We're hiring! See opportunities.

Beyond the “Magic Bullet”: Lessons on the Integration of High-Quality Instructional Materials and Personalized Learning

Beyond the “Magic Bullet”: Lessons on the Integration of High-Quality Instructional Materials and Personalized Learning

Five fundamental findings from independent research conducted by Student Achievement Partners and Highlander Institute

Co-authored by:

Sue Pimentel


Cathy Sanford
Highlander Institute

This blog post is cross-posted on Student Achievement Partners' blog.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, the field of education could well be considered certifiable. The long-standing popularity of the “magic bullet” approach to reform persists even though we are still waiting to realize the promise of a single solution to a knotty education problem.

As Larry Cuban writes in his April 2020 blog post, the rationale for a magic bullet solution is deeply embedded in “the popular hope of tax-supported public schools solving problems besetting a democracy.” The expectations for public schools to responsively address everything from poverty to obesity to the changing labor market are overwhelming. Within this complex landscape, we continue to have a proclivity for simple solutions.

Consider the current emphasis on high-quality instructional materials and the recent focus on highly resonant personalized learning. Similar goals; very different means. We’ve watched district leaders, philanthropists, and product developers jump on the bandwagon of one or the other of these two reforms, but—Spoiler Alert—we are not one purchase or framework away from closing the achievement gap. As you likely suspect, a more complex and nuanced “both and” approach has a better chance of improving learning environments and student outcomes.

Independently of each other, Student Achievement Partners (SAP) and Highlander Institute set out to understand and elevate the implementation intricacies of a combined approach. We came at this issue from different directions; some might even say from opposing camps. SAP conducted a synthesis of the scholarly and academic literature in literacy, personalization, and equity to identify what factors can accelerate students’ literacy. Highlander Institute conducted action research to explore areas of alignment between rigorous curricula and personalized practices in mathematics classrooms.

Despite the different approaches, we came to very similar conclusions. This doesn’t mean that we agree on every detail; our definitions of personalized learning, for instance, are not identical. But we think the times call for a fresh conversation about accelerating learning for students—particularly those frequently at the margins of design considerations and resource allocations—that leverages our shared discoveries. There is no proverbial magic bullet, but we are not without direction. SAP’s literature review and Highlander Institute’s action research both point to how rigorous curricula combined with personalized practices can be mutually reinforcing and accelerate student learning.

The core requirement of any instructional product or approach—and it is a gateway to all others—is to pinpoint how it will advance grade-level learning. But a narrow focus on grade-level instruction is not enough. The following five fundamentals are crucial components for success:

Fundamental No. 1. Content is Key: Demand that rigorous curricula and personalized practices work in tandem to advance learning. 

Decades of work have gone into developing rigorous core instructional materials in math and ELA that follow the research. Teachers need and deserve such curricula to form the basis of their teaching and learning. Personalized learning practices need to be well planned so they work in close concert with the core instructional materials.  

What does this mean for your district?

Ensure you have high-quality core instructional programs in place in math and ELA that support all students in accessing grade-level work. Take time to vet programs you are reviewing (or are currently implementing) with teachers and, ideally, students and parents. Elevate areas where the curriculum may fall short. Discuss these considerations with product developers and develop a district-level plan detailing how teachers can address gaps or choose a higher quality curriculum that more closely hews to the research. Also, inventory your personalized learning tools and approaches. Determine what gaps in instruction you are trying to close by adopting or using a personalized product or approach. If it is only vaguely or peripherally related to filling that gap, then move on. Don’t waste valuable student time or precious instructional dollars.

Fundamental No. 2. Center Students: Deeply know and affirm students to build their capacity for challenging work. 

Putting students “at the center” is a core principle of personalized learning, but it takes on new meaning in relation to the implementation of high-quality instructional materials. The establishment of a trusting academic classroom community is essential to successfully engaging students in rigorous curricula. For students to thrive, they need to have a sense of belonging and safety—a rapport and bond with their teacher(s) and peers. This means investing time to deeply know each student not only as a learner, but also as a person who exists within different contexts across family, community, and societal systems. A singular focus on curriculum or a particular personalized approach or product assumes that each student will respond to the material in the same way, an assumption that has not played out in the classroom. Centering students allows teachers to proactively determine what students will need in order to stay engaged and focused in a rigorous lesson.

What does this mean for your district?

Find ways to humanize the learning experience—to make students partners in their learning. Time and energy dedicated to better understanding students and their families has a strong return on investment. Home visits, community walks, student shadow days, and identity webs are ways in which teachers and leaders can generate a new level of understanding of student values, responsibilities, interests, and strengths, and leverage those in the creation of a trusting academic community. Attention to developing student mindsets ensures that students are ready to tackle curriculum challenges. Use the University of Chicago Consortium’s checklist to determine how strongly your students agree with these statements:

  • I belong to this academic community.
  • I believe I can succeed.
  • My ability grows with the effort I put in.
  • This work has value.

Make changes in your curriculum approaches and instruction products to increase agreement.

Fundamental No. 3. Check Bias: Examine inequity within the system and counteract prejudice in the delivery of content. 

Collectively, we must switch from a focus on addressing student deficits to understanding the deficits within our system that generate persistent achievement gaps. Systemic racism and inequity underdevelops students’ cognitive processing skills and undermines their natural competence and confidence. This often takes the form of lower expectations for different subgroups of students and instruction that focuses on compliance and repeated practice rather than deep thinking and engagement. Within this environment, even well-crafted instructional materials—core and supplemental—can be over-scaffolded when delivered to students, preventing some pupils from receiving the full benefits of a strong program. Decision-making when assigning content must be deliberate and transparent, checked and rechecked in light of which students are getting what content to ensure that portions of students are not condemned to months of low-level, dead-end work.

