School & District Management

Personalized Learning: ‘A Cautionary Tale’

By Benjamin Herold — July 18, 2017 2 min read
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Customizing instruction for every student can generate modest gains in math and reading scores, but it can create major implementation challenges for schools, concludes a report released last week by the RAND Corp.

The researchers behind the most comprehensive ongoing study to date of personalized learning describe their latest findings as a “cautionary tale” about a trend whose popularity far outpaces its evidence base.

“It’s important to set expectations,” John F. Pane, a senior scientist and the distinguished chairman in education innovation at RAND, said in an interview. “This may not work everywhere, and it requires careful thought about the context that enables it to work well.”

Fifth grader Jack McGeen works on a personalized learning app at Amity Elementary School near Cincinnati. The school was not part of a new RAND Corp. study that found modest test-score gains from personalized learning, but challenges in implementing it.

The report, “Informing Progress: Insights on Personalized Learning Implementation and Effects,” is the third and most recent study in a multiyear RAND analysis underwritten by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (The Gates Foundation has provided support in the past forcoverage of personalized learning in Education Week.)

Personalized learning generally means using digital technologies to tailor instruction to each student’s strengths and weaknesses, interests and preferences, and optimal pace of learning.

RAND’s new findings are based on surveys, interviews, and focus groups with students, teachers, and principals at 40 schools that have embraced the idea. All have won funding from Gates.

‘Cautious and Thoughtful’

On the ground at “personalized-learning schools,” researchers found that many management and instructional practices closely resembled those employed at more-traditional schools used as a comparison group. Teachers also reported major challenges, such as not having enough time to craft customized lessons for each student.

RAND did find that embracing personalized learning led to small test-score gains. A student who would have had average test scores in amore-traditional school performed 3 percentile points better than average as a result of attending a personalized-learning school, the researchers determined. That was true in both reading and math, although only the math gains were statistically significant. Students in personalized-learning schools who started the year academically behind also made up slightly more ground than comparable students in traditional schools.

The researchers also found a cumulative improvement in student-test scores after schools had completed their second year of implementing a personalized-learning model. Still, Pane of RAND cautioned against making too much of the positive achievement results.

One reason: The charter schools in the new study generally outperformed the district-managed schools, many of which actually saw drops in student achievement after implementing a personalized-learning model.

It’s also impossible to tell at this stage which specific personalization strategies and practices have the biggest impact, the report says.

“There’s promise here, but we have to do the scale up in a way that’s cautious and thoughtful,” Pane concluded.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 19, 2017 edition of Education Week as Personalized Learning: ‘A Cautionary Tale’

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