Advice for Superintendents Getting Started with Personalized Learning

Topics: Education Policy, ESSA

Looking back at a large scale school transformation initiative can provide key insights to help other leaders achieve success. To find out what has worked so well for the RSU2 school district, located outside of Portland, Maine, I sat down with their Superintendent, Bill Zima.

RSU2 serves the communities of Hallowell, Farmingdale, Richmond, Dresden, and Monmouth, Maine, and is a pioneer in personalized learning. Over the last decade, the district has completely transformed its schools to a competency-based education system focused on ensuring each child meets learning targets, has the individual support they need, and can make choices on how they demonstrate their learning along the way.

When I asked Zima if he had any advice for other superintendents just getting started on a transformation to a personalized learning approach like competency education, he recommended three key areas of focus:

1. Partner with stakeholders to craft a clear vision and set a realistic pathway for change

Superintendent Zima says that while each stakeholder in the school or district’s community – students, parents, teachers, local businesses, civic leaders – may not know all of the details of what it means to run a learning system, it’s important to understand their expectations. Find out what a good school looks like to them, and use that feedback to craft a vision that everyone believes in.

“If the stakeholders are not with you, then you are going to keep running up against dry land and you’re not going to be able to get anywhere,” says Zima. “And it’s very hard to move when you’re stuck.”

Zima also says that school leaders should realize that achieving this vision takes time and recommends writing out a clear plan to get there. “It’s going to take steps to get there. Don’t rush it.”

2. Build a culture of continuous improvement and don’t be afraid to fail

Zima stresses how important it is for a district to have a culture and understanding of continuous improvement, and “that teachers have the opportunity to practice and explore and try things and not worry about failing, so to speak.”

“As I say to teachers here, I would be willing to bet that they’ve all had had lessons in a traditional system that have just flopped. I mean I certainly did. Lessons that I spent days, weeks preparing, and was so excited about, but they were absolutely disastrous…”

But a lesson that doesn’t turn out as a teacher hoped isn’t really failing, Zima says. It’s an opportunity to get feedback from students and improve the outcome next time.

3. Continuously promote the vision and how work fits

Keeping the vision alive and making sure everyone understands how the work you’re doing fits in the vision is the primary role of the superintendent, according to Zima. Because the vision was created in partnership with your stakeholders, it’s important to keep that central.

“Continuously promote the vision everywhere you go…,” he says. “Whenever I meet with parents. Whenever I meet with stakeholders. When I meet with teachers. When I sent out messages. Everything I do I tie back to our vision.”

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