Two years into a four-year effort focused on supporting and engaging a cohort of eight leaders in the personalized learning field, we have learned about the power of a peer community when it comes to shifting mindsets and practices in K-12 education.
In the United States, the greatest determinant of a student’s educational outcomes continues to be the circumstances of their birth. We can reliably predict the course of a child’s academic life from the time they are born based on their race, language, socio economic status, and the neighborhood where they live. The historic racism and inequities in our society are plainly reflected in our public schools. Our education system still functions largely as a factory model incapable of recognizing the unique assets each child brings to the classroom. It is designed to prepare our students for the past, not the future. It is long-past time for a major upgrade from what we have to a system capable of preparing an increasingly diverse student population for civic and economic life in a digitally integrated, globally contextualized, and culturally complex world.
We believe we can build a high-quality, equitable public education system that helps students grow the knowledge and skills they need for the future. Comprehensive personalized learning strategies can ensure each student is seen and understood by their educators for their strengths and assets, as well as their developmental needs and challenges. Every single child must be supported in strengthening their academic skills, as well as their individual cultural identity and understanding of their social emotional needs. The core of good teaching and learning has always been predicated on deeply knowing students and customizing instruction to meet their individual needs. But we have never had a system that supports that relationship for every child in every community. We are at a unique point where we can marry what we know about learning science and social emotional development with tools to help educators make more customized instructional decisions based on real-time information.
Unfortunately, an organized effort to undermine personalized learning has pushed an oversimplified, disingenuous characterization of these strategies as a nefarious scheme to sell “student data” and “replace teachers with tablets.” These bumper sticker arguments conjure troubling images of children surfing the internet unsupervised, stoke fears about the commodification of privacy, and exacerbate every parent’s concern about limiting screen time for their kids. It is a provocative argument, and it would be legitimate cause for grave concern if it were true. Fortunately, it is demonstrably false.
No serious person believes that technology is the sole problem, or the sole solution, to our challenges in public education. Educators are always going to have to make instructional decisions based on the information available to them. That will not change. In many cases, tech-enabled tools can help them do that and can help scale what works. Therefore, the actual question on the table is whether or not we will embrace the need to safely and seamlessly integrate technology into education as we have in virtually every other aspect of modern life.
Our underserved students are not better served by oversimplified characterizations of the problem. It creates expectations for silver bullet solutions that are not benchmarked to the size and complexity of the challenge. Our children need the adults in the system to work together to offer serious solutions. When we honor the complexity of the challenge, we can start to create the stability we need for the sand to settle so we can see the problem clearly. This is true at the level of an individual organizational leader, and it is true at the ecosystem level.
Launching the Personalized Learning Initiative
In 2017, with funding from the first formal partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, we launched New Profit’s Personalized Learning Initiative. The Initiative is comprised of eight nationally-recognized leaders working on different aspects of the personalized learning ecosystem. Organizations in the cohort represent school models, organizations that build personalized learning capacity with instructional tools, research organizations, and policy-focused organizations. Each of the organizations in the cohort receive deep advisory support and unrestricted capital to help them grow their great work—by building their organization’s leadership, strategic, and financial capabilities—and show evidence of impact.
Dana Borrelli-Murray of the Highlander Institute says: “With our other funders, we have great program officers we talk to all of the time about the initiatives they fund. New Profit isn’t about funding one initiative though; they flip the script to be about supporting what you need to build a strong foundation as an organization to do your best work. People come to work for us because they care about creating an equitable and just education system for all learners. But you really have to have those other things working well if you want your programmatic work to sing. The ability to have a thought partner at this level of consistent strategic support is tremendous. It keeps us focused on having the discussions we need to have and asking the questions we need to ask.”
The core of our model is the deep, trusted relationships we build with the social entrepreneurs in our portfolio. We want to be the first ones they call when something goes wrong so we can arm them with the supports they need to get back on track as quickly as possible. Our hope is that there is a value add to not only our social entrepreneurs and their organizations, but also to funders who are not set up to provide that kind of support. Because a programmatic investment can be made on a well-reasoned theory of change, but if the organizational capacity and financial stability is not in place, they aren’t going to get the return on investment that they otherwise might.
It Takes an Ecosystem to Shift a System
While we believe in the power of social entrepreneurs to grow their organizations and do excellent work, we have never believed that one person or one organization can fundamentally shift any particular system. The strongest leaders think about their work in terms of the broader context. They are able to hold having both a disciplined focus on the work they are doing and an ability to lift up and look at trends and engage in partnerships across the ecosystem. Leadership can be very lonely and there is rarely targeted support to help build this kind of collaborative capacity. Andrew Frishman of Big Picture Learning says: “It is not always easy to find spaces of psychological safety with role-alike peers where you can have productive disagreements grounded in the fact that you know you have shared purpose or you wouldn’t be doing the work you are doing.”
