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Aurora Institute

How States Build Local Capacity to Implement Personalized Learning

Education Domain Blog

Authors: Dale Frost

Issues: State Policy


States are much more likely to be successful in their support of innovation and personalized learning if they are intentional about building the capacity of school leaders and educators.

Personalized, competency-based learning is a fundamental transformation of education from the one-size-fits-all factory-based model, to an approach customized to the needs and interests of each individual student.

In these learning environments, students tailor their education based on their own learning goals, interests and passions. Students work with their teachers to decide on learning objectives based on personalized learning plans, engage in meaningful learning to accomplish rigorous goals and take ownership of their education.

In student-driven, blended learning environments, educators take on new roles not often emphasized in traditional, teacher preparation programs. In addition, personalized learning generally requires districts to redesign and update certain system structures and procedures. For these transformations to be successful, states and districts need to increase school leader and educator capacity.

State Strategies to Build Capacity in Local School Districts

State departments of education can support personalized learning by:

  • Providing relevant, actionable information for school districts to use to transform learning environments;
  • Offering technical assistance;
  • Creating specialized training and professional development programs;
  • Facilitating peer learning networks;
  • Leveraging partnerships to increase local or state capacity to support personalized learning; and  
  • Enabling and scaling the use of micro-credentials.

The following provides specific state examples of each of these support strategies.

Providing Relevant, Actionable Information

Some state educational agencies  are providing actionable information to support school leaders who are ready to innovate through their websites.

The Kentucky Department of Education’s website for innovation contains a wealth of useful, curated information to help Kentucky move to personalized learning. The website includes Exemplars of Design Principles of Innovation to help school leaders understand the most important elements of a next-generation learning system. It also outlines the state’s Districts of Innovation program. In addition, the department supplies a survey tool for school districts to self-assess their readiness for innovation. Lastly, it highlights Innovative School Models for school leaders to learn about specific examples of highly-personalized schools.

These resources allow school leaders throughout Kentucky to easily find high-quality information on personalized learning and how to begin to transform learning environments.

Offering Technical Assistance

Some state departments provide direct technical assistance to schools ready to move toward personalized learning.

The Arkansas Office of Innovation for Education provides research and technical assistance for schools to create transformational, student-centered learning environments. The Office employs specialists to work with schools to match personalized learning approaches with each school’s specific needs and contexts. The Office also takes groups of school leaders to schools and conferences around the country to learn about and see leading personalized learning models in action.

Creating Specialized Training and Professional Development Programs

In the fall of 2015, the New Hampshire Department of Education released its Vision 2.0, where it explains how, over the next five years, the Department will provide training and professional development for school districts to transform learning environments by expanding the trainings related to its Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) program.

They plan to implement a system of supports to interested school districts “based on tiers of readiness from building awareness/literacy to whole district transformation.” For Tier 3 and tier 2 districts, not yet ready to move to full transformation, the department plans to provide access to professional development from state and national experts on performance assessment, and technical assistance on performance task development, instructional design considerations, and creating local structures, such as professional learning communities, to support the work.

For Tier 1 districts, ready to move with transformation and able to “both gain and share expertise in competency-based learning and performance assessment,” the state plans to provide “workshops facilitated by experts, consultants and coaches allowing cross-school learning of performance assessments within specific content areas and across grade-spans.” These districts will have the opportunity to participate in the development and implementation of common performance assessment tasks for accountability purposes.

Facilitating Peer Learning Networks

In 2012, Iowa passed legislation to create a competency-based education task force. The task force recommended the legislature direct the Iowa Department of Education to “identify up to 10 districts that would serve as models across the state.”

The Iowa Department of Education created the Iowa CBE Collaborative to regularly convene leadership teams from each of the 10 participating school districts. Some of the Collaborative’s objectives are to establish demonstration sites in the participating school districts, to develop model competencies and performance assessments and to create tools and processes to document and share results, challenges and lessons learned from implementing competency-based learning.

