From Bismarck to Boise: States Take the Lead on Personalized Learning

Innovative state education plans to expand student learning options

By Anne Olson

The North Dakota House votes 75-17 to pass SB 2186

When 18-year-old Dawson Schefter testified to the North Dakota House Education Committee in mid-March, he asked legislators to support SB 2186, a bill that creates an innovative learning pilot for districts throughout the state.

“Young people in North Dakota have a burning desire to succeed,” he told the committee. “North Dakota’s students are among the best and brightest in the nation, and we owe it to them to offer a flexible, 21st century educational experience that will allow them to reach their highest potential.”

Legislators listened. The North Dakota legislature passed SB 2186 later that month and Governor Doug Burgum signed it into law in early April. The bill allows districts and schools to submit a waiver request to the Department of Public Instruction, allowing for innovation, such as learning outside normal school hours or off school premises, and flexibility around instructional hours, school days, and school years. Submitted plans should focus on increased educational opportunities or increased academic success for students.

With this bill’s passage, the state not only promotes innovation and personalized learning, but also shows its commitment to properly modernizing educational practices to fit students’ needs. Through this bill, schools and districts have freedom to innovate and better prepare students for the future.

Governor Doug Burgum at the signing ceremony for SB 2186 in the Governor's Conference Room.

"This bill takes a crucial step in the right direction, empowering local school districts to better shape educational delivery to meet the needs of the 21st century,” North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum said as he signed SB 2186 into law. “We are excited to put control of education back where it belongs – in the hands of teachers, students and parents.” North Dakota joins a growing number of states that recognize the importance of thoughtful growth in personalized education, truly putting students at the center of learning. Other states have passed legislation that focuses on specific types of personalized learning environments, such as competency-based (or mastery-based) education.

Here are some states leading the way on competency-based learning from a policy perspective:

1.) Utah passed SB 143 into law last year, creating the Competency-Based Education Grants Program. This grant program allows local education agencies to apply for grant funding to pilot competency-based learning to improve educational outcomes in public schools. The grant program requirements are divided into three separate grant options: planning grants must come first, followed by implementation grants for schools that develop a successful plan and finally expansion grants are designated for those schools that successfully implement a mastery learning program.

2.) Illinois passed HB 5729 in 2016, which in part created a pilot program for competency-based education. Additionally, the state launched the Competency-Based High School Graduation Requirements Pilot Program for grades 9-12. This pilot launched in 12 districts throughout the state.

3.) In 2012, Idaho’s Task Force for Improving Education named mastery education as a key recommendation. By 2015, the state had passed HB 110, in which the Department of Education was required to conduct a statewide awareness campaign to promote the understanding of mastery education, establish a committee of educators to identify roadblocks and possible solutions to implementing mastery education and facilitate an incubator program of school districts to begin implementing mastery learning district-wide.

In addition to local legislative changes, states are outlining ways to advance personalized learning through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA provides states with significant flexibility to advance personalized learning to improve equitable outcomes for students, and it is increasingly obvious that states are ready to take advantage of those opportunities.

At KnowledgeWorks, we’ve been curating an interactive map of state ESSA plans that focuses on personalized learning. We’ve found that a vast majority of states will prioritize academic growth as a measure in their accountability systems under the new law as a way to ensure students are receiving the supports they need to become proficient in academic subjects. Some states, like Rhode Island, are using the flexibilities under ESSA to explicitly create statewide personalized learning initiatives, beginning with a pilot program.

head thoughts openWhen a state creates opportunities for districts to personalize learning for their students, through pilot programs, innovation zones or through other allowances through their state education agency, they send a message to districts that they are committed to growing and sustaining this work over time. They are making a commitment to innovative learning. Such is the case in North Dakota.

“We already have great education here for North Dakota kids, but we can do better,” said Senator Erin Oban, one of the bill’s sponsors. She added that the new law is going to help the state take a “big, important step forward in education.”

The Senate’s primary bill sponsor, Senator Nicole Poolman said, “By giving schools more flexibility today, we will create better outcomes and opportunities for students tomorrow.”

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