July 19, 2016

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Moving Beyond Pilot Phase: District Conditions for Scaling Personalized Learning

Today's guest blog post comes from Matt Williams, Vice President of Policy & Advocacy at KnowledgeWorks and features their latest report, District Conditions for Scale.

KnowledgeWorks is a social enterprise focused on ensuring that every student experiences meaningful personalized learning that allows him or her to thrive in college, career and civic life. By offering a portfolio of innovative education approaches and advancing aligned policies, KnowledgeWorks seeks to activate and develop the capacity of communities and educators to build and sustain vibrant learning ecosystems that allow each student to thrive.

The District Conditions for Scale were constructed upon the hard won lessons of district level trailblazers from across the country. These district leaders piloted, assessed, recalibrated, and scaled without an instruction manual. KnowledgeWorks interviewed over 30 district leaders from across the country in an effort to refine, align, and validate the conditions against what is working in the field. The conditions and the cross cutting meta-themes provide a framework for district leaders to scale personalized learning.

Personalized learning is stuck in the school pilot phase. There are countless examples of personalized learning environments and schools from coast to coast. We have all seen that great school and the world of possibilities it offers for the students that attend the school. But how do we move from the isolated examples to whole systems designed around providing personalized learning options for all students? How do we build a school system, a learning system, with personalized learning at the core?

One important step in this work is to identify the conditions of scale that exist at a district level. KnowledgeWorks released District Conditions for Scale: A Practical Guide to Scaling Personalized Learning. The report focuses on the conditions that a K-12 school district should put in place to support the scaling of personalized learning. The conditions that we put forth and examine are based on interviews with district leaders from across the country that are leading system level change around personalized learning. 

One might ask why focus on scaling personalized learning at the district level? First, the district level is closest to the schools and thus the students as well as to the educators. Moreover, the district level has the most control over system vision, curriculum, and instruction, as well as formative assessment and student supports. Secondly, by solving for scale at the district level we gain a clearer vision for what supportive and catalytic policy can look like at both the state and federal level creating a better aligned, more supportive education system that is oriented towards putting the student at the center of the system. 

The conditions themselves aren’t rocket science or even unfamiliar ranging from curriculum to instruction, from student supports to professional development, from learning environments to leadership development. What gives the conditions their power is a predisposed drive towards personalized learning as well as cross cutting meta-themes. Several meta-themes emerged as the interviewees discussed their experiences: 

Vision: Included in all comments from district leaders, directly or indirectly, was the idea of an aligned vision. All parts of a district should be aligned to the vision, including professional development, the selection of curriculum and instructional practices, and the process of innovation. While it was assumed that the vision would include student achievement, district leaders focused on the general idea of having a vision rather than the specifics of their districts’ visions.

Culture: The shared vision of a district clearly informs the system culture that a district will establish. For many of the district leaders, a key element of culture is expectations around innovation. Many of the districts were forced to make changes with no additional, or in some cases decreased, resources and money. As a result, innovative thinking is an expectation at all levels, including in partnerships, and especially encouraged at the school level. District leaders emphasized the importance of continuous improvement and fixing problems immediately.

Transparency: Resulting from the notion that members of the education community must feel safe to make mistakes, transparency was another overarching theme of interviews with district leaders. Districts need to be transparent to the board, unions, parents, partners, and the public. 

The District Conditions were constructed upon the hard won lessons of district level trailblazers from across the country. These district leaders piloted, assessed, recalibrated, and scaled without an instruction manual. It is our hope that these conditions begin to help districts from across the country implement a more aligned, supportive education system that is oriented towards putting the student at the center of the system through an expressed focus on personalized learning. 


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