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Midwest's lawmakers explore policies that spur innovation in schools, personalized learning for students

by Tim Anderson ~ August 2017 ~ Stateline Midwest »
When teachers and local school administrators think of state laws and departments of education, “innovation” is likely not the first word that comes to mind. It’s more likely to be “compliance” — how to meet top-down rules that dictate how young people are assessed, for example, or the size and structure of the classes that students are in.
But at a July meeting of the Midwestern Legislative Conference Education Committee, lawmakers learned of new types of state policies that are placing more decisions in the hands of schools, and even the students themselves.
Anne Olson, director of state advocacy for the national organization KnowledgeWorks, singled out two recent approaches in the Midwest, in North Dakota and Ohio.
North Dakota’s public schools and the state’s school superintendent were given additional statutory authority this year with the passage of SB 2186. Under this new law, local school boards can go to the state superintendent with locally developed plans that seek to improve opportunities for students but require existing state rules to be waived. If the plan has buy-in from most parents and teachers and meets a few other criteria, it will be approved.
What makes the language in North Dakota’s law so promising, Olson said, is the duration of the waiver and the amount of leeway given to local communities.
“A lot of states offer waivers, but they say that schools have to come year after year to get them,” Olson said to lawmakers during her presentation. “That becomes really cumbersome.”
The plans in North Dakota can last up to five years and focus on a wide array of education strategies, one of which could be competency-based learning. With this learning model, Olson said, students advance in school not based on time in the classroom, but rather on showing a mastery of the subject area.
“Students move on when they’re ready to move on,” she said. Conversely, each student struggling with mastery gets the extra supports that he or she needs.
Competency-based education de-emphasizes grades and lecture-based instruction, Olson said; it instead encourages the use of student-led “passion projects” and “blended learning” (a mix of students working at their own pace with a tablet or other device as well as together in small groups).
In Ohio, competency-based education is the focus of a $2 million, state-funded pilot program.
While state grants and waivers can help schools experiment with new models of education delivery, Olson said, some laws stymie innovation, including mandates on seat time (the Carnegie unit), class size, grading and the school calendar. She urged legislators to scrutinize these and other “inhibiting policies.”


Article written by Tim Anderson, CSG Midwest staff liaison for the Midwestern Legislative Conference Education Committee.