Student-Centered, Personalized Learning in Policy and Practice: What Teach Plus and New Classrooms Are Doing to Support Innovation in Learning
You might have heard the term “personalized learning” thrown around in recent years, slapped onto an edtech platform or sitting at the center of an education debate. But what does it really mean? In the 2016 National Education Technology Plan, the U.S. Department of Education defined personalized learning as “instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner.”
While previously personalized learning seemed to be synonymous with technology, as more schools, districts, and states implement personalized learning strategies, the focus has shifted from plug and play technology solutions to rethinking the structure of the classroom as we know it. So how are states moving forward with personalized learning initiatives?
One of the states leading the way in this shift is Rhode Island. In this podcast series, Student-Centered Pathways to Student Success, we’ll explore the benefits and challenges that come with this movement towards personalized learning. Listen in to find out what this one state is changing to foster a more student-centered, individualized learning system—and how other states can replicate what they’re doing.
While many believe personalized learning to be achieved by plugging in a technology solution or giving teachers more hours of planning, others see personalized learning as less of an addition to today’s classroom and more of an overhaul of traditional educational practices. Two organizations advocating this approach to personalized learning include Teach Plus, a non-profit organization that aims to empower teachers to transform the system “to best serve minority students and students of color,” and New Classrooms, a non-profit organization “designed to bring personalized learning to more students across the country.”
Roberto Rodriguez, CEO of Teach Plus, says that truly personalized learning requires a shift in perspective from the teacher at the center of the classroom, to the students in the classroom themselves.
“So, in order to create that system that’s really more responsive to their individual needs, we recognize that we need a transformation in our education system that does a better job of putting students at the center of teaching and learning,” says Roberto. “And that better meets them where they are. And optimizes learning for each of their individual needs. And we believe that we can do that while still ensuring that their experiences around teaching and learning are standards-aligned.”
According to Roberto, the traditional school system often features a teacher at the front of a classroom, in which students are treated as empty vessels to fill with knowledge. He says that in order for personalized learning to work, that focus needs to shift.
“Student-centered learning is about putting students at the heart of that equation. Really making sure that they are the focus around what teaching and learning looks like. That they have opportunities to make choices to engage in more active learning to design their learning experience, and to fulfill their potential with learning, both inside and outside of the classroom.”
Joel Rose, CEO of New Classrooms, says that in order for these changes to be made at the classroom level, a balance must be struck between the flexibility necessary for personalization, and for the accountability necessary to ensure students succeed.
“I think the question that we are really collectively wrestling with as we sort of move into an era of personalized competency-based learning, is how do we create enough flexibility in the accountability systems so that schools are able to meet the unique needs of each student while also providing the right level of transparency and equity guardrails to ensure all students are set up for success in the longer term.”
So how can personalized learning be implemented in policy and in practice? Listen to our interview with Roberto Rodriguez and Joel Rose to find out what their organizations are doing to support the implementation of personalized learning, and what they think needs to happen for these changes to be made on a national scale.
Hannah Nyren: Hi. This is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times, and today I’m speaking with Roberto Rodriguez of Teach Plus and Joel Rose of New Classrooms.
Hannah Nyren: Hi. How’s it going, everyone?
Joel Rose: Great. Hi Hannah. Good to be with you.
Hannah Nyren: Thanks. And it’s great to be here with both of you. So in a sentence or two could you both introduce yourselves starting with Joel.
Joel Rose: Hi, I’m Joel Rose, the co-founder and CEO of New Classrooms. We are a national nonprofit organization focused on reimagining the classroom experience so that a better meets needs of every student every day.
Hannah Nyren: And Roberto, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Roberto Rodriguez: Hi, I’m Roberto Rodriguez. I’m president and CEO of Teach Plus. We’re a national nonprofit organization dedicated to teacher leadership and to elevating and empowering our teachers to make change to support students in policy and in instructional practice.
Hannah Nyren: That’s awesome. So, can you tell me a little bit about why personalized learning is important to you both, and to your organizations?
Joel Rose: I’ll start off. So, I’m a former teacher. I taught fifth grade for three years, back in Houston, Texas in the late 90s. And I remember my very first week on the job, I was given all this data about my students incoming performance levels. Some came in on a second grade level, some came in on an eighth grade level, and everything in between.
Joel Rose: And then I was given a set of fifth grade math textbooks and I was told ‘good luck.’ And that is the model that teachers have to try to be successful, not only in the U.S., but around the world.
Joel Rose: And so, we’re living in a time where that doesn’t have to be the case anymore, where we can truly create new models that meet the unique needs of each student each day. And that’s the opportunity that we collectively have to transform our current system of schooling.
