Editor’s Choice: Award-Winning ESSA Personalized Learning Moments

Topics: Education Policy, ESSA

In the spirit of televised awards shows, the KnowledgeWorks policy team creates the Editor’s Choice Awards highlighting favorite policy finds in ESSA plans.After many long months of reading ESSA state plans and sharing our personalized learning finds, the KnowledgeWorks policy team decided to bring a little levity to our project. With the recent Emmy’s on our mind, we thought it would be entertaining to create our very own Editor’s Choice Awards to highlight our favorite policy finds throughout this grueling process.

So without further ado, read on for some “award-winning” ESSA insights from the esteemed KnowledgeWorks Policy Team:

Tyler Barnett

Sarah Jenkins

Anne Olson

Lillian Pace

Matt Williams

Category: Reader’s choice – favorite policy idea for advancing personalized learning

Multiple Pathways

Overall, a significant increase in the number of states implementing multiple pathways for all students. These include those that are more STEM/STEAM focused, competency and personalized pathways and multiple pathways for graduation. I view these as a great stepping stone to scaling personalized and competency-based systems.


Generically, I love that the concept of microcredentials is gaining traction (although the definition and utility of microcredentials is inconsistent from state-to-state). Where microcredentials pertain to teachers rather than students, I think the concept is an outstanding way to do a number of things in the area of professional development: 1) recognize professional learning milestones to inspire continuous improvement; 2) move away from a one-size-fits-all (and oft debunked) approach to salary schedules, which typically depend exclusively on time served and postsecondary attainment; 3) move towards recognition of skill development on an a la carte basis rather than solely as part of an advanced degree program; and 4) generate more personalized and self-paced professional learning opportunities.

Supporting marginalized students

A lot of states are personalized learning as a foundational approach for supporting marginalized groups of students, including English learners; migrant students; homeless students; and youth who are neglected, delinquent, or at-risk. I appreciate the emphasis on personalized learning as a basic necessity for achieving equity.


Local flexibility / differentiation

I’m glad to see so much emphasis on differentiation at multiple levels of the system. ESSA allowed states to outline their philosophy and priorities based on stakeholder feedback in their state, allowing for a certain amount of strategy customization. States are then passing that same type of flexibility (with oversight) down to districts and schools, particularly those designated “in need of support and improvement.” States seem to also be opening the door to targeted, customized professional development opportunities for educators, and personalized learning opportunities for students. If nothing else, having policy flexibilities that create personalized opportunities for support and development at multiple levels of the education system models the process of differentiation for schools looking to support the individual needs of students. By meeting all types of stakeholders where they are, they create a more equitable environment for learning.

Personalized school improvement

Vermont has a rich legislative history of advancing personalized learning and did not disappoint with its ESSA plan. In Vermont, all schools will engage in a quantitative and qualitative process to inform the development and implementation of a bi-annual continuous improvement plan. The quantitative component is addressed through a dashboard of five critical areas: 1) academic proficiency; 2) personalization; 3) safe, healthy schools; 4)High quality staffing; and 5) financial efficiencies. The qualitative component consists of an integrated Field Review process which includes an on-site school review with members from the state agency, a group of educators and community members. This team will monitor high quality instruction, strategies to support personalized learning such as the existence and implementation of rigorous Proficiency-based Graduation Requirements, personalized learning plans and the availability of Vermont Act 77-required Flexible Pathways. This process provides the baseline for all schools, whereas those identified for Comprehensive and Targeted Support and Improvement benefit from more intensive support.

Category: Best original policy idea

Local culture and whole child

Hawaii’s approach to incorporating their local culture and prioritizing the whole child went beyond any of the other state plans I looked at. Even their planning process was based on local values and traditions.



Grow your own educator pipeline

Idaho’s Grow Your Own programs, which create options for districts to cultivate the next generation of effective teachers in hard-to-staff areas. Under the Grow Your Own umbrella, the state will fund a few significant initiatives to help districts build a teacher pipeline from the ground up: 1) the development of district-level teacher training programs for paraprofessionals currently working in the district; 2) the establishment of concurrent credit opportunities specifically for high school students wishing to major in education; and 3) the establishment of scholarships for students who commit to teaching in high-needs areas. I especially love this because not only does it help with teacher shortage issues, but it also creates personalized pathways for students and aspiring teachers.

Participatory budgeting

I keep coming back to New York’s participatory budgeting idea, involving parents at a school designated in need of support to engage in the process that delineates where a portion of support funds will go. It’s potentially risky, but if done well, could have great benefits for student learning and community engagement.


Instructional partnership initiative

Not crazy out-of-the-box but smart, which is just as important. Tennessee emphasizes differentiated professional learning and mentoring for teachers, implemented in part by the state’s Instructional Partnership Initiative (IPI). IPI is a personalized professional learning approach that leverages existing expertise within schools to help teachers improve their craft. Teachers in the same school are strategically paired based on complementary strengths and areas for growth on specific instructional practice areas. This is a great platform for supporting teachers and laying the foundation for personalized learning.

Shared responsibility for school turnaround

After a decade of controversial and arguably ineffective school turnaround policies, it was refreshing to read Rhode Island’s proposal for school turnaround. The state smartly starts with a set of guiding principles for school improvement that emphasize themes like personalization, local flexibility and autonomy, tight standards of accountability, shared accountability and authentically engaged communities. With an eye toward sustainability, the state has proposed that all Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) schools create a Community Advisory Board (CAB) to help design and implement school improvement efforts. Schools that have not met their exit criteria in four years will engage in “School Redesign” in which LEAs authentically engage with their educators and CABs to fundamentally redesign and relaunch the school as a model best positioned to address student needs.

Category: Most unforgettable (in a good way)

Anne: Tennessee. 

Tyler: Arkansas

Matt: Can’t chose just one, I’d say Illinois, North Dakota and Tennessee.

Sarah: Hawaii

Lillian: Since Matt choose more than one, I have to say Tennessee, Vermont and South Carolina.

Clearly, months of reading uncovered some intriguing ideas that will be fun to watch and learn from as the implementation phase of ESSA unfolds. If the “Most Unforgettable” category peaked your interest, stay tuned for Matt Williams’ closing blog in the series that profiles the top states overall for advancing personalized learning. These states put forth a bold vision for personalized learning and smartly integrated that vision throughout all elements of their plan to create a cohesive system that will benefit all students. They deserve significant recognition and the final word in this ESSA series.

Take a closer look at what we found when reviewing state ESSA implementation plans visiting our interactive map and related resources.