What does this mean for your district?

Openly and actively check your collective biases regarding BIPOC students, students experiencing economic insecurity, and English learners—students who are too often marginalized and chronically underserved by schools. Support teachers in using data to examine unintended biases and how students are experiencing learning. Take care not to deem students deficient based solely on test scores. Review the bases on which you assign students to personalized work and how students move between skill-based groups. Connect test scores with student perceptions of belonging and academic mindset, and be mindful of the expectations and cognitive demands placed on students. Ensure teacher attitudes and pedagogies elevate student assets and challenge destructive narratives about the academic ability of traditionally marginalized students. Continuously collect student feedback to monitor their academic confidence and engagement.

Fundamental No. 4. Embody Respect: Advance culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogies

We can restore natural confidence and competence to students who have been marginalized by systemic inequity through anti-racist, culturally sustaining education. This manifests through work that affirms student cultures and communities while building student capacity to become critically conscious. It requires the combination of rigor and relevance—high-quality curriculum materials embedded with culturally relevant opportunities to reflect, become inspired, and act in ways that address and transform inequities in schools, in communities, and in society.

Ultimately, a culturally relevant and responsive lens must be baked into both pedagogy and instructional materials from the start. Given that many rigorous curricula fall short on cultural relevance, personalized approaches that support critical thinking within relevant learning applications are a particular strength here. These approaches can improve students’ engagement in learning, support their access to rigor, and empower them to accept the intellectual challenges in lessons.

What does this mean for your district?

Students need to see the value of what they are learning, and apply new knowledge in ways that are meaningful and transformative. When students see the ways in which their learning can be applied to promote community problem-solving, research shows their outcomes improve. Explicitly name the roles that rigor and relevance should play within district classrooms, and provide teachers with the tools needed to implement this vision. Culturally responsive pedagogy can’t work as an afterthought or superficial gesture; consequently, teachers require an intentional, aligned approach to frame their lessons. Enlist teachers—and even students and families—to design a model that integrates rigor and relevance using the best materials available to the district. Provide time for relevant applications within a curriculum scope and sequence. Simultaneously, continue to push developers to embed culturally relevant content and applications more seamlessly into curricula.

Fundamental No. 5. Tend to Teachers: Afford teachers ongoing and just-in-time training so they embrace the change. 

In order for a set of instructional materials or a personalized approach to effect meaningful change and academic benefits, it must be doable in the classroom. That will increase the likelihood that the reform will be sustained. Efforts to deeply integrate products or approaches present a challenging undertaking, as do efforts to help teachers learn better ways of working with students. Learning to recognize and correct for bias requires attention, time, and resources. In short, teachers need high-quality, ongoing training to implement rigorous instructional materials effectively and personalize instruction skillfully to further advance cultural relevance and excellence for students.

What does this mean for your district?

Don’t shortchange PD. Treat a curriculum update like a complex change initiative for teachers and students. Make professional learning curriculum- and program-specific. Teachers need to understand and unpack the rationale and components of a new curriculum and hear directly from the content developers. However, they also need district experts in special education, multi-language learners, cultural relevance, etc. to provide aligned training to ensure that all students access the material, rise to the academic challenge, and find relevance in their new knowledge.  Ongoing training opportunities should include common planning time, professional learning communities, and embedded coaching. There is a not-to-be-ignored hearts and minds aspect to setting aside old ways of instruction so that teachers can move forward to make progress for their students.

These five fundamentals set the stage for attaining new levels of rigor, relevance, achievement, and academic confidence in classrooms despite school zip codes. At the core of each fundamental is a new and more nuanced conversation about the intersection of rigorous core instructional materials and well-planned personalized learning practices.

Each of our reports delves into greater detail on the hows and whys of this premise, offering a strong research base and path for moving forward. We are excited to continue—and further refine—the conversation as we strive for better results and experiences for our students.

Reports Mentioned In This Blog Post

Celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week 2021

2021 Teacher Appreciation Week

Working to imagine and create more equitable, relevant, and effective schools would not be possible without teachers. For a Teacher Appreciation Week that falls during the most complex and challenging school year we've known, our team members reflected on what the teacher community means to them:

Malika Ali: "Teachers - we will never be able to enumerate all the ways in which you keep our society together. Teaching is the noblest profession and you all deserve gratitude in words and action. You deserve to be honored, supported, and compensated! To the teachers I have worked with, thank you for inspiring and motivating me daily. To the teachers in whose classrooms I defined my purpose, thank you for supporting my development. To the teachers I have yet to meet, thank you for changing lives everyday. Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!"

Dana Borrelli-Murray: "To the seasoned and experienced educators that continue to show up and learn, shift and grow their practice - THANK YOU. We see you and appreciate the ways in which you model growth mindset for your students...and what a year it has been to model this skill :)"

Michaela Comella: "I have learned so much from the teachers I work with this year. They have modeled creativity, grace, vulnerability, problem solving, determination, and more. I thank them for moving forward when it seemed too difficult, putting in time they didn't have, always keeping their students at the forefront and expanding the boundaries of their classrooms. Teachers, you've taught us all so much - thank you!"

