“Policy Playbook for Personalized Learning” has some good ideas, and one really bad one

A new report, “A Policy Playbook for Personalized Learning,” has been released by Bellwether Education Partners. It begins with a solid foundation: “…popular uses of education technology barely scratch the surface of its potential impact on education, however. The most common applications of education technology—a teacher occasionally using Khan Academy videos, for example—are largely isolated add-ons to traditional educational experiences. These technology-based tools can make teachers’ jobs easier and improve student learning, but they do not fundamentally alter how students learn or how teachers do their work.”

The report then goes on to describe policy changes that would support new models that “leverage technology to change teachers’ roles and create a much more personalized learning experience for students.”

Most of the policy ideas are valuable, and include the following:

  • “Create an innovation fund to support the development, iteration, and implementation of new models.”
  • “Create funding mechanisms for schools to cover one-time start-up costs involved in implementing innovative models.”
  • “Create greater flexibility in class configurations and in how schools allocate and use staff resources.”
  • “Modify teacher evaluation frameworks to foster the collaborative teaching that occurs in personalized learning contexts.”
  • “Waive or eliminate seat-time requirements.”
  • “Create accountability mechanisms that give schools credit for advancing students who are far behind grade level.”

One idea is particularly noteworthy: “Create a state office of innovation.” Because existing state education agencies have a regulatory role, it is hard for them to play a role in supporting innovation. In meetings where new approaches to education are being discussed, it’s not unusual for someone—only half joking—to say “there’s nobody here from the Department of Education, right?” Innovators are often worried that they are operating in the gray areas of regulations, and that the state is more likely to be a hindrance than to help in a meaningful way.

Most of these ideas are sensible, and range from feasible and near-term to aspirational—which is appropriate.

There is one idea, however, that is bad enough that I would hesitate to recommend this report to a legislator or state board member unless I could say “Please consider the policy ideas here, except this one.”

“Establish an “approved model” designation for providers and models that meet certain parameters regarding quality and innovation.”

Personalized learning is in a very early stage. It is growing and evolving rapidly, which is why this recommendation is so problematic.

First, in this nascent stage, most personalized learning approaches are many years away from having the data necessary to show success. Those programs that are promising but haven’t yet gathered data risk unnecessary restriction before they have time to mature.

Second, in the absence of data, approved models would likely be based on inputs, not outcomes.

Taken together, these aspects of an approved model approach would threaten further innovation. Personalized learning and educational technology are early in their development and need to evolve further. “Approved models” regulations, at best, would slow innovation. At worst, they would stop innovation.

The report acknowledges some of these issues but does not suggest realistic solutions. The nuanced policy ideas that might protect innovation within an “approved model” regulatory framework, however, are unlikely to make it through the political process and into law.

Those who believe that we have ample information about personalized learning models to move forward with policy should review the debate between Anthony Kim of Education Elements and Joel Rose of New Classrooms Innovation Partners on the pages of EdSurge. These columns show deep disagreement between two smart, experienced educators about the best approach towards personalized learning and what is feasible in classrooms. Their debate demonstrates how far we are from having any idea about which approaches are going to be most successful in improving student outcomes. While they and others are figuring it out, let students, parents, and educators choose the schools and educational technologies that they believe are best. They can use state help in a variety of ways, many of which are included in the Bellwether Report recommendations. But limiting the menu of options via an “approved models” approach is definitely not among the changes that policymakers should be considering.