Kickstarters for Personalized Learning

At Cesar E. Chávez Multicultural Academic Center, a grantee of the NGLC Regional Fund for Breakthrough Schools in Chicago, students are engaged in the learning process through classroom-wide collaborative exercises.

In the last five years, major philanthropic foundations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to support “personalized” and “blended” learning, a set of classroom practices in which students explore their interests at their own pace, guided by responsive teachers and technological tools. From Gates and Arnold to Carnegie and Dell, leading funders have embraced the underlying beliefs that schooling ought to be reinvented so it can better support the individual needs of every student, and that scaling such instruction will require the right technology at a reasonable cost.

But as with any educational innovation, personalized and blended learning will live or die by the schools and teachers that implement them. And a sustainable, widespread change in pedagogy and practice will take a groundswell of local enthusiasm.

Enter regional personalized learning funds, which connect foundations and local grantmakers to schools and their leaders—and which have launched or expanded most personalized and blended models thus far. Is this a smart strategy to scale personalized learning? What lessons can we take from their efforts?

“Where we’ve seen innovation really take off is where there’s been a well-developed ecosystem of folks who want to innovate and people who want to support them,” reflected Alex Hernandez of Charter School Growth Fund. “Unless there’s a community of people excited about a reform, change just turns into a mandate, and mandates never work out.”

An Early Interest in Student-Centered Learning

Many foundations were drawn into the world of personalized and blended learning through their support of pioneering charter school chains Rocketship Education and Summit Public Schools. (Disclosure: I have worked with Rocketship, Summit, and several other organizations mentioned below as a freelance writer.) But the benefits of these approaches were not immediately clear, and the research base remains thin. For example, a study focusing on five early-adopter school systems in California and Louisiana during the 2011–12 school year found modest learning gains but “could not isolate the impacts of the blended learning models from other aspects of the schools that might also affect learning, such as differences in curriculum, teacher quality, and the academic culture.”

Still, donors’ excitement about personalized learning’s potential has led them to invest over the last few years, looking for ways to accelerate innovation where it is already underway and to spread personalized practices more widely. These twin opportunities to innovate were made clear in a 2013 Philanthropy Roundtable guidebook: it raved about the possibilities of “intelligent software, flexibly employed by wise educators, pushed by savvy philanthropists and a demanding public” while also lamenting that there were too few exciting models and too little uptake across districts and states.

Foundations recruited—or, in some cases, started—regional organizations that could help them increase the number of interesting personalized learning models and the number of schools and teachers using those models, and make communities and school systems more receptive to change. Notable examples include: the Silicon Schools Fund in San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area; the Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools initiative by the Next Generation Learning Challenge (NGLC), which has led efforts in seven regions including Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans; and the Raising Blended Learners (RBL) initiative in five Texas cities organized by Raise Your Hand Texas. These initiatives offer not only funding to launch or retool a district or charter school, but also management guidance, technical assistance, convenings, and site visits. The hope is that regional pockets of funding and activity will create local ecosystems of innovation that adopt personalized learning.

But what, so far, has been the impact of these efforts?

On the surface, it appears they have at least advanced the spread of personalized learning: several hundred public schools and thousands of students nationwide now use the approach at least some of the time, and a good portion of these programs trace their development to a regional personalized learning initiative. Students in Washington, D.C., rural Cisco, Texas, and Oakland, California, for example, are now experiencing personalized or blended instruction, which may not have happened without regional funding and support.

However, although the number of schools and students linked to personalized learning in these regions has increased, it is difficult to determine whether this uptake in usage—or the boldness of the models being used—was caused by the funding networks. Many funders backed existing players and models rather than new ideas, and the resulting programs vary greatly in their designs and outcomes.

In addition, there are few clear signs that regional personalized learning funds have led to breakthrough innovations or systemic changes like stronger policies or better education-technology products. As for sustainability, only two have raised follow-on philanthropic capital. And most critically, the impact on student learning is not yet known—although there are some promising indicators.

To be fair, systemic change would take more than a few years, and ongoing philanthropic investment is never the point. But these efforts have been around long enough to provide some early lessons about whether such regional initiatives foster innovation, adoption, or improvement. Below, I look at three leaders in the space to better understand their approach and potential to affect student achievement.

Silicon Schools

California is a frequent education bellwether, so it’s no surprise that the nation’s first regional personalized learning fund was the Silicon Schools Fund in the San Francisco Bay Area. Several major foundations, led by the Fisher Fund, established the new firm in 2012. At the time, it sought to use its first $25 million to establish “up to twenty-five schools that combine high-quality instruction with cutting-edge technology to provide each student with a personalized learning experience.” Thanks to investor enthusiasm, Silicon Schools supported 31 schools through its first fund, six more than originally anticipated. In late 2015, it quickly raised a second $40 million to create another 40 schools.

