The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met on March 26 with the sole purpose of better understanding personalized and competency based learning – a first of its kind meeting. It was a full house, with more than 70 people crowding into the boardroom to hear the Board’s questions. It’s been a long road to get to this point: four years since the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education published “New Opportunity to Lead,” ten years since Khan Academy was launched, and more than five years since we founded LearnLaunch. Thanks to Commissioner Jeff Wulfson, who initiated the meeting and to Board Chair Paul Sagan.

Ken Klau, the Director of Digital Learning for Massachusetts, emphasized that personalized learning is not about personalizing the state standards which have served MA and its students well. It is about personalizing the student experience in order to reach those standards.

Michael Horn, a national thought leader and LearnLaunch Institute Board member, led off the hour and a half long session. He gave an overview of the promise of personalized learning with the story of Jack. Jack was a student at the bottom of his fifth-grade class because of lack of mastery of earlier math concepts, but powered ahead to near the top of his class with the help of Khan Academy to fill in the holes in the “Swiss cheese” of his learning. He highlighted the need to change from a model of “fixed time-variable learning” to one of “fixed learning-variable time,” so all students achieve mastery.

Dr. Lourenco Garcia, principal of Revere High School recounted how his school has moved over the past five years to personalizing learning. Teachers there are driving the change, which puts students at the center. Students have personal advisors and are able to learn 24×7 with Chromebooks and assignments on Schoology. Sarah McLaughlain, a Melrose teacher with 18 years’ experience, eagerly described how she has “flipped” her science classes, videoing her lectures and embedding formative questions with EdPuzzle. Her students’ work can now be judged against a rubric and is posted in a digital portfolio.

Perhaps the most impactful speakers of the evening were the students: Raven Guerra of Boston Day and Evening Academy and Avanti Mohan, a graduate of Francis Parker Charter. Raven described how she was able to explore her interest in poetry while getting help on the hard work of essays. “I was going to drop out before this school”, she said. Avanti talked about the love of learning she gained at Parker. The board was extremely interested in the student experience.

Commissioner Jeff Wulfson asked questions about how to give more time to students who need it, if we can’t give it to all students. James Morton asked if students in competency-based settings are making progress at an acceptable pace. Michael Horn described the flexible staffing mastery based schools employ, in order to meet the differing needs of students. They also focus on “minimal pace” within a mastery context.

Board member Amanda Fernandez asked if personalized learning is a potential solution for the equity challenges in Massachusetts schools, and the answer was a resounding yes. Klau pointed out that Massachusetts education works extremely well for many students- we are leading the nation- but it doesn’t work for all. Michael Moriarity asked about the role of parent agency in PL. Parent agency is supported by more access to understanding what standards a child has mastered, where he or she is in the learning process.

Student board member Hannah Trimarchi asked if “teaching to the test” is a barrier to personalization. Both Garcia and Horn didn’t think so. Students will continue to be assessed; Garcia is looking for a way to make the assessments more meaningful to kids.

David O’Connor is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Personalized Learning Edtech Consortium (MAPLE), a public-private partnership between the Department of Elementary and Secondary Ed and LearnLaunch Institute. He recounted how in a year and a half, 39 districts representing 20% of the state have joined MAPLE. He reviewed the landscape of personalized learning (PL) in MA and districts’ desire for more educator professional development to “see personalized learning in action.” MAPLE members say they want to personalize in order to differentiate instruction, engage students and better serve a more diverse student body.

David Ruff, the Executive Director of the New England Secondary Schools Consortium, pointed out that Massachusetts has now joined the Consortium, which is focused on personalized and competency-based learning, and is a resource for state-level departments of education. All other New England States are members. Ruff pointed out the tremendous gains from students’ ownership of their own learning. He also highlighted the many different aspects of school practice which need to come together to be successful at personalization.

Massachusetts rigorous standards, with personalization and mastery focus, will yield better learning for all students, Horn posited. Blended learning is the approach that can scale up. He also reviewed the research base for individualized instruction, which shows positive effects in the order of 1 standard deviation. He also reviewed the research base for mastery learning, with effect size ranging from .4 to 1.1 standard deviations.

The meeting concluded with the board chair Paul Sagan suggesting the board would continue to look into this topic so it can be a support to Massachusetts educators. 

Definition of Personalized Learning in Massachusetts

Personalized learning seeks to accelerate student learning by tailoring the instructional environment-what, when, how and where students learn- to address the individual needs, skills and interests of each student. 

Within a framework of established curriculum standards and high expectations, personalized learning motivates students to reach their goals. Students take ownership of their own learning and develop deep, personal connections with each other, their teachers and other adults.

Technology is necessary to implement personalized learning effectively, affordably, and at significant scale. Teachers leverage technology to gain detailed and timely knowledge of their students that guide’s instruction. Effective use of technology allows teachers and students to focus more on creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration.