What Does the NCLB Rewrite Mean for Personalized Learning?

On Monday federal lawmakers released the final text of the bill to replace No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which expired in 2007. While this week’s buzz on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has revolved around state accountability (or lack thereof), it’s also worth looking at how the billNCLB—over 1,000 pages long—affects other aspects of schooling. Education technology, in particular, has undergone dramatic changes since the last reauthorization, but federal and state education policies haven’t kept up and have even created barriers to tech-based innovations.

Will the long-awaited rewrite of NCLB create an opportunity for personalized learning? Yes, but only for states willing to take charge. Here are four takeaways:

  1. A proposed edtech program that was hailed by personalized learning champions didn’t make the cut.

Previously, the Senate version of the bill established the I-TECH program (in the House bill, it was called the Schools of the Future Act) to create dedicated federal funding for edtech, with an emphasis on professional development for educators. In October nearly 20 senators and representatives voiced strong support for keeping this standalone edtech program in the final bill.

Personalized learning advocates will be disappointed that I-TECH didn’t make it into the final bill. Instead, ESSA gives states flexible funding (using a block grant approach) to support all types of school-based programs. States can use this funding on personalized learning, but they may also use it on a long laundry list of other activities, including drug prevention and music education.

  1. However, the federal government will continue to support education innovation more broadly.

Although I-TECH didn’t survive the negotiations process, ESSA establishes another program that’s modeled off the current Investing in Innovation (i3) program. This competitive grants program will fund the development, implementation, and research of evidence-based innovative approaches to improve student learning. School districts and nonprofits who choose to focus on personalized learning can leverage this funding—potentially following the footsteps of New Classrooms Innovation Partners, a nonprofit that received a $3 million i3 grant to scale its blended math model to Elizabeth Public Schools in New Jersey (disclosure: New Classrooms is a former Bellwether client).

  1. More flexibility for state assessments could eliminate a barrier to personalized learning that was inherent to the rigid NCLB accountability model.

Competency-based models, a vital element of personalized learning, allow students to advance when they demonstrate content mastery. NCLB’s narrow focus on year-end assessments has hampered these models, by setting uniform expectations for students within the same grade level. This could change with ESSA’s new Innovative Assessment pilot program, which will fund up to seven states to develop assessment systems aligned to a competency-based model.

State policymakers wanting to explore this pilot program should look to New Hampshire, a national leader in competency-based education that abolished seat-time requirements in 2005. Earlier this year New Hampshire received federal approval (through an NCLB waiver) to launch the Performance Assessment for Competency Education demonstration program. Participating school districts can administer local performance-based tests instead of annual state exams in certain grades—as long as the tests meet rigorous quality guidelines.

Even states that aren’t quite ready to apply to the pilot program will have more flexibility in evaluating schools, according to ESSA. State assessment systems can now include academic growth measures and computer adaptive tests, which let students demonstrate progress rather than just absolute proficiency against a standard.

  1. Student data privacy is still a thorny issue for personalized learning—but don’t expect much guidance from the federal government any time soon.

At the state level, there’s been a flurry of activity to protect student privacy—with 46 states introducing nearly 200 bills in 2015 alone. But federal policy on data privacy also matters: Edtech providers and districts must comply with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), written in the 1970s long before the era of personalized learning.

The Senate version of the NCLB rewrite included the creation of a federal student privacy policy committee. The committee would have almost certainly revisited FERPA’s outdated language and made recommendations to Congress on updating federal privacy laws. The final bill, however, has no mention of the committee. Instead, ESSA simply advises—but doesn’t mandate—that the Secretary of Education revisit student privacy regulations.

In short, ESSA doesn’t provide a ton of direct support to personalized learning, which isn’t too surprising since the bill’s overarching theme is to give states more discretion over education policy. The good news is that states and districts now have access to more innovation seed funding and the flexibility to use competency-based assessments. What remains to be seen is which states will lead the way on personalized learning.

Acknowledgement: Special thanks to Josh Delaney in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s office for his insights on the text of the final bill.