The fund provides sizeable grants that average about $600,000 and are designed to allow aspiring school founders to quit their jobs and dedicate themselves full-time to the design and launch of a new school for at least a year before it opens. The chief priority is to create high-performing new schools throughout northern and central California that use student-centered practices to drive performance, often employing technology in order to do so within the state’s low per-pupil funding amounts.

The model of each school can vary—the fund invests in a wide range of designs and selects its grantees with an eye to whether they will be able to deliver on their plan. “We want to develop expertise and judgment, not a concrete or limited vision for what personalized or blended learning is,” said Founder and Chief Executive Officer Brian Greenberg, a former principal and chief academic officer at Envision Education in Oakland.

To make sure the schools they fund are as effective as possible, Greenberg and his team give school leaders plenty of constructive feedback and connect them with one another and with others in the field. Throughout the year before their school opens, grantees come together several times for a “design review,” where they get feedback from organizational leaders and other schools and experts, and provide feedback to other schools. The organization also brings aspiring school leaders together for dinners where they can get to know one another better, so they can call upon each other for support.

Silicon Schools operates more like a venture capital firm that backs strong teams rather than a foundation that issues grants in response to applications, and its backers say this has helped them kick-start high-quality schools that are attracting local and national dollars and attention. “Brian is the best at finding, nurturing and developing talented leaders in the personalized learning space,” says Luis de la Fuente, former managing director of The Broad Foundation, which invested in Silicon Schools’ first fund.

Evidence of Impact

The performance of the schools in Silicon Schools’ portfolio consistently outpaces both state and local district performance on annual tests, as well as the average performance at California charter schools (see Figure 1). A 2017 report by the organization detailing its first five years found dramatic gains for students who began the school year in the bottom quartile of performance statewide, and for Latino and economically disadvantaged students. While a low-income student in California is 42 points below proficiency on state assessments on average, students attending schools backed by Silicon Schools score 15 points above proficiency on average. Critically, more than two-thirds of students attending schools backed by the fund are from low-income families.

Are those strong results caused by or merely correlated with the fund’s support? The answer is unclear. It is also unclear whether the schools’ locations and proximity to one another have meaningfully contributed to their strong performance. The overall culture of entrepreneurship and innovation makes Northern California fertile ground for personalized learning; leading organizations like Rocketship and Summit are headquartered in the Bay Area, which is also home to interested funders like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Could Silicon Schools exist and be successful elsewhere?

Greenberg argues that Silicon Schools’ early success is due to the strength and structure of its efforts. His team is able to select the most promising applications because of the pattern recognition they’re developing across multiple funds and then hold grantees accountable for strong gains by forming deep, supportive relationships. He also says this concentration of successful efforts makes personalized learning feel manageable for other local schools. “Personalized learning is now acceptable here because of this saturation of proof points,” he said. The question is whether those proof points can lay meaningful groundwork for change elsewhere.

Next Generation Learning Challenges Funds

Unlike Silicon Schools’ single-region focus, the seven regional funds supported by the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), part of EDUCAUSE, span the United States. They were launched after five national waves of technology-inspired NGLC grant challenges, which disbursed more than $20 million and supported the launch or redesign of 50 schools, including five of the 10 winners of the competitive XQ: The Super School Project grants for reinventing high school (“Will the XQ ‘Super Schools’ Live Up to Their Name?” features, Spring 2017).

While the winning NGLC designs were inspiring, the overall number of qualified applications was low. In response, NGLC and the program’s primary funder, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, began looking for ways to boost the number and diversity of school designs and help scale personalized learning, said NGLC Director Andrew Calkins. They launched the seven funds that make up the Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools initiative between 2013 and 2016, with additional support from The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. Each Regional Fund is a partnership between NGLC and a local entity.

NGLC has allocated more than $25 million across the seven funds, with the goal of each region launching between three and six “proof point” schools that could demonstrate “next-generation” learning, including expanded definitions of student success. The intent is not only to reach more new school leaders and foster more innovative school designs, but also to create a critical mass of these forward-thinking schools and to expand the adoption of personalized learning in those regions. The local Breakthrough Schools funds vary tremendously in structure, strategy, team expertise, funding provided, and support offered.