Christina Corser: "In a year when teachers have every excuse to put their heads down and survive, the innovation hasn't stopped. I am so appreciative of the learning we've done together this year. Thank you for your creativity and willingness to share."

Vera De Jesus: "To the pilot teachers at Tipton Middle School: I cannot thank you enough for the past two years of learning and growing together. Despite all the new, unique challenges of teaching in a pandemic, you never once gave up on finding creative ways to deeply understand your students and empower them as both learners and leaders. I appreciate the work you do every day that I don't always get to see, and I'm beyond grateful for the work that we carry together. You continue to be a source of hope and inspiration to me and to your colleagues!"

Cindy Kenney: "We've placed substitute teacher candidates across RI this year. To the teachers who have supported these subs as they transition into new & uncertain roles, THANK YOU. Your encouragement does not go unnoticed and has inspired many of these individuals to consider pathways to becoming certified teachers."

Maeve Murray: "One of the teachers I met with last week was so energized by a new idea, that she vowed to put it into practice with students the very next day. Thank you to all of the teachers who continue to lead with an approach centered around curiosity and possibility."

Nando Prudhomme: "Thank you to my pilot teachers at Baychester Middle School, who embrace any opportunity to learn. Despite obstacles and difficult times, I have been continually amazed at your eagerness to learn and apply new ideas to your teaching. You have shown incredible initiative and leadership skills."

Shawn Rubin: "Thank you to the teachers who are taking the extra time to collaborate with families as they navigate COVID-19. Nobody ever imagined that we'd be teaching through a pandemic, but this year teachers have proven they will do whatever it takes to support students and families. Thank you for being so adaptive, resourceful and strong when we needed you the most!"

Cathy Sanford: "I have such immense gratitude for the way that our teachers have shown up for students this year despite every challenge thrown their way. Thank you for demonstrating the importance of grit, persistence, and mindset for us and for your students."

Heidi Vazquez: "I have so much appreciation for all the laughs, creative problem solving, deep conversations, reflection, and meaningful lessons and projects we collaborated on via Zoom and Google Meet over the last year. Your successes with students and families have energized me and given me hope. Your dedication to your students and families impacts us all. Thank you!"

Please join us by celebrating, affirming, and thanking the teachers in your life. Check out the hashtags #TeacherAppreciationWeek and #ThankATeacher for more messages of inspiration, resilience, and hope.

COVID Clarity: Finding New Focus in a Turbulent Year

March 2021 marks the one year anniversary of the last time I saw my colleagues in person.

It has been a year of urgency, adaptiveness, and problem-solving. Yet experiencing how the global pandemic and the national racial reckoning has impacted education has forced our team to double down on where our work can have the greatest impact.

Over the past four years we have refined our pedagogical framework, concentrating on high value instructional strategies and expanding focus on sociocultural awareness, community building, cognitive development, and critical consciousness. This year, all of our school change efforts are centered around this approach. In the spirit of sharing that is normally part of our annual April conference, I am excited to summarize our insights and invite you to continue the conversation with us next month during our free Spring Learning Series.

Highlander Institute is a non-profit education support organization based in Providence, RI. We drive change with purposeful instructional strategies, a tailored change management process, continuous improvement cycles, and world-class coaching that empowers administrators, educators, and students to innovate. We facilitate community-designed plans that unite stakeholders in trying new techniques, reviewing data, and building more effective learning systems. We have documented significant shifts in teacher practice - and clear correlations between those shifts and improved student outcomes - through our support of hundreds of teachers over the past five years. 

However, during 2020 it became increasingly clear that our change model was not addressing root causes of gaps in student learning outcomes across demographic groups. Our education system breeds compliance, resulting in dependent thinking and an atmosphere of low expectations - particularly for Black and Hispanic/Latinx students, students who live in poverty, and multilingual learners. Without an awareness of how systems of inequity and learner identity connect to teacher expectations, the implementation of personalized practices does not sufficiently empower all students. 

Our updated approach, crafted by my colleague Malika Ali, aligns aspirational instructional shifts within a process that restores and elevates the natural confidence and competence of students who have been marginalized by systemic inequity. The resulting Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Pedagogy (CRSP) framework is grounded in the research of Gloria Ladson-Billings, Geneva Gay, Zaretta Hammond, Django Paris, and Sami Alim. Through a series of discussions and strategies, teachers and school leaders examine the ways in which systemic inequity translates into classrooms, build inclusive cultures of thinking, and establish ongoing feedback loops. The ultimate goal is to nurture critical consciousness in students. Linked to improved student achievement through a growing research base, critical consciousness leverages a social justice lens to learning, empowering students to transform their own lives, their communities, and society.

In a year when teachers and school leaders have been overwhelmed and overworked like never before, coaching and professional development centered on the CRSP framework has generated our highest satisfaction rates. Hundreds of teachers have opted into CRSP sessions. Participants have found that the framework’s practices are extremely relevant and effective - and that the process infuses hope and renewed motivation in both students and teachers. 

While we will not have the opportunity to share CRSP insights at our annual conference, we have designed the free Spring Learning Series, open to educators nationwide. We cordially invite all interested teachers and leaders to join us as we introduce the CRSP framework as one approach to imagining and creating more equitable, relevant, and effective schools. As we begin to see some light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, we are excited to share the processes that are inspiring hope for what the future can bring.