But bringing together strong leaders is a legitimate challenge. To be a good organizational leader, in some ways you have to doggedly believe that your intervention or model is the right one. In addition, people have different experience sets, different assumptions, and are in different places in their own leadership journey. Elisabeth Stock of PowerMyLearning says: “All of us have very different levers that we are pushing both in the change we are trying to make as well as whether it is at the policy or implementation level. On top of all of that, we are human beings with different world views and origin stories that express themselves when we bring our whole selves to a conversation.”
It is complex stuff. You are never going to have concrete answers. Is that frustrating? Of course. But it is reality. We need a multiplicity of approaches, points of view, and messy work to get positive change that is real and sustainable over time. When we only gather leaders who already agree and are working on the same thing, we make the wrong call. To get the most effective, holistic change, we need to address the stark inequities in education leadership and work to diversify the pool of people who are shaping the future of our education system.
Within nonprofits and philanthropy, decision-making tables still tend to be very segregated. Thirty percent of the U.S. population are Black and/or Latinx but they account for only 10% of nonprofit leadership and receive only 4% of sector grants and contributions. Through its Inclusive Impact Initiative, New Profit has committed to shifting and increasing the flow of capital to Black and/or Latinx leaders, developing philanthropic leaders of color, and building capacity and collaboration to transform organizations and networks to be more diverse and inclusive. Similar efforts need to be made within our public education system. Shawn Rubin of the Highlander Institute says: “We haven’t elevated enough people who truly believe there is a necessity for a liberated system. Most of us are comfortable enough with the ways in which the system works that we will keep looking for strategy shifts or curriculum shifts without deeply committing to what is required to create an equity-driven system of education.” To create the type of transformational change and equitable outcomes we seek, it is critical to have a diverse set of stakeholders leading that change who will bring different perspectives and relationships to the students and communities that we aim to support.
In addition to diversifying educational leadership, if we are going to see the complexity of the challenge clearly so we can personalize learning for all learners, we absolutely must have a more diverse comprehensive set of measurements by which we judge student achievement. Susan Patrick of iNACOL says: “What if learning was organized with a common set of expectations for all students, yet based on stage, not age? What if students demonstrated mastery before moving to the next level? Personalized learning affords us the opportunity to think bigger and broader about what constitutes success for each and every student along community- and educator-led standards and pathways. This conversation has to be driven by supporting whole child personalization grounded in research on the learning sciences and requires us to be thinking differently about how we measure success.”
We believe that personalized learning done well can do a great deal of good for our most underserved student populations. If we aren’t innovating with the goal of meeting the needs of the least-served, we run a real risk of replicating and reinforcing the very structures we need to disrupt. Making this kind of systemic shift requires people working at all levels of the ecosystem to be thinking about what their individual work adds up to and how it fits with other efforts. It also requires people who are working on the ground to understand how they can influence public policies that shapes our education system, and requires policy makers to understand the impact of their decisions when the rubber meets the road at implementation.
Those working most directly with educators, students, and families in the most challenging circumstances are very often best-poised to offer the most effective solutions. Phyllis Lockett of LEAP Innovations says: “Personalized learning is about democratizing access and opportunity. I have spent the last five years working with educators and students in some of Chicago’s most challenged neighborhoods—including Englewood, where I grew up—to completely redesign the learning experience around the needs and strengths of individual students. To effectively build a learner focused experience there has to be a value proposition placed on that learner’s culture. And the value proposition is that those things are not a deficit that needs to be fixed. To get there, we must rethink our expectations of what students can do, what opportunities they have access to—and how we teach them. Test scores are not the final goal. It is about creating and designing an experience that will reveal and amplify their strengths, get them to mastery, and nurture the development of human skills that will enable every child to maximize their potential. That is equity.”
Different Approaches; Shared Aspirations
The leaders in our Personalized Learning Initiative may have different approaches to the problem, but they are all committed to an education system where every child in every community is able to enter school with the expectation that it meets their needs and grows their unique potential. This requires supporting bold leaders to create scalable and sustainable strategies for positive change. It means elevating the importance of giving leaders who are working in the same ecosystem a safe space to share ideas and learn together. Beth Rabbit of The Learning Accelerator says, “If I had to sit down and allocate my chips, I would probably allocate them very differently than some of the leaders of other organizations. Even though we might put very different stakes in the ground around what is important to us in the moment, the power of the cohort is that it can really drive an understanding of the importance of all the levers of systemic change, not just the ones on which we might be focused immediately.”
Helayne Jones and Molly O’Donnell co-lead New Profit’s Personalized Learning Initiative, which supports and engages eight leading organizations in the personalized learning field: Big Picture Learning, Highlander Institute, iNACOL, LEAP Innovations, PowerMyLearning, The Learning Accelerator, Transcend, and Valor Collegiate Academies.
 US Census July 2016
 Informed by various sources including Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap, Building Movement Project and 2013 State of Work Report, D5 Coalition
 Public Charity Data, National Charitable Center of Statistics, 2015. GuideStar Diversity Status Data on Senior Staff, 2017. Next Street analysis