Personalized Learning Continues to Grow at Pennsylvania’s North Penn Schools

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Personalized Learning Continues to Grow at Pennsylvania’s North Penn Schools

July 18, 2019, by Richard Mextorf

The AASA Personalized Learning Cohort, comprised of school leaders from across the country, gathered earlier this year at North Penn School District, located in Montgomery County, Pa., to learn about the district’s approach to personalized learning.

Cohort members experienced a variety of events and activities during our visit. We saw firsthand how learners (students) own their learning and demonstrate their understanding through multiple pathways. At the secondary school level, learners demonstrated performance-based assessment through video production, which was written, directed, produced and performed by the learners. Literature students created multi-genre projects to create compelling narratives. Additionally, learners created engaging animations to demonstrate mastery. 

Personalized Learning Richard Mextorf

Elementary learners used Flipgrid to understand the significance of each Apollo mission and demonstrated their understanding by writing thank you notes to the Apollo team members for their unique contributions to each mission. Learners became authors, writing books that are stored in the school library to be checked out by anyone in the school community. 

Cohort members saw examples of active learning spaces and the impact they have on engagement, and how they support a personalized approach in the classroom. 

Teachers from area school districts served on panels to share with cohort members how embracing personalized learning has transformed their classrooms. Middle level learners also served on a panel to share their experiences with personalized learning and their perspectives on how it has impacted them as learners. Guided by the cohort leadership, members worked in groups designed to challenge our thinking and question our assumptions.  Additionally, representatives from The Franklin Institute facilitated several activities to help cohort members better understand how the brain functions and the impact of instructional design on the brain.

The breadth of knowledge and experience from leaders across the country, combined with the intimate examples within the context of a single district, made this experience broad and deep in vision, and rich in context.

Richard Mextorf is the superintendent of the Hamburg Area School District in Hamburg, Pa. He is also a member of the AASA Personalized Learning Cohort.

Guest Post: Changing College Choices with Personalized Information at Scale

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Guest Post: Changing College Choices with Personalized Information at Scale

By Christine Mulhern, Harvard University

Choosing whether and where to apply to college is a complex and important choice which many students and families struggle to navigate. Naviance is an important tool for helping students, families and school counselors with these choices. Over 40 percent of US high school students use Naviance, but little research examines how it impacts their college choices. Given its widespread use and the importance of students’ college choices, I partnered with one medium-sized school district to study how it affects where students apply to and attend college.

This study examines how the personalized information conveyed in Naviance’s scattergrams impacts students’ college choices. Providing students access to a college’s scattergram increases applications and attendance at that college, and students are most likely to apply to a college when the admissions data suggest they are likely to be admitted.

The full paper can be found here:

The key findings include:

  • Access to a college’s scattergram increases applications and attendance at that college, especially for students with a high probability of admission. This means that students are nudged towards the colleges popular among previous students from their high school.
  • Minority and low-income students are most responsive to the availability of a college’s scattergram. Access to scattergrams for less selective in-state public colleges increases four-year college enrollment rates for these students. 
  • Students change their applications based on what Naviance signals about their probability of admission. Students prefer to apply to colleges where they are most similar to previous admits.
  • Students respond strongly to the average admitted student’s GPA. I find a discontinuity in application rates for students just above and below the average admit’s GPA despite no discontinuity in a student’s probability of admission at this point. Students appear to use these averages as heuristics to simplify their college choices.

These findings indicate that the admissions information conveyed in Naviance can have large impacts on where students apply to and attend college. The information increases college attendance for some students, but the admissions data deters others from applying to highly selective colleges. The extent to which students respond to scattergrams varies across counselors, so counselors can play an important role in helping students understand the information in Naviance. More broadly, this research suggests that technologies, such as Naviance, can have large impacts on students’ college choices, and the popularity of Naviance means it has potential to influence national college enrollment patterns.

Learn more about the research paper in the article written by EdSurge, "Naviance Wields Much ‘Power and Influence’ in College Admissions, Harvard Researcher Finds."

Guest Post: Budgeting for College, Career and Life Readiness

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Guest Post: Budgeting for College, Career and Life Readiness

By Kim Oppelt, Naviance by Hobsons

Schools and districts need to prepare students for their future while also balancing their bottom line. The College, Career & Life Readiness Budget Trends 2018 survey brief dug deeper into the ways K-12 institutions are funding college, career and life readiness initiatives as well as the metrics they are relying upon to measure effectiveness.

Read About Why:

  • 94% of school and district participants state that they include college, career and life-ready components in their strategic plan.
  • Two-thirds of schools and districts stated that technology and staffing with more school counselors are major components of their school and district CCLR budgets.
  • The top three priorities for CCLR funding are supporting access for underrepresented students, scaling efforts to reach all students, and CTE opportunities.
  • Out of 286 respondents, over half reported using federal and state grants to fund CCLR initiatives.
  • 67% of districts reported using Title I to fund CCLR initiatives, and 34% reported using Perkins funding.

Administrators can use the report to identify funding sources for college, career and life readiness initiatives. Administrators can also compare current spending to national averages to help inform decision-making.

Access the report to see how schools and districts can use a variety of federal and state grants available for CCLR programming in CTE, SEL, 21st century skills, technology, and assisting underrepresented students by diversifying funding sources.

Read the report for the full details.

AASA Digital Consortium Visits Ephrata Area (PA) Schools

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AASA Digital Consortium Visits Ephrata Area (PA) Schools

Ready! Better yet, be Life Ready like students in the Ephrata Area (Pa.) School District. Educational leaders from across the country recently gathered there to participate in the AASA Digital Consortium’s first meeting of the year. 

The future of public education was on display as Superintendent Brian Troop showcased the transformational work taking place in his district. During our time together, we focused on personalization, flexible experiences for students, Maker Learning, a Life Ready Graduate and community partnerships.

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Take a moment to visit the Ephrata Area School District website and checkout the Life Ready Graduate community and district model. The integration of the technology is a model we need to highlight across this country. However, the reflection I want to share in this blog entry is the leadership growth I gained by participating in the AASA Digital Consortium and learning from Dr. Troop.

We can all agree we are passionate about improving how we operate as leaders for the sake of our students. This experience was especially rewarding for me because Kee Edwards, principal at Miller Ridge Elementary in Middletown City School District, attended the conference with me. We are two instructional leaders hungry for knowledge and growth around the goals set in our district.

The AASA Digital Consortium provided me the opportunity to offer authentic professional learning for a leader in my district. During building visits, Mr. Edwards and I discussed how we can better engage our community, empower students in their learning, inspire educators in our district to embrace transformation efforts, and find approaches to integrate technology effectively.

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We could have accomplished this by sitting in his office easily, but imagine the depth of our conversations as we observed Dr. Troop and his Ephrata leadership team highlighting the revolutionary work taking place in their schools. The value add in this example is the access to other digital thought leaders from across the country. For example, during the visit to the Franklin Institute, Mr. Edwards engaged in deep dialogue around Understanding Brain Theory and Learning with Nick Polyak and Brian Troop. (Nick Polyak, superintendent of Leyden High School District 212 in Illinois, serves as chair of the Digital Consortium.)

What do you do when a leader looks at you and says, “I want to grow more in these areas.” Would you stand by him or her? If we truly value supporting the growth of our leaders, I encourage my peers to stand, quite literally, side by side those we are challenging to grow. This cannot be done by sending someone to a conference. I’m talking about attending the professional learning opportunity with your growing leader and having deep dialogue and challenging thoughts about their approach to being an elite leader.

The AASA Digital Consortium encourages participants to bring members from our districts to attend consortium meetings. How could you take advantage of that in your district? Think about it.

In Ephrata Area School District, the community values and endorses the Life Ready areas set as priorities for all students. Mr. Edwards and I left inspired in our leadership growth together. I’m staying committed to my belief to provide the leaders in my district with personalized professional learning as best I can.

Given we were in Philadelphia, now would be a perfect time to reference a line from Robert Tepper’s song “No Easy Way Out” where he writes “some things are worth fighting for.” Let’s make growing leaders in education worth fighting for in our districts.

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On behalf of Middletown City School District, I want to thank AASA for providing ongoing opportunities for leaders across the country to come together to grow, ultimately benefiting all students. A special thank you to the students, community, and staff of Ephrata Area School District for showcasing the wonderful possibilities in public education. As a member of the AASA Digital Consortium, I was honored to have the opportunity to celebrate what you are doing for students. Go Mounts!


Marlon Styles, Jr. is the superintendent of Middletown City (Ohio) School District.

Take Charge of Your Brand!

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UrbanBlogHeaderBy Niquelle Cotton 

There stands before our class a veteran super hero for education, Dr. Barbara Pullium! She’s an icon with accolades from organizations including but not limited to AASA, NABSE, ASCD and NSBA, and is known by many as a servant leader for public education. Dr. Pullium without fail brings our Cohort 4 of purpose-driven believers immediately to their feet, on-time, and at-the-ready to stand at attention! Dr. Pulliam is a teacher and “coach at heart” who has over four decades of K‐12 education experience. She served as superintendent of schools for seventeen years in three school districts which were in urban, suburban and rural school districts. She’s a “lifer” contributing heart-lifting contribution to the book of impact plays.

