand Prairie ISD, says: “LDC has opened that portal for teachers to question their instruction, methodology and its effectiveness in student academic success.”

Johnson says he appreciates that LDC “is an instructional process where professional learning and student learning go hand-in-hand.”

Entry Points

Some Texas districts have launched system-wide initiatives to improve access to technology and introduce new instructional models simultaneously. Other districts are only getting started with blended learning — or working their way out of a patchwork of technology. Still, many districts are looking for ways to achieve real personalization in path and pace for struggling learners.

For districts looking for a place to pilot personalized, competency-based models, there are five low-risk, potentially high-reward entry points:

Run small pilots. Add adaptive math and English software in a lab or class rotation each week to provide an hour or two of personalized learning and valuable real-time data. Alief, Fort Bend, Katy, Lamar, and Northside ISDs have shown positive results with i-Ready, a diagnostic and instruction program. Many districts also have used the iStation e-learning program with great success.

Reach under-served populations. High school credit recovery is a great place to pilot personalized, competency-based learning. A recent report on “How To Successfully Scale Personalized Learning,” authored by Getting Smart and Fuel Education, confirmed that credit recovery remains a common entry point that can be the catalyst for scaling blended learning across schools and districts. Widely used solutions include Apex, Edgenuity, and GradPoint.

Establish an academy. Launching a “school within a school” is a great way to expand options while showcasing next-generation learning. Nonprofit New Tech Network supports nearly 200 personalized, project-based schools, including 13 Texas schools in Belton, Carrollton, Coppell, Dallas, El Paso, Manor, Mesquite, New Braunfels, Plano, and San Antonio ISDs. Ninety percent of New Tech schools are district-operated, and half of those are co-located with other schools.

Engage students in large-scale, integrated projects. Piloting integrated projects as a capstone, intersession or a two-teacher collaboration can yield big benefits. For instance, at Rocket New Tech at Irvin High School in El Paso ISD and at Bush New Tech Odessa in Ector County ISD, students addressed the scientific, political, economic, and cultural challenge of pandemic diseases.

Add online courses. Adding supplemental, online courses in world language, STEM and electives expands learning options.

Personalize career and technical education. CTE pathways and internships not only provide great job preparation for students, they can be a great entry point for personalized learning. For example, Carl Wunsche Senior High School in Spring ISD offers a blended, career-focused education.

Grant opportunities are also a good excuse to start a conversation and draft a plan. Raise Your Hand provides learning materials on its Blended Learning Resource Portal. Harmony Public Schools, which operates in numerous Texas cities, used a Race to the Top grant to add high-engagement maker activities and project-based learning to its blended STEM secondary schools. To do this, Harmony won early support from Educate Texas.

“Harmony is a great, statewide, public charter school success story in Texas,” Educate Texas Executive Director John Fitzpatrick says. “We love their model of rigorous academic coursework, project-based learning, and an emphasis on engaging extracurricular activities, like robotics competitions and science Olympiads.”

Texas has some of the best school districts and school networks in the country. Blended, personalized learning is helping these schools meet the needs of the 21st century learner.