“We’re not saying schools are broken; we just need to re-imagine our vision for learning and how learning occurs,” said Dr. Dave Richards, superintendent of Fraser Public Schools in Fraser, Michigan, in a recent conversation about the growing pains many districts may experience when implementing personalized, competency-based education.
“In order for there to be a new beginning, there has to be an end,” said Richards, citing William Bridges’ Managing Transitions. “That’s a vulnerable place for everyone involved. However, at some point you have to say, we’re going to intentionally stop what we’re doing so that we can start doing what we need to transform our system to better support student learning.”
One of the places where Richards began this work with his staff was to create new positions, called 21st century teachers, who serve full-time at each school modeling teaching practices, helping their colleagues use the new technologies that support personalized learning and serving as instructional coaches.
“When we created these positions, it sent a really strong message to our staff,” said Richards. “We were telling them that personalized learning wasn’t a fad. By dedicating the needed resources for these positions, our Board of Education demonstrated a commitment to support the work so that teachers who were used to teaching in a traditional environment could be successful in the new environment.”
Richards recognized that everyone involved in the learning process, from teachers to parents to students, wants the very best experience and a real foundation for success – and has the sincere desire to do their best. So when they began the work, it was a matter of contrasting the current state of the district with the desired state. Through regular communication across a variety of channels with all stakeholders and two years of fully comprehensive professional development, Richards knew they were on the right track.
“We had to keep reminding ourselves that we were educating two generations at once,” said Richards, citing both the educators and students who had to learn how personalized learning would best help them achieve their goals. “It might not look like school as we think of it, but we’re talking about learning. How will it occur? How will we know that students are really learning? How will we create the kind of system that creates opportunities for all students and on a customized level?”
The district has been doing this work since 2010, and Richards is optimistic about the future of personalized learning at Fraser, and in Michigan. He has been helping the state think through their competency-based education pilots and state wide networking to support the work.
“We know more about our student learning today than we ever have,” said Richards. “And more importantly, our students know more about themselves and what they’re learning – what they’ve mastered, at what level, and what they still need to work on. We’ve laid a strong foundation.”