Hannah Nyren: Great. And what about you Roberto?
Roberto Rodriguez: Well, Hannah, all that we do at Teach Plus is in the service of supporting our students to really thrive in a system that is more equitable and more responsive to their individual needs. To help prepare them for college, for career, and for success after high school. So, in order to create that system that’s really more responsive to their individual needs, we recognize that we need a transformation in our education system that does a better job of putting students at the center of teaching and learning. And that better meets them where they are. And optimizes learning for each of their individual needs. And we believe that we can do that while still ensuring that their experiences around teaching and learning are standards-aligned. Ensuring that we are promoting accountability for the success of all students. This is really about providing students greater access to a higher quality a more rigorous relevant learning experience and curriculum that will help them be successful.
Hannah Nyren: Right. Definitely. And you touched upon a point there, that I think is central to the type of personalized learning, and that is the difference between student-centered learning and teacher-centered learning. Could you explain a little bit what the difference is between the two?
Roberto Rodriguez: Sure. I think more traditionally, we’ve thought about learning in our schools as a place where there is more of a didactic structure. Where students are sometimes brought in and treated as empty vessels that teachers fill with knowledge and with information. And all of the brain science that we’ve seen about student development and success, we know more today about what’s needed to engage the social, the emotional needs of our students. What’s needed to help them better engage their interests and help them make meaning of their educational experience. So, student-centered learning is about putting students at the heart of that equation. Really making sure that they are the focus around what teaching and learning looks like. That they have opportunities to make choices to engage in more active learning to design their learning experience, and to fulfill their potential with learning, both inside and outside of the classroom.
Hannah Nyren: Awesome. I think that that really illustrates the changes that are happening in the classroom today.
Hannah Nyren: Can you give me a few examples of things that your organizations have done in recent years to promote personalized learning? Or support the implementation of personalized learning?
Joel Rose: What we think is most critical at this phase is to really demonstrate the power of personalized learning. And that involves actually working with schools and teachers and kids to both design new learning models, and then to support their implementation within existing partner schools. So today there are 39 schools across the country in 11 states that are operating Teach to One math, which is the model that our organization has created. And they’re showing, across the whole network, gains that are roughly one and a half times the national average. We’re still iterating and improving and finding new ways to even take student acceleration to a new level. But our role in this has been primarily as as an operator—as sort of an on-the-ground organization that’s focused on turning this idea into a reality.
Hannah Nyren: That sounds like great work that you’re doing. And what about Teach Plus?
Roberto Rodriguez: So Hannah, Teach Plus is focused on helping to advance more student-centered and personalized approaches to learning in part through thinking about where the policy and systemic changes in conditions that might be needed on a larger scale to make those opportunities available for more students. So we have a cohort of teaching policy fellows in our program in the state of Rhode Island, that have been excited about the promise of personalized learning, and eager to see that promise play out for more students across the state. And they’ve thought about some of the big grand challenges to making that a reality, they’ve advocated and put forth a set of recommendations to the state, to work with the state to really think about moving toward more more fully competency-based education model with individualized learning plans for students, and have thought about the types of support and resources that schools and districts need to make that a reality. They’ve thought about how to think more on the redesign of our schools—both in the physical play and also the pedagogical structures, structures around teaching and learning for students to think about more personalized environments.
Roberto Rodriguez: They thought about how to revise and rethink teacher preparation and both pre-service and in-service professional opportunities that are available for teachers to incentivize this evolution, and to encourage teachers to really evolve their mindsets and their skills and tools for designing personalized environments for student learning.
Hannah Nyren: That’s really interesting. And why Rhode Island, though? Why is it this space for experimentation and oversized learning?
Roberto Rodriguez: Well, I think there are a few factors there, Hannah. There are a number of schools in the state that have focused on redesigning their learning environments to be more student-centered. To be more project-based, to provide students greater agency for active learning alongside high standards. There’s an openness at the Department of Education in Rhode Island to innovation and to thinking about how a competency-based structure might sit alongside rigorous standards, grade aligned standards you know Common Core a kind of. Both of those two prospects you know there are a number of robust partners. And in Rhode Island, we’re really pleased to be working with the Nellie Mae Foundation as one organization that has supported the work of our policy fellows in the state to make change.
Hannah Nyren: Great. Sounds like there’s a lot going on there.
