The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is teeming with references to innovation. It encourages innovative assessment models. It promotes innovative approaches to literacy, and even innovative geography instruction.

Significantly, the education reform bill, signed into law in 2015, includes grants for education innovation and research. The funds are available to states, local education agencies, or nonprofits to “create, develop, implement, replicate, or take to scale entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated innovations to improve student achievement and attainment for high-need students.”

Some schools have already been piloting programs that research shows are promising in helping close the achievement gap, and their efforts suggest directions others can take under ESSA in pursuit of innovative practices.

ESSA includes grants for education innovation
Last month we looked at how the 51st State Working Group addresses accountability. Formed last year, the cohort now includes 11 states, all trying out creative educational approaches and sharing best practices. The group’s name references a framework devised by education researchers Linda Darling-Hammond, Gene Wilhoit, and Linda Pittenger to consider what education policies a hypothetical 51st state might implement to best prepare students for academic, personal, and professional success.

As we continue to dig into the potentials of ESSA at Remake Learning, we will return to these states’ early efforts. The law doesn’t go into effect until 2017-2018, but these experiments, chronicled in a report by the Learning Policy Institute and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, provide some insight into what it may give rise to.

There are some common themes among the Working Group states’ innovation and flexibility efforts.

Personalized Learning

Personalized learning refers to tailoring lessons and learning pathways for students with different skill levels and interests. It is the rejection of a one-size-fits-all curriculum. The underlying goal of personalized learning, which has taken on a few different definitions, is to cater to a student population that is growing more diverse and to close an achievement gap in which students on either end have vastly different needs.

These days, personalized learning is often associated with education technology. For some tech advocates and companies, personalized learning means systematically collecting data on students to track their individual needs and patterns of learning. But the ideas behind personalized learning predate the digital age, and its contemporary implementations may or may not focus on technology.

The Kettle Moraine School System in Wisconsin is celebrated for its personalized learning efforts. The school has created pathways for different kinds of learners, including an advanced manufacturing program, reports EdWeek. The district also encourages students to pick their own way of experiencing a lesson—by watching or reading information, for example.

Kentucky, one of the working group states, has granted several districts the freedom to explore innovative instructional models, so long as they include certain “critical attributes,” including personalized learning. In the state, that means setting goals for individual students’ progress.

Competency-Based Progression

In a traditional school system, students complete a course after spending a specified number of hours in it, and after receiving certain marks on assignments and summative tests. The movement toward competency-based learning progressions suggests students should move through classes and grade levels when they grasp the material—which in practice could take shorter or longer than a predetermined semester.

Students can take the time they need to master content.

Competency-based progression demands new models of assessing competency. In New Hampshire, state-funded professional development trains teachers to develop performance-based assessments that appropriately test the competencies built in their classes.

In other states and districts, competency-based systems allow students to substitute classroom “seat time” with online classes, community college courses, or internships. In Ohio, for example, the state’s Credit Flexibility Plan allows high school students to demonstrate subject-matter competency by taking a class or through a number of alternative experiences.

Financial Support

For the past few years, Oregon has awarded grants to districts with schools engaged in teaching and learning that involves personalized learning, meaningful assessments, and timely and differentiated feedback. The schools must serve as “demonstration sites,” diligently tracking their successes and failures for the benefit of others. While some Working Group states provide funding for innovation, the Learning Policy Institute notes that Oregon is the only one that specifically funds schools that serve disadvantaged populations.

One school that received the grant, the Academy of Arts and Academics in Springfield, uses a unique grading system. Failing grades don’t exist. Instead, students receive an “incomplete” and have an additional year to work with teachers to pass the course. Students are not ruled by the semester system, but can instead take the time they need to master the content.

Oregon’s program, and the other approaches documented here, show promise, and ongoing evaluation will guide other states and schools in developing similar initiatives to support high-needs students. ESSA awards grants to programs at three stages: development and implementation, evaluation, and expansion. Most of the current projects are in nascent stages. But additional support from ESSA will enable programs like these to more thoroughly test and model innovative approaches that reduce the achievement gap.