Spreading Personalized Learning: Results from Summit Public Schools'...

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Spreading Personalized Learning: Results from Summit Public Schools' First Basecamp Run

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Apr 26, 2016

Spreading Personalized Learning: Results from Summit Public Schools' First Basecamp Run

Summit Public Schools didn’t wait for the proper K-12 personalized learning tools to be made by companies. Instead, the charter system internally created the software, called it the “Personalized Learning Platform” (PLP), brought in Facebook engineers to improve it, and invited 19 other schools and districts to try it through a program dubbed “Basecamp.”

For the last nine months, these schools and districts have used the PLP software with the help of Summit mentors. They also received professional development, assessments for grades 6-12, a cohort of other progressive schools, and most importantly, an invitation to provide raw feedback of what worked and what didn’t.

On April 25, Summit released the fall-winter data points from the program, and the team (as well as a few Basecamp participants) spoke with EdSurge to share what’s working and what's ready for refinement.

How Schools Engaged with the Basecamp Program

When Summit launched its first Basecamp cohort in the summer of 2015, it hoped to answer several questions. Lizzie Choi, Summit’s Basecamp Director, said that she and her team wanted to to see “what it looks like to use the PLP tool in a variety of contexts.” Additionally, she and her team hoped to learn whether they could break the “silo effect” by convening schools to solve the problems of personalized learning together instead of leaving them to fend for themselves.

“We wondered, will we actually be able to move faster if we work together when it comes to personalized learning?” she said.

See full collection of partners on this map in Summit's report.

To participate in the cohort, each school chose one single grade level (in grades 6-10), led by a Grade Level team, in which to implement the PLP and personalized learning curriculum. Choi and her team recommended that each Grade Level Team (GLT) consist of at least four teachers: one math, one science, one social studies and one English. “It becomes the ‘new normal,’ not an isolated experience with one teacher in one class,” Choi describes.

However, Summit was flexible—some schools chose to pilot with smaller or larger teams, and a few brought on more than 1 GLT. “We [were flexible] because we understand the importance of aligning various initiatives to an overarching vision for a school,” Choi said.

The Basecamp team selected a relatively diverse collection of 19 schools for Cohort 1: 15 members are district public schools, while four are charter. Cohort members span ten states and D.C., and students from those schools fall relatively evenly across performance bands, from “significantly low-performing” to “significantly high-performing” (see graph above) on the NWEA MAP assessments.

The Big (Quantitative) Results: Some Positive Growth, Some Stagnation

With a fall and winter round of MAP testing under schools’ belts, Summit now has data on whether students grew while engaging with the PLP and student-driven structure.

Summit reports that student growth has been positive amongst the cohort schools thus far. Specifically, students who were the furthest behind (in that lowest MAP testing bracket) outperformed the national U.S. average by 1.23 in math and 1.95 in reading, shown below. Translation: if the average American student grew by 1 point in math, the average Basecamp student grew by 1.23 points.

Vickie Vallet-McWilliams, Director of Instructional Technology at the Pasadena Independent School District in Texas, experienced this growth with her three Pasadena schools involved in the Basecamp cohort. 93% of Pasadena students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and she reports that her students often struggle with academics. But she’s seen gains through the data: behavior issues are down, attendance is up, and students are improving from on both tests and soft skills.

“I've been doing this for 26 years, and this is truly the most amazing thing I've ever seen in education,” Vallet-McWilliams said. “I said to myself, ‘These aren't our seventh graders. Our seventh graders don't talk like this, sharing how much they love this platform.’ Even small things like engagement—the kids are engaged with this program.”

But did everyone experience growth like Pasadena ISD?

While overall student improvement (meaning students in all testing brackets) hit 1.38 times the national average in reading, students only outperformed the national average times 1.04 in math, as shown above. Essentially, Cohort 1 students performed about the same as the average U.S. student on the math MAP exam. (That .04 is pretty small.)

Because this is just fall-to-winter data, Summit hesitates to make any generalizations before Basecamp students have completed the school year, and shares that national average growth on MAP varies from student-to-student and school-to-school. Summit reps also share they’re celebrating the fact that students in the Basecamp program held steady or improved—on average.

And aside from the MAP data, Choi shares another bit of quantitative information: All 19 cohort schools and districts plan to use the PLP next year. Summit originally projected that only half of them would continue with the platform; “We’ve kind of been blown away by that piece,” Choi said, particularly given that most of the cohort schools aren’t charters like Summit.

Wants and Wishes: Basecamp’s Room for Improvement

Having looked through and listened to feedback from its participants, the Basecamp team notes that there is space for improvement in the delivery of the program and in Summit’s technology.

Training schools to become better personalized learning evangelists: Choi reports this cohort’s members needed more training around change management and community development—especially when it comes to parents, who tend to need more information about something they’ve never seen or experienced before.

“One of the things we wanted to make sure is for our schools to really help parents, communities, students and teachers all understand what the heart of personalized learning is,” she said. “They need to be ready for questions like ‘Why do you use technology in the classroom? What’s the right language to use?’”

Improving the Personalized Learning Platform: Sam Strasser, Summit's Platform Architect and the PLP’s original creator, shared that engineers receive ideas on how Summit’s tech platform can be refined during Basecamp. For example, educators requested features that allowed them to reach more distinct groups of students like English language learners and better support student goal-setting.

Strasser also frequently joins trips out to cohort schools to see how students respond to the platform to make useful observations. For example, he recently noticed that it was confusing for teachers and students to give each other feedback on the platform. So, Summit’s team of engineers at Facebook started making the process more streamlined and user-friendly.

“This cycle is common for us, to go to the users for feedback,” Strasser said. “I’m excited to get even more of this kind of feedback with the next [Basecamp] cohort. We are not even close to done with the PLP.”

What Schools Need to Scale Personalized Learning From Pilot to Norm

Choi reports that her team has already started ideating on what new information they can share this summer with Basecamp’s next cohort. For example, the Basecamp team plans to create case studies offering glimpses into how personalized learning varies from context to context, and highlighting common problems that any school should consider.

“[Cohort 1] schools had different rhythms and different aspects of responsibility, but there’s a ton of similarities amongst them when it comes to implementing personalized learning. Next summer, we’ll share those four to five similar things that different schools did,” she said.

One notable similarity: the importance of multi-stakeholder conversations when it comes to scaling personalized learning beyond a pilot. Choi reports that most cohort school identified the importance of bringing both teacher and administrator voice into those conversations, and acknowledges that it isn’t easy to scale. Taking one’s time is worth the wait.

“We’ve seen positive growth, but we also know that cultural shifts are hard. Being able to really get at the heart of what it takes to change a school… we know that you need to go slow to go fast.”

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