ESSA, Personalized Learning to Bring ‘Reset’ to Education, School Leaders Predict

Associate Editor


The sweeping new federal education law, and schools’ evolving demands for “personalized learning,” are likely to dramatically alter the work of K-12 district leaders over the next few years, school superintendents heard this week.

More than 3,000 district leaders are gathered here Thursday through Saturday for the National Conference on Education, hosted by the AASA, the School Superintendents Association. Speakers and attendees at the event spent considerable time dissecting the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law by President Obama in December, and reviewing strategies aimed at tailoring lessons to students’ individual needs.

“We have over 100 superintendents in school districts around the country implementing various phases of personalized learning,” Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association that runs the conference, told a general session on Thursday. “It could be the answer to the equity issue.”

Several sessions in the Phoenix Convention Center are focused on how schools are interpreting personalized learning, which is broadly defined as tailoring a student’s education to meet his or her individual needs and interests. Increasingly, districts are turning to ed-tech to help identify what a student knows, and to provide instructional resources to help him or her learn along pathways that may incorporate some of the student’s preferences or interests.

New Law Opens Doors

ESSA gives district leaders new opportunities to exert influence that will shape the future of how students learn in our country, too, various speakers said.

Domenech, who had placed a bet that the passage of ESSA was “unachievable” last year, said he was happy to buy a steak dinner after losing the bet.

“Now we’re working closely with Acting Secretary of Education John King and his staff on the transition to ESSA … so that the rules and regulations are in line with the spirit of the new law,”  Domench said, noting that the most onerous parts of the No Child Left Behind were not in the law, but in the regulations.

AASA will also work “to ensure that those rules and regulations do not interfere with your ability, and states’ ability, to set standards, assessments, and accountability that ESSA has really returned to you.”

The new makes significant changes that will affect state and local policies governing testing and accountability, turning around low-performing schools, tutoring, educational research, teacher quality, and many other areas. (See EdWeek Market Brief’s extensive breakdown on the implications of the law for ed-tech companies and other vendors.)

Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, known as iNACOL, also said she looked at ESSA with optimism.

“We have the opportunity to do a reset and move on a new transition in this country that will change the future of education forever,” she said.

Over the next 12 to 18 months, “if you have ever complained once about No Child Left Behind … you have a chance to move all the dogmas that we have had in state policy, national policy, and local policy” to create a new vision of a future in which “each and every child will be successful.”

In the ESSA, the federal government uses the same proper nouns like Title I and Title II, but it’s the verb “allow” that matters, she said. By using the phrase “We allow it,” states and localities will be in a position to design new systems that are competency-based and learner-centered, Patrick noted: “Too few people are talking about this right now.”

Patrick, who also co-founded, made her presentation on a panel called “The Future of Learning is Now.” That session focused on the movement to allow students to move away from time-based measures of learning, and into mastery-based approaches that will give them credit for what they know, rather than how long they have studied to learn it.

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