Florida’s ‘bottom-up’ move to personalized learning

Florida is making a concerted push toward personalized learning — tailoring lessons more closely to individual students and allowing them to advance through school based on what they know, rather than the amount of time they spent in class.

Graphic via ExcelinEd
Graphic via ExcelinEd
Other states are, too, but there’s something noteworthy about Florida’s approach: It’s largely being led by school districts.

A state law passed earlier this year gives four districts and one university-based lab school the ability to participate in a pilot program to experiment with personalized learning.

A new report from the Foundation for Excellence in Education looks at personalized learning in three states, and notes Florida is taking a “bottom-up” approach. The law is intended to make way for changes districts are already carrying out, or at least hoping to pursue.

Lake and Pinellas Counties began their experiments a couple years ago, as part of a grant program funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The superintendent of Palm Beach County schools, Robert Avossa, was hired away from Fulton County, Ga., which is also participating in the Next Generation Systems Initiative Grant. The Seminole County school district and P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School are also allowed to participate in the pilot program.

Eventually, participating schools can seek waivers from state education laws that might stand in their way — including laws that govern how students earn course credits and advance from one grade to the next.

But districts have to clear other hurdles before they start pushing the envelope in ways that might clash with state regulations. Current laws don’t prevent a student from progressing from one grade to the next in the middle of a school year, for example.

Karla Phillips, ExcelinEd’s policy director for competency-based education, said schools have to train teachers, and, crucially, figure out how to explain the changes to parents.

“This is not just a matter of putting kids in front of computers all day,” she said. Personalization is really a means to an end: Making sure each student builds the necessary academic foundation before they move to the next step in their school career. “This is really about making sure every kid has mastered the skills,” she said.

Lake County, which has already rolled out its personalized learning program in five schools, is publishing a series of videos in which teachers talk about helping their students adjust.

“Increasing their independence was one of my main focuses, and we have done that, and excelled with it,” Chelsea McCurdy, a first-grade teacher at Lost Lake Elementary, says in one of the videos.

The hope, according to the ExcelinEd report, is that these early adopters will help pave the way for other districts by finding barriers to personalized learning, legal and otherwise, and figuring out how to overcome them.