Two developments this week signal that funders are pushing personalized learning and innovation forward in schools—and both herald promising things for improving education in this country.

The first development was the launch of the non-profit Silicon Schools Fund, which will provide seed funding for new blended-learning schools that use innovative education models and technology to personalize learning (full disclosure: I’m one of the Fund’s board members).

The Silicon Schools Fund plans to raise $25 million, which it will invest in creating up to 25 new blended-learning schools in the Bay Area over the next five years.

Several aspects of the Fund’s plans excite me.

First, the focus on the Bay Area will tap Silicon Valley’s innovative minds and increasingly entrepreneurial ventures in education technology to create a cluster that drives personalized learning forward. This should accelerate innovation in the Bay Area first, but the Fund aims to create models that allow others around the country to replicate what is working.

To that end, I’m also pleased that the Fund will be supporting district, charter, and independent schools interested in starting or redesigning schools that will utilize blended learning to boost results for all students. This should give the Fund a better chance at creating a cluster that helps the education field make great leaps forward in the years ahead that can ultimately reach all students across the nation.

Having the support of such visionaries in education as Sal Khan of the Khan Academy, John Fisher, who is Chairman of the KIPP Foundation, Ted Mitchell from NewSchools Venture Fund, and Brian Greenberg, who will be the Fund’s CEO, is also a huge bonus.

Silicon Schools Fund’s website does a great job of articulating the vision.

The second development this week that gives me hope for the future of personalized learning was the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) announcement of another series of grants totaling $5.4 million for 13 new models of personalized, blended learning at the secondary and postsecondary levels (full disclosure again: I served as a reviewer for the NGLC secondary school models grants).

NGLC, an initiative dedicated to improving college readiness and completion, has now completed its third wave of investments focused on breakthrough models (here is what I wrote about their last announcement)—and in the K-12 middle and high school arena, has funded 20 school models that, together, showcase a promising mixture of projects.

Of the 20 models funded, roughly 10 are charters, another 5 or so are district-charter partnerships, and the final 5 are more traditional district, state-district, or district-university partnerships. It’s clear that many charters are at last living up to their promise of creating new, innovative models, and it’s great to see districts begin to contemplate bigger transformations.

In many cases, many of the models funded are pushing their own comfort zones. As a result, I suspect not all of these will be successful, but that failure should in fact be a critical lever in improving our education system, as I’ve discussed here.

One of the more interesting developments is the emergence of models that are deliberately connecting inquiry, project-based learning with the more “1.0 versions” of blended learning. As a result of these, along with the competency-based learning environments that all of the models will be pushing, there will also need to be new thinking on how to evaluate these models. Policies will ultimately matter.

In the absence of policies that encourage competency-based learning and focuses not just on proficiency for each student, but also each child’s individual growth, we could see these models struggle to gain traction to transform the wider education system. The performance metrics used to judge schools today are also problematic in that they are overly narrow. As we see these new school models emerge that leave traditional practice far behind, I suspect that we will increasingly see that the standard measures are too thin to be adequate at judging how schools are doing for students. In many ways, this tension will put a stronger emphasis on moving to a policy set that focuses on student outcomes, not inputs, but that has a richer understanding of what those student outcomes could look like and how to value them.

The latest grantees in the NGLC portfolio—Aspire Public Schools, Intrinsic Schools, Generation Schools Network, Foundations College Prep, Fayette County Public Schools, and Whittemore Park Middle School–will now be a part of the pioneers leading the way.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.