Educators are Coming Together to Scale Personalized Learning in Colorado

Topics: Building Capacity, Vision and Culture

Brad Ray has been an educator since 1993, but he cites a revelation he experienced as a parent as a big motivator for how he thinks about teaching and learning.

“I have three kids of my own, and two sons who are eighteen months apart,” says Ray, superintendent of Garfield School District 16 in Parachute, Colorado. “They have the same parents, the same environment, the same rules, but they’re very different. I’ve always struggled with the question, why do we give students the same thing just because they’re 10? You differentiate within a classroom, but why not differentiate expectations at any given time in a student’s life?”

The student population in Garfield fluctuates, with a 30 percent mobility rate and between 60 and 65 percent of students receiving free and reduced lunch. The district recognized the potential that personalized, competency-based learning had to meet the changing needs of students within the community. They began their work five years ago, considering what they hoped for every graduate and narrowing their aspirations down into what the district calls their four pillars of individual student success: agency and the ability to own their own learning; personal wellness, including physical, social and emotional and mental wellness; productive citizenship with a focus on character education; and intellectual development that includes not only content knowledge, but also critical thinking and the essential skills and dispositions that prepare students for success no matter their chosen path.

Garfield has gone on to utilize professional development days in support of their shift to personalized learning, partnering with KnowledgeWorks to develop a learning continuum with input from teachers.

The district has also engaged with the Colorado Education Initiative (CEI), which brought like-minded districts together this past spring to learn and grow from each other. “It’s great to have colleagues across the state who have the same passions and interests,” says Ray, of the convenings.

CEI’s focus is on truly operationalizing and scaling personalized learning across the state.

“Personalized learning offers educators a way to change instructional practices in the classroom that can lead to greater student outcomes for all kids, especially those who have been traditionally marginalized,” says Amy Spicer, senior program lead with CEI. “Using competencies and learning progressions allows teachers to look at students in a way they haven’t been able to before: where individual students are, rather than delivering instruction to the middle.”

Elliott Asp, senior partner with CEI, is excited to see where the network of districts they kicked off in the spring goes next.

“We have folks who want to stay the course and move toward a design phase for the pieces they’ve identified,” says Asp, who has supported interested districts in visiting schools that are deeper into the process of implementing personalized learning and organized them into regional cohorts that cut down on the amount of travel and allow for greater knowledge-sharing. “We’re keeping the focus on changing instructional practice to better meet the needs of students and each district’s willingness to learn from one another. We’re excited to build on that.”

For Ray, the work always comes back to the students, too, and how they can redesign the way they teach and learn in Garfield’s schools to best meet their needs.

“Everybody comes to school with a different story,” says Ray. “If we’re willing to create a personalized learning environment for every kid and to challenge everyone involved in the process, what more equitable education can you provide for students and families?”

How is personalized, competency-based learning different than traditional learning? This printer-friendly chart illustrates key differences between learning focused on personalized mastery vs. a more traditional approach to education, specifically in core areas such as school culture, learning continuum, learning pace, instruction, assessment and grading policies.