Breakthrough Schools and Colleges: Hitting the Accelerator Pedal

The high school student glanced up from her laptop, looked her school district superintendent in the eye, and uttered the words that froze her in her tracks – and have galvanized her into action ever since.

“You people are slowing me down.”

The superintendent, a member of Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools, told me that story earlier this month at the League’s meeting near San Francisco. “The killer,” she said, was the ‘You people’ part. This girl was on the move, and our whole, entire district was just… doing nothing but slowing her down.”

It makes me wonder whether everyone working at the big-change, transformational end of the education reform spectrum has a story like that. Clearly, some equivalent shock of recognition has galvanized the edu-preneurs who make up the “Breakthrough Model” grantees of Next Generation Learning Challenges, which announces the final set of awards in its third wave of investments this month. The 20 secondary school model creators and 10 designers of innovative postsecondary degree programs in NGLC’s Breakthrough Model cohort aren’t interested in slowing anybody down. They’ve each got a vision for educational offerings and learning experiences that will engage and challenge today’s high-expectation, digital-native students.

Their offerings encompass learning environments (beginning in middle school) that look and behave more like multi-purpose, team-oriented, technology-supported workplaces; schedules and policies that allow for credit-bearing learning to happen anytime and everywhere, as long as competency benchmarks are met; personalized approaches that enable students to learn in ways that best match their learning styles, interests, and academic needs; and outcomes definitions that genuinely reflect the post-graduation expectations of college and career.

They are seeking to accomplish all of this in ways that encourage access, persistence, and completion – for example, by offering online, postsecondary courseware for free and charging students for assessments and credit, or for more extensive levels of personalized academic support.

These are the New Model Builders. They are designing schools and college-level learning pathways that would be unrecognizable to students (and faculty) of thirty, or sixty, or ninety years ago. And that, of course, is the point. Their models will be recognized – and embraced – by students who are counting on their schools and colleges to accelerate their learning, instead of slowing them down.

Finalizing the Wave III Grantee Cohorts

NGLC’s Wave III has two major purposes:

  • to accelerate and enhance the development of new, personalized, competency-based, blended models at both the secondary and postsecondary levels, and
  • to ensure that this new-model development serves the entire education sector through open sharing of strategies, lessons learned, and evidence -- including both positive and negative student outcomes. Not all of these projects will succeed, but their intention and NGLC’s is to serve the field through their individual and collective experience.

To fulfill these purposes, NGLC’s partners created and implemented a year-long, extremely rigorous RFP process – a “challenge to the field” to come up with new designs that meet ambitious criteria for boldness, outcomes, and scalability. We weren’t entirely sure what we would get in response to this challenge. How ready is the postsecondary field to respond to design criteria that (for example) call for 50% completion for Pell-eligible students, $5000 cost per year, and scalability to 5000 students in five years, all while enhancing learning outcomes?

In fact: the field’s response has exceeded our hopes, delivering 20 new breakthrough models in secondary school design and 10 in postsecondary. That response is a strong indication of the rapidly deepening interest and activity surrounding these new, digitally supported, personalized approaches to learning. The projects build very deliberately from “first-generation” blended and online models through deeper integration of technology, mastery-based student progression, and fundamentally altered allocations of staff, schedules, and budgets.

NGLC is intensely proud to be working with these pioneers. You can learn more about them on the Wave III grantee page. Click on individual grantees and you’ll find more information about each one. Over time, you’ll be able to watch videos of their narrated presentations that summarize the vision and strategies that activate their new models; read about their experiences here on this site and (for K-12 models) at; download and distribute short profiles of the models to your own reform/design teams; and, eventually, learn from their discoveries as they and NGLC provide evidence on what’s worked, and what hasn’t.

We look forward to working with them on behalf of the entire field of education. Please check back frequently to learn along with us.

Andy Calkins is Deputy Director of Next Generation Learning Challenges.

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