Special Report
School & District Management

Principals and Teachers Are Out of Sync on Personalized Learning, Data Show

School leaders tend to be more optimistic about personalized learning than classroom educators, survey comparison shows
By Kevin Bushweller — November 05, 2019 5 min read
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To better understand and appreciate the difficulties teachers face in making personalized-learning approaches work, Vermont Principal Adam Bunting decided to jump back into the classroom for a brief teaching stint.

He taught a two-week course for 21 students in grades 9-12 at the end of the school year at Champlain Valley Union High School. Students had to produce personalized-learning projects based on their own interests that were also linked to graduation standards. One student project, for instance, examined what it would take to persuade pharmaceutical companies to lower the cost of insulin.

It was an eye-opening experience for Bunting, who is a big fan of personalized learning and works in a state that has had a personalized-learning law in place for six years.

“Oh, this is hard,” he remembers thinking. “It wasn’t perfect. But it was good for me to be feet on the ground.”

That back-to-teaching experience might be something other principals might want to consider, given the differing results of Education Week’s national survey of teachers on personalized learning, conducted this summer, and a 2018 survey of principals’ perspectives that included some similar questions.

That comparison found that principals tended to have a much more optimistic view of the promise of personalized learning than teachers and lower levels of concern about the potentially negative effects of digitally driven personalized learning.

For instance, when asked how much confidence they had that digital technologies to personalize learning can improve student engagement, 62 percent of principals said “quite a lot” or “a great deal,” while 41 percent of teachers noted those levels of confidence. Regarding confidence in improving student learning, the difference was 51 percent to 33 percent, respectively.

There were also significant differences between principals and teachers when they were asked about concerns that using digital technologies to personalize learning could contribute to some problems. For instance, 49 percent of principals are concerned such technologies could lead to students spending too much time on screens, compared with 72 percent of teachers.

Teachers were also more concerned about such technologies leading to students working alone too often, with 48 percent expressing that opinion, compared with 38 percent for principals.

“None of this surprises me,” said Betheny Gross, an associate director for the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. “When principals and teachers talk about delivery of instruction, teachers would express more caution about shifting to the tech tools. They like to have control over what’s happening in their classrooms.”

Skipping Important Steps

Gross is a co-author of “Personalized Learning at a Crossroads,” a 2018 report that, among other things, examined the important role principals play in the success or failure of personalized-learning efforts. The report’s vision or definition for personalized learning is that it should customize instruction to students’ strengths and weaknesses and personal interests—and where appropriate, integrate technology tools—to boost student learning.

But attaining that vision is easier said than done, according to the report, which was based on more than 450 interviews with 300-plus teachers, principals, superintendents, and other district administrators, as well as a survey of more than 900 teachers.

One big finding was that principals largely left it up to teachers to define personalization, which fostered inconsistent approaches from classroom to classroom within a school, and ultimately, confusion among students, too. As a consequence, maintaining academic rigor schoolwide became a problem.

What happens often, the report notes, is that district leaders and principals skip a few very important steps in personalized-learning efforts: explaining to teachers why they should move in this direction, crafting a strategic vision for what that should look like, and then giving teachers the time and training to learn how to make it work.

“Everybody absolutely needs an understanding of why—'We’re doing this because we want students to be able to do X, Y, and Z,’ ” said Gross. “What happens when that strategic vision is not in place is you end up with a lot of haphazard stuff that is not valuable to students or teachers.”

John F. Pane, a senior scientist for the RAND Corporation who has conducted extensive research on personalized learning, concurs.

Pane, a co-author of a 2017 report titled “Informing Progress: Insights on Personalized Learning Implementation and Effects,” spent time observing classrooms as part of the research. “Some schools I visited just left the teachers to do [personalized learning] on their own,” he said. “There was no professional development.”

‘No Professional Development’

That failure of principals to ensure good training is in place might explain the higher levels of skepticism about personalized learning among teachers. “I think it’s very important for [principals and teachers] to be on the same page, to know what actual practices they are going to implement, and what tools they’re going to use,” Pane said.

Michelle Wheatfill, an assistant principal at C.C. Ronnow Elementary School in the Clark County district in Nevada, which includes Las Vegas, worked in a tech-savvy school before moving to C.C. Ronnow this school year. Her new school is in the beginning stages of a 1-to-1 computing initiative designed to drive more sophisticated use of educational technology.

Wheatfill, who responded to the Education Week principal survey in 2018, said in a more recent telephone interview that in most grade levels there’s usually one teacher who wants to push the envelope on classroom innovation. Principals need to do a better job of encouraging and rewarding those teachers for sharing lessons learned about using technology to personalize learning.

Unfortunately, what happens often is teachers get overly worried about students misusing new technologies, she said. “Teachers need to break down that wall and not be scared about what kids do with technology. It’s that assumption that cripples them a lot in using it.”

Still, many teachers do see the value of digitally driven personalized learning when it is done right.

Kurt Vonnahme, who heads up the math department at Hinsdale Central High School near Chicago, agreed to talk to Education Week after responding to its national survey this year of teachers about personalized learning. While he doesn’t see personalized learning as a “silver bullet,” he suggested it does have a lot of advantages., especially to help teachers better understand their students.

“That is a huge aspect of personalized learning,” he said. “As teachers, if we’re working in a traditional way, we just don’t have the capacity to do that, particularly if you’re a teacher teaching 150 students.” Digital tools designed to personalize learning, he said “help us home in on an individual-by-individual basis [and] better understand who that student is.”

Assistant Editor Alyson Klein contributed to this article.
Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 06, 2019 edition of Education Week as Principals and Teachers Out of Sync

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