The Next State of Learning

image of student coloring

By Carissa Moffat Miller

The following are the prepared remarks that CCSSO Executive Director Carissa Moffat Miller gave at the CCSSO Innovation Lab Network Convening on September 17 in Denver, Colorado. Please note: the delivered remarks may have varied from the following text. 


Good Afternoon again to all of you.

Every time I watch the videos about personalized learning successes, I can't help but wish for the same for my kids, for all kids.

I wanted to be with you in person today to reaffirm CCSSO’s and my commitment to this work. I’ve learned that while I’ve been at the organization for over five years, was part of the work to support and ensure it was grounded in our strategic plan, that the true convincing factor is me telling you it is.

My first experience with personalized learning was 10 years ago with my now 17-year-old daughter. It wasn’t called personalized learning – or if it was, as her parent I only knew it as a customized way to meet my daughter’s unique learning needs. It was a small magnet classroom in Boise, Idaho and I had to be a persistent pain to get her admitted since she was entering a year later than most students. But once she got in, she flourished, she grew, and my odd kid learned incredibly important teamwork and social skills. My daughter will graduate this year, and I know the personalized learning opportunity was key for to her academic success.

Important to note: One of her teachers, while she was in the program for five years, is in this room today. Kelly Brady from Idaho, thank you!

That experience should not be limited to a small number of kids. It should be available to kids whose parents don’t know how to advocate for kids and for parents whose kids do not attend high-performing schools…

Now, back to the video inspiration. The story in this video is what school looks like for students at one middle school in Wisconsin. I'm sure we all could showcase unique examples of schools – at the elementary, middle and high school levels - of how states have worked with local leaders to provide students the ability to thrive in a personalized, competency-based learning environment.  What strikes me about this video – and other examples I have seen as I have traveled the country – is what makes this school successful: the level of engagement from everyone involved. The teachers, the parents, the students, the local leaders. And the state education agency.

One teacher in the video said the local level is where it happens, “where they have the greatest impact.” We all know that to be true, but we also know that these environments cannot thrive without the support of a local district and the state education agency that recognizes the positive impact they have on student success. That’s because personalized, competency-based education is part of our larger education system.

It takes a lot to move a system when you are infusing a complicated way of teaching and learning like personalized or competency-based.

If you watched the video, you might have heard the school founders mention how they had to think and plan for more than a year, not just about curriculum but also about “how we teach” and the “physical space.”

The same is true for state leaders when thinking about personalized, competency-based education. It is part of a larger framework for how we set up systems to successfully educate students.

  • We must consider: does the system have enough flexibility in it to allow for the type of innovation and personalization that needs to take place at the local level – where we know they have the greatest impact?
  • Does the system have assessments that match what is being taught at all levels to report back and demonstrate success to policymakers and taxpayers?
  • Are we making the right investments in how we prepare teachers and retain them so they can meet the needs of all students?
  • Are we removing the barriers that make system change harder?

When I look back to 8 years ago when we started the Innovation Lab Network at CCSSO, I’m struck by a few things.

First, it was a time when personalized learning was just taking off. It wasn’t common. States working on doing this different thing were taking a chance and there was a lot of political navigation necessary. I want to call out just a few of those successes over those past 8 years:

  • 9 states enacted new definitions of college and career readiness
    • Virginia built a visionary Portrait of a Graduate that clarifies the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed for students in Virginia to graduate from school ready for an unknown future. 
  • 8 states launched pilots to incentivize and launch innovative approaches to learning in schools and districts
    • New Hampshire developed a first-in-the-nation assessment pilot, PACE, to enable and support competency-based education in their state, giving students multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery of academic content and skills, as well as readiness for college and career
  • 4 states changed the conditions for training teachers and leaders to build personalized learning environments
    • Several states, including Idaho and Iowa, used CCSSO’s Educator Competencies for Personalized, Learner-Centered Teaching to develop thoughtful systems that support and train educators to teach in a personalized learning environment
  • 7 states took steps to modernize their accountability and assessment systems to recognize new ways of learning and demonstrating student learning.
    • California developed an accountability system that reflects their priorities for multiple measures of student achievement and school quality, which allows them to better understand students’ access to deeper learning opportunities
  • 9 states have measurable goals to increase access to personalized and competency-based education
    • Wisconsin, after conducting a literature review with the Midwest Comprehensive Center, about the impacts of personalized learning on students of color has launched new leadership design academies for personalized learning to expand access into Milwaukee and other schools with a higher population of poverty and students of color.


I could list many more examples of states creating the conditions in the system for increased opportunities for deeper learning for students. This reflects years of hard work. Years of planning, execution, feedback, and rethinking. Years of engagement and tweaking and trying and then trying again!

However, we must also acknowledge this largely reflects progress in specific communities, where students tend to be higher-performing and where parents are more engaged; communities that first raised their hands to pursue personalized, competency-based education. I’ve been there. As a state leader, I picked places that were most likely to have successes with new initiatives. Often to make the case for spending the following year, you have to have proof of success.

It’s time for us to transition to our next level of work in this space – the work that we will take on to ensure we have systems in place that are flexible enough to expand quality personalized, competency-based education to all students, most importantly, those students who are historically underserved — such as English Learners, students with disabilities, students of color, and students living in poverty.

I recently met with innovation teams across the country as they reflected on the past year and started to think through specific equity goals for students in their state. During these conversations, I challenged them to ask “How are these goals pressuring the system to change and what needs to done at the state level to ease the pressure?”


CCSSO as an organization must also be nimble in supporting this kind of work. When I look to the future and name what success is for CCSSO, our members, and the work we do together to improve education for all kids, I want us to see at least these three things:


  1. We have developed systems that encourage and inspire personalized learning approaches to flourish in schools and districts. Systems can’t be sustained by making tweaks at the edges to just tolerate a way of providing some kids a different way of learning. We have to change the system so this way of learning is available to all kids.


  1. This work must be anchored in equity and we should all have an unapologetic focus on providing personalized learning opportunities to kids in schools who have been the least served. We will have numerous examples of personalized learning opportunities for kids in schools that wouldn’t have been picked as an easy implementation.


  1. We, as state leaders, have been champions for increased access. We have found ways to inspire, encourage and proliferate systems that created deeper learning opportunities for kids. We must recognize that can lead to tough conversations, and we have to get comfortable with the discomfort that might create.

In a year from now when states begin evaluating their equity goals, I’m confident we will be able to add to this list with the progress we have made together.


You May Also Be Interested In ...