Breakthrough Models Tech Innovation

K-12 Breakthrough Models

Educators are rethinking the classroom experience.

A breakthrough school meets the needs of individual students through the use of technology, personalized learning tracks, flexible learning schedules, and a demonstration of mastery. Topics centered on these emerging pedagogical themes include competency-based education, blended learning, and deeper learning.

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K-12 Tech Innovation

Students must prepare for an unwritten future.

Their world will involve increasingly complex problems, exciting opportunities and advanced technologies yet to be invented. Educators have recognized this, and are integrating digital projects, online modules, and in-depth subject mastery into their teaching.

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Higher Education

Higher Education Breakthrough Models

The current model is expensive and too few students graduate.

Breakthrough institutions are designing degree programs that are both high quality and affordable with personalized learning experiences. 

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Higher Education Tech Innovation

University educators have answered the call to develop new learning pathways.

Educators are scaling the adoption of open core courseware, blended learning programs, learning analytics, and tech-enabled deeper learning to help students pass courses and get degrees.

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Higher Education Breakthrough Models Higher Education Breakthrough Models

NGLC's third grant competition, “Breakthrough Models for College Completion,” launched in October 2011 to support educators and innovators who have a vision for highly engaging, technology-enabled learning pathways that prepare all students—but especially low-income students and students of color—for economic, social, and civic success.

NGLC challenges educators and innovators to demonstrate that learning science, technology, policy, and organizational processes have advanced far enough to enable Associate’s and Bachelor’s degree programs to be delivered at a cost of $5,000—our target goal—per student per year, without sacrificing quality (in fact, enhancing it) and while getting more students to a degree.

The Need

For too many Americans, a postsecondary credential is out of reach, whether due to inadequate academic preparation, affordability, or family demands. NGLC leverages technology-enabled solutions to overcome those obstacles, creating opportunities for flexible, personalized learning; comprehensive student supports; competency-based pathways; and engaging learning environments.

Complete programs of study leading to associate’s and/or bachelor’s degrees—programs of study that reorganize the learning process and redefine students’ experiences of higher education—are necessary to serve as testing grounds, proof points, and sources of competitive pressure to generate dramatically improved outcomes throughout the higher education system.

The Degree Programs

By October 2012, NGLC had awarded grant funding to ten postsecondary institutions—public and private, two-year and four-year, non-profit and for-profit. These grant recipients employ new approaches to their business and academic models—utilizing time, human resources, and instructional delivery differently—to offer students high-quality, accessible, and affordable degree programs. 

Higher Education Tech Innovation Higher Education Tech Innovation

The first wave of funding from NGLC, "Building Blocks for College Completion," was announced in October 2010 and focused primarily on scaling tech-enabled innovations across institutions of higher education. The goal: to improve course completion, persistence, and ultimately college completion, especially for low-income students. The grant program had four challenge areas:

  • Deployment of open core courseware
  • Scaling of blended learning programs
  • Encouragement of deeper learning and engagement
  • Mobilization of learning analytics. 

"All young people who have the desire and commitment to earn a postsecondary degree should have a way to reach this goal. Innovating our way to better learning approaches for students—especially low-income students who face so many challenges as they advance their education—is simply good strategy. Figuring out the best way to do this is an imperative.”  - Gerardo de los Santos, League for Innovation in the Community College


A college credential – whether a certificate, a two-year or four-year degree – is critical for future success.

Most students who stumble on their path to completion stumble very early on, in developmental math and English and high-enrollment, low-success general education courses. NGLC supports technology-enabled solutions that help students succeed in those courses, solutions that can be transferred to new institutional contexts meeting the broad-scale level of need in higher education today.


In March 2011, NGLC awarded 29 grants, selected from more than 600 proposals. In 2012, five of the 29 projects received additional funding to further scale their innovations. NGLC grantees are helping break down technical and institutional barriers to adoption and scaling of proven solutions.

  • Course models where technology enables an instructor to adopt a whole new instructional approach and curriculum for a course
  • Course redesign resources and training to help instructors change how students learn in their own courses
  • Learning analytics and early warning systems and services that support students’ academic success more generally
  • Peer learning environments, either as an additional instructional support within a course or to connect students studying common content across classes or institutions
  • Supplemental resources to enhance existing courses, usually with the intent of introducing a new type of pedagogy

By the end of the grant program, innovations reached 282 campuses, 1,152 instructors, and 69,277 students. Two additional innovations recorded 130,000 uses (OpenStudy) and 23,509 logins (University of Hawaii’s STAR).


  • 82% course completion rate
  • 72% persistence rate to the next term
  • Student achievement rates were consistent with comparison groups
  • No differences were found for low-income students
  • The external evaluation found positive effects for 8 projects
  • Positive effects were found for innovations in developmental and gateway math courses

(Source: Final Evaluation Report from SRI International, external evaluators commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2013)

Advice for adopting innovations to improve student success:

  1. Achieve greater impact with Course Models
  2. Design innovations with active, self-paced, data-driven learning
  3. Cultivate the involvement of faculty with early engagement and ongoing training and resources
  4. Engage students as designers and facilitators of an innovation as well as learners
  5. Join project communities to accelerate adoption and efficiency
  6. Address an innovation’s functionality as well as its academic requirements
  7. Create enduring impact through long-term planning and design

(Source: Seven Practices that Facilitate Student Success Innovation, forthcoming from NGLC)

K-12 Breakthrough Models K-12 Breakthrough Models

NGLC hopes to seed new models that result in higher learning outcomes and have the potential for scale. These new models take the best of what we know about learning, student support, and effective pedagogy to create completely reimagined schools.

