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2 Giant Steps Toward Personalized Learning in Montana


• Karla Phillips

For two decades, Montana has steadily chipped away at barriers that prevent schools from personalizing learning. And last month, state lawmakers passed two more significant laws to advance personalized learning and pathways.

Montana State Senator Llew Jones, who has worked with key education leaders across Montana schools over several sessions to bring increased local flexibility and student individualization to public schools, explains the importance of these new laws:

“The Advanced Opportunities bill (HB 387) and the Transformational Learning bill (HB 351) combined with future legislation will ensure that all students are afforded more opportunities for personal success.”

Step 1: Developing Advanced Educational Opportunities

In the first week of May, Montana Governor Steve Bullock signed HB 387 to create the Montana Advanced Opportunity Act.

Among other improvements, the new act offers funding to qualifying districts to create Advanced Opportunity Programs that will support advanced educational opportunities as well as students’ individualized pathways. (Advanced educational opportunities include courses, exams and experiential or online learning opportunities.) The goals are to expand personalized career and technical education (CTE) opportunities, reduce costs for families to support students’ postsecondary success, empower students and provide districts flexibility.

To qualify, a school board will apply to the Montana Board of Public Education with a plan to design an Advanced Opportunity Program for students from grades 6 through 12. Qualifying programs will:

  • Foster individualized pathways for career and postsecondary educational opportunities and that honors individual interests, passions, strengths, needs and culture and is supported through relationships among teachers, family, peers, the business community, postsecondary education officials and other community stakeholders.
  • Embed community-based, experiential, online and work-based learning opportunities and foster a learning environment that incorporates both face-to-face and virtual connections.
  • Ensure equality of educational opportunity to participate by all qualifying pupils of the district.

This law offers an exciting opportunity for districts to further innovate and develop personalized learning opportunities for the students.


Step 2: Incentivizing Transformational Learning Programs

A week later, Governor Bullock signed HB 351 to provide a funding incentive for schools to create Transformational Learning Programs.

In this legislation, the state defines transformational learning as a flexible system of student-centered learning that is designed to develop each student’s full educational potential. This system is customized to address each student’s strengths, needs and interests; focuses on each student’s proficiency over content; and actively engages students in determining what, how, when and where they learn.

To qualify, a school board will apply to the Montana Board of Public Education with a plan to create a Transformational Learning Program. Many of this program’s goals are similar to those of the Advanced Opportunity Program:

  • Develop a transformational learning plan for each participating student that honors individual interests, passions, strengths, needs and culture, and that is rooted in relationships with teachers, family, peers and community members.
  • Embed community-based, experiential, online and work-based learning opportunities and foster a learning environment that incorporates both face-to-face and virtual connections.
  • Provide effective professional development to assist employees in transitioning to a transformational learning model.
  • Ensure equality of educational opportunity to participate by all pupils of the district.

The new law also boldly requires that the district applying to create Transformational Learning Programs must create a definition of proficiency that does not require seat time. The definition must also be included in the district’s policies for determining progress, course mastery and even graduation.


A Foundation for Success

With these two steps, Montana leaders are advancing the vision for personalized learning they have identified within their own state constitution.

It is the goal of the people to establish a system of education which will develop the full educational potential of each person.

The Constitution of the State of Montana, Article X

The state has taken essential steps over the years to reach this constitutional goal. State leaders have increased seat-time flexibility, expanded authority for the awarding of credit, broadened schools’ ability to create expanded learning opportunities and allowed demonstration of proficiency in lieu of seat-time.

These latest moves just build on decades of progress and further expand Montana’s foundation for success.


About the author


Karla Phillips

Karla@ExcelinEd.org

Karla is Policy Director for Personalized Learning at ExcelinEd. Previously, she served as Special Assistant to the Deputy Superintendent of Policy and Programs at the Arizona Department of Education. Karla also served as the Education Policy Advisor for Governor Brewer and as the Vice-Chair of Arizona’s Developmental Disabilities Planning Council. Her experience includes serving as Director of State Government Relations for Arizona State University (ASU) and as a senior policy advisor for Arizona’s House of Representatives. Karla received her B.A. from Indiana University and an M.P.A from Arizona State University.