Michigan District Leaders Get Personal – About Personalized Learning

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For former superintendent Dave Richards, PhD, equipping district leaders is a critical step in implementing personalized, competency-based learning.

“Classroom teachers, their heart is in the work, they get it,” said Dr. Richards, who served as superintendent for eight years with Fraser Public Schools in Michigan. “But it’s a heavy lift for teachers to move personalized learning forward in their districts. They have to have their superintendents and building principals on board, and those leaders need to be equipped to lead the process and the conversation.”

Dr. Richards now coaches other leaders and is a strong voice in the Michigan Competency Consortium, a group of district leaders in Michigan who are advocating for a more student-centered approach to education in their state. The consortium targets their resources and supports to the needs of district leaders explicitly. They have been meeting every six weeks over the past two years, sharing knowledge around implementation, problem-solving policy and practice challenges and learning about each other’s successes. What works for one district might not work for another but creating a space for conversation is key.

“Districts are in such different places in their learning journey. Even if they share a vision for student learning, they need different supports to keep moving this work forward,” said Dr. Richards. “Our work is no different than the work we’re asking teachers to do in the classroom – the professional learning provided to our leaders has to be customized to each district and designing for that is the challenge.”

A challenge that Dr. Richards and his peers are ready for.

In partnership with KnowledgeWorks, the consortium will be convening leaders from 14 districts in late September, with the goal to identify where each district stands through self-assessment utilizing a tool created with KnowledgeWorks research around the district conditions necessary for scaling personalized learning.

In District Conditions for Scale: A Practical Guide to Scaling Personalized Learning,© we identify the conditions that a K-12 school district should put in place to support the scaling of personalized learning.
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“We want to get to know the DNA of each district so we can be intentional about opportunities around common themes,” Dr. Richards said, citing opportunities to provide professional development and resources where similar needs are identified, bringing in experts when necessary. “We have to have clarity on what the needs are, where there’s commonalities, and then we can design professional learning which supports their work.”

What the group can do together, and learn from each other, is seen as vital to KnowledgeWorks’ Laura Hilger, as well.

“The real impact of this grassroots consortium will come from the efforts they are putting forth to grow their collective efficacy,” said Hilger, a teaching and learning director with KnowledgeWorks who has worked with districts throughout Michigan and other states. “When we look beyond the efforts that we are doing as individuals, and can see and feel how much more we can do as a collective, we’re not only coming together. We are believing and trusting in the power of the togetherness.”

That togetherness is central to the consortium’s approach and to KnowledgeWorks efforts to blend policy with practice, ensuring all stakeholders are working together for the betterment of each student. That support of policy and practice expertise with KnowledgeWorks is something that Dr. Richards prizes.

“We need the policy to support the practice, and the practice to drive the policy,” Dr. Richards said. “This isn’t a fad or a one-off initiative – this is a growing conversation as we design new models for student learning. We’re all trying to solve the same problems, we’re all trying to provide learning experiences for our kids that are engaging and relevant. The consortium, our partnership with KnowledgeWorks, is about building the leadership capacity of our districts without feeling like we’re doing it alone.”

Former superintendent Dave Richards, PhD, shares insights from implementing personalized learning, as well as tips for others just getting started.