Classroom Technology

RAND Researchers Make It Clear: Personalized Learning Is Difficult to Do

By Benjamin Herold — October 04, 2017 | Corrected: October 05, 2017 6 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misidentified North Carolina State University researcher Mary Ann Wolf.

Personalized learning is hard.

For the ed-tech community, that, again, is the takeaway from new research by the RAND Corporation.

This time, the findings come from an early-stage evaluation of “Opportunity by Design” high schools, which are funded and supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The schools share 10 common “design principles,” including a heavy emphasis on personalization (defined as tailoring student experiences to meet individuals’ needs and interests) and mastery-based learning (defined as expecting students to demonstrate deep understanding of rigorous standards before advancing).

The schools faced numerous hurdles in turning those ideals into classroom realities, said Laura S. Hamilton, an associate director of RAND Education and one of the study’s authors. “There are a lot of challenges to doing this work well,” she said, including “a lot that’s not currently under the control of schools.”

The RAND team did find positive signs. The schools it studied had clear missions. Teachers and students alike reported an emphasis on key features of mastery-based and personalized learning, such as providing opportunities for students to work with particular material until they fully understood it. There were also examples of creative use of data to customize instruction.

5 Key Findings About Personalized Learning

1. Personalization and mastery-based learning were seen as key elements of efforts to design innovative high school models for high-poverty areas.

2. Most students and teachers in the 10 schools being studied said new practices, such as adapting course content to meet individual students’ needs, were taking root.

3. Teachers said lack of time to create customized lessons was a major barrier to personalizing learning.

4. Even schools with an explicit focus on mastery-based learning struggled to clearly define the term and consistently apply common standards of mastery.

5. Educators felt caught between a desire to let each student progress at his or her own pace and external pressures to move all students through a common curriculum and toward graduation.

Source: RAND Corporation

Early Obstacles

But the report, “Designing Innovative High Schools: Implementation of the Opportunity by Design Initiative After Two Years,” offers a detailed account of the early obstacles the schools have faced.

Chief among them:

• Lack of time for teachers to create or find lessons and learning materials that are differentiated for each student.

• External pressure to move students towards graduation, whether they had mastered the material or not.

• Inconsistent expectations for what “mastery” means.

• Inconsistent access to high-quality data about what students know and can do.

• Lack of quality online learning materials.

Such challenges broadly mirror the barriers faced by other personalized-learning efforts, including a separate cohort of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded schools that RAND is also evaluating.

“These results are very preliminary, but they do provide a valuable assessment of what is going on at the classroom level, including daily challenges and possible solutions,” said JoEllen Lynch, the executive director of Springpoint Partners in School Design, an independent nonprofit that is providing technical assistance to the Opportunity by Design Schools. “This will inform our work, and, we hope, provide lessons for the field as more and more schools employ these types of approaches.”

Shared Design Principles

The Carnegie Corporation launched the Opportunity by Design initiative in 2013. (The Carnegie Corporation provides some support for coverage of school innovation issues in Education Week.) The goal is to spur development of innovative high school models in high-poverty areas.

Participating schools are expected to embrace a wide range of shared design principles, ranging from having a clear mission to adopting a mindset of “continuous improvement.”

The new RAND evaluation focuses on 10 Opportunity by Design schools that opened during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years. Findings come from classroom observations; interviews and focus groups with dozens of principals, teachers, and students; and surveys of more than 1,000 students.

The focus is on three “power principles” emphasized within the Opportunity by Design framework: mastery-based learning, personalization, and positive youth development.

The first of those two are likely to be of especially high interest to the education-technology sector. Backed by major philanthropists and investors such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, the ed-tech industry has aggressively pushed the idea of “personalized learning.” But on the ground, the concept remains nebulous, and research evidence remains thin.

In July, for example, RAND released the latest findings from its ongoing evaluation of 40 personalized-learning schools that have received funding via an initiative called Next Generation Learning Challenges.

Those schools showed modest gains in math and reading scores. But the researchers also found a wide variety of management and instructional practices, as well as a host of barriers to personalization.

Many of those same challenges also showed up in the Opportunity by Design schools.

For example, almost two-thirds of teachers said lack of time was an obstacle to creating learning materials that were tailored to each student.

Teachers and principals also consistently reported feeling pressure to move students along through the curriculum and toward graduation, whether or not they had actually mastered the material they were learning.

And some teachers described difficulties with getting students to attend school, complete their work, and turn assignments in on time.

Together, such factors in some cases contributed to an over-reliance on software and online curricula—despite a widespread worry that the digital tools available weren’t providing solid learning experiences for students.

“Although many teachers we interviewed were concerned that the online curricula in their schools were of low quality, utilizing [such curricula] seems to be the only approach thus far that allowed students to truly progress ... at their own pace,” the report says.

Other details from the new RAND report shed new light on the challenges associated with personalized- and mastery-based learning.

In some cases, the very notion of “mastery” itself proved problematic.

Educators, for example, said they often struggled to find effective ways to regularly assess whether students had actually learned content, sometimes turning to standard worksheets and short quizzes for lack of better options.

Standards for what counted as “mastery” varied from school to school, and sometimes from student to student.

And the children in the Opportunity by Design schools weren’t always receptive to teachers’ attempts to explain why “demonstrating mastery” was the new coin of the realm.

“Students often became upset when they perceived that they were given more, or different, work than others,” the report reads.

Furthermore, giving students the opportunity to choose what topics they pursued and instructional materials they used in class was not a regular point of emphasis. It was often difficult for teachers to find high-quality curricula that were differentiated to students’ varying ability levels.

And the use of technology tools within the Opportunity by Design schools was “all over the place,” Hamilton said.

“There’s a pretty steep learning curve when you’re adjusting your practice to teach in a more innovative, tech-based environment,” she said. “We need to be thinking about whether teachers have the training, support, and time they need to implement these models and use these tools.”

Encouraging Signs

Despite all the obstacles, the RAND team also saw reason for optimism.

Most teachers and students said that the new models were taking root, and 89 percent of teachers reported moderate-to-heavy emphasis on using a wide variety of materials and approaches to better accommodate students’ individual needs.

And those Opportunity by Design schools that opened in the second year of the initiative also seemed to face fewer challenges than the first cohort of schools, with teachers saying they felt better prepared and faced fewer obstacles.

“The RAND report validates the complexities and importance of building capacity when moving to personalized, mastery- based learning that we see in other districts and schools trying to move in this direction,” said Mary Ann Wolf, the director of digital learning programs for the Friday Institute, a research center at North Carolina State University. “The early findings show ... the work thus far [is] beginning to make a difference for what teaching and learning can be in these schools.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2017 edition of Education Week as From Theory to Practice, Hurdles for Personalized Learning

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