Personalizing the Learning Experience: The New Human Capital Landscape

Through the Race to the Top — District (RTT-D) program, the U.S. Department of Education invested in innovative approaches to personalized learning. Sixty-eight school districts, district consortia, and charter school networks adopted personalized learning approaches that called for a system-wide transformation that drove changes in all areas of district operation, including the human capital decisions that underpin a systemic change of this magnitude.

Middletown City School District administrators, teachers and students talk about Middletown’s implementation of blended learning and its impact on student outcomes.

To gain a deeper understanding of the human capital considerations in personalized learning implementations, the Department commissioned a study, Leading Change: The Emerging Human Capital Landscape in Personalized Learning Initiatives. We were curious especially about how personalized learning requires changes in roles yet also can foster career opportunities for teachers, student support staff, and administrators in schools and districts. We found that at the school level and on district-wide levels, staffing structures are revised, new positions are created, existing ones modified, and different approaches developed with the adoption of personalized learning.

Figure 1. Types of Personalized Learning Roles Created by RTT-D Sites from Leading Change: The Emerging Human Capital Landscape in Personalzed Learning Initiatives

This new research provides useful insights for school and district leaders, policymakers, funders, and frontline educators that provide key lessons for their own schools and efforts to successfully implement and scale personalized learning initiatives.

The study’s five key learnings and recommendations are:

1. Develop and communicate a clear, cohesive vision of personalized learning. The critical first step to enlist the aid of and ensure new opportunities for educators in the course of personalized learning implementations is to ensure that all staff understand what the district’s optimal personalized learning approach should look like in practice. This is essential to ensure buy-in by principals and teachers early on.

Principle in Action. The Highline School District, one of the Puget Sound Region consortium districts, convened stakeholders such as principals, teachers and technology administrators to collectively agree to a shared “vision based on what we know our students need.” The group developed a district-wide definition of personalized learning.

2. Be bold in vision and measured in implementation. Even though district leaders should think boldly about how to transform their fundamental school structures and learning environments — including staffing, scheduling, compensation, professional development and career advancement — the bold vision should be balanced with a measured approach to implementation. For example, the implementation approach should establish clear goals and parameters for success. To ensure district-wide collaboration and adoption, teachers, district leaders and others should be included all along the way in the process of implementing these changes.

Principle in Action. In Carson City School District, goals for the district leaders and educators are aligned. Teachers and administrators collaborate to set goals to be included in teachers’ evaluations. The collaboration establishes clear targets and parameters for success and reflects the district’s efforts to personalize learning for teachers as well as students.

3. Provide increased compensation for personalized learning leadership roles and plan for sustainability. Most RTT-D grantees added compensation to the base of teachers’ or administrators’ salaries through a stipend or by extending the length of their individual contracts. By offering incentives around compensation, schools and districts can better attract and retain impactful, effective individuals for these complex and demanding roles.

Principle in Action. The Green River Regional Educational Cooperative used the teacher pay scale as a base and then paid coaches a salary level that was an average of the schedules across the districts in the consortium.

4. Invest in a comprehensive and versatile professional learning strategy that emphasizes instructional practice and skilled coaching. Sites that are most successful in implementing system-wide changes provide supportive professional learning and leadership opportunities and create a culture in which all staff were prepared to work together to successfully apply the principles of personalized learning.

Principle in Action. Middletown City School District implemented structural changes in which elementary teachers were trained as blended learning specialists. The training process began with the execution of a communications plan to ensure that all staff were clear on the vision of the initiative. The district then brought in outside experts to lay the foundation for blended learning best practices, demonstrated through professional learning sessions and on-demand coaching.

5. Strategically engage principals at every stage of planning and implementation. Strong principal leadership is essential to successful implementation of the personalized learning approach. Principals should be included and deeply engaged in all aspects of planning and implementing personalized learning initiatives to truly transform classrooms and schools. Our research found that staff in personalized learning roles who feel effective in their jobs often directly credit supportive school leadership as a key factor.

Principle in Action. In Carson City School District, district leaders included school principals among a mixed team of school- and district-level staff to interview and select new staff, particularly implementation specialists, brought in for the program.

For more information about each of these findings and recommendations, and a checklist of guiding questions and description of select grantees’ work, read the full report.


Andrea Browning is the Team Lead for the Race to the Top-District Program in the Office of Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education. She leads the Department’s work with the 68 school districts implementing personalized learning initiatives at scale through the Race to the Top-District initiative and manages technical assistance and implementation support for these districts through the District Reform Support Network. Andrea began her career as an interventionist and dropout prevention counselor for high school students and since has been working for education reform and youth empowerment through various roles at the intersection of research, policy and practice.