How Rhode Island Is Leading the Way in Student-Centered, Personalized Learning

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?

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.

In 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act transferred a large amount of decision-making powers from the federal government to individual states, giving states more freedom to experiment with innovation and technology in education. In 2016, Rhode Island took full advantage of this newfound freedom with the Rhode Island Personalized Learning Initiative. Today, Rhode Island has become recognized as a leader in student-centered, personalized learning in the United States.

So, how is Rhode Island leading the way with personalized learning? To find out, we spoke to Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Ken Wagner.

Commissioner Wagner says that the impetus for personalization starts with the urgent need to innovate. And naturally, this need to innovate is driven by the demand to equip students with the tools they need to succeed in the workforce.

“So to me, the standard argument about where our education system is falling short is the standard argument for why we need to do things differently with an innovation agenda,” says Wagner. “We’re losing kids not just in high school. We’re losing kids in second grade, third grade, because they’re disengaging because the system just doesn’t make sense to them. And by the way, the kids that we’re losing are disproportionately students of color, first generation college, kids living in poverty. And because the poor outcomes disproportionately affect certain students, we need to innovate in order to get better equity.”

Wagner asserts that every school system has a responsibility to build educational foundations, which include the more traditional core subjects. Yet once those foundations are established, there’s still a long way to go to get students engaged in learning, and to prepare them for their futures.

“Once students have those strong foundations, they start to individuate and they are who they are,” says Wagner.

“They have strengths, interests and passions. And our system can’t be one size fits all. It needs to adapt to the strengths, interests and passions of our students. Not just because it’s trendy—and it is—student centered learning is one of the trends right now to talk about. But one of the most difficult things in the world to do is, how do you engage a reluctant learner? And the answer is you can’t. Or you can’t do it well. You have to find a way to turn a reluctant learner into an eager, engaged learner. Then the difficulty of educating a student flips. When you have a student who wants to learn who’s totally enthused about what they’re learning, you can’t stop them from learning.”

Commissioner Wagner goes on to say that in order for the student to be most engaged, the student needs to drive their own learning process. He notes this is one of the main driving factors for the shift from teacher-centered to student-centered learning.

“So I think the big problem that we’re all trying to solve around the term personalized learning is how do we put the student at the center of everything that we do,” says Wagner.

In Rhode Island’s capital city, the diverse needs of the student body make the call for personalization even stronger, says Providence Superintendent Chris Maher.

“We really value our diversity,” says Maher. “And everything we do here is centered around continuous improvement and equity. So we’re always trying to get better and we’re always trying to give students what they need and not give every student the same thing.”

Because of this focus on continuous improvement and equity, Providence is a ripe testing ground for innovations that meet these goals.

“So with the support of the mayor and the city—personalized learning is one of the areas that we’ve focused on. Technology is a real part of it, especially in a place like Providence that has been traditionally so underfunded. Such a poor district in a poor city.”

These changes could help bridge the achievement gap for Providence.

The Rhode Island Commissioner of Education and Providence Superintendent present a solid argument for individualized, student-centered instruction. But what are the criticisms of personalized learning?

Superintendent Maher says that a lot of the criticisms stem from inadequate implementation.

“When I look nationally, I see a lot of blowback against personalized learning,” says Maher. “And when I look at it and I look at the details it’s almost always about implementation.”

“There was an article about a school in Brooklyn that made a lot of waves I think in the education circles recently and they were using the Summit model. And they were protesting, the students and the teachers against the summit model saying that it took away their identity and this and that. And you know for us, actually, personalization is a way to increase identity, if you’re doing a lesson right. Whereas historically, maybe you would give your class a list of historical figures to write about that was four, five people long. You can now give them broad parameters using technology and say ‘find yourself in one of these people and write about them.’ And you can totally personalize a lesson and let students bring back so much more information and do so much more research.”

The superintendent himself was once a skeptic.

“Well I’ll be honest with you—before I came here I did not have a very high opinion of personalized learning,” says Maher. “Because the way that it’d been introduced to the education world—I mean I’ve been in an education working pretty much exclusively with inner city high poverty districts my whole life. And you see a different fad in trying to improve the outcomes in those districts every few years.”

Yet when he came to the Providence public school district, the teachers convinced him that personalized learning was more than just a fad.