Session 1: Centering on Instructional Equity - for teachers and instructional leaders

April 1, 4:00 - 5:30pm ET facilitated by Malika Ali & Heidi Vazquez

Join us for an overview of our Culturally Responsive & Sustaining Pedagogy framework for instructional equity. Consider practices and strategies across the four framework domains of Awareness, Community Building, Cognitive Development, and Critical Consciousness.

Session 2: Leading Inclusive Change - for building leaders and district administrators

April 8, 4:00 - 5:30pm ET facilitated by Shawn Rubin & Vera DeJesus

Through the equity lens offered by our CRSP instructional framework, explore key leadership moves and a change management process to support targeted improvements infused with the flexibility and resiliency required to reach sustainable scale.

Session 3: Designing for Enduring Improvement - for all audiences

April 15, 4:00 - 5:30pm ET facilitated by Christina Corser, Mike Miele, Heidi Vazquez, & Nando Prudhomme

Elevate and explore the small and large changes underway in schools this year that are accelerating equity and access for families. Discuss the data, stories, experiences, and lessons learned that will help educators and leaders plan intentionally and strategically for September 2021.

Cathy Sanford leads research and development efforts at Highlander Institute in Providence, RI and is the co-author of Pathways to Personalization: A Framework for School Change (Harvard Education Press, 2018). Find Cathy on Twitter at @csanford42.


White Supremacy, Misogyny, and Hate: We must name it if we are ever to eradicate it.

As a human being, my heart breaks for the lives lost in this week’s Atlanta shootings, for the families who are grieving, and for the loved ones who have yet to hear the worst news one could imagine.

As an Asian-American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) woman, I am terrified. Violent attacks and racist rhetoric against AAPI people have been on the rise. And I know too well that this violence does not come out of nowhere. Hateful thoughts preclude hateful speech. Hate speech can escalate into hate crimes. 

Hate Crime: At the federal level, a crime motivated by bias against race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. Hate crimes have a broader effect than most other kinds of crime. Hate crime victims include not only the crime’s immediate target, but also others like them. Hate crimes affect families, communities, and at times, the entire nation (justice.gov).

Many of us move through the majority of our days without incidents that threaten our basic safety and well-being. But some of us went to work on Tuesday and never got to return home. Why did this happen? How can we prevent it from happening again? And what does this have to do with education?

We must understand the events and actions that brought us here if we are to prevent history from repeating itself. We can do this by learning about the historical, political, and socio-cultural context of anti-Asian violence and discrimination. And it is absolutely critical that we recognize this week’s tragedy in Atlanta as one symptom of a much larger, older, complex problem - white supremacy and misogyny.

Let us value human life and the dignity of others over our own personal beliefs and ideologies. Let us all acknowledge that we have each perpetuated racism and white supremacy in some way - consciously, unknowingly, or likely both. Let’s educate ourselves and our children, so that we may create a different future.

See adult-facing resources immediately below and student-facing resources toward the bottom of this page.

Historical & Political Context of Anti-Asian Violence

  • My Lai Massacre (1968): U.S. soldiers murdered 300 unarmed civilians in Vietnam, including women, children, and the elderly -- despite no report of opposing fire. At least one girl was raped and then killed.
  • Paige Act (1875): “Legislated amid the spread of anti-Chinese fervor from the west coast to the rest of the United States, this law was an early effort to restrict Asian immigration without categorically restricting Asian immigration on the basis of race and instead restricted select categories of persons whose labor was perceived as immoral or coerced.”
  • NY Congressman Presents “The Chinese Question” (1877) 
    • “He comes here as a laborer. He personifies the character in its absolutely menial aspect-what the operation of fifty centuries of paganism, poverty, and oppression have made him,-a mere animal machine, performing the duties in his accepted sphere, punctually and patiently, but utterly incapable of any improvement.”
    • “If he seems to conform to our ways it is only to get a better foothold for money-making. He professes friendship, of which sentiment he has not the remotest conception. He is cruel and unrelenting, only waiting the opportunity in which he may safely strike the object of his spite, cupidity or superstition”
    • “Capable of such deeds, can the injection of such a race into our body politic be viewed by any thinking American without anxiety and alarm?”
  • Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)
    • “Whereas in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory…”
    • “Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled...the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be…suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or having so come after the expiration of said ninety days to remain within the United States.”
    • “That the words "Chinese laborers", wherever used in this act shall be construed to mean both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining.”

Recent Hate Crimes & White Supremacist Terror Attacks

  • June 2015: 9 Black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church were shot to death by a white supremacist
  • August 2016: Muslim Imam Maulana Akonjee and associate Thara Uddin were shot and killed in New York City
  • October 2018: 11 Jewish congregants were killed and 6 were injured in a shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue
  • August 2019: A gunman targeting “Mexicans” opened fire in El Paso, Texas, leaving 23 people dead and several more injured

A Call to Action for Teachers & Students

As we educate ourselves, we also need to talk to our kids. In the classroom, we can start with honest reflection and inquiry (inspired by No Red Ink’s student writing prompts and article). 

Questions to Consider:

  • Are some lives more disposable than others? 
    • Does your race or immigration status make you more of a target for violence?
    • Does your identity affect your access to support, protection, and justice?
    • Does your profession determine how unconditional your right to exist really is?
      • What if your job choices are limited? Should it matter whether or not you chose a profession that is stigmatized by society? 
  • Why are the perpetrators of these specific crimes -- mass shootings whose victims are largely of a shared racial or ethnic identity -- often white, cisgender males?
  • Why is it that white men who have committed mass murder are apprehended “without incident,” while there are Black people who have committed no crime and yet do not survive interactions with police?
  • Why do some people continue to insist that this incident “was not racially motivated"?
    • How could they possibly know? Who has the right to say? 
    • What does the data tell us?
  • What kinds of racial violence are our students currently experiencing?
  • What trauma do our students already carry?
  • How can we cultivate a school community of safety, empathy, and care? 
  • How can we educate and empower children so they may protect each other?