Roberto Rodriguez: And I’ll just say and I feel we really are dedicated to thinking about student centered learning and personalized learning from the perspective of teachers. And we believe that this is an important evolution that is already taking shape in a lot of communities. Not just Rhode Island, but communities across the country. As Joel has indicated. We’re dedicated to making sure that teachers are at the forefront of those conversations. That they are in positions to help lead their colleagues and their peers around helping to facilitate that change. Building their skills around those kinds of new environments, because it’s a different environment than what we traditionally have thought about in terms of what schools look like. And it’s different from what most adults experienced as students themselves when they were in school. So we think it’s important that teachers lead in that process both in the classroom and in their schools and then also in shaping a policy climate that will support their voice in this evolution.
Hannah Nyren: So that’s a really good point that you make there, that policy is a big part of making these changes on a wider scale. So how can these changes be implemented nationally? And what needs to change on the national level to make it happen?
Roberto Rodriguez: We think that there is a lot of opportunity already out there for more schools and districts to rethink their structure and move to a more individualized, student-centered and personalized environment. One of the big challenges providing the professional development, the resources and the support for schools to make that shift and to, from a policy perspective, for states to think more deeply about how can we have an individualized personalized pedagogy sitting alongside the accountability system and the system around standards that supports learning towards mastery for all students. So those are not mutually exclusive. In fact, we think that a lot of student-centered, personalized approaches can help students get to that mastery. But I think for policymakers a little bit of mapping back those progressions around the individualization competency alongside their current standards.
Joel Rose: If I could just underscore that point—I think it’s so important. I know we see this all the time that the way school has typically worked is if you’re in sixth grade, you learn sixth grade material and then you take a sixth grade test. And then you go to seventh grade, learn seventh grade material, and take a seventh grade test. And so, policy is signaling to educators to cover the grade-level material. And I think what we’re learning is, what if there’s a seventh grader who comes in on a fourth or fifth grade level. Just covering that seventh grade material may not actually be what’s best for that individual child. And so I think the question that we are really collectively wrestling with as we sort of move into an era of personalized, competency-based learning, is how do we create enough flexibility in the accountability systems so that schools are able to meet the unique needs of each student while also providing the right level of transparency and equity guardrails to ensure all students are set up for success in the longer term.
Hannah Nyren: What do you think personalized learning or student-centered learning can change about the way students become prepared for their futures and also pursue career paths. What does that look like?
Roberto Rodriguez: Well, I think certainly these types of environments can affirm the role of students and learners in their own education and development. And enable them to shape experiences that are more responsive to who they are that make meaning and ground what they’re learning in more real world practical experiences, right.
Roberto Rodriguez: So it’s the opportunity to think about how we can redesign our learning environment so that students can gain real world skills while they are still in school. Apply those skills to real context, real careers, real opportunities to use those skills toward problem solving and toward working with teams and better understanding how those skills will come to bear in terms of their own future and their own success. I think the opportunity for personalized learning to open up those avenues to make greater meaning for students and to reaffirm their agency in their own education is really exciting.
Roberto Rodriguez: In addition to the promise that more individualized and personalized learning plans have to meet kids academically where they are and help them get ahead, as Joel was discussing. And think about how that can provide greater pathways, differentiated pathways to accelerate certain skills, whether that’s reading or math or other skills, based on, you know, the learning progressions of individual students. We have the ability in our education system today to do this in a way that is unique that we have not had in the past.
Hannah Nyren: Great, Joel?
Joel Rose: Yeah, I mean, I agree with everything Roberto said. I would add that—there is a teacher dimension to this as well. Like many teachers very much want to personalize learning for the kids in their classroom. It’s just incredibly hard to do it when you’ve got 30 kids at a time, 25 kids at a time, teaching five periods a day.
Joel Rose: And so while we are reimagining the classroom in ways to support the unique needs of each student. We can and are also sort of designing classrooms that work better for teachers, that make the job of the teacher much more sustainable, much more fulfilling, than the job currently is. Teachers work so hard not just during the day but for hours in the evening planning lessons, grading papers. We’ve got to figure out a way to design a more sustainable job for them, while we are designing the classroom around the unique needs of students as well.
Hannah Nyren: I know that we’re not really coming from the perspective of whether or not personalized learning is important. I know that both of you clearly think that is important. But what would you say to those who are skeptical of the need for personalized learning?
Joel Rose: Well, the first thing I would say is some of their skepticism is grounded in a little bit of the history of education reform. There have been a number of fads that have come and gone over the last several decades. So, it’s not surprising there are some educators that have said, ‘This too shall pass. We’ve seen this before.’ And we deeply understand that. They also say that personalized, competency-based learning is not yet ready for all students everywhere. Designing these models does take time, and does take energy. I think some of the issue of education reform as a school does X, state does Y, and then suddenly it’s, let’s scale this everywhere. I think those of us that are focused on new learning models are saying let’s actually create the space to design these new models. Let’s work hard to design this in the next five years so that we can serve the 50 years after that. And I think in those five years, or however long it takes, we’ve got to demonstrate impact. We’ve got to demonstrate a much better experience for teachers. We’ve got to demonstrate that this is just a much better approach for our country. And if we scale this too quickly, I think we’ll lose the opportunity to do that properly.
