Personalized classroom learning integrating technology is drawing growing interest from educators, leading more schools around the country to begin adopting its many variations.
This transformation of classroom practices began in public charter schools, where pioneering blended learning models were developed. But today, arguably the most impressive growth can be found in burgeoning numbers of traditional school districts, fueled by broadening evidence demonstrating improved student outcomes. An impressive new series of “Proof Point” analyses by the Evergreen Education Group and Clayton Christensen Institute demonstrates promising results in nine school districts, including the District of Columbia.
So it makes sense that federal government officials now want to get involved. But to what end? Is there a role for federal leadership that can ultimately prove helpful to this movement without stifling innovation?
The past 12 months have been relatively eventful ones, as decisionmakers in Congress and the Obama Administration have taken steps toward supporting and accelerating this growth.
This week, as the U.S. Senate prepares to deliberate federal education policy, the plan it will consider includes a new funding program, Innovative Technology Expands Children’s Horizons (iTech), created to support education technology that includes personalized learning. The bipartisan plan designed by Senators Orrin Hatch and Tammy Baldwin advanced unanimously through its committee as part of its Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization package.
As proposed, the program would provide state grants funding a wide range of digital learning technology, and includes advancing personalized learning to improve student academic achievement as a central goal. States would establish their own grant competitions for school districts and charter schools. Funding levels would be determined through separate appropriations, and at least half of funds would be required to be spent on professional training for educators on the use of technology to advance learning.
In the House of Representatives, a proposal introduced last summer by Cathy McMorris Rodgers sought to advance personalized learning in a number of significant ways: creating state grant competitions for blended learning programs tied to student performance, equipping teachers to implement personalized learning models integrating technology in instruction, and recognizing certain state policy approaches which support these models.
A condensed version of the McMorris Rodgers plan was passed by the House Education Committee, but the broader proposal of elementary and secondary education legislation to which it was attached fell short of the votes needed for approval.
The Obama Administration has already advanced several initiatives of its own. The Education Department’s Future Ready Schools partnership is running a series of over a dozen regional summits for education leaders to promote ways for using technology and broadband internet access to advance personalized student learning.
Launched two years ago, the Administration’s ConnectEd initiative focuses resources on expanding sufficiently robust broadband internet access to allow schools to utilize online content. Increasing personalized learning was a central goal of the project.
Last November, the Education Department issued a definitive statement clarifying ways public schools can use several major current funding streams to fund personalized blended learning, including those targeted for disadvantaged students, teacher training, and special-needs students (funding from Titles I, II, III and IDEA were discussed).
Supporting personalized learning was a key priority in the Administration’s signature Race to the Top – District grant program, which awarded over $500 million between 21 school district grantees over two funding rounds in 2012 and 2013.
Each of these policy developments holds promise to foster progress in important areas. For a developing education movement whose greatest gains have come in many-flowers-bloom fashion, what impacts can be realistically expected from this federal attention?
When implemented effectively, federal support can offer valuable impetus for the expansion of personalized learning in schools. Education laws that connect funding to meaningful accountability for student outcomes will help, because accelerating student growth is central to what personalized learning is all about.
It is also important that Washington not get out in front of the nation’s schools in a way that hinders future innovation of models for teaching and learning. Personalized and blended learning are still in their early adoption phases, and are constantly improving. For this reason, many leading practitioners believe that the best way to evaluate the effectiveness of their classrooms is by the gains they demonstrate for students, and not by adherence to specific practices that will likely improve over time.
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