Our investments include two waves of “Breakthrough School Models for College Readiness” grants and the “Breakthrough Schools Regional Funds.” NGLC aims to spur innovation that personalizes each student’s learning experience, ultimately reversing stagnant academic progress and an unacceptable achievement gap among K-12 students.


NGLC recognizes both a design problem and a cost problem in K-12 education, which is leading to disengagement and unacceptable dropout rates. First, the prevailing school model largely reflects a century-old factory model that has become a "one-size-fits-none" strategy. Because every learner starts with different strengths and weaknesses and progresses at different rates, teachers often struggle to meet the needs of today’s diverse student population, including low-income students and students of color.

Another problem is cost structure: many of the most successful school models are not sustainable on recurring public revenue, relying on nonrecurring public grants, private philanthropy, and other limited sources of capital to fund ongoing operations and growth. 

Some emerging school models suggest that technology can facilitate a more student-centric approach within a constrained budgetary environment. When used primarily as an enabler of personalized learning for all students, technology has the potential to accelerate mastery of critical content and skills by all students, particularly those who are behind.


High Expectations for College Readiness: Honoring the enormous potential of all students:

  • Learning Growth: Meeting students where they are and supporting their growth 
  • College Readiness: Students meet or exceed college readiness benchmarks

Personalized Learning Attributes for All Students: Tailoring learning experiences to individual students' needs, skills, and interest:

  • Learner Profiles: Making students' strengths & weaknesses, motivation, and goals visible to them and their teachers
  • Personal Learning Paths: Allowing students' paths through content and skills to vary, while holding outcome expectations high
  • Competency-based Progression: Continually assessing learning against clearly defined expectations & goals; advancing students as they demonstrate mastery
  • Flexible Learning Environment: Enabling time, space, roles, and instructional modes to flex with the needs of students and teachers

Optimized for Scale: Developing a model that is replicable and financially viable on public funding:

  • Financial Sustainability: Funding 100% of operating expenses on public per-pupil revenue
  • Scalable: Replicable at scale if it demonstrates impact 


The first grant opportunity for Breakthrough School Models for College Readiness (K-12) launched in October 2011 and awarded grant funding to 20 districts and charter school operators developing new, personalized, competency-based, blended learning whole school models.

The second was announced in February 2013 to fund new school startups, complete redesigns of existing high-performing schools, and restarts of federally-designated turnaround (failing) schools. This grant competition involved two types of grants: Launch and Planning. In July 2013, NGLC awarded 8 Launch grants and 30 Planning grants. In spring 2014, NGLC announced 8 Planning grants and another 16 Launch grants.

The Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools kicked off in September 2013 to accelerate breakthrough school models in selected metropolitan areas. The first Breakthrough Schools: D.C. and Breakthrough Schools: Chicago grant recipients—13 Planning models—were announced in spring 2014. In June 2014, NGLC announced the addition of four new regionally-based partners to join the Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools cohort, a $25 milliion initiative combining national and local funding. Learn more.

K-12 Tech Innovation K-12 Tech Innovation

NGLC announced the "Building Blocks for College Readiness” funding opportunity in January 2011, challenging educators to create interactive learning modules and embedded assessments designed to improve mastery of 7th – 9th grade level Common Core State Standards in math and literacy. 

“We believe learning technologies and next generation design models can produce transformative change for students by personalizing learning, and making it more meaningful by relating to their passions and interests."  - Susan Patrick, International Association for K-12 Online Learning


Despite billions of dollars spent to improve public education, nearly three of every ten students will not finish high school. The dropout rate is even higher – nearly 50 percent – among African Americans, Hispanics, and low-income students.

We need to engage students through state-of-the-art pedagogy, technology, and assessment to accelerate student engagement and mastery of critical competencies. These tools can provide students and teachers with continuous, objective data that pinpoint individual areas of excellence and need.


From more than 230 applications, NGLC awarded 19 grants in June 2011. "Building Blocks for College Readiness" supported technology-enabled solutions from game-based learning environments to rich media platforms. The goal was to help students gain deeper learning competencies while providing teachers with data to inform their own approach.

By the end of the grant program, innovations reached the following:

  • School districts: 89
  • Students: 155,946
  • Teachers: 161,895


  • CCSS literacy: 6
  • CCSS math: 13
  • Technology functions: embedded assessments and teacher dashboards
  • Design features: learning scaffolds, physical materials, and options to customize assessments

Teacher Feedback:

  • 86% of teachers would use the innovation again
  • 81% said students were highly engaged while using the innovation
  • 69% thought their students learned more with the innovation
  • 55% reported technology challenges in high-needs schools: fragile Internet connections, lack of access to computers, lack of technology support
  • 62% reported that using the solution made them a more effective teacher

(Source: Final Evaluation Report from SRI International, external evaluators commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2013)


K-12 Assessment K-12 Assessment