Roberto Rodriguez: I agree completely with what Joel has shared here. Particularly, the work around research and development and thinking about how this evolution in our education system can be really an opportunity for more students is really important. It’s about moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach to how we thought about the promise of standards-based reform over the last 20-30 years. To really think about, ‘How do we design learning experiences that are more responsive to the comprehensive needs of students to their social and emotional and cognitive and physical development in a deeper way?’
Roberto Rodriguez: I think it’s important to acknowledge that we can have high standards and a high level of mastery that we expect all students to be able to be well prepared to succeed with. And yet having more individualized approaches rather than a one-size-fits-all pedagogy that helps students get there. And I think the other thing that’s really important in this evolution is to, and Joel mentioned this earlier, to make sure that we’re grounded in equity and making sure that this is an innovation in our system that is used to provide more equitable opportunities for learning for our kids. To bridge the opportunity gap in resources and in teaching and learning that we see already in the system. This should be an innovation that’s used to bridge those gaps, not an innovation that exacerbates those gaps.
Roberto Rodriguez: So, in order to do that, we just have to be really thoughtful about the capacities schools need to get this done. About the opportunity with the policy community at the state and local level to embark on this. And to think about how, from a depth and quality perspective this can be an opportunity for more students. So, I think a number of skeptics worry about personalized learning, juxtaposing it to high standards or to the ability to provide high standards for all students. And I think we really need to work to bridge that because, in fact, we should not compromise on those elements of accountability standards or equity for kids. But think about how personalized learning can fit into those in a deeper way. And how do we provide agency for our teachers in our communities and our learners to lead on that front.
Hannah Nyren: And how do you think personalized learning can help support the need for equity?
Joel Rose: What we would say is every student is unique. The way the model works today is if you have a student who walks into a seventh grade on a fourth grade level, schools are not organized to put that child on a path for success, regardless of their background. When we think about new learning models enabling personalized learning, started we can put that child on a path to success. And that puts them in a much better position to be successful in the world they’ll graduate into.
Roberto Rodriguez: I think that’s a really great point. And I think, the reality of the achievement gaps in our system demand that we go further and really endeavour to do more to bridge those gaps in a more ambitious way than we have in the past.
Roberto Rodriguez: So it’s not just about one grade level of learning each year. But rather where our students today on an individual basis, where do they need to be. What is the pedagogy and the recipe for success to facilitate that learning and help them get there.
Roberto Rodriguez: And I think there is an academic component to that that Joel has spoken to. And also there’s social and emotional component to that around how do we better tailor learning experiences and facilitate learning experiences that also affirm students who have lost interest or whose whose identity isn’t really affirmed in their education experience today. So I think more student centered and personalized approaches provide that opportunity as well.
Hannah Nyren: What would you say are the challenges when it comes to creating a more individualized student centered education system?
Joel Rose: We see three key challenges. The first is the capacity for the R and D. In every other sector in our society over the last 20 years from health care to telecommunications to media, we’ve seen these tremendous strides being made. But not as much in K12, and a big reason for that is because in these other sectors there’s an ecosystem around R and D (research and development), both publicly and privately funded, that really fuels progress. We just don’t have that same kind of R and D, especially the D part of the R and D, the development, in K12. That’s the first, investments in R and D. The second are support for early adopters. We’re starting to see now states that are saying, ‘We want to step up and really be leaders in personalized learning. We need to now find ways to incentivize some of our schools to really move forward in this direction.’
Joel Rose: Sort of like if you think about the energy sector, how there have been sort of incentives on the supply and demand side of that sector before it could really sort of stand up on its own two feet. We need the same sorts of incentives for schools to move down in this path. And then the third, as we talked about earlier, are the policy barriers. We’ve got to figure out ways, within our current policy environment to have both transparency in terms of how kids are performing, but also a signal to educators that they can put kids on their own unique path, even if in the short term that may not be what we get reflected on the accountability systems.
Roberto Rodriguez: Joel did a fantastic job of capturing three of those principal challenges, which I absolutely agree with. I would probably add one fourth, which is the capacity of our system today and leaders in our system at all levels. From our classroom teachers, to our principals, to district administrators and other leaders and CMOs to state-level policymakers and federal policymakers to fully capture and understand the potential of this evolution of this innovation in our system, right, of student-centered learning. I think far too often, regard this as a very niche opportunity for a select few set of learners instead of thinking about how can we create a more large scale system that embraces some of the learnings of personalized learning and this model. And place that squarely alongside the progression of standards of what we know kids need to know and be able to do to successfully finish high school and enter college and career ready for success. So I think that’s one additional challenge.
