Hands-on and joyful personalized learning environments can meet student’s individual needs and fulfill their unique interests.

In the United States, the greatest determinant of a student’s educational outcomes continues to be the circumstances of their birth. We can reliably predict the course of a child’s academic life from the time they are born based on their race, socio-economic status, primary language spoken at home, and the neighborhood where they live. The historic racism and inequities in our society are plainly reflected in our public schools. Our education system still functions largely as a factory model incapable of recognizing the unique assets each child brings to the classroom. It is designed to prepare our students for the past, not the future. It is long-past time for a major upgrade from what we have to a system capable of preparing an increasingly diverse student population for civic and economic life in a digitally integrated, globally contextualized, and culturally complex world.

We believe we can build a high-quality, equitable public education system that helps students grow the knowledge and skills they need for the future. Comprehensive personalized learning strategies can ensure each student is seen and understood by their educators for their strengths and assets, as well as their developmental needs and challenges. Every single child must be supported in strengthening their academic skills, as well as their individual cultural identity and understanding of their social emotional needs. The core of good teaching and learning has always been predicated on deeply knowing students and customizing instruction to meet their individual needs. But we have never had a system that supports that relationship for every child in every community. We are at a unique point where we can marry what we know about learning science and social emotional development with tools to help educators make more customized instructional decisions based on real-time information.

Unfortunately, an organized effort to undermine personalized learning has pushed an oversimplified, disingenuous characterization of these strategies as a nefarious scheme to sell “student data” and “replace teachers with tablets.” These bumper sticker arguments conjure troubling images of children surfing the internet unsupervised, stoke fears about the commodification of privacy, and exacerbate every parent’s concern about limiting screen time for their kids. It is a provocative argument, and it would be legitimate cause for grave concern if it were true. Fortunately, it is demonstrably false.

Andrew Frishman, Co-Executive Director of Big Picture Learning/ImBlaze, shares his take on the role of technology in facilitating personalized learning.

No serious person believes that technology is the sole problem, or the sole solution, to our challenges in public education. Educators are always going to have to make instructional decisions based on the information available to them. That will not change. In many cases, tech-enabled tools can help them do that and can help scale what works. Therefore, the actual question on the table is whether or not we will embrace the need to safely and seamlessly integrate technology into education as we have in virtually every other aspect of modern life.

Our underserved students are not better served by oversimplified characterizations of the problem. It creates expectations for silver bullet solutions that are not benchmarked to the size and complexity of the challenge. Our children need the adults in the system to work together to offer serious solutions. When we honor the complexity of the challenge, we can start to create the stability we need for the sand to settle so we can see the problem clearly. This is true at the level of an individual organizational leader, and it is true at the ecosystem level.

Launching the Personalized Learning Initiative

Learning environments created by Big Picture Learning and PowerMyLearning, two Personalized Learning Initiative grantee-partners.

In 2016, with funding from the first formal partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, we launched New Profit’s Personalized Learning Initiative. The Initiative is comprised of eight nationally-recognized leaders working on different aspects of the personalized learning ecosystem. Organizations in the cohort represent school models, organizations that build personalized learning capacity with instructional tools, research organizations, and policy-focused organizations. Each of the organizations in the cohort receive deep advisory support and unrestricted capital to help them grow their great work—by building their organization’s leadership, strategic, and financial capabilities—and show evidence of impact.

The core of our model is the deep, trusted relationships we build with the social entrepreneurs in our portfolio. We want to be the first ones they call when something goes wrong so we can arm them with the supports they need to get back on track as quickly as possible. Our hope is that there is a value add to not only our social entrepreneurs and their organizations, but also to funders who are not set up to provide that kind of support. Because a programmatic investment can be made on a well-reasoned theory of change, but if the organizational capacity and financial stability is not in place, they aren’t going to get the return on investment that they otherwise might.

It Takes an Ecosystem to Shift a System
Beth Rabbitt, CEO of The Learning Accelerator, discusses her experience as a member of the Personalized Learning cohort.

While we believe in the power of social entrepreneurs to grow their organizations and do excellent work, we have never believed that one person or one organization can fundamentally shift any particular system. The strongest leaders think about their work in terms of the broader context. They are able to hold having both a disciplined focus on the work they are doing and an ability to lift up and look at trends and engage in partnerships across the ecosystem. Leadership can be very lonely and there is rarely targeted support to help build this kind of collaborative capacity.

“It is not always easy to find spaces of psychological safety with role-alike peers where you can have productive disagreements grounded in the fact that you know you have shared purpose or you wouldn’t be doing the work you are doing.”
Andrew Frishman, Big Picture Learning/ImBlaze

Elisabeth Stock built PowerMyLearning from a nascent nonprofit in 1999 into a national leader in the K-12 digital learning space.

