Making Room for New Approaches: Recommendations for ESEA Reauthorization That Support Innovation


(The RAND Blog)

Teacher helping a high school student on a computer

Photo by track5/iStock

by John F. Pane

January 27, 2015

In the 13 years since No Child Left Behind was enacted, schools, districts, and state education agencies have pushed forward with new programs aimed at improving student learning, closing the achievement gap, and promoting high-quality teaching and school leadership. They have experimented with new ideas about how to use technology for in-school and distance learning, flexibility in how competency is demonstrated and credit is earned, and other ideas that break away from the traditional “factory-based” approach to education where all students generally progress in synchrony. As lawmakers consider the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), it is critical that in meeting their objectives they do not create unnecessary obstacles to the productive innovations being explored at schools around the country.

Some of the most innovative work in education today revolves around personalizing learning for each individual student. In personalized learning, students are always challenged at their own frontier of knowledge: the concepts and skills they are ready to learn because they have met the prerequisites. By working on this content, they are more likely to experience success and the gratification that comes with it. Students work at their own pace. Some progress slower than others, receiving additional time and support to develop competency, but none are dragged along before learning the material. Faster learners can be continually challenged, rather than unnecessarily reviewing material or proceeding more slowly with the rest of the class. This contrasts with more traditional approaches where the whole class tries to stay on a rigid pacing schedule to meet a set of grade-level standards by the end of the year.

What was once an impractical objective is now becoming feasible through technological supports such as intelligent tutoring software; online, formative assessment systems; and learning management systems that can map out the curriculum in detail and monitor where each student stands. Teachers play an essential role in supporting and guiding this development, and are able to devote more effort to instructing individuals while others are productively occupied.

Some schools that are currently experimenting with personalized learning models are demonstrating strong student progress, but are also encountering policies that hinder the full implementation of their ideas. For example, personalized learning cannot be fully implemented when all students are expected to demonstrate achievement of the same standards on state tests at the end of each academic year.

Personalized learning is compatible with setting high standards for student progress and attainment, teacher effectiveness, and the accountability of education systems. However, it may be necessary to rethink how to meet, evaluate, and enforce these objectives if these and other kinds of promising innovations are to thrive. As policymakers grapple with questions about what testing and accountability provisions should be included in a reauthorized ESEA, they should consider adopting the following recommendations to ensure that the framework in which state and local education agencies must operate does not hinder innovation.

  1. Define rigorous standards that all students are expected to attain, without tying them to a rigid schedule for all students.
  2. Encourage states to measure student progress without requiring that all students of a certain age be assessed on the same material at the same time.
  3. Define metrics for adequate growth that allow for variation among students, while ensuring that this flexibility does not exacerbate existing inequities. Here, a balance must be struck between flexibility, high expectations, and monitoring to help ensure that even struggling students are kept on a trajectory for success.
  4. Promote the development of assessment systems that provide clear status indicators showing where students are in their educational trajectory and how much further they have to go.
  5. Consider rethinking the time- and credit-based approach to determining when students are eligible to receive a high school diploma, replacing it with an approach that emphasizes individual students' accomplishments of defined standards.

There will be challenges in monitoring and tracking students, and assessments may need to be more incremental and embedded in the learning tasks, instead of comprehensive end-of-year tests. Technological solutions are likely to be developed to meet these needs. Moreover, care should be given to ensuring that resources are available to support new learning models in ways that don't exacerbate inequity. But first and foremost, educators must be allowed the flexibility to undertake promising new approaches without regulations standing in the way.

John F. Pane is a senior scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.