Personalized Learning in Practice: How a Risk-Taker Tailored Learning in Her District
- Expertise: Innovation
- Position: Superintendent
- District: Kettle Moraine School District, Wales, Wis.
A magic wand sits high on a shelf in Patricia Deklotz’s office. It was a gift in 2005, the day after she accepted the Kettle Moraine school board’s challenge to “transform the educational delivery system to better and more efficiently meet the needs of all children.” But the board had just cut about $1 million from the budget for the 4,100-student district.
What “transform” meant was undefined, except Deklotz knew that they needed to do something different for less. Innovate on a dime.
At the time, Deklotz was assistant superintendent in the Kettle Moraine district where she had been on the school board for five years before becoming a teacher herself at the age of 42.
She had faced challenges before, but this was a big demand. Hence, the magic wand.
Lessons from the Leader
- Start With ‘Why?’: Make sure the vision is clear and compelling, and engage students in telling the story. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
- Build on Success: Start small and learn from your efforts. Be transparent with the work and build opportunities to reflect on successes and struggles, incorporating improvements as you work to scale.
- Empower People: Get the right people in the right seats, and empower them to do the right work. Create opportunities by setting clear goals and monitoring 100-day cycles.
“There was no ‘Transformation for Dummies’ book,” said Deklotz, who deployed a 17-month task force with 25 educators and non-educators to see what could be done. “We didn’t really know,” she says, but the goal was to support three pillars of education: academic excellence, citizenship, and personal development. They held community meetings and read books and journal articles as part of future studies to envision different scenarios for their schools.
Today, hundreds of inquisitive visitors travel to Kettle Moraine, some 30 miles west of Milwaukee, to learn about the district’s decade-long journey into personalized learning—one in which teachers choose or create their own microcredentials to advance their careers, students have multiple options about what they will learn and how within state standards, and their results on international tests meet or exceed those of students from the highest-performing countries in the world.
The magic wand is gathering dust. Deklotz doesn’t need it anymore for the “Learning Without Boundaries” vision, because she successfully rallied a small legion of people to make the transformation happen, and she’s in the thick of it herself.
“I’ve been really committed to empowering educators to influence decisionmaking in our district,” says Deklotz, who also infuses “student voice, student choice” as a recurring message in her conversations.
A firm believer in risk-taking, Deklotz models it, as members of her leadership teams will tell you.
Stephen Plum, the director of Kettle Moraine’s High School of Health Sciences, recalls sharing a ride with Deklotz to lobby the state legislature about a charter school issue when he asked if it was possible to be too careful. “Yes, you have to be willing to go out on a limb” for what you believe in, Plum says she told him. Adopting that philosophy has given him license to grow his “microschool” that now has 153 students on the Kettle Moraine High campus, he says. Students experience competency-based learning in an immersive experience. They can earn nursing and emergency medical technician certifications while attending high school, study literacy through science, and learn biology through exploration of human cadavers.
Risk-taking is part of Deklotz’s roots as the daughter of a sharecropper and one-room schoolhouse teacher who was an early advocate for free library access and bus transportation.
Deklotz, now 63, left college at 21 to raise her infant daughter—she managed to finish her degree years later when she was on the school board. In the meantime, she held positions as a manager of technical support, a systems analyst, and a consultant. Her background in business translated in some ways to school: She was comfortable using and interpreting data, but surprised at certain parts of educational culture.
Support for School Choice
“When I stepped into my first classroom, I was in awe of my teacher colleagues,” says Deklotz, who taught physical science. She was impressed with “their wealth of knowledge” and the fact that so many held master’s degrees. “But I was also awestruck by the isolation of teachers…and the lack of collaboration or problem-solving in the structure of our educational process.”
With a background in financial software development, Deklotz was accustomed to a team approach to tackling challenges, and she deployed it for schools—first when she and other science teachers met to talk about lesson planning once a week, and later as an administrator. It’s an approach she vowed to emulate with her leadership.
Kettle Moraine’s transformation began with support for school choice and charter schools. A school for the performing arts, KM Perform, and another for global leadership were the first two charters, both housed within the district’s high school.
Creating those schools demonstrated the impact of personalized learning on student success and engagement. “It’s very affirming to have young people talk to you about their aspirations for learning, their learning styles, how they see navigating the expectations of the standards we have, and how they’re going to move forward,” Deklotz says.
An impromptu lunchtime visit in early December with Natalie DeRoche, a high school senior attending KM Perform, seemed to prove the superintendent’s point. DeRoche, who interns part-time for Milwaukee’s mayor during the school day, commutes 45 minutes to attend the school. Rejecting her local high school option, DeRoche chose the district because in her previous school experience, she says, “I felt like I was being taught how to go to school, which isn’t what I felt learning should be about.” Now, she says she “loves going to school” for the many different opportunities to learn.