Click here for Classroom Resources to Address Anti-Asian Discrimination 

Classroom Resources Curated by Malika Ali, Director of Pedagogy at Highlander Institute

Full Post by Vera Elianna DeJesus, Partner at Highlander Institute

Supporting Learning in a COVID World

It all happened very, very fast. COVID-19 rushed in and everything changed. 

Overnight, our personal and professional lens at Highlander Institute shifted from the usual wide scope of educational support to a laser focus on the acute needs of teachers and families. As our home state of RI rallied to boldly respond, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work. 

Highlander Institute has had an internal mantra of “one foot in the classroom, one foot in the national conversation” for years. We have become a credible national thought partner because our ongoing work on the ground informs our intimate knowledge of the challenges, barriers, and successes that exist in all classrooms. Whether providing embedded coaching in classrooms and schools across the country, facilitating school redesign work, or training cohorts of teachers as change agents, our team has been in the field, combing the data for bright spots, trends, and gaps.  

This remained the case with our COVID-19 local response. One day after remote learning was mandated on March 23, our team developed and launched the RI Distance Learning Helpline, a free service to help RI teachers navigate the swift transition to virtual learning models, staffed by Fuse RI Fellow volunteers and our team members. This support was broadened to include families a few weeks later with the help of community partners the RightClick, libraries across the state, the RI Office of Innovation, the RI Parent Information Network, and the RI Department of Education.

Our quick response leveraged the extensive network of talented and innovative educators established through our Fuse RI Fellowship. Over the past 6 years, the Institute has trained over 100 RI educators as coaches and change agents. This network was well-positioned to support schools and districts through the transition to virtual learning; Fellows are able to address the myriad communication, logistical, and pedagogical challenges generated by this shift. 

The Helpline has become a goldmine for data, a bird’s-eye view into the true daily needs of families and educators across the state.  The Helpline cuts across geographic, socioeconomic, and linguistic barriers, elevating trends, identifying pain points, and providing essential information regarding the gaps in our state and district distance learning plans.  

To support ongoing continuous improvement efforts within distance learning implementation, we proudly announce the Distance Learning Spotlight Series. Starting June 1, Highlander Institute will regularly publish informational videos, articles, and other online media designed to provide an additional layer of support for everyone navigating this new educational space. The topics will be based on trends and gaps brought to light through the Helpline.  

The Distance Learning Spotlight Series is free and available to anyone, in both RI and beyond. While online resources cannot replace the value of customized, one-on-one coaching sessions found through the Helpline, we hope this series can be the beginning of a repository of information for educators,  leaders, and families as we continue to plan - amidst uncertainty - for the school year ahead.

The Next Phase of Fuse RI

At Highlander Institute, we strive to learn, grow, and expand our own understanding of what is necessary to create a better student experience for learners and families – in Rhode Island and beyond. Over the years, as we have expanded our expertise around blended learning strategies, personalized learning practices, and the role of culturally responsive teaching, only one thing has remained constant – the fact that systems level change is slow and complex.

We have found that our education systems, no matter how well-intentioned, are designed to get in the way of change. There are legacy barriers blocking new approaches from getting off the ground. There’s a very limited research base validating the exploration of new classroom practices, coupled with a lack of scaffolded professional learning supports. Too many educators are actually incentivized to keep things safe, secure, and business as usual.

While the overall arc of change is slow, we have seen individual teachers managing herculean change efforts in their own classrooms. We have witnessed these efforts firsthand and listened to students, families, and educators rave about the results these changes have brought to their schools. We have seen student outcomes soar and engagement thrive; however, without a systems-level approach we have seen these efforts stagnate in one-off classroom isolation.

In 2014, we launched the Fuse RI Fellowship as a means to recruit, train, and support educators as leaders beyond their own classrooms and school buildings. Across Rhode Island we identified a large number of teachers who could manage change efforts with their own students in their own classrooms, but we needed them to do this work with adults, moving their energy and ideas around the state in a way that would catalyze a bigger conversation.

We are proud to say that five years later, you cannot go anywhere in Rhode Island without bumping into a Fuse Fellow, a Fuse Classroom teacher or coach, a Fuse Leader, or a Fuse Professor. We have Fellows winning teacher of the year awards at the building, district, and state levels. Our Fellows have led beyond our fellowship as RIDE EdPrep Fellows, TeachPlus Policy Fellows, and RI Learning Champions. They have won awards that have brought dollars back to their schools, and have founded and led new organizations like EdCampRI, YES RI, and PBL RI. When RISTE needs professional development facilitators, they lean on our Fellows to deliver workshops. Fuse Fellows have moved into new positions driving change management and coaching work across their home districts, leveraging the leadership experiences they gained through this program. More than anything, our Fuse network has become its own infrastructure for moving ideas, research, and practices around the state. We are a system of roads and bridges allowing ideas to travel from school to school, classroom to classroom and most importantly, teacher to teacher. We could not be more proud of our Fellows and the work we have done together.

