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Personalizing Education Advocacy to Personalize Learning

Note: This week we have Marc Porter Magee, Ph.D, guest-blogging. He is the CEO and founder of 50CAN, a nonprofit organization that works at the local level to advocate for a high-quality education for all kids.

Advocacy itself is hard, but advocating for something as conceptual as personalized learning? That can seem at first to be an impossible task.

We are used to thinking about education advocacy as supporting ideas that can be put to a "yes" or "no" vote: new funding formulas, the adoption of standards or the particulars of teacher evaluation systems. Yet one of the most talked about concepts in education this year doesn't easily fit into the policy-centric approach to educational change. There is no one-size "personal learning" policy that would help translate this idea to action. That's why, if proponents of personalized learning want to drive change at the local level, they will need to match their personalized learning goals with a more personalized approach to advocacy.

So why does personalized learning confound traditional advocacy strategies? To answer this question, it's necessary to better understand how it relates to the two main approaches to education reform today and dig a little deeper into the elements of a learner-centric vision for policy change.

District-centric change. This reform approach is focused on empowering school districts to more effectively deliver education to their students. It works with the same basic structure and boundaries of our 100-year-old system of delivering public education, but seeks to do a better job by putting performance front and center, focusing on the way teachers and principals are recruited, evaluated and supported, expanding the length of the school day and year, and setting the bar higher for achievement throughmore rigorous standards and better assessments.

School-centric change. This reform approach is focused on empowering schools to better serve students and families by freeing them from most or all of the constraints of the district system. It seeks to empower principals and teachers with far greater flexibility and to make the system as a whole much more responsive through parental choice. This is typically accomplished with governance changes that free entrepreneurial school leaders from bureaucratic regulations and red tape through the expansion of public charter schools, "portfolio" approaches to school management, and private school choice.

Both approaches have a number of compelling examples of success: advocates of district centric-change can point to big gains in Washington, D.C. while proponents of school-centric change can look to the significant improvements in New Orleans. The challenge is that while each of these approaches can have an impact on school success, they struggle with the most important constituents in education: the students. Enter personalized learning.

Advocates for a more personalized approach to education are driven forward by the belief that, ultimately, reaching the goal of a high-quality education for all kids requires reimaging the way students engage with content and the way they learn every day.

Learner-centric change. This approach seeks to not simply make the district-based system work more effectively or to free schools from red tape, but to empower learners by placing them at the center of our education system. In that way, it provides an important corrective to reform efforts focused exclusively on adult systems and actions.

Yet, because of the broad scope of this concept, it is not always easy to explain concretely how it might work to "put the learner at the center" of our education system, which has led to critiques that the concept itself is too pie in the sky to make a real difference. But a number of efforts in the past few years have helped this concept take a more solid form.

Education reimagined. Perhaps the most comprehensive policy effort to date is Education Reimagined. The product of three years of work from a broad cross-section of individuals and organizations—including leaders in the AFT, NEA, KIPP, Johns Hopkins School of Education, 50CAN and many more—the initiative's policy vision helps would-be advocates jump start the process of clarifying the policy goals for an education system organized around learners:

  1. Competency-based. Rather then measuring progress in terms of progression through a district or school's standardized grade levels, a learner's progress would be measured in terms of mastery of specific domains of knowledge, skill, and dispositions.
  2. Relevant and contextualized. The learner's own passions, strengths, needs, family, culture and community form the foundation for their learning with the opportunity to demonstrate his or her learning in a variety of authentic ways and settings.
  3. Agency. Learners are given choice and voice in their educational experiences as they progress through competencies, harnessing intrinsic motivation to create much more ownership of his or her own learning.
  4. Socially embedded. Learning is rooted in a wide variety of meaningful relationships with family, peers, qualified adults and community members and is grounded in local community and social interaction. Both peers and adults are recognized as integral partners in learning.
  5. Open-walled. All learning encouraged experiences, whether highly structured or exploratory and experiential, are valued, and integrated into the learner's educational journey.

One key takeaway from this effort to clarify a vision of personalized learning is how putting learners at the center of an education system also elevates the role of local communities and local relationships. Because this approach draws upon the unique assets of the communities it serves, the solutions themselves need to be built from the bottom up.

As proponents of personalized learning get closer to a clear vision of change, it becomes that much more obvious how important it will be to pursue an "emergent networks" strategy grounded in trial and error, with good ideas being tested and refined by teachers, parents and students in their own communities. Through this process, the best of those ideas will become common practices, and through dialogue with policymakers, they may eventually become law.

This can be a challenging conclusion for education advocates to reach. It certainly would be easier to draw up draft language for a "Personalized Learning Act of 2016" that could be introduced into state capitol buildings across the country. But by pursuing a much more organic process of supporting local leaders in their efforts of exploration and experimentation, advocates have the opportunity to stay true to the real promise of personalized learning by giving personalized solutions the time and space they need to emerge. 

--Marc Porter Magee

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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