Personalized Learning

Principals on Personalized Learning: 8 Takeaways From Ed Week’s Exclusive Survey

By Benjamin Herold — April 26, 2018 5 min read
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Thanks in no small measure to a push from technology companies and vendors, school principals are embracing personalized learning.

But the ways in which principals are bringing that big idea into their schools are far more modest than many proponents would like. And for all their enthusiasm, principals also express pointed concerned about the potential downsides of the personalized learning movement.


Technology Counts 2018 includes deep reporting on principals’ view of personalized learning, screen time, social media, and computer science.

School Leaders and Technology,” published by the Education Week Research Center, has the complete survey results.

Those are some of the key findings from the Education Week Research Center’s exclusive, nationally representative survey of more than 500 school leaders (including principals, assistant principals, and deans) from across the United States.

Among principals, “we’re generally seeing cultural acceptance of personalized learning as part of the future of schooling,” said Justin Bathon, an associate professor of education leadership at the University of Kentucky who has trained school leaders on effective technology use for more than a decade.

“But there’s a big disconnect between the think-tank literature and the reality of running schools,” Bathon said.

Here are eight big takeaways from the survey:

1. Principals are buying into the idea of personalized learning.

More than half of principals view personalized learning as a “transformational way to improve public education” (28 percent) or “promising idea” (23 percent.)

Just 9 percent of principals, meanwhile, view the movement as a “passing fad” or a “threat to public education.”

And in the world of school leadership, personalized learning has friends in high places.

“I think it’s the wave of the future,” said Daniel Kelley, the president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, who also heads Rhode Island’s Smithfield High.

2. Principals say the push to embrace personalized learning is coming primarily from technology companies and vendors.

Fifty-five percent of principals said they feel mild or strong pressure from industry, and 46 percent said they feel such pressure from district leaders.

Contrast that to how many principals said they feel similar pressure from students (31 percent), parents (27 percent), and teachers (19 percent.)

“There are market forces at play, driving narratives to principals for market-based reasons, to increase access to particular software products,"said Bathon of the University of Kentucky.

3. Proponents tout personalized-learning technologies as a way to dramatically re-envision schools. Most principals do not.

Just 16 percent of principals said such technologies are “central to our mission and operation.”

Far more often, principals said such technologies were “an important supplemental resource” (57 percent) or “an occasional add-on” (24 percent.)

“This really hits on a disconnect between the think-tank literature and the reality of running schools,” Bathon said. “Lexia and Dreambox are nice supplemental tools, but I wouldn’t say they mean a child is experiencing personalized learning in school.”

4. Principals are bullish that personalized-learning technologies can help teachers motivate students and differentiate instruction.

Nearly three-fourths of principals (74 percent) said they had a lot of confidence that such tools can help schools customize the learning experience for each student.

And 62 percent of principals said they had a lot of confidence that such tools can help with student engagement.

This is why principals such as Dwight Carter of Ohio’s New Albany High School are enthusiastic about the trend.

“Technology can free up teachers to do more one-on-one instruction,” Carter told my colleague Michelle Davis for her Technology Counts 2018 story, “Why Principals Are Embracing Personalized Learning.

5. Principals were less confident that personalized-learning technologies can help with reaching the whole child.

A full 73 percent of principals said they had no confidence or very little confidence that such tools can be used to improve students’ social-emotional skills.

Principals were also lukewarm about the idea that such tools can help educators better understand their students. More than half expressed “some” or “very little” confidence in this.

To better understand these dynamics, listen to the voices of principals in Davis’s story.

“There are a lot of ways to personalize learning that have nothing to do with technology,” said Jeffrey J. Thoenes, the principal of Michigan’s Williamston High School.

6. Principals are very worried that digital technologies to personalize learning will contribute to greater student isolation.

Of the principals surveyed, 85 percent expressed “some” or “a lot” of concern that such technologies will lead to students spending too much time on screens.

And 77 percent of principals expressed “some” or “a lot” of concern that such technologies will lead to students working alone too often.

Such findings have clearly caught the attention of ed-tech and personalized-learning skeptics such as parent- and privacy-advocate Leonie Haimson, who has long raised related concerns.

7. Principals are also worried about the role of the ed-tech industry in the personalized-learning movement.

More than 7 of 10 (72 percent) of principals expressed “some” or “a lot” of concern about companies collecting too much student data in the name of personalized learning.

And 67 percent of principals expressed “some” or “a lot” of concern about the tech industry gaining too much influence over public education.

For a fuller exploration of these dynamics, see Education Week’s November 2017 story, “The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning.”

8. Principals are less worried about personalized learning diminishing the role of the teacher.

This fear is frequently raised by personalized-learning opponents. But 63 percent of principals expressed no concern or very little concern.



New Albany High School principal Dwight Carter.-- Maddie McGarvey

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.