Author: Julia Freeland Fisher

Why Personalized Learning is Hard to Study

July 25, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on July 14, 2017.

This week saw the release of the third in a series of personalized learning studies conducted by the RAND Corporation. The research analyzed implementation, survey, and efficacy data in a sample of schools that are part of the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) portfolio, and compared that data to a national sample of schools. The findings? NGLC schools yielded some positive academic results, but educators and administrators reported numerous challenges. And in some cases, such as how often teachers reported “keeping up-to-date documentation of student strengths, weaknesses, and goals,” the researchers detected little to no difference between personalized NGLC schools versus traditional schools. (NB: For those familiar with last 2015 RAND report on personalized learning by the same authors, it’s worth noting a crucial distinction: this new study analyzed a group of 32 schools only 16 of which were included in the set of over 60 schools in the 2015 sample, which helps to explain some divergent conclusions drawn between the two.)

Advocates for and critics against personalized learning will inevitably interpret these findings in wildly different ways.

Long-time advocates hoping to dismantle traditional factory-based instructional approaches can use the academic findings to cite the potential promise of personalized models. And they can defend apparent shortcomings by pointing out that the smaller sample of NGLC schools does not represent the numerous other promising personalized learning efforts afoot across the country. At the same time, those critical of the fever pitch around personalized learning can use the mere modest gains and numerous challenges that researchers surfaced to downplay its potential. Already, headlines reporting on the findings alluded to the ‘hyped’ or overblown ambitions of personalized learning.

But stepping back, what some would call promising or hyped I would call nascent. I’m skeptical of how much the particular research findings in this most recent report should extend to making broad statements about personalized learning in either direction. Put differently, I’m not sure the study would really give anyone reason to either celebrate or denounce personalized learning. The academic gains are positive, but hard to attribute back to specific practices or inputs. And the challenges implementers reported are real, but shouldn’t be conflated with efficacy of personalized practices themselves.

Instead, if we can acknowledge that schools are still extremely early in developing and implementing instructional models that personalize along a range of dimensions, then we should be wary of treating any research at this stage as an authoritative source on whether or not something so new and ill-defined actually “works” writ large.

This is not to say that RAND did a bad job trying to make sense of a new and evolving set of instructional and structural shifts afoot in schools. The researchers were handed a sample of NGLC schools attempting to personalize learning in a wide variety of ways. The researchers then tried to measure those practices along dimensions like competency-based learning that are themselves still hard to calibrate, and compare them to traditional schools. (more…)

3 Innovative Tips for Tackling School Culture

July 14, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on June 20, 2017. 

On the heels of a series of PR nightmares facing Uber’s executives, headlines and speculation about what’s next for the company abound. Some investors have continued to defend the company’s evidently toxic culture, suggesting that once successful entrepreneurs have built a successful product or service, they then can afford to worry about factors like company norms. Others, like Freada Kapor Klein have been less willing to let the company off the hook.

Both sides, however, seem to agree that Uber now needs to commit to fundamentally reshaping its culture. This, of course, may be easier said than done. Company culture is not something that can change over night, which begs the thorny question that USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava put best: Can Uber really change?

Although many school systems’ woes may pale in comparison to allegations permeating Uber, the question of whether entrenched systems can “really change” rings true through education circles today. All too often, new efforts die on the vine if a school culture isn’t lining up around those efforts. And in most reform circles, discussions about change management or school transformation inevitably circle back to nailing school culture. But we often remain short on the specifics of how to do so.

Luckily, innovation theory can help to surface insights on how schools might both measure and change culture. Here are three tips on what we’ve learned about culture, process, and change inside and outside of education:

  1. Find recurring problems

More often than not, discussions of school culture can feel vague. Successful leaders can rarely pinpoint the alchemy of what’s working, and culturally fraught schools can, like Uber employees, feel that all is not well but may struggle to find their way to a solution.

The first step for changing culture is realizing that it can indeed be broken down into something cognizable and measurable. Perhaps counter-intuitively, culture rarely presents itself through well-meaning mission statements or strategy documents. Rather, it manifests itself in repeated processes that are so common that they become virtually unconscious.

This means that measuring the actual components of culture cannot be accomplished merely through school climate surveys that offer self-reported data from staff or students. Although these instruments may help to take the temperature of school culture, they rarely reveal the factors actually contributing to it.

School culture, rather, should be identified through leaders and teachers gaining clear sense of the processes guiding day-to-day practice. Culture results from students and teachers solving problems in a certain way; that solution becomes repeated over and over until it is so ingrained that no one has to think anymore. Schools have many processes and priorities that can coalesce over time into a shared culture. If these processes themselves are broken or routinely marginalize certain actors or priorities, then so too will the culture be broken. (more…)

When Reinventing Schools, Don’t Relegate Relationships

May 29, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on May 12, 2017.

