School & District Management

Personalized Learning: ‘A Cautionary Tale’

By Benjamin Herold — July 18, 2017 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Related Tags:

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

Events

School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Principal Salaries: The Gap Between Expectation and Reality
Exclusive survey data indicate a gap between the expectations and the realities of principal pay.
4 min read
A Black woman is standing on a ladder and looking into the distance with binoculars, in the background is an ascending arrow.
iStock/Getty
School & District Management Schools Successfully Fighting Chronic Absenteeism Have This in Common
A White House summit homed in on chronic absenteeism and strategies to reduce it.
6 min read
An empty elementary school classroom is seen on Aug. 17, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York. Nationwide, students have been absent at record rates since schools reopened after COVID-forced closures. More than a quarter of students missed at least 10% of the 2021-22 school year.
An empty elementary school classroom is seen on Aug. 17, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York. A White House summit on May 15, 2024, brought attention to elevated chronic absenteeism and strategies districts have used to fight it.
Brittainy Newman/AP
School & District Management From Our Research Center Here's What Superintendents Think They Should Be Paid
A new survey asks school district leaders whether they're paid fairly.
3 min read
Illustration of a ladder on a blue background reaching the shape of a puzzle piece peeled back and revealing a Benjamin Franklin bank note behind it.
iStock/Getty
School & District Management Q&A How K-12 Leaders Can Better Manage Divisive Curriculum and Culture War Debates
The leader of an effort to equip K-12 leaders with conflict resolution skills urges relationship-building—and knowing when to disengage.
7 min read
Katy Anthes, Commissioner of Education in Colorado from 2016- 2023, participates in a breakout session during the Education Week Leadership Symposium on May 3, 2024.
Katy Anthes, who served as commissioner of education in Colorado from 2016-2023, participates in a breakout session during the Education Week Leadership Symposium on May 3, 2024. Anthes specializes in helping school district leaders successfully manage politically charged conflicts.
Chris Ferenzi for Education Week