The NGLC supports a mix of school redesign and new school design, both nationally and regionally, and the Regional Funds have 11 new schools among the 65 directly funded grantees (see Figure 2). Another 169 school sites have received some financial or technical support. The funds target seven regions: Washington, D.C.; New Orleans; Chicago; Oakland; Colorado; Massachusetts; and a six-state consortium in New England that includes Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Massachusetts.

The support provided to grantees varies. Two of the funds, those targeting New England and Colorado, focus on connecting competency-based state policy to local school practice. Five funds offer grants and other assistance to school leaders, typically in amounts smaller than those provided by Silicon Schools, ranging from as little as $10,000 in planning capital in Massachusetts to $300,000 for implementation in New Orleans. Programmatic support may include design workshops, site visits, coaching, and teacher professional development.

By giving grant capital to local players, the regional funds expand innovation activity overall, Calkins said. For example, in Washington, D.C., just three schools had submitted applications across the five waves of NGLC national challenge grants. By contrast, the first two rounds of Breakthrough Schools grant competitions, which were run by local nonprofit CityBridge Education, attracted 42 applications, 13 of which were funded and 10 of which are still pursuing personalized learning.

“What started in some ways as philanthropy working to spur interest has really become a field driven by educators coming out of their classrooms wanting to work collaboratively to spread this innovation,” says Helayne Jones, formerly of the Gates Foundation. “We feel like NGLC has been a really strong partner, and they’re a key player in the marketplace with or without the foundation.”

Evidence of Impact

In terms of the funded schools’ impacts to date, none have yet risen to the hoped-for level of national “proof points.” The Gates Foundation has not commissioned any formal evaluation of the regional Breakthrough Schools funds, and none of the regional funds’ schools appear in a RAND report on the impact of personalized learning strategies (which examined schools supported by earlier rounds of national NGLC funding). Just one of the regional funds has published formal data about the impact of their investments on students or teachers: an evaluation of the seven schools that have launched in Oakland shows mixed achievement and growth, although none attained the state’s “minimum goals for school quality across all indicators and subpopulations.”

School and fund leaders say there are other initial indications of success, though. In Washington, D.C., some schools report growth in student learning, although in many cases it’s not yet showing up on end-of-year state assessments, said Caroline Hill of CityBridge Education. The funds’ Chicago partner, LEAP Innovations, has seen decreased disciplinary referrals at many city schools and increased achievement for at least one school, Joseph Lovett Elementary: student performance increased to the 98th percentile in both math and reading growth in 2015–2016, up from the 34th and 73rd percentiles, respectively, in the 2012–2013 school year. The University of Wisconsin Center for Education Research is codifying the school models of the second cohort of LEAP grantees and analyzing their impact on students and teachers.

The regional funds have also stirred up interest in personalized learning, Calkins noted. For example, Chicago Public Schools’ “Elevate,” a new personalized-learning redesign program, was patterned after a grant competition led by LEAP and has been supported by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. As a result, more than 35 Chicago schools will complete a semester of professional development and piloting before they create school-wide “blueprints” for transformation.

“It’s a challenging thing to conduct measurement in the relative short term in schools undergoing these kinds of changes,” Calkins said. “Most of the changes aren’t designed explicitly and solely to lift student performance on state tests, which have become the de facto measuring stick (inaccurately and unfairly) for everyone’s understanding of ‘how good a school is.’”

Raising Blended Learners

When public education research and policy organization Raise Your Hand Texas first set out to scale up blended learning in a handful of Texas districts in 2015, it didn’t foresee the level of interest it would generate—or the level of support those systems would need. Raising Blended Learners (RBL), the resulting program, has not only provided significant grants to support school redesigns, but also matched those grants with extensive tailored support.

With funding from Educate Texas, the Meadows Foundation, and the Dell Foundation, RBL signaled early on that it would do things differently. Rather than publish a simple grant application, it hosted in-depth workshops that guided 74 teams from districts across the state to create blended learning plans. Eventually, with coaching from RBL advisors and feedback from outside experts, 67 district teams submitted plans.

Ultimately, 10 school systems were selected to refine their plans before five winning “demonstration sites” were chosen in 2016 for grants of up to $500,000 over three years. The sites are in three distinct areas of Texas: to the north, near Dallas–Fort Worth (the Birdville and Cisco districts), to the east, in and around Houston (KIPP Houston and Pasadena Independent School District), and to the south, on the Gulf Coast near the Mexico border (Point Isabel Independent School District).

Another 15 schools across the state received substantial in-kind technical assistance as “pilot sites.” Raise Your Hand Texas has engaged eight direct support providers to help these districts address challenges related to technology, professional development, pilot implementation, and student-experience design. In all, the organization has spent roughly the same amount on hands-on technical support as on the demonstration site grants.

