Lessons From Personalized Learning and Competency-Based Education State Pilots

Topics: Education Policy, ESSA

We’ve seen a significant shift in state policy that supports the expansion of personalized learning over the last five or so years. To provide some context to this movement, in 2012 roughly 50 percent of states had policies that were supportive of personalized and competency-based learning. These policies ranged from seat time waivers to pilot programs. Fast forward to 2017 and almost all states have policies that support personalized and competency-based learning with about half of the states having invested in formal pilot programs and/or innovation funds to support the work.

Why are so many states shifting to personalized and competency-based learning? For many reasons, ranging from trying to close achievement gaps to global competitiveness to looking at new ways to increase readiness to creating more equitable supports for all students. One cross-cutting driver for states is looking at a way to redesign the system to prepare every student for a complex, ambiguous and ever-changing world.

With the shift towards piloting personalized and competency-based learning pilot initiatives, there is a great deal that states can learn from early adopter states.

  1. Be Strategic: What is the pilot solving for? The pilot should drive towards a priority for the state as this will give the pilots lessons in finding a way to grow beyond just a handful of districts or schools. The focus should be on scale but to what end? Knowing what problem is being solved provides a focus and allows for a strategic implementation, focused professional development, resource deployment and alignment and foundation for a strong evaluation.
  2. Profile of a Graduate: The use of a Profile of a Graduate (PoG) is a corollary to the first lesson of being strategic. Districts or schools that are applying for and implementing a pilot should develop a PoG. A PoG keeps the district or school focused on their ultimate outcome; what skills and attributes they want their graduates to possess. This provides a driving force for implementation and a way to gauge impact. Lastly, several states have developed their own PoGs (South Carolina, Virginia and, mostly recently, Ohio). These are great tools for states to use and allow for system alignment down to the school level.
  3. Stakeholder Support: States embarking on a pilot program should see broad stakeholder support. Sustainability with a focus on scale is easier when key stakeholders are on board from the beginning and work with the state to support development of the pilot program. One great example of this is North Dakota. The Department of Public Instruction worked with a bi-partisan group of policymakers, North Dakota United (teachers’ union) and the state Chamber of Commerce to craft and pass SB2186, their innovative learning pilot program.
  4. Local Context: This should go without saying but states should align the pilot program to unique context of their state. Again, many states are moving forward with pilot programs to support the expansion of personalized and competency-based learning but each state is different with unique stakeholders, economic development opportunities, racial and ethnic makeup and current educational opportunities and challenges. Just as every state is different, every district and school is as well. States should build in flexibility and local control so that communities can build around their assets to create the best opportunities for sustained success and system alignment.
  5. Policy Supports and Calibration: The above lessons all build towards states being strategic in implementation so that they can learn from the pilots to develop policy supports for schools and districts making the shift to personalized, competency-based learning. The lessons shape the aligned supports from state to district and district to school. Additionally, the lessons learned and evaluation data provide great insights into the calibration of local, state and federal policy.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides states with significant flexibility to advance personalized learning and improve equitable outcomes for their students.  Our state-by-state analysis highlights emerging ideas states are considering as they leverage this flexibility through their implementation plans.