We have partnered with 39 of the 66 LEAs in the state through Fuse RI. Every district that has wanted this free service has signed up and gone through this program. We have seen districts like Central Falls, Chariho, and Cranston mount incredible blended and personalized learning change efforts after having the Fuse program in their district. We have seen Fuse spread to New York, California, and Massachusetts. We set out to run Fuse for five years and we never imagined the impact it would have.

Now, as we come out of our first spring in five years without a new cohort of fellows, there is a tinge of sadness that we all feel. We know there are more educators in our state who would make incredible Fuse Fellows. Teachers crave this community and leadership opportunity. We have been hearing them asking: “When does the application launch?” Well, like all things at Highlander Institute, we believe in continuous improvement and iteration toward a better and more powerful model. After hitting our initial goal of running five cohorts through this fellowship, we have elected to sunset the Fellowship in its current form.

We believe in this model, but we also recognize the importance of reflecting on program impact, and adapting to accommodate the evolving needs of school stakeholders. It is for this reason that we are shifting Fuse to become a building-level initiative wrapped around our Pathway to Personalization Framework as outlined in our recent book. Starting next month, we will once again be hitting the road to talk with educators about their most pressing challenges as we redesign the Fuse RI Fellowship around school-based design teams looking to enact change. We are eager to reconnect with our Fellows in their home schools and meet new teacher leaders in classrooms and schools that we have yet to reach.

We will be sharing a one pager with more detailed information next month. If you are interested in guiding us as we build this new model, reach out to Program Manager Maeve Murray who will continue to drive this work. In the meantime we will continue our Fuse Massachusetts program and the Fuse cohort at Rhode Island College, which engages professors eager to explore and research practices for classroom instruction. Fuse will never go away. The network we have built will outlast any funding opportunity or state-level leadership change. We are a community of learners committed to making schools work better for all students and families. Thank you!

A case for Real Cupcakes and Real Connections at BPLC19

A Case for Real Cupcakes and Real Connections at BPLC19

First published on the Blended Learning Universe 2/26/19

My three-year-old loves his iPad. He implores me to take it down from the high shelf where it’s stored with the desperate thirst of a man who’s been wandering the desert. It’s one of the few carrots I can use to compel him to do the things three-year-olds are loathe to do: put on shoes; put on a coat; put on pants that don’t have an elastic waist (I get that one).

I don’t feel too guilty about this because there are some excellent educational apps out there: he is thrilled by Elmo’s tireless repetition of letter sounds and getting instant feedback on the accuracy of his counting. But there are also apps he begs for that are heavy on the engagement and light on the learning. For example, did you know there is an app that lets you make virtual cupcakes? This is where I draw the line. The iPad has its role in our house, but enabling fake cupcake baking ain’t it. I want him to measure ingredients, mix and pour, press his nose up to the warm oven window. There is no virtual substitute for this.

A tangible experience for blended learning advocates

When it comes to blended learning you don’t need me to extol the merits; I am preaching to the proverbial choir here. But, like baking cupcakes, there are some things that just can’t be sufficiently experienced online. That’s one reason why Highlander Institute and The Learning Accelerator host the annual Blended & Personalized Learning Conference each year in Providence, Rhode Island. There is something visceral about being in the same room with 1,000 educators who are all trying to accomplish the same thing: to create a more personalized, engaging, and meaningful education for our students.

When you gather in the same space with others, you can have experiences that can’t be replicated online:

  • Listen in on group problem solving among students in a blended classroom simulation.
  • See the flicker of excitement in a colleague’s eyes as she tinkers with robots in our EdUnderground.
  • Laugh and brainstorm with coworkers who you never have enough time to talk to during the school day.
  • Sit down and get one-on-one support with your specific problem of practice with one of Highlander’s experienced Fuse Fellows in our Practice Playground.
  • Feel the electric giddiness of talking shop and catching up with friends new and old at the Welcome Party (hosted this year at Free Play, where you can relive your teenage arcade dreams).

We have squeezed high-quality programming into every nook and cranny of the three-day conference. It begins at noon on Thursday, April 4th with open houses at partner organizations all over the city of Providence. Conference attendees are invited downtown to visit and learn about many of the non-profits, schools, and community organizations that contribute to the personalized-learning ecosystem in Rhode Island, including the RI Museum of Science and Art, New Urban Arts, the Providence Public Library, EduLeaders of Color RI, and more. That afternoon, we’ll host the EdtechRI Pitchfest at the beautiful Pavilion at Grace, where edtech startups will pitch their products and seek feedback from educators in the hopes of qualifying for Saturday’s Shark Tank grand prize.  

On Friday, participants can choose one of five full-day workshops. Options include site visits to seven different Rhode Island schools, the Acceleration through Networks track for advanced practitioners, a Culturally Responsive Curriculum design day, an introduction to the Pathways to Personalization framework for school change, and a spotlight on the Providence Public School District, where district representatives will tell their story of becoming a learning organization and pivoting toward personalized learning.

The Saturday Symposium is the main event, with over 50 sessions facilitated by thoughtful practitioners from all over the country, three live classroom simulations, a vendor expo with dozens of curated edtech products, and more.

While the content is innovative, the format is decidedly old school: let’s all get together in the same place at the same time to share what we know and what we’re still trying to figure out. After all, it’s really cool to meet one of your Twitter heroes in real life, but it’s even cooler to grab a cup of coffeeor a cupcakewith that person and dive into a discussion of the issues that keep you both up at night. We think you’ll agree that there is no substitute for these kinds of authentic connections and we hope you’ll join us in April.


