A new law passed by Virginia’s legislature and expected to be signed this month by Governor Terry McAuliffe presents an important opportunity for the commonwealth to support the work of its most cutting-edge school divisions.
Authored by Delegate Tag Greason and passed with robust bipartisan consensus, the new law directs the Virginia Board of Education to designate eligible School Divisions of Innovation. It gives the board the responsibility for creating exemptions from certain regulatory provisions.
School divisions choosing to participate will submit 5-year Plans of Innovation with specified goals and student performance targets. Plans are expected to address components including “creating opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery at different points in the learning process based on readiness” and to demonstrate increased student progress measuring both student growth and achievement.
The governor has several weeks to sign (or veto) the plan. Should he sign it, as expected, the state board of education later this year will identify which regulatory requirements Divisions of Innovations may seek exemptions from, and define the application process. The law gives the state board wide latitude in doing so, and the success of the program may hinge upon how ambitious it chooses to be in the freedoms it offers divisions.
The Loudoun County Public Schools, which Delegate Greason represents, is quickly earning a reputation as one of Virginia’s most innovative instructional leaders, and its schools stand to benefit from the new law’s flexibility. The district launched a new personalized blended learning model in 15 elementary and middle schools earlier this year, which its leaders describe as dynamically tailoring learning experiences to students’ strengths, needs and/or interests. The model leverages adaptive digital learning content and face-to-face instruction, supported by new instructional strategies around which professional development programs for teachers have been designed.
Loudoun’s district leaders explain how their new model utilizes timely and actionable information on student progress “to ensure students have opportunities for individualized learning and that teachers have the data they need to provide instruction that can fill gaps or provide appropriate instruction for students working above grade level.” Personalized blended learning models around the country are demonstrating remarkable learning productivity, popular with teachers for freeing them from “teaching to the middle” while allowing them to interact more meaningfully with students.
Virginia’s state regulatory requirements, both in statute and in regulation, include highly-specific mandates, which may themselves be out of date and can stand in the way of the sort of education innovation regularly producing powerful gains in student outcomes around the country.
For example, the standard unit of credit for graduation in Virginia is based on students accumulating a minimum of 140 clock hours of instruction, in addition to successful completion of other requirements. In some cases, waivers from these seat-time requirements are already being granted by the state board to schools. Rigid seat-time requirements were central to classroom designs from 19th century schoolhouses, but today’s school models can function much more productively when demonstrating competency on specific skills, not seat-time requirements, becomes the driver of progress. When students are able to show mastery of required content and advance to new content at their own pace , personalized learning instructional models are able to realize their transformative educational potential for accelerating learning.
Other examples of regulatory requirements for which flexibility would be valuable to support innovative instructional models include when end-of-course Standards of Learning tests are administered, board approval of curricular content to help teach required coursework, and grade-specific content requirements like Algebra I and level one of a foreign language being offered in the eighth grade.
Besides Loudoun, other districts around the commonwealth, like the Albemarle and Bedford County School Districts, have begun implementing their own personalized blended learning initiatives, and might be good initial candidates to purse the School Divisions of Innovation opportunity. For now, the next steps in supporting Divisions of Innovation reside with Governor McAuliffe and the Virginia Board of Education.
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