In an effort to modernize school systems, communities around the country are beginning to revisit what graduating high school should really mean. Some are doing so by creating an ideal “profile of a graduate,” articulating the range of skills and habits a successful high school graduate ought to possess. The organization EdLeader21 has begun to curate a gallery of emerging profiles from around the country and provide tools to school systems hoping to create their own. A great synthesis of these initiatives lives on its new site, Profile of a Graduate. If you haven’t already, it’s worth a look.

These new visions mark a promising first step to updating our century-old school system. Innovations grow along the metrics by which we hold them to account. And the emergence of multi-dimensional graduate profiles hint that schools are evolving beyond using average test scores as the sole metric guiding K–12 school reform. But skimming through these new and expanded definitions of success had me at once excited and worried. Amidst a number of bold metrics that profiles depict, a crucial ingredient remains missing from most emerging profiles of what makes for a successful graduate: his network.

A student’s network—both his access to strong- and weak-tie relationships and his ability to mobilize those relationships—can drive his access to opportunity in postsecondary and beyond. Indeed, an estimated 50 percent of jobs come through personal connections. Not to mention, access to networks has been shown to shape everything from health outcomes to investment prospects over the course of adults’ lives. In the shorter term, access to formal and informal mentors can have real impact on students’ engagement in school and success in postsecondary pursuits.

These assets are particularly crucial for schools worried about equitable outcomes among their graduates: like the skills gaps plaguing our education system, there are likewise network gaps. Given external forces like increasing residential segregation and disparate enrichment spending, much as some students’ find themselves on the wrong side of stubborn achievement gaps, many find themselves on the wrong side of mentor gaps as well. (more…)

What’s the Difference Between Blended and Personalized Learning?

May 15, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on April 25, 2017. 

Earlier this month, after two exhilarating and exhausting days at the Blended and Personalized Learning Conference in Providence, R.I., (which we cohosted with our partners at Highlander Institute and The Learning Accelerator), I boarded an evening flight back to D.C. Just after takeoff, a school principal from Virginia seated in the row just ahead of me poked his head through the seat to ask:

“So, what’s the difference between blended and personalized learning?”

First off, I want to say kudos to this school leader, who had also attended the conference. Over 48 hours of sharing practices, research, and challenges had me running on fumes. But he was tireless and eager to push the conversation forward.

Second, this moment felt distinctly like a healthy dose of karma given the title we had used for the conference. Not wanting to box ourselves too narrowly into one approach or model, we had taken the route of dubbing the conference theme “blended and personalized learning.” That phrase has become so common in the education lexicon that it’s almost like a single, deeply unfortunate compound noun—blendedandpersonalizedlearning. It’s a mouthful. Not to mention, it hardly lends itself to a pithy hashtag.

I particularly don’t recommend overusing the phrase because collapsing these two terms—blended and personalized—risks diluting the clarity of each and confusing the leaders and educators expected to do the hard work of educating real students in real schools.

So here’s the gist of what I discussed with that school principal, and how we at the Christensen Institute try to make a clear distinction between these related but distinct terms.

Blended learning is a modality of instruction. As we at the Christensen Institute define it, blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns: (more…)

Making Equity a First Principle of Personalized Learning

May 10, 2017 by

This post first appeared at the Christensen Institute on April 12, 2017. 

“Racism and inequity are products of design. They can be redesigned.”

These words echoed from the keynote speakers at the annual Blended and Personalized Learning Conference (BPLC) in Providence, R.I., last weekend.

On April 1st, in partnership with Highlander Institute and The Learning Accelerator, the Christensen Institute co-hosted the BPLC for the second year in a row. To build the agenda we used our Blended Learning Universe to recruit innovative school leaders and educators to share their tactics and practices at the cutting edge of school innovation. We also looked for presenters who were wrestling down the challenging gaps in racial and socioeconomic equity that have for too long dominated our education system.

To that end, our keynote address, presented by Caroline Hill, who leads school creation and transformation at CityBridge Education and is founder of the DC Equity Lab, and Michelle Molitor, founder and CEO of Fellowship for Race & Equity in Education (FREE), focused on how we might reframe the conversation about personalized learning to bring equity to the forefront of school and classroom redesign.

