Special Report
School & District Management

6 Key Insights: RAND Corp. Researchers Talk Personalized Learning

By Benjamin Herold — November 07, 2017 6 min read

No one has studied personalized learning more closely than the RAND Corporation. The group’s researchers are in the midst of two big studies: an ongoing look at 40 personalized-learning schools that have received grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and an examination of 10 high schools that have been redesigned, in part to focus on greater personalization, with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. (Education Week receives grant funding from both the Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation.)

For this special report, Education Week visited RAND’s Pittsburgh office for a 90-minute face-to-face conversation with Laura Hamilton, the associate director of RAND education; John F. Pane, a RAND senior scientist and the group’s distinguished chair in education innovation; and Elizabeth Steiner, a senior RAND policy analyst.

The focus of the conversation was on what K-12 educators and policymakers need to know about the research on personalized learning. The six big takeaways:

1. The Research Behind Personalized Learning Is Still Very Weak

RAND has found some positive results, including modest achievement gains in some of the Gates-funded personalized-learning schools.

But overall, “the evidence base is very weak at this point,” Pane said.

“If anything, I worry that the positive results that have come out of our studies are generating a bit too much enthusiasm. I think people see the headlines, but they don’t see the limitations of the research that’s happened so far.”

For example, all the schools included in the studies received extra funding to implement personalized-learning models, and many are charters or part of large-scale school redesign efforts. RAND has also been unable to form the kind of strong comparison group used in the most rigorous research studies. And the only outcome measures the researchers have been able to analyze so far are select math and reading scores—not anything about student behaviors or mindsets, or the so-called “21st-century skills” that are at the heart of many personalized-learning models.

As a result, Pane said, the evidence to date is not sufficient to draw clear conclusions about personalized learning’s effectiveness or how well it will transfer to other schools.

“Somebody who’s trying to make evidence-based decisions has to wait,” he said.

2. It’s Still Hard to Say What Personalized Learning Is (And Isn’t)

The RAND researchers agreed most personalized-learning models share some broadly common elements, such as a greater focus on meeting individual students’ needs and a lesser focus on keeping students on pace with grade-level standards.

Elizabeth Steiner

The Gates-subsidized schools also share a commitment to such practices as building profiles that capture what each student knows and emphasizing competency- or mastery-based progressions in which students only advance to new material after they have mastered what comes before.

But beyond that, Steiner said, there’s a tremendous diversity of approaches. “What’s happening in the field right now is a lot of innovation and a lot of schools building their models, building their curriculum, and inventing new systems,” she said.

John Pane

That means tremendous variation from one personalized-learning school to the next, including the curricular materials being used, how classrooms are organized, the role of the teacher, how data are used to group students, and how a concept like “mastery” is defined.

The result, Steiner said, is that “it can be difficult to be precise about what exactly a [personalized-learning] school is doing, what its model is, and what particular instructional practices are being implemented.”

3. On the Ground, Personalized Learning Also Faces Real Practical Concerns

The biggest is a lack of time.

“We heard from a number of teachers that [personalizing education for every student] was time-consuming,” Hamilton said. “Teachers like having the opportunity to be creative and to have some autonomy over what they do in the classroom, but they also want to be supported in that.”

Laura Hamilton

It also doesn’t help that the building blocks of personalized learning aren’t fully in place yet. A particular challenge: the lack of high-quality curricular resources needed to customize every lesson and activity to a wide range of grade levels and preferences.

And the adults in personalized-learning schools report being torn between competing priorities.

How do teachers, for example, encourage collaboration when every student is working on a personalized lesson, at his or her own pace?

And there’s an inherent tension between letting each student progress at his or her own pace and making sure every student learns everything in the curriculum and moves toward graduating in four years.

“Principals and teachers really struggle with this,” Steiner said. “I don’t know that anyone has figured out a good solution.”

4. Still, There Are Reasons to Be Encouraged

It would be premature to conclude that personalized learning doesn’t work or should be stifled, Pane said. The theoretical underpinnings of the models currently being tested make sense, he said, and the field needs more time to let the current round of experiments play out.

Hamilton concurred. “We’re seeing thoughtful implementations,” she said, and the current shortcomings in the field can be attributed in large part to a “lack of experience” and a “lack of adequate supports, particularly at the classroom level.”

5. The Worst Fears About Personalized Learning Aren’t Frequently Realized

Inside the schools that RAND is studying, scenes of children wearing headphones and working alone in front of screens are “less common than people might believe,” Steiner said.

More typical is “ever-changing classroom organization where the teacher is sometimes working with large groups and sometimes working with small groups or individuals, and technology plays a role in that.”

The rampant collection of student data feared by some critics also does not appear to be the norm in the schools that RAND is studying.

The researchers were careful to say that they couldn’t speak in detail to the back-end data-collection systems employed by the technologies in use in the classrooms they observed. But “even if systems are recording, say, keystroke information, we haven’t seen anyone using that,” Hamilton said. “It’s not being assembled into a report that goes back to teachers that they can make instructional use of.”

6. The Rand Team’s Bottom-Line Advice

Address the “pockets of resistance” to personalized learning now, Pane suggested. Right now, it seems, key stakeholders, especially parents, might feel excluded from the process, which could impede success.

Recognize that the success of personalized learning will hinge largely on teachers, advised Hamilton.

And remember that improving schools is about a lot more than you and your new personalized-learning model, Steiner said, citing other critical factors such as establishing a cohesive schoolwide vision and building an effective team that enjoys working together.

“There’s a lot of focus on the shiny new parts [of personalized learning], like the technology,” Steiner said. “But there are a lot of other things that go into making a good school, and those should not fall by the wayside.”

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Coverage of learning through integrated designs for school innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2017 edition of Education Week as 6 Key Insights: RAND Corp. Researchers Talk Personalized Learning

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