A Path to the Future: Creating Accountability for Personalized Learning

A New Report from Bellwether Education Partners advises policymakers how to avoid ignoring the future of education

The very smart team at Bellwether Education Partners released a new report today that asks policymakers to look thoughtfully into the future of personalized learning in considering state and federal policies.

In A Path to the Future: Creating Accountability for Personalized Learning, Anne Hyslop and Sara Mead argue that personalized learning practitioners and advocates are encountering barriers in current federal and state accountability structures. As debate continues over the reauthorization of ESEA, the nation’s most significant K-12 education law, the authors warn that lawmakers “run the risk of ignoring the future” by relegating innovation to the “fringes of the debate.”

A Path to the Future: Creating Accountability for Personalized Learning | Bellwether Education Partners

Is Personalized Learning at Odds with Accountability Structures?

A Path to the Future highlights the challenge policymakers face when the values, philosophies, and methods of accountability and personalized learning conflict. Beyond barriers like procurement policies that hinder software purchases, class size policies that restrict the design of different learning environments, and seat time requirements that make competency-based models a moot strategy, practitioners and advocates of personalized learning meet especially formidable challenges in current accountability structures.

7077Hyslop and Mead discuss these challenges across four key features of accountability structures:

  • Academic Content Standards: Personalized learning calls for students to learn what they are ready for, but current content standards are structured around age-based grade levels. The goal, of course, is to help every student meet and exceed their grade level standards, but personalized learning advocates argue that it makes little sense to give a student content they do not have the foundational skills to learn just because of their age.
  • Assessments: Current standardized tests assess students on grade-level standards and do a poor job of measuring growth above or below those standards. This is at odds with personalized learning’s goal of competency-based learning where students are met where they are. Adaptive tests, like the NWEA’s Measures of Academic Progress, could be used to evaluate students’ mastery of grade-level skills and drill in on higher- or lower-grade level skills, giving schools a more precise picture of student understanding. But, No Child Left Behind specifically requires that schools use “the same academic assessments used to measure the achievement of all children.” At best, these tests become an annoyance to educators. At worst, the authors argue, they serve to dissuade schools from adopting personalized models designed to meet students where they are at, regardless of grade level.
  • School Rating System: Because proficiency measures are on grade-level standards, schools may be wary of attempting a shift to personalized learning, especially those schools that are already labeled “low performing” under NCLB. Adopting assessments which record student growth would allow schools to demonstrate what they have added to student learning each year, but the current rating systems do not accurately measure these efforts.
  • Intervention Strategies: Schools deemed “low performing” are required to sign on to an intervention strategy and make dramatic performance gains in three years or less. These gains requirements are based on grade-level proficiency assessments not on individual student growth. Chris Rush, New Classrooms’ cofounder, likes to contrast these now-or-nothing measures with the approach the IRS takes for collecting delinquent taxes. If the IRS threw everyone in jail who couldn’t pay their back taxes each year, nearly everyone who fell behind would end up in jail, unable to pay them off in one lump sum. Instead the IRS creates a payment plan which allows taxpayers to chip away at your debt in order to catch back up. The same should be true for students who have fallen behind (or simply never caught up to) their grade level.

Designing a Future-Ready Approach to Accountability

Hyslop and Mead write that there are opportunities for policymakers to balance accountability structures and the desire to personalize learning through two policy trends: NCLB State Waivers and Common Core State Standards. NCLB waivers, they write, provide states with new flexibility to implement personalized learning strategies—allowing states to set performance targets based on student growth rather than grade-level proficiency, expanding the factors states considered when evaluating school performance, and giving them discretion in how districts must intervene in schools labeled “low performing.”

Similarly, the Common Core standards have created a space for schools to talk about more holistic approaches to education, ones often aligned to personalized learning models. By emphasizing skills and habits beyond academic knowledge, the Common Core has opened up a conversation about the purpose of education, which practitioners and advocates of personalized learning are eager to engage in.

The authors conclude with five key principles and detailed recommendations for policymakers designing future education policies. Their recommendation involves an umbrella policy to create a uniform accountability structure, while also giving states the ability to provide tailored waivers to schools or districts developing or implementing personalized learning strategies in order to give cutting edge practitioners and providers the room they need to innovate.

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