Tapping Student Agency
After the high school charters, Kettle Moraine added KM Explore, an elementary charter that serves students across the district with a project-based curriculum. Kindergartners through 5th graders form a community, and each student has his or her individual learning plan. Through school-approved projects, students demonstrate their competencies for the standards they have chosen in their learning plans.
“It’s the proof point that we don’t need to start at the high school level,” Deklotz says. “Personalized learning can tap into student agency at kindergarten or the elementary level.”
Early on a December day, 2nd and 3rd grade students worked in small groups and independently to create “evidence” that they are meeting their learning targets. Painting rain barrels that would be distributed in the community was part of their plan, as they studied the water cycle. “The subjects of math, science, reading and writing are infused into that project environment,” Deklotz says. Teachers work alongside them as guides, asking questions to drive student inquiry to deeper levels, she says.
Once some elementary students had the KM Explore experience, parents wondered how they would be prepared for middle school. Rather than set up another charter, the district set up “houses” for 6th, 7th, and 8th grades that are multi-aged learning environments with a team-based approach to teaching and learning.
Kettle Moraine schools have changed in many ways. In 2014, voters approved a $49.6 million referendum that has allowed for major improvements, including renovated learning spaces designed to give more flexibility for large-group instruction and small-group collaboration. That means installing windows and sliding glass walls that provide open views and allow students and teachers to see one another in different areas while learning in a more fluid, less traditional environment.
Laptops are a fixture at Kettle Moraine. But as ubiquitous as the technology is, it’s a very small part of Deklotz’s conversation.
“It’s part of every lesson and every class, but it’s not her focus. It’s the pedagogy,” says Sara Schapiro, director of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, of which Kettle Moraine is a member.
Deklotz sees the digital tools as a means to an end: “With the technology we now have available, there’s absolutely no reason to teach to the middle.”
Schapiro credits Deklotz with being the first to raise her hand to join work groups in the 86-district league. “And it’s not just cursory involvement,” Schapiro says. “She’s always 100 percent focused, never checking her email in a meeting, and is frank and honest.”
One place Deklotz volunteered to participate was in the emerging “microcredential” professional-development approach for teachers, in which educators can earn recognition for the skills they learn and use throughout their career to enrich their teaching.
As Kettle Moraine was working on how to personalize learning for students, Deklotz realized teachers had not experienced it themselves. Without that awareness, “it was difficult for them to get a sense of what personalized learning meant,” Deklotz says. In the first micro-credentialing effort at Kettle Moraine, about 40 teachers signed up to be part of a learning group on “close reading” to improve students’ literacy achievement.
Now, the district’s educators can sign up for micro-credentials from outside sources or propose their own. Once they have completed the work, teachers must submit materials that show evidence of students’ completed projects and what they learned, reflections on it, and perhaps even videos from the process.
A teacher can earn $200 to $600 more per year on their base salary, depending upon the sophistication or depth of learning required for a microcredential.
When an educator asks whether all the extra work is worth it, Deklotz says, “How long do you plan to teach? 10 years? 20 years? Is $4,000 worth it? This isn’t a one-time stipend. It’s an investment they will take with them.”
It’s important for me to show that there are hard numbers behind the work we do with personalized learning, that we aren’t doing it just because we think it’s right.
Despite multiple rounds of budget cuts, which reduced Kettle Moraine’s state aid by half in the decade between 2005-06 and 2015-16, the district has continued to innovate, says Alan Borsuk, a senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette Law School who also writes about education for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“Pat’s a passionate public school advocate at a time when public schools have taken a beating in Wisconsin,” Borsuk says.
To measure Kettle Moraine’s success against other countries’, Deklotz introduced the OECD Test for Schools three years ago. It’s patterned after the Program for International Assessment or PISA test, administered every three years to 15-year-olds in more than 70 countries and economies. The Test for Schools gives 85 randomly chosen students in participating districts a PISA-like test.
“Our children are not competing with those in the neighboring school district,” Deklotz says. “They’re living in a global society, and I need our community to understand where we are on an international benchmark test.”
The students in Kettle Moraine’s traditional high school performed as well as students in Canada, Finland, and European countries that are highly regarded, and charter school students’ performance has been in the same league as Singapore, which came in as the second highest-scoring among the countries taking the test, but “with a learning engagement that’s off the charts,” she says.
“It’s important for me to show that there are hard numbers behind the work we do with personalized learning, that we aren’t doing it just because we think it’s right—but because student achievement data supports it,” she says.
Deklotz is fast to recognize her own missteps, and work to overcome them.
When she encounters critics, Deklotz addresses them head-on, says Terri Phillips, a Kettle Moraine school board member and the executive director of Southeast Wisconsin Schools Alliance.
“She reaches out, calls critics, and sits down to talk with them,” Phillips says. “Nine times out of 10 she gets them on her side.”
Asked what a decade of transformation has meant to her—post-magic wand—Deklotz says it’s more meaningful to remodel than it is to redecorate. While it’s messier, remodeling gives you something new—and you’re never completely done. “I don’t think education should ever arrive,” she says.