How Your State Can Support and Grow Learner-Centered Education

Voices from the Field   31 October 2018
By Anne Olson, KnowledgeWorks


We—as advocates—are asked to create the case for both the transformative vision and the incremental changes that will lead us there.

Anne Olson
Director, State Advocacy

The learner-centered movement has reached a pivotal moment in time, one in which we must find ways to address systemic changes that could tip the system to have it truly become learner-centered. While practitioners and early adopters of learner-centered education have been engaged in transformative conversation for years, it’s time to consider ways we might enroll change agents outside the movement in the ideas and practices in which we believe so strongly.

State-level policymakers have an especially important role to play in growing the learner-centered movement in the public education system. This is in large part because of the power they hold in enabling the flexibility for practitioners to design personalized learning environments that respond to the needs of every student.

Although immediate policy transformation is not realistic for a complex system such as public education,  there are myriad ways for state leaders to be involved in the process of creating necessary policy change leading to an eventual paradigm shift for the nation. I believe state leaders can make a notable contribution to sustainable transformation by engaging in three roles: learner, partner, and balancer.

The Learner: Provide thoughtful flexibility from current laws so practitioners and learners can innovate

The first role state policymakers can take on is that of learner. As those of us working as advocates are well aware, buy-in to the learner-centered movement varies between stakeholders at all levels of education, from educators and administrators to parents, business leaders, and politicians. State policymakers and leaders are no exception. So, thoughtful, small changes become important milestones to help accelerate the transformation we seek and to allow space for bigger changes down the road.

Many state education agencies and legislatures have already begun to recognize the importance of this role. States across the country now allow schools and districts to innovate through pilot and waiver programs to develop competency-based education and other learner-centered approaches. One example is North Dakota. For the first time, the state’s legislature and its department of public instruction actively encourage true personalization in public schools through a recently-passed legislative pilot program. The new law requires practitioner and community buy-in to participate and allows flexibility from certain laws for up to five years.

The benefit for thoughtfully providing policy flexibilities for innovation is two-fold. States not only cultivate the opportunity for early adopters to become more innovative but also begin to gather evidence to demonstrate the success of learner-centered approaches and help drive the movement forward. In other words, by providing districts autonomy to explore entry points into learner-centered education, states can begin to see the effectiveness of learner-centered practices and can grow them in other areas of the state.

The Partner: Collaborate with districts to enable capacity and promote continuous improvement

In addition to the role of learner, states can find ways to recalibrate their relationship with districts by partnering with them to build capacity and improve upon learner-centered practices. Traditionally, the relationship between state education agencies and schools has been one of compliance—not of partnership. State education agencies can cultivate opportunities to provide regional support for early adopters so that school leaders and practitioners may learn from one another. If done with an eye toward continuously improving learner-centered practices, partnership between the state agency and schools has the ability to help grow capacity over time as well.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states have indicated a desire to partner with individual professionals and schools with a focus on learner-centered practices and continuous improvement. As KnowledgeWorks found in an analysis of each state’s plan, a handful of states plan to offer professional development opportunities specifically around the pedagogical skills needed to facilitate a personalized learning environment. Additionally, one of the most encouraging values reflected in states’ plans under ESSA is a commitment to continuous improvement at the state level. This will ensure the education system remains responsive to the needs of schools and communities, including those seeking to enable learner-centered approaches.

The Balancer: Align state-level systems to match the needs of districts

As learner-centered approaches deepen in states through policy flexibilities and partnership, states should consider what additional policies, legislative or regulatory, need to change to sustainably grow learner-centered education. However, this kind of policy change is tricky because it requires states to have an understanding of the needs of individual communities, as well as a sense of the patterns and themes that emerge across communities. The temptation when aligning systems is to require a change for everyone, but to be truly learner-centered, states will need to recognize the diversity of need.

Some states have indeed tried to align systems by passing laws that require learner-centered practices before individual communities were fully on board. Unfortunately, shifts in leadership, politics, and priorities have made these laws hard to sustain, as we have recently seen in Maine. In 2012, because state leaders recognized the importance of ensuring all learners are ready for the future, the legislature passed a bill requiring a proficiency-based diploma as the new standard for all public high schools. However, six years later, that requirement has been repealed—four years short of when the first cohort of students would have graduated with this new diploma.

Thankfully, Maine kept the option for schools and districts to require a proficiency-based diploma, still enabling the movement to build from the ground up. Interestingly, this policy change also provides a new opportunity for the state to learn from the success of districts continuing to use the proficiency diploma in a way it had not before the initial statewide requirement.

Advocacy: The Biggest Role You Can Play

Many practitioners, learners, and parents who have seen the power of learner-centered education in action know the importance of advocating for the work. They also know how hard it can be. The desire to create sustainable transformation to a learner-centered paradigm requires advocates to believe in a vision that is relatively unknown to many and likely requires a certain level of creativity to fully understand.

The notion of education transformation can be particularly intimidating to state-level decision-makers, in part because they are not often asked to think beyond incremental change. Thus, we—as advocates—are asked to create the case for both the transformative vision and the incremental changes that will lead us there.

We should work to both introduce state leaders to the bold ideas of learner-centered education and to show them what it looks like in action today. We can do this by inviting state leaders to our learning environments to show them the power of learner-centered education. We can advocate for pilot programs that release schools and districts from specific policies so they can try new approaches. Most importantly, we can continue elevating the voices of young learners who know first-hand the dramatic impact that shifting to a learner-centered education can have on individuals and communities.

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