The Idaho Legislature passed Laws 2015, Chapter 68 (HB 110) to advance mastery-based education in the state. The legislation directs the Idaho Department of Education to identify an initial cohort of 20 school districts to serve as mastery-based learning incubators in 2017. The Idaho Department of Education recently created the Idaho Mastery Education Network to support these incubator schools and to create a professional learning community amongst these schools whereby the can learn from one another.

Leveraging Partnerships to Improve Local or State Capacity

Many of the states and regions to have most successfully advanced personalized learning have leveraged partnerships with other organizations to increase local or state capacity to support personalized learning.  

For example, the state departments of education in Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont have partnered and worked extensively with the Great Schools Partnership and the New England Secondary School Consortium to advance student-centered learning in their states. Other examples include Colorado partnering with the Colorado Education Initiative and Kentucky partnering with CCSSO’s Innovation Lab Network and the Center for Innovation in Education.

Enabling and Scaling the Use of Micro-Credentials

One strategy which holds potential to significantly enhance educator capacity, is the use of micro-credentials and digital badges. These are competency-based, portable, and shareable approaches to professional development.

Digital Promise, whose mission is to “accelerate innovation in education to improve opportunities to learn,” has developed a framework to ensure micro-credentials:

  • Focus on a single competency;
  • Have a key method backed by research;
  • Require the submission of evidence; and
  • Include a rubric or scoring guide.

In February, iNACOL hosted a webinar with Digital Promise and Relay Graduate School of Education titled, “Micro-Credentials: Personalizing Professional Development for Educators.”

The MacArthur Foundation defines digital badges as “an assessment and credentialing mechanism that is housed and managed online. Badges are designed to make visible and validate learning in both formal and informal settings, and hold the potential to help transform where and how learning is valued.” The Foundation supports Mozilla Open Badges which allows any organization to create, issue and verify digital badges.

Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine School District has successfully utilized micro-credentials to improve staff capacity to implement innovative learning models. The district incorporated micro-credentials in its professional development and compensation systems. Educators can choose from the micro-credentials offered through Digital Promise, others offered by the district, or suggest ones of their own making. Over 50 percent of Kettle Moraine’s teachers have earned at least one micro-credential.

A few leading states are exploring ways to effectively utilize micro-credentials.

The New Hampshire Department of Education, in Vision 2.0, plans to develop a system of micro-credentials “to promote personalized, on-demand professional learning across the state.” Their goal is to achieve 10% growth per year in attainment of micro-credentials.

Additionally, Colorado Commissioner of Education Rich Crandall recently indicated that his agency is 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.

Recommendations for States

To improve understanding of personalized learning, iNACOL recommends states:

  • Make relevant, actionable information easily available and accessible on the state department of education’s website so school districts can use it to transform learning environments; and
  • Develop communication tools for local school leaders to effectively engage their communities to understand the reasons and goals for moving to personalized learning.

To build educator capacity to implement innovative, student-centered learning models, iNACOL recommends states:

  • Set aside resources to provide direct technical assistance to school districts ready to transform education to personalized learning;  
  • Upgrade professional development policies and programming to respond to the specific needs of educators within personalized, competency-based systems;
  • Enable and scale the use of micro-credentials to recognize skills and educator competencies to support personalized, student-centered learning;
  • Dedicate funds for peer-learning networks to support rapid exchange of knowledge, leadership development and technical assistance; and
  • Leverage partnerships with other organizations to support local educators and state leaders in the transformation of learning.

In personalized learning environments, educators take on new roles and duties not often emphasized in traditional, teacher preparation programs. In addition, districts often redesign many systems and procedures. For these transformations to be successful, states and districts need to increase school leader and educator capacity.

States are more likely to see personalized learning at scale, if they are intentional in providing the necessary support to school leaders and educators.

Interested in other promising policies for personalized learning? See our other resources and blogs in this series:


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