Former Lake County Fla. Superintendent Susan Moxley set out to achieve one goal above all others in her eight years in the top position at the district: Customize education for each student, preparing them for college and careers.
The Central Florida district was one of six in the nation to receive a three-year, $3.1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Next Gen Systems Initiative in 2014. The money was supposed to help prepare schools for personalized learning — a concept that has become a focal point for Gates and other major philanthropists, as well as educators and advocates across the ideological spectrum.
Three years later, the district is changing course.
Most of the grant money has been spent. The district is sending back the remainder of the funding and discontinuing the program.
Under new leadership, district officials argue they do not need to spend money on a program dedicated to personalized learning. Some skeptics say it simply embodies good teaching.
There’s no question the grant changed practices throughout the district and lit a fire in some educators — some of whom have carried the torch to other employers.
But it’s also clear some of the changes the grant sought, like the development of a competency-based learning system encouraged by a new state law, won’t come to fruition. At least, they won’t in Lake.
The experience in this district of 41,000 students sheds light on what it will take to spread personalized learning from conference halls and foundation boardrooms to classrooms across the country.
Betheny Gross, a senior analyst and research director for the Center for Reinventing Public Education who studies those efforts, said buy-in from school leaders is crucial.
“What appears to be a significant distinction in the places you see a good schoolwide transformation of personalized learning is the role of the principal,” Gross said. “It is important to have leaders really guiding that transition.”
The shift to personalized learning has been a hot topic at education policy conferences and in philanthropic literature.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Netflix Chief Executive Officer Reed Hastings have all cited the importance of reaching students on their level and allowing them to learn at their own pace.
The Gates Foundation has put millions of dollars behind the concept. Districts in California, Colorado, Georgia, Texas and Pinellas County, Fla. received similar grants to the one given to Lake.
The foundation has poured resources into other personalized learning initiatives across the country. The Tampa Bay Times reported Pinellas County is using the money to run a personalized learning magnet school and implement personalized learning in all schools by 2030.
Lake’s vision for personalized learning
Beginning with select classrooms in five Lake County schools in 2014, the new learning method was expanded to eight more campuses in 2016.
Then later that year, several school board members voiced skepticism about the personalized learning initiative. They pointed to mixed test scores.
Meanwhile, a new district superintendent, Diane Kornegay, took over. She noted funding from the grant was set to run out, and shared concerns about using the district’s own money to sustain the program.
Within weeks of Kornegay’s hiring, Lake County education officials made the decision to leave the program and reimburse the Gates Foundation for the remaining portion of the grant.
Officials say they still intend to personalize education for every student in the district — not just some students on some campuses.
Lake education officials and experts argued the program was not implemented evenly. Different schools had varied ideas of what personalized learning should look like in the classroom.
School Board Chairman Marc Dodd, who grew critical of the program, said in some cases, it diminished the role of teachers.
“It seemed like the common outcome was that schools found ways to use technology as a platform for instruction,” he said. “They found ways to shift the teachers’ role from teacher to facilitator.”
But Justin Crouch, a teacher who implemented personalized learning in Lake County Schools, earning the title of Teacher of the Year in 2016, found it was effective in his classroom.
He said he doesn’t buy the notion that personalized learning is simply putting students in front of a computer to solve problems. That practice, he argued, is simply bad teaching.
So, who is right? In a sense, both are right. On one hand, educators are crying foul because the program has not been rolled out evenly and shows mixed results. If implemented incorrectly, the technology piece of personalized learning can become the focal point instead of teacher instruction. On the other hand, when implemented correctly, teachers like Crouch have shown students can excel.
Personalized learning in Lake County
When Lake County received the $3.1 million grant from the Gates Foundation, it added 13 positions to coach teachers in implementing personalized learning. Five of those positions were funded through the grant.
“I am excited at the prospect of Lake County Schools being a leader in the development of personalized learning for teachers and leaders,” Moxley said in a statement in 2014. “This grant will help us achieve that goal by creating a professional development system that assists every one of our teachers in maximizing their effectiveness.”
Sherri Owens, a spokeswoman for Lake County Schools, noted as more schools implemented the program, there were not enough resources to go around.
“As it broadened and you began to expand those resources over more schools, you saw teachers trying to implement it without the resources that were available to the first group,” she said. “They were being spread around more teachers and classrooms.”
Lake County is Florida’s 19th-largest district. By 2016, it ranked 44th in student achievement. Its graduation rate used to be above state average. Now the district is below. Umatilla High School, which carried out the personalized learning program in some classrooms, dropped from a B to a D on its state report card.
There are likely multi-faceted reasons for those results. But they fueled skepticism of the grant program and lent credence to a new set of proposals by Kornegay.
“I think those mixed results were part of the driving factor,” said School Board Chairman Marc Dodd. “If we are putting a program in place we expect to see a return on our investment.”
Asked about Lake’s mixed test results with the implementation of personalized learning,
Michael DeArmond, a senior research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education who has been studying personalized learning by observing classrooms all over the country, said he is not surprised that test scores dipped at first. It is still a new concept. School leaders and teachers need time — and support — to adjust.
