New Designs for School
New Designs for School

We’ve all had the experience of truly purposeful, authentic learning and know how valuable it is. Educators are taking the best of what we know about learning, student support, effective instruction, and interpersonal skill-building to completely reimagine schools so that students experience that kind of purposeful learning all day, every day.

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How do you know when a school is a personalized learning school? The RAND Corporation went about answering that question as part of Continued Progress: Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning, a report for the Gates Foundation that found positive achievement results in math and reading for students in schools using personalized learning strategies.

They focused on five personalized learning practices that are consistent with the Personalized Learning School Design Attributes:

  • Learner profiles
  • Personal learning paths
  • Competency-based progression
  • Flexible learning environments
  • Emphasis on college and career readiness

They used a formalized research process drawing upon evidence from interviews, surveys, teacher logs, and school site visits to describe the practices used in 32 NGLC schools.

If you want to know more about the schools’ visions and individual model designs, see the NGLC publication Breakthrough Models for College Readiness: An Introduction to Next Generation Blended Schools.

If you want to learn more about the common practices and strategies used by the schools, read on.

Learner Profiles

RAND found that teachers in the NGLC schools had a variety of student data available to them to understand student progress and develop individual learning goals. This included achievement data, such as which students had achieved mastery and which students needed extra help. It also included data on student attitudes and behaviors. Teachers reported that they needed help translating data into instructional steps. But they typically accessed data from multiple sources frequently—at least weekly—and used it to inform their instructional decisions.

These resources provide more information about the use of learner profiles in NGLC schools:

Personal Learning Paths

RAND found that three-quarters of schools implemented flexible or multiple paths through content. Instructional strategies to accomplish this included rotations through large-group instruction, small-group instruction, and independent work, often with the aid of technology. Flexibility and choice through academic content appeared to be teacher-driven more than student-driven. In other words, curriculum was aligned to local and state standards, and teaching staff customized learning activities for students around that curriculum. Older students often had more choice than younger students.

About one-third of schools use project-based learning as an opportunity for students to choose either the content or the end-product, or both. Project-based learning is the driving mechanism of the academic model in two NGLC schools.

All schools provide time for 1-on-1 academic support through tutoring, advising, and as-needed help during independent work time. This support is often triggered through the evaluation of student data.

Here are some additional resources related to personalized instruction in NGLC schools:

Competency-based Progression

All but two of the NGLC schools organize students and content by grade level, but “placement” in the content and a system of supports were often based on diagnostics of students’ learning level. Students could mostly move at their own pace through content, choosing how to spend their time, but there were often minimum expectations or classwide deadlines that students had to meet, and students might be afforded extra time outside of class to meet that expectation. Students advance through content when they achieve mastery in about two-thirds of schools.

Policy barriers and mandated standardized testing, including state end-of-course exams, are hampering a fully competency-based system of learning. NGLC schools are finding compromises to meet external requirements while supporting students’ learning needs. This is especially challenging to serve the many students in NGLC schools who are significantly below grade-level. As a result, competency-based progression was likely the hardest personalized learning practice to implement in NGLC schools.

More resources on competency-based progression practices in NGLC schools:

Flexible Learning Environments

RAND also looked at how NGLC schools used staff, space, and time in flexible and responsive ways. NGLC schools typically created flexible spaces within traditional classrooms using movable furniture and screens to fit instructional needs and student grouping strategies. A common strategy was grouping and regrouping—at least once a month—based on student needs in math and ELA classes.

Three-quarters of schools extended learning time with longer school days and longer school years. The time was mostly used for additional math and ELA instruction or 1-on-1 support/tutoring. Time was organized in longer blocks for teachers to vary their instructional strategies or to work on projects. Some schools used intercessions—two-week blocks for enrichment and experiential learning.

About a fifth of teachers reported “unconventional” roles, including co-teaching, job sharing, or supervision of another teacher. Non-credentialed instructional staff support students as tutors, instructional assistants, assistant teachers, and coaches. Some schools have dedicated staff responsible for students’ social-emotional development. The number of staff in a classroom was fluid, varying by lesson and needs.

Technology was another tool, “well-integrated into instruction,” used by schools to create a flexible environment. Digital content in math and ELA were most common. Tech was used by students to access curriculum materials, read, watch videos, use online references, and search for relevant materials online. Less frequent uses included using tech to solve problems, collaborate with other students, use adaptive software, and for simulations. Three-quarters of schools had 1-to-1 devices; two schools did not have devices available to all students.

Additional resources on flexible learning environments:

Emphasis on College and Career Readiness

RAND looked at two aspects: developing non-academic skills like resilience and self-reliance, as well as college and career prep. All schools reported they incorporate additional college and career readiness skills beyond academics, mostly through an advisory curriculum and often via group projects and collaborative learning. Schools at all grade levels provided college and career prep establishing a college-going culture by talking about and providing information about college. High schools offered college counseling, college visits and some offered college credit experiences. Students in RAND focus groups said their school was “doing a good job of preparing them for life after high school.” Mostly, these strategies are similar to other college prep schools. One difference may be that students discussed a “curriculum that emphasizes self-direction” as a way their school helped to prepare them for their future.

More information about efforts in NGLC schools to prepare students for college and career:

Kristen Vogt

Knowledge Officer, NGLC

Kristen Vogt, knowledge management officer for NGLC, focuses on identifying lessons, strategies and outcomes from NGLC grantee projects and making them available to a wider audience.