Is Personalized Learning Meeting Its Productivity Promise? Early Lessons from Pioneering Schools

With belts tightening in communities across the land, education leaders are exploring novel ways to stretch the school dollar. One such approach is “personalized learning,” i.e., using technology to tailor coursework to individual students while making better use of teachers’ time. To determine whether personalized learning is helping schools get more bang for the buck, the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) is conducting a cost study of twenty schools that received grants from the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) initiative. In this brief, CRPE—halfway through its two-year study—presents its early findings from eight new charter schools, each of which was awarded $150,000 in their planning year and a matching grant of up to $300,000 during their first year of implementation. Unfortunately, CRPE found that these early implementers significantly missed their revenue projections: the median shortfall in private revenue (donations from philanthropies) was $120,600 per school (or 30 percent of expected donations), and the median shortfall in public revenue (due to lower than expected enrollment) was $135,000 per school (the median was off the mark by eighteen students, or 14 percent of forecasted enrollment). These missed projections forced the schools to cut budgets, and six out of the eight schools reverted to a more traditional budget model, investing more in labor and less in technology. (Some cuts were quite savvy, though: one principal, for instance, cut more than $100,000 from the school’s tech budget by switching from Macbook Air computers to cheaper Chromebooks.) In light of these experiences, CRPE outlines a number of early lessons for schools looking to successfully implement personalized-learning models—among these, (1) up front, spend money on student recruitment efforts; (2) develop a “worst-case scenario” budget; and (3) if budget cuts are necessary, consider hiring fewer staff than planned, at least for the first quarter or semester, as the model’s sustainability relies on maintaining high student-teacher ratios. These strike us as smart mid-course corrections that can help personalized learning schools achieve their potential.

SOURCE: Larry Miller, Betheny Gross, and Robin Lake, “Is Personalized Learning Meeting Its Productivity Promise? Early Lessons from Pioneering Schools” (Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education, May 2014).

Elisabeth Hoyson is a Research Intern at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute