Practice to Policy: An Interview With NCLD’s Ace Parsi About Personalized Learning

Every day social innovators and social innovation organizations across the country are measurably impacting communities and individuals. This Practice to Policy blog series lifts up the voices of the more than 70 organizations that make up the America Forward Coalition and our broader social innovation network by highlighting the outcomes-based solutions to our country’s most pressing social problems and why these solutions must be reflected in our federal policies. Today America Forward’s Director of Advocacy Sarah Groh speaks with Ace Parsi, Personalized Learning Partnership Manager for Coalition organization National Center on Learning Disabilities (NCLD) about our collective work maximizing on the personalized learning provisions included in the Every Student Succeeds Act.

When the Every Student Succeed Act (ESSA) passed in 2015, a great deal of authority was transferred to state and local leaders. The law included key provisions that the America Forward Coalition’s Education Task Force worked hard to secure, including pilot competency-based learning programs, ways to measure student achievement outside of test scores, and incentives for states to partner with community organizations. Eager to maximize these opportunities and drive impact at a local level through ESSA, America Forward launched a partnership with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Our goal was to provide support to individuals and groups who shared our vision of equity, innovation, and shared community responsibility to support historically underserved students.

We brought together leaders from seven state education agencies whose priorities aligned with ours. Additionally, we brought to the table content experts from the America Forward Coalition who could share insights on practices, policies and supports necessary to meet the needs of students who face additional barriers to learning, including students with disabilities, students impacted by trauma, students who are English learners, and students of color.

One such expert organization was the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). NCLD had previously engaged with CCSSO on state-led personalized learning efforts and became a stalwart resource for chiefs and SEA leaders throughout the 18-month engagement we led with CCSSO, an effort termed our Equity & Personalized Learning Work Group.

In the interview below, Sarah Groh, America Forward’s Advocacy Director and Ace Parsi, NCLD’s Personalized Learning Partnership Manager, discuss the engagement:

SG: Ace, it was wonderful to have NCLD at the table for these conversations and in particular, you provided great resources (both focused on practice and policy) to the SEAs participating. Are there any highlights that come to mind when you reflect back on this partnership?

AP: Thanks, Sarah. Definitely! It was great that we were able to come into that partnership having already engaged with states and knowing some of the challenges for them. For example, we did a deep dive into personalized learning efforts in 2 of the 7 states that CCSSO was working with – New Hampshire and Colorado. In those two states alone, we had conducted 70 interviews with practitioners, policy leaders, and other stakeholders and had a chance to meet folks on the ground there.

Our work showed us that some of the potential benefits of personalized learning—like greater student engagement, offering multiple ways to access content, and reducing stigma— were being stifled because schools and districts were really struggling with certain challenges – lack of educator capacity, lack of accessibility for students with varied strengths and needs, and insufficient understanding of the needs of kids’ with disabilities. But what we were able to confirm through this partnership with CCSSO is that states and districts really wanted to do the right thing by all kids, but too often didn’t recognize the needs of kids with disabilities in their efforts.

SG: Many of our Coalition members advocate at the federal level and have close school district partnerships. Some note that engaging with state-level leaders is a new frontier for them. What do you think local non-profit organizations need to know about working with State Education Agencies?

AP: There are two major things that come to mind here. First, SEAs have to deal with a lot of competing pressures, not just from districts and schools, but from parents, from legislatures, governors, state boards of education, and – yes – the U.S. Department of Education. Those all reflect different pressure points and opportunities to engage and work with the SEA.

The other important consideration is turnover. SEAs have a lot of turnovers, especially in the Chief positions, and each new Chief often brings their own unique vision, priorities, and leadership style. The key here is to think about your engagement not as a speech you’re giving to an audience, but as a parade—it has to be constant, continuous, and even repetitive.

SG: Reflecting on this work, was there anything about the engagement that surprised you?

AP: I think it was valuable to see the honesty and humility people approached the conversation with. No one had all the answers. In fact, many people still had questions and concerns about how to actually implement this work, and people were comfortable talking about that. If you look at the many articles and reports written quite often on personalized learning, it can be easy to assume that the approach is completely scoped out and all we have to do is implement. But the reality is that there is still a lot we don’t know. The leaders in these states seemed pretty open about that. Now, it means that we need to be intentional about setting up processes that allow us to continue to learn from both successful practices as well as our missteps as we move forward.

SG: As part of this engagement we specifically focused on the potential of personalized learning efforts to take an equity lens and focus on our most underserved students. We also know that sometimes well-intended personalized learning efforts can run the risk of replicating systemic inequities. What advice would you give state and local stakeholders who want to bring an equity lens to this work?

AP: I would tell leaders and stakeholders that traditionally disadvantaged populations and the people who represent their interests must be included in the conversation about personalized learning at the earliest stages. Designing a system that does not include them only to retrofit them later is not only a bad idea, it’s an expensively bad idea. States can and should ensure that these groups – which include the students themselves, their families, educators, and other experts that work with them – help design an inclusive and accessible system.

SG: What’s on deck for NCLD in terms of state and local engagement this year?

AP: In March, we’re planning on releasing materials we’ve developed on the importance of self-advocacy skills and self-determination and how they can and should be incorporated into personalized learning systems. This is critical for two reasons. First, students are put in a position to make more active choices about their learning in personalized learning systems and aren’t often prepared to do so. Secondly, students—and especially students with disabilities—need to practice these capacities in postsecondary education, the workforce, and civic life. If we haven’t prepared them to do it, they’re going to slip through the cracks.

The second area of work we’re diving into is technology. Specifically, we’re considering it means in personalized learning and how that relates to the education of students with disabilities. There are three myths the field has to confront on this topic: 1) Technology is synonymous with personalized learning, and 2) it is inevitable, and 3) all uses are good.

Technology can be a means to enhance personalized learning, but is definitely not an end to personalized learning. We need to think about high-quality practice instead. Additionally, while we often think of technology as enabling students to engage in learning experiences they otherwise couldn’t access, some technology can actually have the opposite effect by creating entirely new learning environments that some students with disabilities have a hard time navigating. It’s important that, as a field, we are thoughtful in how we talk about and use technology. It’s our hope that this new project will continue to add to the important conversation that is underway.

SG: In closing, if you could share a call to action informed by this engagement with our Coalition or SEA leaders, what would it be?

AP: We must continue the conversation! These are not conversations that are had and finished. These conversations not only raise considerations for policymakers but are critical to improving the thinking of equity-based organizations. We must be self-reflective and think about how our findings relating to students with disabilities intersect with the findings of groups focusing on other students, such as English learners, students of color, or those experiencing trauma. Our students are more than a single label they are given and often identify with more than one student group. We need to consider how our systems reflect and embrace the real diversity of our students and the diverse needs and strengths they bring with them. That’s the only way we get to real equity. I’m grateful for the partnership initiated by CCSSO and America Forward and look forward to continuing the conversation.

Additional Resources related to our collective work on personalized learning:

Joint Press Release: New Resources Offer Guidance to States on Advancing Equity Through Personalize Learning

Research Review: Advancing Equity Through Personalized Learning

This post is part of America Forward’s Practice to Policy blog series. Follow along on Twitter with #Practice2Policy and catch up on the series here.

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