…music plays… Let’s Get it Started in Here! By the Black-Eyed Peas

Put that seatbelt back on! Round 2 of the AASA Urban Superintendent’s Academy ~ Cohort 4 is about to take things to a different level!
There were several topics shared across countertop when asked for expanding school, city, county, state, regional and country… SHIFTS that are driving today’s priorities and that demand taking charge of one's brand through a counternarrative: 

• Lack of funding for schools
• Diverse views on education
• Competition: Private/Charter/Homeschooling
• Comparison of what’s being taught in schools vs. parents’ perception
• Changes in the political agenda
• Changes in leadership / vision

What is a Counternarrative?
Before we delve into changing it… Let’s do some level setting. The formal definition for “counternarrative” is defined as follows: an argument that disputes a commonly held belief or truth. These beliefs often relate to cultures, people and even institutions.
Often, counternarratives, which can also be called counter-storytelling, will be used to give people a voice who otherwise would not have one. As a narrative outlines a widely accepted belief as the truth, a counternarrative can be used to share a different point of view that may have not otherwise been considered.
These types of narratives do not necessarily discredit the beliefs that have been established, but instead offer a different way of thinking about particular topics. Authors of counternarratives will include other elements to support their position, such as videos and images.

Tag… We’re IT!!

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Tag… We’re IT!!

By UrbanBlogHeaderNiquelle L. Cotton

It’s a rainy start to our AASA Urban Superintendent’s Academy for Cohort 4… Day One Do-over! We soon learn that our class is the first in 4-year cohort history to postpone class… Why? A hurricane threat, thankfully with minimal damage, thwarted a timely Session-1 kickoff… a sign that our class would be like no other! I look around the room hearing each person’s purpose statement when asked… Why are you here?! I realize history is about to take place. This cohort is packed with the most talented, diverse people that will become our future advocates, thought-leaders, and torch-blazers using intellect, data, and passion for underserved student populations. We will be adding to this current history chapter.

Reality sets in and momentum continues to rise when Dr. Sam King (Steering Committee Member at the national level for the AASA Urban Superintendents Academy in partnership with Howard University), begins with a moment of silence honoring the recent hate-crime in Pittsburgh, PA. Pittsburgh Schools’ very own Assistant Superintendent is cohort 4 member, Mr. Anthony Anderson, who provides somber highlights and then the tone changes… There’s an eerie hush when the class realizes the country as we know it has made yet another shift. Our patriarchs and matriarchs… our legacy makers, are preparing an infusion of knowledge impact. Dr. Bernadine Futrell, Director of Leadership Services, for AASA lets us know… we will make lifelong friends and colleagues relying on each other for support, and further conveys… this is a safe space for preparation. If not now… when?? Tag… We’re IT!!

Key themes surface once our AASA Urban Superintendent’s Academy “godfather and co-patriarch” Dr. Joe Hairston, former Superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools, is honored. He shares with conviction the sense of urgency. Academy Co-founder and passionate leader, Dr. Mort Sherman, AASA Associate Executive Director, Leadership Services, would echo sentiments and mandate we must continue to be “just in time” connectors and bridge proven concepts with reality. We clearly begin to see the delicate dance between data (history) and purpose.

The day continues… We are further reminded by Dr. Morcease J. Beasley, Superintendent of Clayton County, GA & AASA –Howard Urban Superintendents Academy Cohort 3 Alumni that these shifts taking place will test the guiding principles of educators, and most assuredly those in urban district settings.

• Regardless of position, how will we make decisions that impact all children?
• How will we make sure our 3rd graders are prepared for higher levels of rigor and ensure our Gifted and Talented students are constantly being challenged?
• And how will we (for those educators steeped in the weeds…) ensure we have the board behind us?

Great educators reinforce a growth mindset in students and staff

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UrbanBlogHeader John Brown, Researcher in Residence, AASA

On a bright Sunday morning and the second day of the workshop, the 36 participants in the latest AASA Urban Superintendents Academy assembled for a moving presentation by award-winning superintendent, Dr. Deborah Wortham—currently the turn-around leader of East Ramapo Central School District, New York. Like yesterday’s sessions, Dr. Wortham reinforced the power of service-oriented and mission-driven educational leadership. She formed an instant rapport with the group—and used a range of presentation strategies and media to engage them and provoke both deep reflection and a sense of possibility for the future.

