Taking a Hard Look at a Movement

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To dig deeper into the challenges of making personalized learning work in schools, I took off my editor's cap for a few days, charged up my smartphone and laptop, and headed out to spend some time inside a high school in Vermont, a state with one of the most ambitious personalized learning laws in the country.

What I found is that turning that far-reaching vision—essentially customizing learning to each student's strengths, weaknesses, and personal interests—from something crafted by policymakers into actual improvements at the classroom level will take a lot of hard work. The approaches that are evolving to meet the expectations of the law vary widely from district to district and from school to school. And some educators in Vermont are worried that the heavy emphasis the law puts on students' personal interests will come at the expense of academic rigor—a concern that exists in other parts of the country, too.

Vermont is not the only state putting personalized learning high on its priority list. Over the past five years, at least 15 states have taken legislative or regulatory steps to fuel the use of this approach.

Yet there is pushback, setting up a classic battle between an optimistic vision for innovation on one side, and skepticism about whether the changes will actually improve teaching and learning on the other.

To begin with, the concept is still largely ill-defined. Opinions about what it should, or should not, look like vary widely. That diversity of perspectives is illustrated in our online-only survey results featuring responses from more than three dozen key figures in and around the personalized-learning movement, including critics, educators, researchers, and state education officials.

Critics also suggest personalized learning is not yet backed up by research, requires classroom tradeoffs that deserve more careful consideration, and relies on the same types of massive data collection and algorithmic targeting that are causing big problems in other sectors. In "The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning," Benjamin Herold examines those arguments and what they mean for the road ahead.

Some of those arguments are supported by research conducted by the RAND Corporation, which is in the midst of two big studies—an ongoing analysis of 40 personalized learning schools, and a review of 10 high schools that have been redesigned, in part to emphasize greater personalization. But RAND is also finding encouraging signs, too.

Rebecca Holcombe, Vermont's secretary of education, recognizes the critics' concerns. But she said transformational change doesn't come easily. "Change is really hard," she said in an interview in her office. "This is what innovation does."

Vol. 37, Issue 12, Page 3

Published in Print: November 8, 2017, as Taking a Hard Look At a Movement
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