‘Personalized Learning’ Plays Role in Many States’ ESSA Plans, Report Finds

Associate Editor

Personalized learning, or some of its components, appears in most state accountability plans submitted under the Every Student Succeeds Act, according to a study released by the nonprofit KnowledgeWorks.

But assessments—which can be a key element in shaping personalized learning—are notably under-represented in those state policy blueprints, said Lillian Pace, the senior director of national policy for KnowledgeWorks, which focuses on advancing personalized learning so every child is empowered to take ownership of his or her success.

The organization analyzed all 50 states’, and the District of Columbia’s, accountability plans and concluded that personalized learning is more than a passing fad, said Pace. A mention of “personalized learning” was found in 39 ESSA plans. Of these:

  • 17 states identified personalized learning as being part of their vision;
  • 25 states said they will use scale scores or performance indices in their accountability systems to provide incentives for each student to improve his or her performance, whether or not that student scores below or above “proficient” on state assessments; and
  • 11 states plan to prioritize personalized learning strategies for supporting schools identified for improvement.

Interestingly, “technology” did not receive widespread attention in states’ plans, said Pace, one of the authors of the “Every Student Succeeds Act: Mapping Emerging Trends for Personalized Learning in State ESSA Plans.” The report comes with an infographic illustrating some of the high-level findings from their research.

“For the most part, states were really beginning to talk about, ‘How do we build learning-centered or student-centered systems?’ and ‘How do we advance policies focused on what each individual student needs?,’ she said. Educators were given “significant support” in excelling in their work to individualize learning for students.

Technology was mentioned more often as a means to creating micro-credentialing programs for teachers, or—in 14 states—as part of an online platform for professional development opportunities to make anytime, anywhere learning available for teachers.

The lack of focus on classroom technology for personalization arises even as major investments in personalized learning platforms are being made by organizations supported by billionaires Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. My colleague Benjamin Herold unpacked the case(s) against personalized learning in a recent Education Week special report on the topic, launching a lively online debate with more than 50 comments. EdWeek Market Brief Executive Editor Kevin Bushweller looked at Vermont’s ambitious statewide personalized learning experiment. And Daarel Burnette II found that, since 2012, at least 15 states have taken steps to waive regulations, set up innovation zones, or prop up task forces to encourage the use of personalized learning.

Pace said she found it “surprising and encouraging” that embedding technology for personalized learning in the classroom wasn’t central to most state’s plans.

“Technology is certainly an enabler and something we’ve embraced, but it’s also certainly not something to replace educators or policymakers,” she said.

Absence of Assessment

“Despite widespread flexibility in the law to advance better assessments, we did not find strong evidence of significant change in current state plans,” the report’s authors wrote.

Pace said she found that “a little disappointing,” and had thought that with the flexibility offered under ESSA, states might signal plans to think differently about their assessment systems. Instead of providing end-of-year assessments, for instance, they could break that down. Only one state even considered that–Pennsylvania–but it eventually abandoned the idea.

ESSA does provide an “innovate assessment pilot” option to states, but only four states have submitted letters of intent to apply for this. The deadline is April 2 for final applications. “That’s a small drop in the bucket,” she said.

A few states have indicated they will be developing new performance-based science assessments aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards.

One reason Pace felt the lack of focus on assessment was troubling is that assessment is an integral part of personalized learning.

Next Step: Implementation

The KnowledgeWorks’ report focuses on how some specific states plan to approach personalized learning. Implementation could be more of an uphill battle than creating the plans was.

“We don’t know yet whether the implementation is going to go smoothly or not,” said Pace. “That’s why it’s incumbent upon stakeholders and advocates to focus in on this as an opportunity,” to start the hard work around implementation.

Pace said the KnowledgeWorks researchers uncovered a strong trend around “the language and culture of continuous improvement” in the ESSA plans. It’s our hope that this will be applied during implementation, too,” she said, adding that no one is going to get this right the first time.

It’s the states that are revising their plans and “constantly refining their process” that will have the best opportunities to make a difference for their students, she said.

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