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Aurora Institute

District-wide Transformation to Personalized Learning in Eastern Carver County, Minnesota

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Dr. Eliot Levine

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation, Rethink Instruction, Learn Lessons from the Field

This is the first post in a series about the Eastern Carver County Public Schools. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

The Eastern Carver County district in Minnesota has worked intensively since 2011 to transition to more personalized, competency-based learning. Located about 25 miles southwest of Minneapolis, the district has 16 schools and almost 10,000 students in four communities that span a region of 88 square miles.

During a recent visit to two Eastern Carver schools, I spoke with students, school staff, and district officials. Superintendent Clint Christopher, Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Amy LaDue, and Leader of Personalized Learning and Innovation Brian Beresford provided valuable reflections on the strategies, challenges, and rewards of district-wide transformation.

A key strategy has been creating a district-wide definition of personalized learning but then allowing it to take shape differently in different schools.  Personalized learning can take many forms, so the district strives to be clear about what they mean. The focal point of their definition is “the Star,” illustrated in the graphic above, which provides a compelling way to communicate the district’s approach to learning. The star is accompanied by powerful language on the district’s website, explaining the rationale for personalized learning. Some samples include:

  • Purposeful Learning – “In the past, teachers stood in front of the class for each lesson, expecting all students to learn in the same way and at the same pace. This is becoming a thing of the past. Teachers in Eastern Carver County Schools not only lead instruction but also facilitate learning for each student. They teach by guiding students toward mastery of content and instilling 21st century skills. Students have access to a variety of resources and tools, and teachers connect students to learning beyond the classroom.”
  • Collaborative Environment – “Design of spaces and their furnishings reflect purpose: how we live, how we work, and how we learn. We are redefining learning spaces with a variety of furniture, layouts, and technology that facilitate collaboration, creativity, comfort, and safety. They also convey a sense of belonging and purpose. School should be a place where students feel welcomed and empowered to learn.”
  • Learner Voice and Choice – “Students have the freedom to design the way they showcase their learning based on individual styles, experiences, passions, and needs…Treated as co-designers, students take greater pride in their success and ultimately find meaning in their work.”
  • Purposeful Instruction, Assessment, and Feedback – “Learning is continuous in our schools. This means that students are not limited by their age or grade. They are able to work at the level that is right for them. Students are consistently challenged…With teachers as facilitators, students effectively communicate their learning journey and progress. They then work with their teacher to determine their next steps for learning.”

Christopher is clear that they plan to transform the entire district, but says “it’s not going to happen overnight. We know it’s a long journey.” He emphasizes that Eastern Carver has 16 buildings with 16 leaders, faculties, student groups, cultures, and parent communities. The district has a document for each building that identifies where it is with personalized learning and the next steps to move forward.

Three Elementary Students from Eastern Carver“We need gentle pressure, relentlessly applied,” he said. “We need that constant focus on this, moving forward, adjusting, identifying what’s working. And what our board pushes back on, rightly so, is that we have pockets of excellence throughout the district, so how do we identify that and bring it to scale? This is also an equity measure, so the experience you’ll get in this district doesn’t depend on where you live. It may look different in different schools, but student outcomes need to be the same. We allow buildings to have some flexibility in that journey but are clear on what the parameters are around that.”

Initially the district identified 38 deliverables for each building. That number wasn’t manageable, so they’ve focused on a smaller number of key deliverables. Doing so has helped staff who were overwhelmed, while continuing to move change in the right direction.

Christopher recognizes that schools and districts too often change from one initiative to another and add more expectations, so during his five years in Eastern Carver he has attempted to align the work around the district’s personalized learning goals. For example, the district is explicit that the equity work they’re currently doing is personalized learning work. They have also linked aspects of the teacher evaluation system to the district’s personalized learning goals.

When parents express concern that the district is “experimenting” on their children, Christopher’s response is, “The core of our work is best practice. As you dig into ‘the star,’ it’s really just a lot of good practice…knowing what is expected for students, and students knowing that too. Assessing and providing feedback to those standards. Knowing students well and building relationships with them. None of that is ‘experimental.’ What does feel experimental is how we assign the grade at the end. But at one time the traditional approach to assigning grades was experimental too—the way we’ve done it for 100 years. As parents see our approach to assessment, and as students can articulate it to their parents, the parents get more supportive.”

Regarding assessment, he said there’s a deep-seated sense in the world that if we give students re-dos and re-takes, three problems arise:

  • Students won’t learn the habits they need for the world,
  • They won’t take the work seriously the first time, and
  • It’s not fair to students who met the standard on their first attempt.

Christopher addresses each of these points within a personalized learning perspective. “Yes, there are deadlines in life, but there are also opportunities to say ‘Hey, I’m not ready to be assessed on this.’ There’s a lot more flexibility in the real world than what many people want to give kids in schools. Drivers licenses and SAT scores don’t indicate how many times we took the test.” Moreover, allowing retakes doesn’t mean unlimited retakes; a workable middle ground needs to be found. Finally, we need to focus on what we’re trying to measure, and if it’s about measuring learning, rather than pace of learning, schools need to develop structures to reflect that.

The links below provide more information to past and current CompetencyWorks posts about personalized learning in the Eastern Carver schools. The next three posts will share lessons learned from visits to a high school for the arts and a comprehensive middle school in the Eastern Carver district.

Other Posts in This Series

Learn More

Eliot Levine is the Aurora Institute’s Research Director and leads CompetencyWorks.

Follow @eliot_levine