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Personalized Learning Grants Take Local Approach

Nearly 50 schools across the country will receive $25 million in funding to help further their personalized learning efforts, Next Generation Learning Challenges announced Wednesday.

The education accelerator launched the Regional Funds project in 2014 in partnership with CityBridge Foundation, The Colorado Education Initiative, LEAP Innovations, New Schools for New Orleans, New England Secondary School, and the Rogers Family Foundation. Funds will be contributed both from NGLC and these local partners.

The program is similar to NGLC's national grant program in spirit, but the group felt they could provide more localized support to schools by "working closely with local and regional organizations to create networks of schools responding to the same environment of policies and resources," said Andy Calkins, deputy director of NGLC.

While NGLC's national grant program typically awarded larger grants to a smaller number of schools, the 49 schools chosen for Regional Fund grants will receive funding ranging from $25,000 to $350,000, varying by region and partially depending on contributions from local organizations.

In addition to funding, the local partners aim to provide ongoing support in terms of consulting and organizational support. For instance, New England grant-winning schools will bring in "personalized learning coaches" to help schools. There may also be a possibility for a second round of grants in the future, said Calkins.

While most grants are being awarded to existing schools or a convergence of schools, Calkins noted that some of the grants will be used to help open entirely new schools committed to a personalized learning approach. "We're looking for boldness," explained Calkins, "It can be easier to start with a brand new school when you're creating a wholly different organization and methodology." In previous years, some national NGLC grantees have also been newly created schools.

In order to be considered for the grants, each school was required to meet a set of criteria demonstrating readiness for a personalized learning program, including having a "clear, promising plan in place."

Personalized Learning Elements

Grant-winning schools will utilize a variety of approaches, but all must incorporate certain personalized learning elements, including competency-based, experiential, project-based, and inquiry-based approaches to student-centered teaching and learning, said Calkins. Additionally, schools will use "embedded technology" to help "provide support and data for teachers without being overtly visible to students."

The grant will also require schools to develop alternate ways to assess student progress and skills, rather than solely relying on testing to measure a personalized learning program's effectiveness. 

While research on the impact of personalized learning remains an ongoing process, Calkins cited evidence of positive personalized learning outcomes in a recent RAND Corporation study that used the Northwest Education Association's Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessments to track the learning outcomes of students in previous NGLC grantee schools

Calkins described these encouraging findings as a "demonstration of true academic rigor" in a personalized, competency-based approach. "Students in personalized learning environments are progressing at least at the same rate in math and English/language arts as students in traditional classrooms, and most often are learning more quickly."

In keeping with expectations of an increased learning pace, NGLC outlines "at least 1.5 years of growth annually in math and English/language arts" as a goal for the 25,000 students enrolled in grantee schools, according to a press release.

Although personalized learning is still a "work in progress," said Calkins, "after seeing how engaged students are in a blended, personalized environment, teachers are convinced they are on to something important." 

Despite significant optimism and energy surrounding personalized learning, to many educators, tech advocates, and others in and outside of the education field, the term "personalized learning" may seem amorphous and differ dramatically from classroom to classroom. To read more of the conversation on how to define personalized learning, see Education Week's special report, "Taking Stock of Personalized Learning."


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