“When I came to Providence, one of the first things I did was talk to as many teachers as possible. And in talking to teachers, one of the questions I would ask is, ‘What’s the best professional development that you’ve gotten as a teacher from the district in your career, recently especially?’ And an overwhelming number of them talked about some of the personalized learning professional development that they’d received.”

“And I was like, ‘Wow, I really need open my eyes around this.’ And so I dug in a little deeper, and realized that we had a couple of very small pilot programs here that were seeing some results with. And it kind of turned my mind around.”

Commissioner Wagner says that personalized learning is often “conflated with the idea of technology-enhanced learning,” which leads to concerns about overuse of devices in the classroom.

“Now some folks want to say the two are exactly the same,” says Wagner, “You can’t possibly do student-centered learning unless you are also doing device-based learning. And that’s where you start to lose people. You start to lose some teachers if you just categorically equate the two. And quite frankly, you start to lose students and families. We’re already starting to see some complaints, ‘I don’t want my kid just sitting in front of a computer all day I want them to have meaningful engagement with a teacher.’ So we have to pay attention to those concerns.”

While technology can be a valuable tool, the commissioner says it must be used to support teachers, not replace them.

“How do we leverage technology to produce the best value add—so we can engage our students, and we can leverage the talents of our teachers in the way that they’ll be most impactful? To me, the exciting thing about introducing more modern technology into the learning equation is we can start to use our teachers less as just straight disseminators of information and more as high level problem solvers and guides, coaches, in the student acquisition of metacognitive skills and basic skills, and really applying their knowledge. Teacher as coach is something that we’ve been talking about for a very long time, and technology allows us to do it at scale in a way that isn’t always possible when you don’t have the technology in place.

So, what are the challenges when it comes to creating a more individualized, student-centered education system? Commissioner Wagner says one of the major challenges comes from focusing less on what the district is able to supply, and more on what is in demand from students and families.

“Education typically focuses on supply,” says Wagner. “We can supply this—We can supply teachers. We can supply textbooks. We can supply buses, whatever. And when you’re anchored in supply, you focus on improving the quality of what we know how to supply. We’re trying to flip that and focus on demand. What are people demanding?”

He explains there are two parts to this. One, is having conversations with teachers, students, and parents to find out what they need. The other part is spreading awareness about new research and innovations, so those affected the most are propelling the changes.

“The challenge with personalized learning is to create a demand for doing things differently. So we have to talk with people and convince people, students, families teachers, the public, elected officials and so on, that this work is worth shifting. To create demand for it. Because education is also famous for chasing the latest shiny new thing the latest fad—zigging over here, zagging over there. The only way to build sustainable changes in the way we do education is to focus on that demand.”

Superintendent Maher says that another of the biggest challenges to individualized education in the classroom is the time it takes to really implement effectively.

“I’m a big Harry Potter fan,” says Maher. “And you know, I joke with teachers. Like, differentiate is not a spell you can just use in a classroom. Differentiation is really hard. You don’t just wave your wand and it happens. And there are limits to it. And I think that it comes from a good place. Like we want kids in diverse classrooms right. We want kids that have different strengths around each other. It’s part of what’s so powerful about public education. But I think that we ask them to do too much sometimes.”

Maher says that in order to support teachers in this work, it is important that districts provide the proper resources, like professional development. And the professional development for personalization must have a focus on equity and cultural sensitivity from the get-go.

“You have to have equity as part of any work that you do,” says Maher. “But we’re having conversations around personalization has to do with identity. And we have a district that is around 80 percent white teachers and only 8 percent white students. But if you’re going to personalize instruction, you’re going to talk about the student’s ethnicity and background in a way that you might not otherwise do if you’re just teaching out of a textbook. And so we need to have also professional development for our teachers around how to have those conversations in ways that are supportive to students in a way that will empower them.”

While the district’s focus may be on professional development and providing enough resources for teachers, the state must focus on adding value to the process through policies or regulations that support innovations. Yet the state has to be careful about the way they approach these changes, in order to support classrooms and standards without taking away the flexibility educators need to create more individualized learning.

“The typical state approach is the state leads something or mandates something. The best way to ruin a good idea in education is for the state to say that this is required. This is something you have to do,” says Wagner.