Stuart Klatte, president of the Lake County Education Association, said teachers have tried to personalize learning since the days of the one-room schoolhouse.
“You had kids at all different levels,” Klatte said. “You would have to personalize where they were at and where they need to be going.”
The problem with the Lake County initiative, he said, was that each school tried implementing it in their own way.
“It all sounded wonderful, but no one had a clear understanding of what the picture would look like,” he said. “We tried to implement it without fully training.”
DeArmond, who was in Lake County for two field visits in 2016, said he observed different schools in the district were emphasizing different things.
“In general, people use the phrase ‘personalized learning’ and they mean a wide range of things in practice,” he said. The difficulty is the education field is still trying to figure out a precise definition.
“I don’t think there is a set program of how to do this that people are or aren’t implementing,” he said.
True benefits of a personalized learning program
Rob McCue, former principal at South Lake High School, one of the first schools to implement personalized learning in Lake County, said he certainly saw signs of success.
For example, the geometry assessment results at the school showed students in personalized learning classrooms performed 28 percentage points higher than those not enrolled in the program.
“We did a good job of working with our students who were challenged passing the Algebra exam,” he said. “We focused in on them. “You have to be flexible and know multiple pathways to success. It is like flying a plane and building it at the same time. We were pushing to get multiple pathways for the curriculum.”
But he also saw some cause for concern.
One challenge presented itself when there was a large turnover of personnel in one grade level, who were trained in personalized learning.
“Those we planted seeds with left, and we started with fewer of those that already had that background,” he said. “We had to do more of the learning up-front.”
Crouch, who taught social studies at Umatilla High School, said when schools invest in students and meet them where they are, personalized learning can be very effective.
“It creates an environment where you are encouraging the student to take chances and explore their learning in ways that apply to them,” he said. “At the same time, the student has to put forward the effort. It does put the responsibility on the student.”
A superintendent with another vision
Kornegay describes her plans with clarity and conviction, and a smile on her face.
“If you think about the core of personalized learning, there are four concepts: flexible groups for students, learning stations or stations that have been a part of most classes at the elementary level for many years, many kids being able to have the opportunity to engage in many activities specific to their learning needs and teacher guided small group instruction,” she said. “Every classroom should be a place where kids are collaborating and where their individual needs are met.”
If the district were to go forward with the program, it would have to invest $2 million of its own money, Kornegay said. She viewed that as a hefty price tag.
“We got hung up on a program,” she said. “It is not about a program. It is about great instructional practices in the classroom.”
She also wants to make sure personalized learning is supported in every classroom and for every student, opposed to sporadic schools and classes.
Instead, Kornegay said she would like to move the 13 district employees from the personalized learning initiative to new positions where they will directly help low-performing students in the classroom.
“We are making sure the individual needs of every child are met,” said Kornegay.
Lake School Board member Bill Mathias, originally a supporter of the personalized learning grant, said Kornegay’s arguments made sense.
“Under the superintendent’s vision, there will be expectations that teachers must meet each individual students’ needs,” Mathias said.
Without a specific program in place, DeArmond said generally he could “imagine bits and pieces (of personalized learning) being carried forward by people in an ad hoc way.”
Money makes change
Lake County is not the first Florida school district to accept millions of dollars in grant funding from Gates, only to pull back. Hillsborough County received a $100 million grant to revamp its teacher evaluation system in 2009. Six years later, it dismantled the program, having spent more than the grant had promised to match, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
An analysis from the Times concluded the program created bureaucratic positions but did not improve academic achievement. Graduation rates also were stagnant.
This pattern has led to criticism that philanthropists wield outsize influence over education policy. They promise districts millions and instigate big changes, only to watch districts retreat or chase shiny new initiatives once the money runs out.
But there are signs the Gates’ grant in Lake could still have a lasting impact.
David Christiansen, Palm Beach County’s deputy superintendent, who previously helped with the implementation of personalized learning in Lake County as chief academic officer, said he is carrying forward the learning method in Palm Beach. It is currently a work in progress.
Christiansen said personalized learning is one of the most important pillars of effective instruction.
“Everything is going to be more customized to the learner,” he said. “We believe it is a pillar of what a world class education needs to look like. We would never be foolish to dismiss the idea. Personalized learning is a platform to master the standards.”
Further, Robert Avossa, the superintendent of Palm Beach County schools, had previously launched a personalized learning initiative in Fulton County, Ga, which, like Lake, was among the six districts in the grant initiative that Lake included.
McCue, the South Lake principal, said even without a specific program, Lake County will still employ the core elements of personalized learning.
“It will always be the goal of Lake County to try to find the individual pathway for each individual student that is in Lake County,” he said.
It is clear that personalized learning can transform classrooms. But when implemented inconsistently across the board, it can stumble, as Lake County’s example shows. There is no universal definition for the practice and set examples of how to achieve success. But it’s clear that leadership at the district and school level are crucial to the success of personalized learning.
And philanthropic support doesn’t seem to be drying up. On the contrary, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan are geared to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in personalized learning, according to Education Week.
As the concept spreads in fits and starts, there will be plenty of lessons left to learn.