Credit: Courtesy of Summit Public Schools
Summit Public Schools has received a Next Generation Learning Challenge grant to expand personalized learning.

As high schools throughout California and the country try new ways to engage and educate students, such as personalized learning, which tailors instruction to the student’s learning needs and interests, researchers say many innovations are still being evaluated and studied.

Courtesy RAND Corp.

Elizabeth Steiner, associate policy researcher for the RAND Corporation.

Researcher Elizabeth Steiner and her colleagues at the RAND Corporation recently compared 40 personalized learning schools nationwide, including 12 in California, to more traditional schools. All of the 40 schools in the study received Next Generation Learning Challenge grants to help them pursue innovative strategies. The grants were aimed at helping schools that were interested in designing new school models and in broadly sharing successes, lessons learned, and advice to support the growth of better school designs across the nation.”

“This is a very different way of teaching and learning,” Steiner said, adding that there is not widespread agreement “in the field” about what “personalized learning” means. However, the RAND researchers  identified four personalized learning practices that were present in all the NGLC grant schools.

These were:

  • the creation of “learner profiles,” which included a record of each students’ strengths, interests, needs, goals, and progress;
  • “personal learning paths,” which allowed the student choices, such as in courses, outside-of-school options, the order in which courses were completed, and when they were assessed;
  • “competency-based progression,” which allowed students to work at their own pace without external time pressures and to earn credit as soon as they demonstrated mastery; and
  • “flexible learning environments,” which allowed schools to use space, time, money and staff in ways that best supported their models.

The “New Designs for Schools” grants were awarded to schools that agreed to adhere to three NGLC principles:

  • Offer student-centered, mastery-based, and “blended” instruction that includes digital media;
  • Budget based on regular public school funding;
  • Serve students’ needs with an eye toward scaling up over time.

RAND found that personalized learning involves a steep learning curve for administrators, teachers and students – and takes time to show results. Teachers found it especially challenging and time-consuming, Steiner said.

“A lot of school administrators said, ‘I didn’t think it would be this way. I didn’t expect it to be quite so hard… We thought we would do this, but I can see it’s more complex and nuanced than we initially appreciated,’” Steiner said.

RAND found NGLC students scored about 3 percentage points higher in math compared to a group of students who did not attend NGLC schools, but were similar in gender, grade levels, starting test scores and geographic locations.  And although researchers found higher scores in reading, the trend was not considered statistically significant.

The need to provide support for teachers and school leaders came up often, Steiner said. Teachers said it took a lot of time to create individualized lessons for each student and to offer them choices.

In addition, teachers wanted more time to collaborate with each other, especially if they were teaching interdisciplinary lessons across grade levels.

Complicating the research, Steiner said it was difficult to discern which “pieces” of personalized learning were working and which weren’t, since each school was doing something different. For example, she said some schools created large, open spaces with moveable walls that were flexible, but also noisy.

“Teachers and students found the noise distracting,” she said, “but they enjoyed the ability to convert the learning space.”

Challenges to innovation, she said, include the need for teachers to develop new personalized curriculum and to adhere to state standards and accountability metrics. Many schools, she said, reported feeling a “tension” between trying to teach students what they needed to meet accountability requirements such as end-of-year tests and allowing students as much time as they needed to master the content.

“Schools were trying to resolve this tension in a number of ways,” she said. “It’s hard to know whether anyone figured it out.”

Teacher turnover and burnout were also concerns expressed by school administrators, she said.

The researchers came up with recommendations related to teachers and administrators — those trying to implement personalized learning in districts and schools:

  • Provide teachers with the time and resources they need to pilot new instructional approaches and research how well they work;
  • Provide teachers with time and resources to collaborate on curriculum development and review and grade student work;
  • Identify a staff member with curriculum expertise who is comfortable with technology and can serve as teacher resource;
  • Provide school staff with resources and support to choose the most appropriate curriculum materials;
  • Provide school staff with data system resources and support.

Next Generation Learning Challenges nationwide are managed by the nonprofit EDUCAUSE, which receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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