Laura Jackson is the Program Director  at the Highlander Institute in Providence, RI. Share your thoughts and insights with Laura by tweeting @l_jack2.

Reflections on Redesign: Lessons Learned from the Fuse Architect Project

A central aim of Highlander Institute is to support equity, access, and opportunity for all students through the use of blended and personalized learning models. We believe these are powerful levers for engaging students in their education and better preparing them for future success. However, these approaches are challenging to implement and, in many cases, have fallen short of their promise for underserved students, especially at the high school level.

In January 2017, Highlander Institute partnered with seven Rhode Island high schools for an 18-month redesign effort supported by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. This project was an opportunity to learn about what it takes to redesign the high school experience and what is possible when students are empowered as partners in the design process. A summary of the project and our learning about designing an Integrated Learning System and pivoting toward student-centered learning can be found in the full report, which is available by request. However, we have distilled the larger report into five key takeaways that apply to any redesign team leading a high school change effort.

#1 Redesign is a team sport.

The Fuse Architect design teams showed us the power of a heterogenous stakeholder group coming together to craft a shared vision for teaching and learning and working in an ongoing manner to bring that vision to life. The feedback on the design team approach reinforced our belief that bringing multiple voices to the table and collaborating around design problems should serve as standard practice for districts seeking to move toward student-centered learning.

The Fuse Architect project was our first experience with formally involving students in the planning of classroom and school redesign. We found their perspectives to be invaluable and are now encouraging all of our partners to include students on their design teams, when possible (based on scheduling) and appropriate (based on age of students). To facilitate this process, we recommend completing our Student Voice Calibration Exercise, which outlines a series of steps Design Team members should take to ensure that student voice is an integral part of their design process. In addition, we recommend that Design Teams complete a full or half-day student shadow to build understanding of and empathy for the student experience. We found this Student Shadow Protocol, developed by IDEO, to be a helpful resource for organizing, conducting, and debriefing the shadow.  

#2 You say tomato, I say tomahto.

Any education reform or redesign effort, particularly one that utilizes educational technology, is bound to be awash in jargon. Therefore, it is important for the design team to define terms and make sure that stakeholders are aligned in their understanding and use of these terms.

In one of the Fuse Architect redesign projects, we observed a lack of common language around ILS functions, which made it difficult for different stakeholder groups to communicate clearly about their expectations and experiences. To address this, we developed a list of common terminology related to integrated learning systems, which can be accessed here.

While this list is specific to the redesign focus of Fuse Architect, we recommend that design teams use this as a jumping off point and build upon it to develop a custom list of educational terminology relevant to their redesign efforts. For example, it may be necessary to invest time parsing out the variations between blended learning, personalized learning, student-centered learning, deeper learning, and project-based learning. It is likely that redesign team stakeholders have different understandings of what these terms mean and how they relate to their vision for the school, so it’s worth investing time up front to gain clarity and use the terms with precision.

#3 Boil the sap down to syrup.

It takes about forty parts maple sap to make one part maple syrup. That’s a lot of boiling; but the results are sweet. We believe all redesign teams need a clear and concise vision statement to define and guide their work. Without it, the Design Team’s work will likely lead to confusion about everything from how to get started to how to measure success. Conversely, a clear vision provides a north star for team members to refer back to throughout the redesign process.

We recommend that teams begin with a loose brainstorming discussion about what they hope to see in classrooms at the end of the redesign effort. In addition, it is equally important and informative to discuss what team members do not want to see. This can be a wide-ranging discussion in which Design Team members are encouraged to speak freely and share unpolished thoughts. The idea is to get all of their ideas, aspirations, and fears on the table.

From there, it is more efficient to have a few members of the larger team take the raw “sap” from the brainstorm and boil it down to the proverbial syrup. This typically takes the form of a statement that ranges from a few sentences to a few paragraphs. The more descriptive and less jargony the draft vision statement is, the better. The draft can then be shared back with the larger team for input. This drafting process typically requires a few rounds of revision until a statement emerges that satisfies all design team members.

Not surprisingly, in the Fuse Architect project, we observed that the design teams that crafted clear design statements at the outset were better able to leverage technical coaching supports because they used the statements as a touchstone for teachers and coaches. In addition, teams that were unable to commit sufficient time to the visioning process or that did not fully invest in the process struggled when it came time to operationalize their vision.

#4 How do you eat an elephant? Slowly, and one bite at a time.

When a new initiative comes along, excitement and momentum can drive the impulse to dive in and get started. However, a slower and more deliberate approach is more likely to result in lasting and worthwhile change. We recommend the following to teams taking on redesign projects:

  1. Use the planning year to be extremely intentional about the shifts in practice you want to see in classrooms and identify how they are aligned to the current student experience and other building or district level initiatives. When structural or systemic issues arise, invite those in power to come to the meetings to work through them.
  2. Schedule specific benchmark dates to review progress and reflect on the pilot implementation. The following benchmark tool was created by one design team, with our support, to guide their first six months of the pilot.
  3. Set your team up for success by anticipating and budgeting for the teacher planning time, personalized learning time (in and out of school) for students, data review days, and student-teacher meetings that will be necessary for successful pilots.