Roberto Rodriguez: Another might be the important avenue of embracing and capturing teacher voice and student voice and the voice of communities in this work. And again, as with any evolution in our education system, the success and the ability, the potential for success depends on really more deeply and authentically involving some of our best and brightest teachers and their students and their communities in that process. And that’s certainly what we’ve learned at Teach Plus— that that’s really important to build those bridges, to have those conversations with parents about what this might look like, and how it might serve students and learners rather than it being a really dramatic shift that is experienced by that student, but not well understood by that student or their family. So I think that’s important. And I think teachers need to define, again, the professional capacity, and the professional learning opportunities that they and their peers need to make this a successful shift.
Hannah Nyren: So what needs to change on the state level in order for these changes to be made?
Roberto Rodriguez: So at the state level, I think we can do better by providing more incentives to support this evolution and shift toward more student-centered designs and more personalized designs around teaching and learning. I think also a greater investment in teacher preparation at all levels, is another big area for investment at the state level. And again I think it’s important for states to more deeply realize how personalized learning sits alongside their current standards and work closely the collaboration with states and districts or other individual schools to make this happen and design, this is really very important, too. So it has to be a really close partnership, I think, between the state and the schools that are implementing these models.
Joel Rose: I fully agree with Roberto on that.Just to give some examples in terms of what some states have done. So in addition to Rhode Island which has been so vocal about its desire to move in this direction and that alone has an impact in sort of shifting the conversation. States like Texas and New Mexico have made investments in personalized learning. Texas started an initiative called Math Innovation Zones where they’re really looking for new approaches to teaching math with sort of parallel accountability systems to measure impact. New Mexico has actually made investments to sort of incentivize some of its school districts to move in this direction.
Joel Rose: And then most recently Georgia in their application to the federal government for the innovative assessment pilots, actually included in their application is a desire to sort of think a little bit differently about accountability in ways that both measure student growth from where they’re starting, but also measure grade level proficiency. I think those are the kinds of things that we’ll need to see more of from more states and even pressing further in order to get to a world that’s really oriented around student-centered, personalized learning.
Hannah Nyren: So what specific policies do you think need to be put into place in order to enable the student-centered learning?
Joel Rose: I would say one, states put out incentives for school districts and schools to adopt new learning models. Two, state or district based parallel accountability systems to the federal system that truly measure growth from where kids are starting to where they’re ending. And then I would say three, statewide efforts to really highlight the value of personalized learning really sort of embedded into the strategic plans of states, of school boards, in just sort of everything that they do.
Hannah Nyren: Roberto do you have any opinions on what policies need to be put into place?
Roberto Rodriguez: I agree with all of what Joel has said there. I states need to think a little bit more about how their assessment policies and their accountability policies align with the opportunity to provide more individualized pathways toward mastery for kids. I would just underscore from Joel’s remarks there the importance of thinking about how accountability and assessment align with this individualized tactics more actively.
Hannah Nyren: So what needs to change or be put into place for parents support teachers to do this work?
Roberto Rodriguez: I think we need more opportunities and more chances for our teachers to be able to collaborate, to learn from one another, more resources to do that. As well as policies that enable them to break out from their school day to be able to make these models work. And I think that parents we need greater and more explicit policies that require the input of parents and communities and teachers. We can learn a lot from our past experience with standards-based reform and understanding and capturing the important voice of parents and of teachers in this process. So I think we need policies that affirm that.
Joel Rose: I fully agree. I’m glad you brought up parents because I think they are really the group that stands to benefit the most from this transition. With new learning models you can imagine, and we actually put this into play, where every kid is on their own path. And parents see not only how their kid performs, but what they’re going to be doing tomorrow, the next day, or the next week and she really sort of help their child succeed looking forward as opposed to just getting information Looking backward.
Hannah Nyren: Well thank you both for your perspective. It’s been really valuable and as we continue this conversation about personalized learning, I can definitely look back to this conversation we had and pull points from it. So thank you so much for speaking with us today.
Joel Rose: Thank you.
Roberto Rodriguez: My pleasure. Thank you, Hannah.
This podcast episode is brought to you by Teach Plus. Teach Plus is a nonprofit organization designed to empower excellent, experienced teachers to take leadership over key policy and practice issues that affect their students’ success. To learn more about Teach Plus, visit teachplus.org.
Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.