But bringing together strong leaders is a legitimate challenge. To be a good organizational leader, in some ways you have to doggedly believe that your intervention or model is the right one. In addition, people have different experience sets, different assumptions, and are in different places in their own leadership journey.

“All of us have very different levers that we are pushing both in the change we are trying to make as well as whether it is at the policy or implementation level. On top of all of that, we are human beings with different world views and origin stories that express themselves when we bring our whole selves to a conversation.”
Elisabeth Stock, PowerMyLearning

It is complex stuff. You are never going to have concrete answers. Is that frustrating? Of course. But it is reality. We need a multiplicity of approaches, points of view, and messy work to get positive change that is real and sustainable over time. When we only gather leaders who already agree and are working on the same thing, we make the wrong call. To get the most effective, holistic change, we need to address the stark inequities in education leadership and work to diversify the pool of people who are shaping the future of our education system.

Dana-Borrelli Murray and Shawn Rubin of Highlander Institute discuss how personalized learning can help advance equitable outcomes in education.

Within nonprofits and philanthropy, decision-making tables still tend to be very segregated. Thirty percent of the U.S. population are Black and/or Latinx1 but they account for only 10% of nonprofit leadership2 and receive only 4% of sector grants and contributions3. Through its Inclusive Impact Initiative, New Profit has committed to shifting and increasing the flow of capital to Black and/or Latinx leaders, developing philanthropic leaders of color, and building capacity and collaboration to transform organizations and networks to be more diverse and inclusive. Similar efforts need to be made within our public education system. Shawn Rubin of the Highlander Institute says: “We haven’t elevated enough people who truly believe there is a necessity for a liberated system. Most of us are comfortable enough with the ways in which the system works that we will keep looking for strategy shifts or curriculum shifts without deeply committing to what is required to create an equity-driven system of education.” Not only do we have a set of leaders trying to solve this problem who don’t reflect the population they are serving. We are holding those leaders accountable using measurement systems that don’t match what we are trying to achieve.

1US Census July 2016
2Informed by various sources including Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap, Building Movement Project and 2013 State of Work Report, D5 Coalition
3Public Charity Data, National Charitable Center of Statistics, 2015. GuideStar
Diversity Status Data on Senior Staff, 2017. Next Street analysis

A classroom in a Chicago elementary school that has partnered with LEAP Innovations to pilot a hands-on approach to personalized learning.

A classroom in a Chicago elementary school that has partnered with LEAP Innovations to pilot a hands-on approach to personalized learning.

Susan Patrick, CEO of Aurora Institute (formerly known as iNACOL), speaks at the Aurora Institute’s annual conference, the industry’s leading event shaping the future of K-12 education.

If we are going to see the complexity of the challenge clearly so we can personalize learning for all learners, we absolutely must have a more comprehensive set of measurements by which we judge student achievement. Susan Patrick of Aurora Institute (formerly known as iNACOL) says: “What if learning was organized with a common set of expectations for all students, yet based on stage, not age? What if students demonstrated mastery before moving to the next level? Personalized learning affords us the opportunity to think bigger and broader about what constitutes success for each and every student along community- and educator-led standards and pathways. This conversation has to be driven by supporting whole child personalization grounded in research on the learning sciences and requires us to be thinking differently about how we measure success.”

We believe that personalized learning done well can do a great deal of good for our most underserved student populations. If we aren’t innovating with the goal of meeting the needs of the least-served, we run a real risk of replicating and reinforcing the very structures we need to disrupt. Making this kind of systemic shift requires people working at all levels of the ecosystem to be thinking about what their individual work adds up to and how it fits with other efforts. It also requires people who are working on the ground to understand how they can influence public policies that shapes our education system, and requires policy makers to understand the impact of their decisions when the rubber meets the road at implementation.

Phyllis Lockett, CEO of LEAP Innovations, visits one of the 125+ schools across Chicago who have partnered with LEAP to implement personalized learning at the classroom and school level.

Those working most directly with educators, students, and families in the most challenging circumstances are very often best-poised to offer the most effective solutions. Phyllis Lockett of LEAP Innovations says: “Personalized learning is about democratizing access and opportunity. I have spent the last five years working with educators and students in some of Chicago’s most challenged neighborhoods—including Englewood, where I grew up—to completely redesign the learning experience around the needs and strengths of individual students. To effectively build a learner focused experience there has to be a value proposition placed on that learner’s culture. And the value proposition is that those things are not a deficit that needs to be fixed. To get there, we must rethink our expectations of what students can do, what opportunities they have access to—and how we teach them. Test scores are not the final goal. It is about creating and designing an experience that will reveal and amplify their strengths, get them to mastery, and nurture the development of human skills that will enable every child to maximize their potential. That is equity.”

Different Approaches; Shared Aspirations