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Aurora Institute

Personalizing Professional Learning to Strengthen Personalized Learning for Students

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Beth Holland, Ling Zhang

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Support Professional Learning, Learn Lessons from the Field

Two school staff members using butcher paper and stickers for a planning activityThis is the second post in a two-part series.

Imagine this scenario: a leader asks you to redesign your entire instructional approach to give students experiences unlike anything that you have ever known yourself. While that may sound outrageous, it happens regularly as schools and districts shift towards personalized, student-centered, competency-based models—not to mention remote and hybrid contexts. This raises a critical question for systems that want to embrace new instruction: how might they create opportunities for teachers and leaders to experience the practices that they plan to use with students?

In 2007, Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD) began to champion a clear vision for personalized, performance-based learning for both students and educators. To further codify that vision of what they call the “ideal learning experience,” the district launched a three-year personalized professional learning program in 2017 to develop educator and leadership capacity. Through a partnership with us at The Learning Accelerator (TLA), LUSD also conducted multiple analyses to examine the effects of participation in various combinations of personalized professional learning on student growth in the core content areas as measured by their progress within a Performance Based System.

Our analysis ultimately led us to a new research question that we hope will guide future studies: how might the experience of educators engaging in personalized professional learning translate into more personalized learning experiences for their students? In particular, we are curious how three components from the LUSD personalized professional learning program—agency, mastery, and community—might translate into more meaningful personalized learning experiences for students.


Over three academic years (2017-2020), LUSD leadership offered a menu of professional learning options scaled to address varying interests and skill levels. Educators then volunteered to participate in opportunities that differed in content (e.g., guided reading or project-based learning), structure (e.g., in-person academies or asynchronous online courses), and time commitment (e.g., single-day workshops, multi-day academies, or master’s-level courses as part of degree programs). By design, the program allowed educators to engage in professional learning that they found relevant and meaningful, affording them a sense of agency—a key tenet of LUSD’s conceptualization of personalized learning.

By providing a professional-learning program that aligned to district objectives while valuing educator interests and preferences, LUSD created conditions for educators to have agency in terms of how they personalized their experiences while still working towards broader, shared priorities. To maximize the impacts of this personalized experience in the future, we believe that educators would benefit even more from “informed agency”—meaning that they would also use data about their own competencies as well as the learning needs of their students.

In future studies, we want to learn the extent to which informed agency guides professional learning choices and whether student outcome data is available to support that. Additionally, we should investigate practices that encourage educators to use data from multiple sources to help them to better identify their own learning needs, allow them to achieve their intended professional growth, and align their personal goals with their students’ improvement needs. Finally, we are curious to know if educators’ learning experiences regarding informed agency transfer to how they design student experiences in the classrooms—in particular, how they help students reflect on their own data to better identify what they need as learners.


LUSD stopped scoring students using a traditional A-F scale in 2009 and adopted a performance-based system in which students progress through different content levels (rather than grade levels) as they demonstrate mastery of key learning targets as measured via a 1-4 scale. Our analysis of the effects of the personalized professional learning program used this progress data as a measure of student growth.

To give educators experience with demonstrating mastery of core competencies, LUSD incorporated performance-based assessments into the personalized learning program by offering various credentials. Educators could choose to earn certification awards upon completion of different learning academies or micro-credentials and demonstration of newly acquired instructional practices. The performance-based system encouraged educators to progress towards mastery of specific instructional skills, giving them a chance to experience competency-based learning for themselves.

In particular, our analysis of the Guided Reading professional learning program showed that educators earning certifications was associated with higher student growth. This led us to wonder if educators’ own performance-based learning experiences helped them to better facilitate students’ performance-based learning. As a core tenet of Lindsay’s personalized learning model, students work with their educators to set progress goals and move towards mastery within their learning targets. Students also have opportunities to use multiple forms of evidence to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. The district’s standards-based learning management system, Empower, gives both students and educators access to pacing and growth data which guide the learning process and inform tailored support. Though it was beyond the scope of our study to dig deeper into how educators who benefited from performance-based learning then transferred their experiences into student learning, we believe that this is another valuable area for future investigation.


Personalization has increasingly gained attraction because of its potential to meet the needs of individual learners. However, the effect of the broader learning community on implementing personalization is frequently overlooked. In our analysis of LUSD’s personalized professional learning program, we discovered an interesting trend with regards to school site conditions — what we unofficially termed “the trifecta of wonderfulness.” Two schools within the district had the highest participation rates in professional learning, the highest teacher retention rates, and the most consistent principal leadership. When examining the groups of educators whose students demonstrated the most growth, we found that about half of the educators in those groups worked in those two schools.

Our analysis suggests that educators from the “trifecta of wonderfulness” schools engaged in professional learning that was not only personalized but also collective. Though we did not capture data to examine educator perceptions or beliefs about their communities, we surmise that those who felt comfortable and part of a learning community might have also been better supported when implementing new practices.

We do know from our study of student behaviors and actions during personalized, remote learning last spring that district leadership in LUSD actively encouraged educators to maintain a sense of community whether in a physical or remote context. Our analysis of educator perceptions of their students revealed an overwhelming perception that the majority of students felt safe, cared for, and supported as well as a strong sense of belonging within a supportive community.

As a result of our findings, we believe that future studies should look at whether an educator experiencing a higher level of connectedness and community during professional learning might also be more likely to focus on improving the community experience within their classroom. In particular, when the community nurtures strong positive relationships and trust, we wonder if students (and educators) may feel more confident and comfortable assuming agency as well as demonstrating their mastery of core concepts and competencies.

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Beth HollandDr. Beth Holland is a Partner at The Learning Accelerator (TLA), where she leads their research and measurement work. With over 20 years of education experience, she has taught in K-12 classrooms, served as Director of Academic Technology, designed professional learning, developed leadership programs, and conducted research evaluations. Additionally, she is a prolific writer and speaker. Beth received her doctoral degree in Entrepreneurial Leadership in Education from Johns Hopkins University.

Ling ZhangDr. Ling Zhang is a Research Assistant at The Learning Accelerator (TLA). She received her doctoral degree in special education from the University of Kansas where she primarily focused on the design, implementation, and measurement of personalized learning to support learner variability from the lens of universal design for learning (UDL). Ling also has a Master’s degree in applied linguistics and was formerly an educator in China.

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