Adjusting expectations for personalized learning

As the term implies, “personalized learning” (PL) tailors educational approaches to an individual student’s needs, strengths, interests, and aspirations. This may sound abstract to many, but a new report paints a clearer picture of personalized learning as used in practice. RAND Corporation analysts examine PL implementation and student outcomes across forty U.S. schools receiving a Next Generation Learning Challenge (NGLC) grant. Most of these schools were less than three years old when RAND began its study in 2012, and thirty-one are charters. Together, the NGLC schools enroll roughly 10,600 students, primarily low income or minority. 

“In its ideal form,” RAND analysts write, “PL allows for greater variety in what students are working on at any moment, while still setting ambitious goals for each student’s progress.” Researchers explore the strengths and challenges of PL implementation—how schools are working to meet these ideals—mainly via surveys of educators and students in NGLC schools. As a point of comparison, analysts draw survey data from a national sample of non-NGLC schools. They organize their findings around four marks of PL implementation: the use of learner profiles, personalized learning paths, competency based progression, and flexible learning environments. Here are some of the main findings.

Learner profiles refer to keeping close track of a student’s strengths, needs, and learning progress—and using those data to customize instruction. Surveys indicate that instructors in NGLC schools do receive more “real-time” information on student progress, often through tech-enabled platforms such as online grade-books or portfolios. For example, NGLC teachers say they get updated student data a few times a month, versus about monthly for non-NGLC teachers. They also report more extensive use of those data to personalize instruction, such as altering the pace or content of instruction.

Personalized learning paths encourage individual pupils to choose content or topics that fit their interests. Survey results, however, indicate that students in NGLC schools are not given quite as much flexibility as one might expect. For example, just 36 percent of students attending NGLC schools said that, most of the time, they have “opportunities to choose topics,” versus 27 percent nationally. Teachers report two major challenges to implementation of this practice. One is the large amount of time required to design and support personalized learning plans; second is a perceived tension between student choice around topics and pacing and the need to meet grade-level academic standards.

Competency based progression allows a student to make progress at her own pace and advance toward her goals after demonstrating mastery of a topic. RAND finds that NGLC teachers do report greater use of this practice; for example, 77 percent say they usually allow students to work at a different pace than the rest of the class, versus 59 percent nationally. They also seem more adamant that students understand a topic before moving onto the next. However, teachers in NGLC schools also cite concerns about pupils who don’t progress at an acceptable pace; they also report challenges explaining this PL practice to parents.

Flexible learning environments refer to the adaptive use of staff, physical space, and time to support personalization. Teachers at NGLC schools report more flexibility around learning spaces (e.g., movable furniture and open areas); more co-teaching with other instructors; more flexible scheduling; and more seamless integration of technology. They also report changing student groupings more frequently than their counterparts (29 percent of NGLC teachers altered groups weekly, versus just 4 percent nationally).

Though not without implementation challenges, NGLC schools seem to organize learning in some ways that differ from more conventional schools. But do those differences benefit students? Using NWEA test data and quasi-experimental methods, pupils enrolled in NGLC schools gain about three percentiles in both math and reading—a modest uptick—compared to their statistically similar peers. Those findings represent one-year gains, based on fall 2014 baseline exams and spring 2015 follow-ups. Among a subsample of schools with two years of NWEA data (also fall 2013 and spring 2014), researchers find students make incremental progress throughout both years. Students across the achievement spectrum appear to make comparable gains when attending NGLC schools. Interestingly, analysts also find suggestive evidence that NGLC charters outperform district grantees. Though not conclusive, this finding hints that PL practices might be better suited to the more flexible charter environment.

Personalized learning has generated a fair share of hype. Will it live up to these lofty expectations? It may or may not—and its fate likely hinges on implementation, which includes giving school-level leaders the resources and flexibility needed to implement PL properly. While PL has potential to “disrupt” education in a productive way, buyers must also beware of the potholes. For those wanting a smoother ride, digesting this report is a good place to start.

SOURCE: John F. Pane, et. al., “Informing Progress: Insights on Personalized Learning Implementation and Effects,” RAND Corporation (2017).

Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.