As much as we hear “equity” talked about as a value in our education system, it can be a difficult to tackle head on. Since our own inception, the Christensen Institute has been committed to researching and supporting approaches to instruction that break open the factory model of school. We believe that, particularly in light of the growth of online and blended learning, we are living in an era in which we can feasibly redesign school around students’ needs and strengths and free up teachers to teach individual and small groups of students more often. But we don’t just research these trends because they are innovative—but because they are imperative. (more…)

Teachers are Managers – So Let’s Give Them the Tools to Manage

February 16, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on January 24, 2017. 

julia-freeland-fisher

Julia Freeland Fisher

Good management is hard. Typically, employees grow into manager roles over time. In most industries, employees must first prove themselves effective at their own job; then, they may take on some administrative duties; and only much later do leaders oversee large groups of employees and become responsible for motivating, training, and retaining them.

But two major institutions buck this trend: our schools and our military. In both, newly minted young professionals are asked to take on management roles from the very start. And surpassing even the number of direct reports young military officers oversee, teachers must manage upwards of 30 people the moment they set foot in school: their students.

For any manager, numbers like these are daunting—and having the right systems in place to manage effectively can make all the difference. Good managers motivate and inspire; they move their charges forward toward individual and shared goals; they create structures that provide predictability; and they provide feedback that helps their employees improve over time. And amidst all of this, workplaces are changing and management practices have to adapt alongside them.

As theories of effective management have continued to evolve in the 21st century, teachers—some of our most unsung and overworked mangers—stand to benefit from developments in management science. This begs the question: how might teachers borrow from promising management practices in our country’s top companies?

In a new playbook out this week, our Adjunct Fellow Heather Staker tackles this question. “How to Create Higher Performing, Happier Classrooms in 7 Moves: A Playbook for Teachers” looks at vanguard management practices that are making their way into exciting new classroom models. The playbook summarizes findings from a yearlong pilot project in the San Francisco Bay Area. The project, led by Mallory Dwinal, David Richards, and Jennifer Wu, looked systematically at the structures and processes that high-performing managers at cutting-edge companies like Google, Zappos, and Geico have put into place to create their dynamic cultures. The researchers chose their target companies by consulting Glassdoor’s “Best Places to Work” list, case studies from Harvard Business School, and analyst reports.

What are managers at these firms doing right? (more…)

Education Innovation in 2017: 4 Personalized Learning Trends to Watch

January 21, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on January 4, 2017.Library

At the Clayton Christensen Institute, we track disruptive innovations in K–12 schools that upend the traditional factory-based model of school in favor of instructional approaches that better center on each individual student. Here are four trends in personalized learning we’ll be watching unfold in the coming year:

1. Platform plays will play themselves out

Over the past few years, we have witnessed homegrown learning platforms crop up inside of schools trying to push the boundaries of personalization. In 2016, a number of these new cloud-based learning platforms—such as Summit Public Schools’ Personalized Learning Platform, Matchbook School’s Spark, Brooklyn Lab’s Cortex, Alt School’s Alt School Open, and Leadership Public Schools-Gooru’s Learning Navigator—proliferated beyond their original founding school networks. These next-generation platforms all represent bold attempts to digitize the instructional and logistical coordination at play in successful personalized learning models. The hope is that traditional schools adopting these platforms might be able to likewise buck traditional instruction in favor of more individualized pathways and supports. 2017 will see the first robust data sets coming out of partner schools adopting these new platforms that they themselves did not develop. These schools, in turn, will provide an initial test case of an operating hypothesis in the personalized learning space: that a high-quality platform and professional development supports surrounding platform implementation could be critical levers to scaling personalized approaches across traditional settings.

2. Big assessment decisions will hit the states

The past year saw states ramping up for a new reality under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which places far greater leeway and oversight in state’s hands rather than residing with the feds. In 2017 states will get their ESSA plans off the ground and make important tactical decisions. States’ approaches to assessment will prove to be key harbingers of instructional changes to come. Watch for increased focus on performance assessment throughout K–12 and better proxies for postsecondary preparation and readiness at the high school level. The assessment instruments states ultimately choose will offer clues as to what emerging definitions of 21st-century “success” will look like; these decisions will also have major implications for content providers and publishers in the short term. (more…)

Should Instructional Choice Trump School Choice?

January 3, 2017 by

typingThis post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on November 23, 2016.

Today, President-elect Donald Trump appointed school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as our next secretary of education. Given DeVos’s decades support for charter schools and tax-credit scholarships, most are speculating that this signals Trump’s commitment to follow through on his promise to commit over $20 billion to expanding charter schools across the country.

Looking ahead, Trump and DeVos would be wise to embrace an expanding notion of educational choice. Indeed, in the 21st century, a choice agenda should focus on optimizing instructional choices, not just school choices. A next generation vision of choice should be about schools—of the district, charter, or private varietal—providing numerous and flexible learning pathways tailored to each of their students. In the long run, we believe that a robust supply of personalized instructional options within schools may be the most potent driver of combatting stubborn achievement gaps and graduating more students college and career ready.

Historically, the quality and experiences that a given school could offer were fairly uniform within that school. All students sat in the same rows, with the same educators, receiving the same lectures, reading the same materials, and taking the same tests. School was designed like a factory assembly line, providing all students with the same—regardless of whether that particular version of “same” was a good fit. As decades of research have shown, this led to variable and often unequal learning outcomes among different students, both within and between schools. But because of the manner in which most school districts operated, if a school model proved ill-suited to a student or his family and couldn’t pay out of pocket for another option, then he was essentially out of luck.

School choice regimes, in part, emerged as an answer to that embedded constraint of our factory model education system. (more…)

The Hidden Goal that XQ Winners Share: Relationships

October 5, 2016 by
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Graphic from original post

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on September 28, 2016.

This month, U.S. high schools got a healthy dose of innovation investment—the XQ Super School project announced 10 winners, each of which will receive $10 million to support their efforts to reinvent high school. Although the winners are pursuing a pretty dazzling array of approaches, all 10 are exploring ways to personalize high school in an effort to crack open the monolithic model of cohort and age-based instruction that undergirds traditional school.

But across their diverse models, there’s another common, if not subtler, effort afoot: to invest in students’ relationships and networks. As Eric Tucker, head of the winning Brooklyn Lab, said, “What we’re committed to doing is making sure that the school is the connector.” And as a school leader at another winner, Washington Leadership Academy (WLA), noted, relationships rank among the school’s top four values: “Building strong relationships between, staff, students, families, and our local and global community is core to our work at WLA.”

There’s a powerful message underlying this commitment: If high schools are going to step up to the 21st century and level the playing field of opportunity, then they can’t focus on students’ human capital alone; they have to invest in students’ social capital as well. Human capital refers to what people can do—their skills and dispositions—that they can, in turn, convert into labor market returns down the line. Social capital, on the other hand, refers to the reservoir of relationships that people can bank on for supports or opportunities. Social capital is not singular in its benefits. As MIT Professor and Ford Foundation Vice President Xavier de Souza Briggs aptly put it, “Individuals of all backgrounds need a two-sided treasure chest of social capital: access to social support that helps us cope with life’s stresses and challenges (‘get by’) and access to social leverage, the key to mobility or ‘getting ahead.’” In other words, people—especially young people—need relationships that provide critical care, supports and encouragement. They also need relationships that can connect them to new opportunities—like jobs, ideas and learning experiences—that are otherwise beyond their reach. (more…)

What Life before EdTech Can Teach Us about Personalized Learning

August 8, 2016 by

TypewriterThis post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on July 21, 2016.

In many circles, edtech and the future of learning have become synonymous. This is unsurprising given the enormous uptick in online courses and technology tools in K–12 schools nationwide, not to mention the promise that technology holds to dismantle barriers to access and experience that have plagued the education system for years.

Yet, with excitement over new gadgets and possibilities, schools and edtech entrepreneurs alike often miss a key step: defining what the ideal student experience should look like absent technology. Before building, trying, or buying new technology tools, we should start by asking, “In an analog world, how would we personalize learning to drive student outcomes?”

This question can refocus edtech enthusiasts on the right unit of innovation: instruction. All too often, when we talk about edtech innovations, technology takes the lead and instructional models are relegated to playing a supporting role. By first taking the time to imagine an ideal tech-free instructional model, schools can avoid the temptation to merely digitize their traditional systems or cram hardware into classrooms ill-equipped to take advantage of what technology can offer. Instead, by establishing an ideal vision of learning in a tech-free world, schools and edtech companies stand to more effortlessly deploy technology in a manner that predictably drives outcomes in the long run.

My colleague Thomas Arnett’s new case study, “Connecting ed & tech: Partnering to drive student outcomes,” highlights an example of a school, and one particularly innovative teacher, that took this order of operations to heart. Starting in 2008, Michael Fauteux, a veteran math teacher at Leadership Public Schools (LPS), created Academic Numeracy, a companion math course to Algebra 1 for all 9th graders who were below grade level in math. The course was designed in line with two textbooks and a supplemental online software program that Fauteux’s colleague, Todd McPeak, had developed. After showing dramatic results in students’ math scores, LPS expanded Academic Numeracy to all three schools in the San Francisco Bay Area network the following year. (more…)

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