I had seen Dr. Wortham in action previously in her role as a transformational superintendent in Pennsylvania. She continues to amaze me with her charisma, dedication, and commitment to the future of the students she serves as the leader of her district. Her presentation, “Critical Issues in Education Facing the Modern Superintendent,” reinforced a powerful recurrent idea underlying the academy: The superintendent today—especially in urban settings—is participating in what Joseph Campbell called a “hero’s journey.” Every urban superintendent, Dr. Wortham reinforced, is responsible for the lives, well-being, and prosperity of the learners served by his or her district. In spite of what can appear to be sometimes overwhelming challenges, the heroic superintendent leads staff, parents, community members, and—most importantly—students toward a process of transformation, leading them to a better future and society to a greater level of both civility and achievement.

I was deeply moved by Dr. Wortham’s personal reflections, honesty, and support for the participants, encouraging them to consider such questions as: (1) Who have you blessed along the way of your own journey? (2) What is the “20%” difference you will make in your school or district? (reinforcing the range of variation that is possible within school and district structures) and (3) How many “firsts” can you put your shingle on? As a renowned and award-winning educational leader, Dr. Wortham also reinforced the difference between a transformational leader (“I am called to bring it up—Someone else is called to take it forward…”) and one who can sustain the momentum triggered by transformational change.

A few highlights of Dr. Wortham’s presentation that have stayed with me: (1) Great educators reinforce a growth mindset in students and staff. (2) The mission statement of a learning organization must be a living, breathing, and organic document—that is revisited continually as we reflect on our purpose, our goals, and the ways in which were are monitoring our progress toward achieving them. (3) Great professional development can only occur after students have been brought into understanding and “owning” the mission and vision of their school and district; once the superintendent engages their commitment and sense of efficacy, professional development priorities and performance targets can follow. (4) Learning walks can be a useful tool for providing supportive feedback to staff about how PD targets and strategies are being implemented—including areas for enhancement and growth. (5) Perhaps most significantly, Dr. Wortham presented a 5/20/80 rule: Educational leaders should be in at least five classrooms per day, 20 per week, and 80 per month. Interactions with staff and students at the school level are critically important for transformation to occur and be sustained.

I’ll close with two quotes from Dr. Wortham that I found especially moving: (1) “Love, relationships, caring, and concerns are essential in any effective school.” (2) “It is the non-cognitive elements of schooling that must be addressed first—and continuously…Students’ social-emotional learning is a priority before the cognitive-academic can truly be transformed…” Dr. Wortham embodied in her presentation—and continues to demonstrate in her career—her assertion that the “work of educators is deeply meaningful—We must believe in ourselves and our students—and our shared capacity to succeed.”

The Future Is Now: Participants Assemble for the Latest AASA Urban Superintendent Academy

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UrbanBlogHeaderJohn Brown, Researcher in Residence, AASA

I feel as if I saw the future today. Future superintendents who will be soon be leading urban districts throughout the United States met for the latest AASA Urban Superintendents Academy. One of the largest cohorts ever, the group included CAOs, human resource officers, assistant superintendents, and equity officers. These dedicated and inspiring educational leaders all shared their aspirations for preparing our increasingly diverse student populations for the future—as citizens, as life-long learners, and as successful professionals in our Information Age economy. In addition to the values and deep commitment demonstrated by each of the participants, what was most striking to me were the connections being made between senior leaders serving as mentors and presenters and the future superintendents they are deeply committed to preparing for success. It was a legacy day—a clear passing of a very important torch symbolizing the power of service-oriented leadership, networking, critical friends, and building and sustaining true professional learning communities.

“Our students can’t wait,” one powerful speaker asserted. He challenged participants, asking them to “continue to impact others—and ‘be the change I want to be in the world.’” Another guest presenter encouraged participants to “identify and outline an improvement framework to address achievement gaps.” He encouraged academy members to consider the purpose of schools in the 21st century, explore the powerful shifts in our country that speak to the urgency of education today, and what they will do to ensure that their students are not members of what has been called by sociologist Yuval Harari “the useless class.”

All of the speakers reinforced the powerful impact of demographic changes, including the growing presence and influence of Black and Latino students, parents, and community members. As several speakers confirmed, our economic and social survival—and prosperity—truly do require that all students succeed; this is not mere rhetoric—It is clearly a moral imperative. The future presented by today’s speakers also requires educators to address the social-emotional needs of our students, our parents, and our staff. Increasingly, mental health is not an issue limited to a few but a priority for many. It became evident to all of us that traditional approaches to teaching and learning are no longer viable; all of our students must be equipped with the skills of critical thinking, creative expression, communication, and collaboration.

The presentations—and the powerful discussions and debates that extended from them—reinforced the importance that superintendents today—as well as all educational leaders—understand that we are in the midst of a “diversity explosion.” “We must build partnerships to help our students navigate life” became a powerful and recurrent theme throughout the morning’s sessions. Finally, the future requires that we reframe our previous thinking and antiquated notions about what works in schools. A commitment to “vertical equity” for all students requires us to assume a social justice perspective to ensure equality of outcomes. It was especially clear that successful urban leaders today are using a range of data to monitor what one speaker called “equity variables (including viable teacher salaries, reasonable class sizes, and highly qualified teachers),” ensuring that an even playing field is accessible to everyone.

Participants will demonstrate their growing experience, leadership skills, and creative insights through collaborative “Capstone Projects” and white papers, sharing solutions to actual problems of practice in their current districts and learning organizations. Based on today’s beginning session, the future looks bright from the vantage point of our future superintendents—and how AASA leaders and mentors are collaborating to support the next generation of district leaders.

Conference Kick Off! Urban School Superintendents Conference, Keynote Address

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Watch the 2018 Urban School Superintendents Conference

AASA, the School Superintendents Association and Howard University hosted a panel discussion on challenges faced by urban school superintendents. It was part of AASA’s annual conference for the urban administrators, and they discussed topics including public school funding, ways to reach out to parents and how to best engage the community with the school. Michael Hinojosa, the superintendent of the Dallas, Texas, Independent School District, delivered the keynote address at a conference of urban school superintendents. He talked about his career and early life.


Deputy Secretary of Education to Personalized Learning Cohort: ‘Your Efforts Will Make a Difference’

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personalized fall 18-1The 2018 fall meeting of the AASA Personalized Learning Cohort is convening in Glendale, Ariz., home of the Dysart Unified School District. U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Mitchell Zais served as keynote speaker during last night’s opening session, held at the Renaissance Phoenix Glendale Hotel, and it was apparent that he supports personalized learning and its impact on students.

“I’m grateful of what you’re doing to improve personalized learning opportunities for the students within your districts and to provide freedom for teachers to be creative and innovative in their classrooms,” the Secretary told the cohort. “Your efforts will make a difference.”

“That’s exactly what this group is all about,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, immediately following the Secretary’s remarks.

Gail Pletnick, immediate past president of AASA, recently retired as superintendent of Dysart Schools, host site for the fall meeting. Today, superintendents and other administrators are visiting schools in the district to get a firsthand look at personalized learning in action.

personalized fall 18-2“We really appreciate the opportunity to host this meeting,” said Pletnick who serves as co-chair of the AASA Personalized Learning Cohort. “To me, this mission is about equity. If we can create that student-centered environment, then we’re going to reach every single child.”

“Personalized learning is the essence of creativity and innovation for kids,” said Valerie Truesdale, associate superintendent, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, N.C., and co-chair of the AASA Personalized Learning Cohort. “I thank members of this cohort for pushing each other so we can transform America’s classrooms and reach the needs of every learner.”

“[Personalized Learning] is not hypothesis anymore. It’s not theory anymore. It’s real and it’s happening,” said Domenech. “Personalized learning is playing a critical role to provide each child the education that is appropriate for that child. That’s equity.”

Objectives of the three-day meeting include:

  • Define the critical elements of personalized learning;
  • Identify specific focus areas of interest for personalized learning to support the work of the AASA Personalized Learning Cohort and members’ districts;
  • Develop plans to support each other and participants’ districts in the work to personalize learning.

personalized fall 18-3“Personalized learning is not the same everywhere,” said Chris Gaines, president of AASA and superintendent of Missouri’s Mehlville School District. “When we see it in action, we can ask ourselves, ‘How can I make this work in my district or in a school in my district? How can we bring it to scale across my district so every student has [personalized learning] opportunities?’”

On Thursday, the cohort will travel to Dysart’s Shadow Ridge High School and have the ability to see key aspects of what personalized learning entails, including learning spaces, architecture and engineering.

“Students need learning environments that are flexible, relevant and exciting,” said Secretary Zais. “Each student has different interests, different abilities and different aspirations. This is not a partisan view.”

“Across the country, districts are finding ways to get parents and students the freedom to chart their own futures and pursue their own dreams, not somebody else’s dreams. No stigma should stand in the way of a student’s pursuit of fulfilling a career and meaningful life,” he added.

To learn more about the program, visit the AASA Personalized Learning Cohort web page, which includes AASA’s recently produced case studies featuring several members of the cohort. Superintendents and other school system leaders can also contact Mort Sherman, AASA associate executive director, leadership services, at or Debbie Magee, program manager, at

To join the conversation via Twitter, access the hashtags #LearnPLinAction and #AASAPersonalizedLrng