Additionally, teams can sometimes be overzealous in their aspirations. While we applaud and encourage “moonshot thinking”, we caution teams against taking on too much too quickly, which can lead to burnout and disappointment. When we began the Fuse Architect project, we believed that the best way to support design teams with the adoption of a new model for student-centered learning was to begin with a heavy dose of design, followed by a heavy dose of technology vetting. We were approaching the challenge with a subtractive method: school teams would start with a full-stack solution and then customize it over time, much as a sculptor begins with a block of stone and slowly chips away to refine it into a shape.

What we found is that an additive process is more appropriate, where one piece is added, studied, and tweaked, and then another is added, studied, and tweaked and so on until the whole emerges. We now believe that the most successful approach involves a small amount of upfront design work, followed by a heavy dose of change management support to clarify and refine the vision. Implementation must be supported with a series of small hacks and multiple iterations. Only then can a design team arrive at a new vision for teaching and learning that is sticky enough to scale to all teachers and classrooms.

#5 You need multiple measures to tell a multidimensional story.

As an organization, Highlander Institute has always believed that measuring impact in a classroom requires the use of multiple measures. However,  prior to Fuse Architect we did not have an internal framework for organizing the variety of instruments that we and our partner districts were using to measure the efficacy of student-centered learning pilots. While we were familiar with the concept of using a family of measures for continuous improvement (as outlined in the table below), we had not used it to structure our data collection.

Process Explanation: Process measures are used to capture the extent to which behavior is changing or not changing.
Example: Classroom observation data based on a walkthrough rubric
Outcome Explanation: Outcome measures are used to quantify how outcomes are changing (if at all), presumably as a result of the intervention.
Examples: Student attendance rates, behavior referrals, achievement data
Balance Explanation: Balance measures are meant to capture how people (typically teachers and students) feel about an intervention, including any unintentional consequences.
Examples: Surveys, stakeholder focus groups

Based on our experience with this project, we recommend all redesign project teams proactively outline the process, outcome, and balance measures that they’ll use to gauge the impact of pilot implementations. Coupled with a schedule for data collection, this becomes a measurement plan that teams can reasonably enact and sustain. After all, a data collection plan that is too burdensome will be neglected or abandoned altogether.

Furthermore, educators know in their bones that their work is too complex and multifaceted to be captured by a single measure. Therefore, both to capture the impact of redesign efforts and to maintain the trust of participating teachers, measurement plans must incorporate diverse and complementary instruments that, when used in tandem, tell a sufficiently rich story of change.

To request a copy of the full Fuse Architect report “Fuse Architect: Designing High Schools for Integrated Learning Systems and Student-Centered Learning”, please contact info@highlanderinstitute.org.

EdCampRI 2018: Register for Free Today

The 6th annual EdCampRI is swiftly approaching! Join a dynamic group of educators at Alger Hall on Rhode Island College’s campus on Saturday, May 5 from 8:00AM-1:30PM for a great day of learning and sharing. All are welcome to be a part of the conversation, whether you’re an EdCamp veteran or newbie.

Register today for a free ticket! 

EdCampRI is brought to you by a planning committee made up of representatives from Rhode Island College, school districts across our state, Highlander Institute, and the Tortolani family.

This year’s EdCampRI event is bittersweet, to say the least. Last year, Alan Tortolani, the founder of ABCYa and co-founder of EdCampRI passed away unexpectedly. He was passionate about the power of teachers in the Ocean State and truly loved EdCampRI and its ability to bring educators together. In honor of Alan, we are announcing the Alan Tortolani Scholarship for Teachers to recognize an incredible Rhode Island educator, with plans to make this an annual tradition.

The winner of this award will receive a scholarship to attend the ISTE Conference in Chicago in June 2018. The scholarship includes conference registration, hotel, and flight.

Please apply for this tremendous opportunity and share this link with other educators who might be interested. We will announce the winner at EdCampRI 2018 on Saturday, May 5. We think continuing to support and champion teacher leaders is one of the best ways to honor Alan.

Curious about the EdCamp format? Check out the Edcamp Foundation website here.

Agenda at a Glance

  • Registration & Breakfast 8AM to 8:45AM
  • Welcome & Format of the Day 8:30AM to 9:00AM
  • Session 1 9:00AM to 9:45AM
  • Improv Challenge 9:45AM to 10:00AM
  • Session 2 10:00AM to 10:45AM
  • Kahoot District Challenge 10:45AM to 11:30AM
  • Lunch 11:30AM to 12:30PM
  • Session 3 12:30PM to 1:15PM
  • Farewell and Giveaways 1:15PM to 1:30PM

Breakfast and lunch will be provided by Rhode Island College. Please bring a smartphone, laptop, or other electronic device if possible.

For more details about the event, visit edcampri.org and review the Rhode Island Campus map.

Just Released: “Be Education” Podcast

Are you looking to try something new in your classroom?  Have you heard about Blended and Personalized Learning but don’t know where to start?  Take a listen to The Be Education Podcast: 15-minute quick-bite episodes you can listen to during a prep or short commute with ideas to try in your classroom tomorrow.

Hosted by Nick DiNardo and Highlander Institute‘s Christina Corser, the Be Education Podcast is your one-stop-shop for all things related to K-12 classroom teaching. Practical tips to learn how to implement blended learning techniques, driving classroom culture, differentiation, how to approach rigor and mastery, and much more. Whether you are a new teacher or a veteran educator, the Be Education Podcast will have actionable tips to help you drive student learning.

This first episode gives you an overview of what to expect from this podcast in terms of content, the frequency of episodes, and why we do what we do.

Check out the podcast HERE!