Doug Mesecar
Aug 1, 2016

essa_JPGDistricts looking to implement personalized blended learning can look to the new federal education law for help.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) strongly encourages personalized educational strategies, including through blended learning, and attempts to ensure more equitable access to technology and digital learning experiences.

The ESSA, reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was approved by Congress with overwhelming bipartisan majorities and signed into law by President Obama last week. Overall, the new law is a massive reduction of the federal role and a significant empowerment of states — in short, a significant retrenchment from the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Beyond the headlines are a number of important policies and programs that could positively improve the opportunities for personalized and blended learning. We have a more optimistic view than some commentators, as states and districts have a real opportunity to take advantage of the new provisions to implement personalized blended learning that is structured, comprehensive, and a core part of teaching and learning academic standards. Here’s why:

1. Defining Academic Achievement — The new statute embraces a more expansive view of academic achievement, incorporating multiple measures of educational outcomes; this move away from a tighter, summative, test-based accountability focus aligns nicely with models of personalized blended learning that take a more comprehensive view of student engagement and performance.

2. New Funding — Although it does not contain the Senate’s version of the I-TECH program, Title IV of the new law contains significant new statutory authority for states and districts to pursue personalized blended learning. The Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant program contains the opportunity for states and districts to fulfill the flexibility provided by the overall structure of the bill, as well as harness the emerging potential of blended learning.

This new program is authorized at $1.65 billion in FY 2017 and $1.6 billion in FY 2018 through 2020. Up to 60 percent of the grant funds — almost $900 million — can be used for innovative personalized and blended learning. This is approximately 4 percent of the overall authorized funding in the bill.

If Congress appropriates the funding, federal money will flow by formula grants to states, with an emphasis on low-income Title I districts and schools. Districts then can apply to their state for grants when their state announces its grant program. Districts may also form consortia to apply with other surrounding districts.

Districts applying for grants must submit an application, do a needs assessment, and ensure funds will be prioritized to schools that have the greatest needs, the most low-income children, or are identified under the accountability system.

Importantly, a district’s needs assessment, among several other requirements, must examine “access to personalized learning experiences supported by technology and professional development for the effective use of data and technology.” In combination with the definitional emphasis throughout the section, this needs assessment ought to drive a greater emphasis on quality personalized learning by districts and schools.

When a district conducts its needs assessment and assembles an application, it would be very well-served to consult a number of outstanding planning and budgeting resources, including:

The overarching theme of these resources is for districts to establish a vision, be thoughtful about planning and communications, and thoroughly examine budget needs and wants over the short- and long-term for immediacy and sustainability.

3. Strong Emphasis on Models and Strategies — The Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant program also contains definitions for important terms like “blended learning” and “digital learning,” as well as more common terms like “technology.” The definition of blended learning is particularly strong, having been adapted from one Michael Horn and his colleagues developed at the Christensen Institute.

Further, there are multiple references to the effective use of data in personalizing learning and professional development. This emphasis acknowledges that without high-quality data and the powerful application of data, personalized blended learning is not possible. (See this recent BlendedLearningFacts post for more on the importance of data.)

These definitions are important because federal, state, and local funding decisions will be made using them, which should bring more consistency and proficiency to how personalized blended learning is implemented.

4. Focused Professional Development — In addition, the new law’s provisions emphasize initial and ongoing professional development for personalized blended learning, in order to enable teachers and instructional leaders to increase student achievement, particularly those involved in blended learning, in order to support the implementation and academic success of the project.

A recent survey found that 86 percent of respondents said that teachers in their district need more professional development; 41 percent said they don’t believe their districts have an explicit plan that lays out for teachers how education technology is most effectively used in lessons and curriculum. ESSA overall, and in the specific language of the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant in Title IV, attempts to address these concerns from the field.

5. Multiple Channels of Support — There are a number of other impactful provisions in the new law that can support personalized blended learning:

Blended learning can be supported through the major federal education programs under current law, which remains true under the new law. Title IV of ESSA adds to these other sources of funds, and could in fact be the leading edge of driving these additional resources — the key that unlocks the potential of these other programs to support edtech.

In November of 2014, the USDoE issued a definitive statement clarifying ways public schools can use several major current funding streams to fund edtech, including personalized blended learning, including the main federal education programs - Title I and IDEA - as well as Title II and Title III. ESSA makes this arguably easier, because there is now a broader meaning of what achievement is and therefore what costs are allowable under the law.

The ESSA makes changes to the “supplement not supplant” rule, which would make it easier for school leaders to use federal funds to help to procure innovative technologies that help to deliver a high-quality education to all children. No longer would a district have to worry about whether a particular program or service is considered core or supplemental.

In addition, the law encourages the use of the Title I school-wide designation, which allows districts to consolidate their federal, state, and local funds to upgrade the entire educational program of a school which can also be supported by the state’s 7% reservation for school improvement.

States may reserve up to 3 percent of their Title I allocations for “Direct Student Services.” These are funds that the state can use to support districts that have been identified for improvement and can be used to pay personalized learning activities.
The law sets aside funds for an Education Innovation and Research authority (this is a new version of the current Investing in Innovation program - i3) that school districts and nonprofits can leverage for personalized learning research and development.
All of these definitions, provisions, and programs around personalized blended learning provide states and districts with additional funding and flexibility to implement high quality personalized learning strategies, blended learning models, and useful professional development.

With the digital infrastructure increasingly in place, such as through the FCC’s revamped E-Rate program, powerful solutions that have the potential to transform the teaching and learning experience are coming of age. Advances in adaptive, blended learning models mean that educators can personalize every student’s education experience to accommodate the nuances of each student’s learning needs.

Properly implemented and fully leveraged by states and districts, the ESSA can help districts and schools transform, teachers become efficient and effective in the use of technology, and student outcomes can be significantly improved through personalization.

Written by Doug Mesecar
Originally posted by Blended Learning Facts

Topics: Policy & Accountability