Leading for and through Change

How three state superintendents lead with intent and purpose to implement personalized, student-centered learning

Topics: Building Capacity, Education Policy

By Emily Brixey and Ryan MacDonald

We’re approaching the two-year anniversary since the coronavirus pandemic forced the field of education to make dramatic changes. As educators contemplate how schools can best serve students going forward, some states are considering the role personalized learning can have in education systems that meet the needs of all students.

Statewide policies are critical to the development and success of student-centered learning since they largely dictate how schools and districts can innovate. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, state policymakers have re-examined some traditional standards of education including instructional time and attendance, assessments and accountability, human capital and technology systems and how they support students with an eye towards fostering innovation.

And it’s not just legislatures that have the ability to make these changes. Education leaders at all levels and in all areas can take action and support the development of policies that further personalized learning. Nowhere is this truer than with state education chiefs. KnowledgeWorks and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) partnered recently to talk with some state education chiefs about the most valuable lessons they’ve learned during the pandemic to support students and student-centered learning.

On January 11, 2022, State Superintendents Kirsten Baesler (ND) and Molly Spearman (SC) and Commissioner Jason E. Glass (KY) shared their wisdom on our joint webinar: What’s Next for Student-Centered Learning: How States Can Leverage the Lessons of the Pandemic to Modernize K-12 Education. CCSSO’s Deputy Executive Director of State Leadership, Steve Bowen, facilitated this great discussion. Keep reading for excerpts from the conversation, or watch the recording of the full webinar.

Use the levers available to you

Kirsten Baesler

North Dakota Superintendent Kirsten Baesler focused on the unique policy opportunities that are afforded to a state education agency (SEA). “Levers that an SEA has to pull are very different than the levers that a district superintendent or building principal would have to pull,” Baesler aptly pointed out during our discussion with her. This was key for her and her team as they focused on the tools that they had available to help support personalized learning practices in North Dakota.

To support personalized learning, Baesler’s office focused on their primary lever, policy. Baesler and her team dove into the work in 2017 with SB 2186. SB 2186 permitted the state superintendent to waive any section of education code to support school districts that wanted to explore innovative techniques within the field of personalized learning. Baesler also mentioned other policies, like the learn anywhere bill, that her office helped shepherd through the legislative process. More recently, the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, in collaboration with KnowledgeWorks, developed the state’s competency-framework as authorized by SB 2196 in 2021. The framework outlines the skills and competencies for the state’s portrait of a graduate.

KnowledgeWorks explores how imagining future possibilities empowers educators and students in North Dakota to create the future they want.
Learn more >>

Find your core values

Jason E. Glass

Throughout the conversation, Kentucky Commissioner Jason Glass highlighted the importance of listening to the voices of his community when designing policy. When Glass arrived at the Kentucky Department of Education in 2019, he understood there had already been work underway in the state to explore and support student-centered learning practices such as their Districts of Innovation. However, the pandemic gave him the opportunity to engage with Kentuckians to learn more about what they wanted from education within the commonwealth.

“We did a lot of listening tours…trying to bring forward from Kentuckians what they wanted for the future, what was their vision, what did Kentucky want for their children moving forward?” Though Glass heard from the community members about pandemic-related issues and struggles, community members articulated core values that moved beyond those experiences and illuminated the heart of Kentuckians.

“There was a solid core of values… It transcended region and politics. People and students want to be engaged. They want to be prepared. They want to be ready for the future and have a meaningful education that they have some say in and want to be surrounded in schools by people who care about them… Our work is how to elevate that and make that the policy priorities of the state.” And for Glass, the focus of the department’s work is to align with those core values to reflect the desires of the community as it continues to advance personalized education policies in the state.

Integrate personalized learning strategies at every level

Molly Spearman

South Carolina Superintendent Molly Spearman highlighted the importance of integrating a personalized learning focus throughout the state. On the campaign trail, then-candidate Spearman vowed that if elected she would implement a system of personalized instruction that truly reflected the goals of the Profile of the South Carolina Graduate that she helped author alongside South Carolina’s business community prior to taking office. After her arrival, she established the Office of Personalized Learning to help support districts and schools implement personalized learning practices and bring to life the South Carolina Profile of a Graduate.

Since her tenure began, Spearman has seen over two-thirds of all South Carolina schools participate in their department’s professional development and support around personalized learning. “We really intentionally embed personalized learning in everything we do at the agency,” Spearman pointed out during the webinar. She views this as a key element for supporting schools that engage in this work, as it allows for a bottom-up approach and for teachers and leaders to opt into professional learning programs.

To conclude the webinar, Lillian Pace, vice president of policy and advocacy at KnowledgeWorks, had a clear message “this is the moment for states to lead.” The pandemic offers a window of opportunity for personalized learning to show off its potential to serve students equitably and efficiently. So what’s next for this movement? Several ideas surfaced as part of the conversation, including discussion around college and career readiness, the creation of flexibilities that allow districts to innovate, launching a statewide learning community and investing in the research and development agenda.

To hear the rest of the great ideas and lessons that surfaced, check out the full webinar.


Ryan MacDonald serves as Senior Program Associate on the Student-Centered Learning team at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Ryan joined CCSSO in 2015 as part of the now Student-Centered Learning team and Education Data and Information Systems team. As part of the Student-Centered Learning team, he manages the programmatic and technical support to the previous Innovation Lab Network (ILN) and now CCSSO’s Student-Centered Learning Collaborative. He is committed to supporting the implementation and scaling of student-centered learning especially for historically underserved students. He received his B.A. in Politics from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Ryan originates from Portland, Maine.