Lessons from LEAP

by John Watson

LEAP Innovations is a highly-regarded (and very well-funded) non-profit organization that is working with schools across Chicago to implement personalized learning. PL overlaps with digital learning in that in most personalized learning programs teachers use computers, educational software, and online instructional materials to help assess students and differentiate instruction. PL is also associated with mainstream school districts more than it is associated with blended, hybrid, and online schools, even though teachers in all of these schools are able to personalize instruction for their students. As such, understanding the state of PL provides some insights into the use of digital learning in innovative mainstream school districts, as demonstrated in a recently published interview with LEAP CEO Phyllis Lockett.

Lockett describes how extensively LEAP works with teachers, and how big a shift this often represents:

For the first six months of the Pilot Network, school teams work intensively with our professional development team. Our coaches help educators build their design and set tangible plans. Participating educators collaborate closely with their administrative teams—and each other—and conduct a series of learning visits to observe advanced schools in action. As part of their design process, teachers create a profile of every student in their classroom. This follows extensive conferences with each student, and often starts with "empathy walks" to follow the path, quite literally, that students take to and through school. Teachers then plan the different modalities of learning they'll support. These include small group instruction, kids working together on projects or problems, and learners working independently. Rather than assigned seats and industrial-style rows of desks, the environments are completely reset often to include collaboration zones, soft seating, and student portfolio "libraries." Teachers revamp their schedules to accommodate increased student choice and mentorship, setting time for student-led conferencing, small group instruction, and independent projects. Along the way, we help educators identify ways for students to demonstrate mastery. Parent-teacher conferences are reframed to become student-led conferences, where learners guide conversations about their progress and where they need more support.

In our experience at Evergreen, the extent of required professional learning with teachers is often underestimated by policymakers, and some high-level administrators. LEAP’s success appears due in part to its understanding of how deep the necessary effort is.

Further, in answer to the question

“How have other faculty at the schools reacted to the teachers who participate and to the pilot projects? 

Lockett replies:

There is, as you know, a lot of "initiative fatigue" out there.

She goes on to explain that once teachers see the LEAP program, “they inevitably want to join in.” And that may be so. But “initiative fatigue” is real and not easily overcome. If teachers see blended learning, or personalized learning, or any other new focus as the latest short-term initiative, they will choose to remain unengaged, letting it wash over them, knowing that the tide will turn.  

Finally, Lockett addresses the financial side of LEAP’s work:

“we commissioned an independent research firm to look at the costs of implementing personalized learning in schools. It reported that whole-school personalized learning models require modest investment to start—start-up costs ranged from $338K to $780K across the six schools, and $233 to $1,135 on a per pupil basis—and prove sustainable without ongoing grant funding. It is important to us—and the research suggests—that this is a model that can withstand and sustain shifting state and local budgets. 

This is a refreshingly straightforward approach to funding and financial considerations—first in acknowledging the initial costs, and even more importantly in aiming for sustainability without grant funding.

The interview is long enough to provide valuable detail, short enough to read fairly quickly, and well worth the time.