“So we’ve been very much involved. We’ve been very much watching the work that’s been happening but we’ve also very deliberately been standing somewhat on the side and asking the question where can we add value. Not where do we assert control. We can add value by convening a convening is necessary. We can add value by aligning our regulatory structures to the interventions that people want to do in schools and classrooms.”

In Providence, the district is trying to expose schools to new programs, so educators and families can formulate their own opinions and share feedback with the district prior to wide-scale implementation.

“And one of the ways that we really adopted personalized learning as a district is through our site-based, school decision making policy,” says Superintendent Maher.

“So we haven’t said to schools ‘You have to use Summit,’ or ‘You have to use Highlander.’ What we’ve done is we’ve exposed schools to these programs within our district and in other places. And oftentimes it’s better to say ‘Hey look, this is happening in Rhode Island or ‘Hey look, this is happening in our district. You can do it too.’ Because whenever you say ‘oh this is happening in a charter school in California in the Bay Area.’ The first thing people say is ‘Well they have different kids and they have more resources and they have more technology.’

In order to create a fair test of new programs’ effectiveness for Providence students specifically, the district is testing out different methods of personalization in the Providence schools that want and need them the most, says Superintendent Maher.

“So we’ve found places here where we’ve been able to seat it, where teachers are wanted it, where principals wanted it, where they’ve shown signs of success. And then we’ve been intentional about giving our other school leaders and teacher leaders opportunities to see it in action. So that’s one of the reasons that we’ve had success in getting it to the scale we’ve had so quickly.”

So without taking away flexibility from teachers, where can the state have the biggest impact in supporting these changes? Commissioner Wagner has a few ideas.

“I think the state can add some value by creating kind of pre-vetted lists of products and service providers that have demonstrated some value,” says Wagner. “And then make it easier for districts when they struggle with procurement decisions to make purchases off those kind of pre-vetted lists if they choose.”

Wagner goes on to list other ways that the state can be involved in forwarding this pursuit of innovation.

“The state can also participate in…national standards models, to help insist that when vendors do business in the space within the state, that they’re doing business in accordance with interoperability standards around data storage or around how platforms and software systems talk to each other. We’re doing some of that. We’re plugged into some of those networks. But there’s still a lot more work that has to happen.”

Commissioner Wagner also notes that the standards in question might not look like the standards of yesterday.

“Our student graduation requirements are no longer tied to seat time, it’s completely compatible with competency based progression for students. Now that work hasn’t been done. Designing what competency-based progressions look like for students. That’s hard work. That work hasn’t been done, but the regulatory structure has been set up. So when that work is done, we won’t have to go back and change the [regulations].”

In addition, the state has removed many regulations to open up flexibility for personalized instruction.

“Similarly, even though we have our traditional graduation requirements you know, four math, four English, those kinds of things. We also removed any regulatory requirements, they need to be discrete content subjects so we’ve completely removed any regulatory barriers to integrated learning structures. So everything on the student side is set up to allow for education to move from a lock-step progression of age and grade, to a competency model slicing up knowledge into discrete subject matters into more of an integrated model. And viewing education as happening in a locked schoolhouse into an embedded, contextualized broader learning environment that includes you know service learning opportunities, work-based learning opportunities and so on.”

Wagner also notes that personalized instruction shouldn’t just lead the way students learn in the classroom—it should also spread to the way teachers are trained.

“One size doesn’t fit all for students applies to teachers,” says Wagner. “70 percent of the teachers across the country tell us that their ongoing professional learning is terrible because it’s one size fits all. It doesn’t match what they actually have to do. Everything that we’ve said about students applies just as much to teachers.”

Superintendent Maher sees personalized learning as a way to increase identity, and to help every student reach their maximum potential.

“The biggest challenge I think we have in this country is we hold far too many children to far too low expectations,” says Maher. “And so how do you change that? And personalization opens the door for that, right? Because if you’re actually doing it really well, you’re meeting every kid where they’re at.”

Yet incorporating more aspects of personalization isn’t enough—it must be a complete overhaul of the way the classroom is run.

“If you’re doing this the right way, you’re fundamentally changing your approach to instruction in many cases. And that’s a big deal.”

So what does personalized learning look like in practice? Stay tuned for the rest of our series to find out.

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

Hannah Nyren

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.