“The support has been every bit as important as the capital, because it’s coached people to change hearts and minds,” said Matt Wilka of FSG, a consultancy that has studied RBL’s work. “You can fund a position or devices, but what’s left is the people who are leading this stuff.”

Evidence of Impact

All five “demonstration sites” are continuing to implement personalized learning in their second year of the initiative. Some have increased the number of classrooms, grade levels, or school sites they’re addressing, while others have slowed the pace of planned expansion while they work through challenges.

As for the 15 original “pilot sites,” nine are expanding their personalized learning work, two are continuing but not expanding, and four have discontinued their pilots entirely. This could be seen as a disappointment, or as something more positive: allowing RBL and its technical support providers to focus on promising sites rather than floundering efforts. The five demonstration sites had mixed or modest gains in student achievement and engagement, according to a report on the first year of RBL written by FSG. However, educators report greater student ownership of learning, more peer collaboration between students, deeper teacher knowledge of student needs, and fewer disciplinary problems.

The numbers may not demonstrate the rapid growth of personalized learning or a massive acceleration of student learning in Texas. But what’s most promising about RBL may be the steady, consistent, and in-depth technical assistance it has provided to its school sites. This approach is expensive but may bode well for the sustainability of these efforts in the pilot and demonstration sites. In addition, over time, other personalized learning schools and systems may benefit from RBL’s concentrated investment in technical-assistance providers. However, it’s still unclear whether this expertise will be more valuable than the looser and less expensive information-sharing facilitated by Silicon Schools and NGLC.

The nation’s first regional personalized learning fund was the Silicon Schools Fund, which has supported schools like Caliber Schools in providing students with an engaging, personalized education.

Taking Stock

Are regional funds an effective way to scale personalized learning? Just four years in, it is too soon to tell. We know these efforts have helped found new schools and influenced the operations of dozens more, including in regions that may not have otherwise engaged at this level. Some school and local fund leaders claim they are changing instruction and engaging students in ways that will translate into stronger student achievement over time. But there is almost no empirical evidence to confirm that assertion—at least, not yet.

Still, these three very different initiatives raise important questions for how foundations and other leaders might encourage the development of personalized learning nationwide. Must organizations follow a whole-school approach, or are there other ways to promote personalized learning?

Silicon Schools acts more as a school developer than a personalized learning evangelist, and its potential impact is more related to prioritizing leadership teams and building new organizations than to persuading existing school systems to adopt personalized learning. However, it’s difficult to replicate Silicon Schools in other cities because of the capital and expertise required to surface and guide strong, lasting school organizations—not to mention a fertile field of entrepreneurs ready to act.

Meanwhile, the NGLC regional funds are so disparate that it’s difficult to assess their worth or replicability. But they do seem to have had an impact on the national profile of personalized learning, as well as on the breadth of experimentation within regions and the connections between them. Moving forward, similar efforts might focus on encouraging teachers to try personalized learning, growing the national ecosystem of technical-assistance providers, and having teachers and leaders visit and learn from exemplars in their own regions and throughout the U.S.

Finally, RBL has dedicated significant resources to deep, tailored, hands-on engagement and building the capacity of technical-assistance providers who can help Texas school systems and others. Like Silicon Schools, theirs is a fairly expensive model, but it may be possible to replicate in other regions because of the expertise that’s been developed by the network of support providers on the ground—as long as Texas schools begin to show results worth replicating.

No matter the approach, there’s a question of which funds will be available to support it. While two of the NGLC regional funds have raised follow-on funding, none of the national foundations that supported those funds originally have committed additional capital to the intermediaries or their school sub-grantees. The newest iteration of the Gates Foundation’s investment strategy doesn’t even mention personalized learning. (However, Gates joined the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative last year in underwriting a $12 million national “learning community” for seven personalized learning organizations.) And the Broad Foundation appears to be distancing itself from personalized learning: while a 2013 press release touted $23 million in personalized learning investments, its current public data lists just $8.7 million, representing 1 percent of giving since 1999.

Foundation officials say they’re open to other approaches to scaling personalized learning, including those that are less far-reaching and expensive. “Our hypothesis was that personalized learning had to be adopted as whole-school redesign,” said Jill Hawley, senior program officer for K–12 education at the Gates Foundation. However, “there are many on-ramps to creating personalized environments for students, and whole-school is not the only, nor even always the best, way to start.”

Julie Landry Petersen is a writer specializing in public education and former communications director at the nonprofit NewSchools Venture Fund.

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