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Aurora Institute

Colorado Commissioner Rich Crandall on Bringing Personalized Learning Mainstream

Education Domain Blog

Authors: Dale Frost

Issues: State Policy


“My goal is that a few years from now, every student in Colorado that wants to learn in a personalized learning environment has access to one. That will require that teachers have the resources and parents have the information they need. Instead of a few thousand students benefiting from blended, competency-based learning in small, campfires across the state, many tens of thousands of students will take advantage of these opportunities. They will be engaged and motivated, getting the skills they need to succeed in higher education and in their careers.”
– Richard Crandall, Colorado Commissioner of Education
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Richard Crandall, Colorado Commissioner of Education

The Colorado Board of Education voted unanimously to appoint Richard Crandall as the state’s new commissioner of education. He brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise in state politics and education policy. Prior to his appointment, he led the Wyoming Department of Education and served in the Arizona Legislature, chairing education committees in both the Arizona House of Representatives and the Arizona Senate.

Earlier this year, Richard Crandall gave a keynote address at the third annual regional Conference on Blended and Online Learning, organized jointly by the eLearn Collaborative and iNACOL. In his keynote, he articulated powerfully why he supports personalized learning and outlined his plans to bring it mainstream in Colorado.

We recently caught up with Commissioner Crandall to discuss his plans to support and scale personalized, competency-based, and blended learning in Colorado schools. The following summarizes our conversation.    

Why is personalized learning important to you and why should we personalize education for each student?

Richard Crandall: I want an education system that works for all students, a system that prepares every student to succeed and helps each one to maximize their potential.

The current model of education does work for many students. I have three daughters who all flourished in traditional, academic programs. They graduated with top grades, well-prepared for college.

There are many students, however, who are more like my son who do not thrive in the current educational model. These students, in particular, would benefit enormously from a more personalized approach where they have greater control over the path and pace of learning.

I am excited about the opportunities that blended learning brings. With it, we can help every student by tailoring the educational approach to their individualized needs and interests.

Kids these days are growing up in a very different kind of environment. They have much more control over the shows they watch and the music they listen to than we did growing up. Over time, these same students will come to expect that same level of personalization in education as well.

What do you envision as the role of the Colorado Department of Education in scaling effective, innovative learning models?

Richard Crandall: We do not see our role as to force these transformative approaches onto schools. Our role is to have the resources, expertise, and functions available to effectively support those schools that are ready, that come to us for help.

We want to be able to help any Colorado school move to whatever type of model they want to implement.

We are making internal changes to help department staff collaborate across functions to better support schools. One reason we are excited about the Every Student Succeeds Act is that it eliminates many of the silos, in programs and funding streams, so that we can better support schools in a more coordinated manner. We think this will align nicely with our efforts to support school transformations to personalized learning.

What are some specific things you’d like to measure and make transparent for the people of Colorado?

Richard Crandall: First, we want to measure and report on student access to rigorous, innovative learning models. How many Colorado students have access to personalized instruction? What about Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs? What about competency-based models where students advance upon mastery?

Right now, there are excellent programs and schools personalizing learning across Colorado. However, these are small, disbursed campfires, mostly burning in isolation. We need to take these approaches mainstream so that every student who wants it, can benefit from personalized learning.

Next, we want to find ways to measure student engagement. I think metrics around student engagement will make pioneering schools and districts stand out and be recognized for their great work.

Finally, we need to measure how students are doing long-term. That means more than just high school graduation. How are students succeeding in college and in their careers?

Effective educators are critical to personalized learning but their roles are different than in traditional classrooms. What plans do you have to better prepare and develop educators to succeed in student-centered learning environments?

Richard Crandall: This is the most important and the hardest piece of the puzzle. Recently, I visited the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design that is one of the most competency-based programs in the state. Sitting down with the teachers, I asked about their backgrounds. Almost all of them came from fairly non-traditional backgrounds. Few came directly from teaching in traditional, lecture-based formats.

It takes innovative teachers to succeed in innovative learning environments. How to get more teachers with the skillsets needed to be effective in competency-based, student-led learning environments is something we are trying to figure out.

One promising way is through micro-credentialing. We are looking for partnerships in this area to develop and roll out a system of targeted micro-credentials so that teachers can develop specific skills to succeed in innovative learning models.

Another way is through the creation of learning labs where teachers can come and experience personalized learning first-hand. These will be safe spaces where teachers can collaborate and practice these approaches.

I envision three of these labs, one in the Denver area, one up north, and one down south. We would start in Denver, nearby the department, so that we can perfect the model before we take it statewide. We plan to bring in many, many partners in this work to create these learning labs, and to modernize teacher professional development.  

What do you want the department and the state to accomplish, over the next 1-2 years, and further out, maybe 4-5 years from now?

Richard Crandall: First, we need to understand who the innovators are in Colorado and what they are doing. Once we know that, we can devise a plan to bring these innovative approaches mainstream.

One powerful way to support these pioneering schools and spur innovation is to re-design assessments and accountability that better aligns with personalized learning. We are working to create a pilot program to do this.  

My goal is that a few years from now, every student in Colorado that wants to learn in a personalized learning environment has access to one. That will require that teachers have the resources and parents have the information they need. Instead of a few thousand students benefiting from blended, competency-based learning in small, campfires across the state, many tens of thousands of students will take advantage of these opportunities. They will be engaged and motivated, getting the skills they need to succeed in higher education and in their careers.

To make this a reality, we need everyone moving in the same direction, from the legislature, to the State Board of Education, to school districts, to advocacy groups. What’s exciting in Colorado is that there is consensus, on both sides of the aisle and from across the state, that this is the direction we should take.

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Colorado Commissioner of Education Rich Crandall giving a keynote address at the Conference on Blended and Online Learning held in February 2016.

It is clear Commissioner Crandall understands the powerful, catalytic role that a state department of education can play to enable and scale personalized, competency-based learning. He also knows that, for a state to be successful, all major players in policy and practice as well as communities have to be aligned around the goal of providing an education that addresses the needs, interests, and passions of each individual student.

iNACOL will continue to support Richard Crandall and policy makers across the country to create policies that empower educators to bring student-centered learning mainstream.

Interested in learning more about state policy and how it can support personalized learning?

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