District superintendents across the country have taken on a range of bold approaches to improving students’ experiences in public education. Across these innovations, districts have embraced the notion that empowering students and their teachers is an effective way to improve student outcomes.
At a Nov. 15 convening, hosted by the White House Domestic Policy Council and the Office of Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education (ED), our nation’s leading district superintendents overwhelmingly expressed an optimistic sense of purpose. Motivated by their successes with personalized learning across schools in their districts, a ringing call to action for these leaders came out of this Washington summit: give more students and educators the opportunity to experience personalized learning.
The Obama administration’s investment in personalized learning resulted from “a vision and drive for improving how we teach and engage our learners,” said Roberto Rodríguez, Deputy Assistant to the President for Education. “And we need more of that across the country.”
For superintendents, this means enhancing the efforts seeded by ED’s Race to the Top–District (RTT–D) program, connecting with other district leaders who are implementing personalized learning, and scaling up efforts across districts.
“We have transformed the learning for our students and our districts,” said Dena Cushenberry, superintendent of Metropolitan School District of Warren Township, Indiana.
Since implementing personalized learning, districts and schools have seen rising levels of student engagement, improved graduation and college enrollment rates, reduced discipline rates and greater teacher retention. All these outcomes have moved the needle towards providing an equitable, high-quality public education for students in schools nationwide. Nadya Chinoy Dabby, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement, said, “Personalization presents a unique opportunity for schools to better understand—and meet—each student’s unique learning needs. Equity goes hand-in-hand with personalization.”
Superintendents identified three areas fundamental to scaling success in personalized learning: creating the right infrastructure, providing meaningful professional development and ensuring sustainability of the changes.
Investment in infrastructure can mean building in time and support for teachers and leaders to embrace the new approaches, and practicing a tenet of personalized learning: trust.
“The most innovative thing we’ve done is trust people,” said David Richards, superintendent of Fraser Public Schools, Michigan. “Give people the time, resources and opportunity to grow on their own. Everybody’s A-B is different on this journey.”
At Kettle Moraine School District in Wisconsin, Superintendent Patricia Deklotz found that they “had to give teachers the opportunity to experience personalized learning” for themselves. This was an effective professional development model and cultivated buy-in from teachers.
“You can’t truly realize the personalized learning vision unless learners actually embrace those competencies and have the personal skills to navigate and engage their own learning,” said Thomas Rooney, superintendent of Lindsay Unified School District, California, an RTT–D grantee.
Superintendents are looking to maintain their progress. There are several relevant opportunities within the Every Student Succeeds Act. Also, districts are tapping into their communities’ assets – like local businesses, service providers and teacher colleges – to best meet the needs of their students, families and teachers.
With a strong foundation laid, district and school leaders are positioned to sustain personalized learning and spread this approach across the nation.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” said Katrina Stevens, Deputy Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. “But one thing that’s clear to me: This work is going to move forward because of the passion and dedication of local leaders.”