New Research: Despite Great Enthusiasm for Personalized Learning, Teachers Say Attempts to Innovate Are Often Stymied by School District Bureaucracy

Credit: Helen H. Richardson

June 21, 2018


When school districts adopt personalized learning, the bulk of the work falls to teachers, who, while excited about the opportunity to innovate, are often not supported by their school systems to implement and share their ideas.

That’s according to new research from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which analyzed the efforts of districts and organizations that received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create personalized learning models in their schools. The research comes at a critical moment for the personalized learning field, as scant evidence has emerged to demonstrate whether the billions of dollars invested in these scattered efforts are paying off.

Researchers found successes in smaller districts in the northeastern United States as well as charter schools, underscoring their argument that the bureaucracies of large district systems often impede the implementation of personalized learning.

“This study is very clear that just asking our teachers to do this work is probably not going to work in the long run,” said Betheny Gross, research director at CRPE and co-author of the study along with Michael DeArmond, a senior research analyst. “We noted just tremendous misalignment between what the folks in the schools were trying to do and what their school systems were prepared to support them to do.”

In 2014, the Gates Foundation gave $6 million to $7 million to each “Next Generation” grantee, 12 districts and organizations tasked with creating replicable personalized learning models. The foundation then asked CRPE to analyze how these efforts performed in the first few years. Researchers wrote that “the system change envisioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as necessary for widespread adoption largely did not occur in the early years of these initiatives.”


Personalized Learning Boosts Math Scores, New RAND Study Finds — But Scaling Is a Challenge


Personalized learning changed how instruction was taught and the physical arrangement of the classroom, but it rarely reinvented the way students engaged with the academic content, researchers said. Students and teachers both reported preferring the individualized style of instruction that is a hallmark of personalized learning, but they felt stymied by a lack of support and ambiguity in expectations from their superiors.

The tension between taking innovative risks and delivering on yearly state and federal accountability benchmarks, as well as lack of curricular or financial resources, often stifled schools’ work, principals told researchers.

“The initiative’s challenges through the first few years of effort underscore the difficulty of innovating inside a system that was never designed for innovation,” the researchers wrote.

But not all schools failed in their explorations. Gross found that principals played an important role in whether personalized learning was implemented well. Successful leaders allowed teachers to innovate but then paused to analyze what worked and decide whether those approaches met the school’s goals and what innovations to stick with, the researchers found.

The newly envisioned classrooms in these schools — from Denver to Dallas to Chicago — emphasized social-emotional supports, project-based curriculum, “playlists” that helped students navigate their learning, internships, and flexible seating arrangements. Schools used grant funding for professional development, coaches, and consultants to help educators plan.

“The thing to understand about all of this is that we have to learn not to think of it as another flavor or version of reform,” said Andrew Calkins, director of Next Generation Learning Challenges, one of the initiatives launched by the Gates Foundation to award these personalized learning grants. “This is a fundamental rethinking and reimagining of everything about what schools focus on.”

Enthusiastic, but in need of support

To analyze the effort, researchers interviewed more than 300 educators, principals, and district staff, observed classrooms, and conducted a survey of teachers both inside and outside the initiative to compare experiences.

The survey revealed that teachers implementing personalized learning models were more likely to let students work at their own pace, say that their students had choice in what they learned in class, and report that their students moved through the curriculum based on successfully mastery of a topic.

Teachers found themselves putting in extra hours after school, on weekends, and over the summer to create personalized learning models for their students. But despite the extra workload, teachers told researchers that they preferred this type of instruction.

“I love teaching like this,” a Florida elementary school teacher told researchers. “The students can see how excited I am, so they’re feeding off of that.”

A 10th-grade science teacher said, “I think we all instinctively know that it’s the most natural, effective way to teach and learn.”

Some students also reported enthusiasm for having so much control over their learning. One student told researchers he had worked his way up to a fifth-grade academic level, despite technically being a fourth-grader. When students were asked whether they would prefer if teachers just told them what to do, they said no.

However, some expressed frustration during these transition years, telling researchers that expectations weren’t always clear.

“We really didn’t know how [standards-based grading] worked and there was a lot of confusion,” a high school student said. “It was just thrown on you.” Students told teachers they didn’t understand why they got a certain grade, a confusion that increased anxiety for high school seniors applying for college.

Not everyone was engaged in rigorous academic instruction, researchers found. In one classroom, a student made a model of a circus tent, which involved calculating measurements of shapes like columns, semicircles, and rectangles, and scaling them to a smaller size. But in another corner of the same room, a peer, who was significantly behind academically, was described by researchers as looking “utterly bored,” “mindlessly” clicking through remedial math software on a computer.

It’s unclear what the academic outcomes looked like in these classrooms. CRPE researchers weren’t tasked with calculating achievement, but in 2017, RAND researchers found that schools with personalized learning models improved in math by 3 percentile points in relationship to a comparison group.

What schools can learn

Educators, researchers, and leaders participating in this grant work said they weren’t surprised by the findings, and they recognized that schools have more work to do.

To that end, researchers compiled recommendations based on two years of observations, including several strategies that districts can implement to help scale their personalized learning efforts.

1. Decide what problems need to be solved — Bring together teachers to pinpoint problems and set goals that focus on innovation.

2. Create flexibility in schools — Identify what policies in schools conflict with innovation and create flexibility. Ensure the district office understands the personalized learning goals of schools.

3. Support change management strategies — Add coaching support to schools and help leaders learn how to manage innovative changes.

4. Pick leaders for innovation in districts — Identify leaders to help guide the work of personalized learning and allow time for collaboration among teachers so they can share best practices.

The work is still in progress, said Mark Kostin, associate director at Great Schools Partnership, one of the grantee organizations that partnered with 21 schools in the northeast region of the U.S. to help them implement personalized learning models. He said the schools he’s been working with have found success in sharing their ideas with each other and creating a common language about what they want to implement in their schools. But he agreed that schools have also experienced the challenges outlined in the new research.

“This work we always knew would take time and effort and energy and persistence,” he said.

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides financial support to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, the personalized learning efforts analyzed here in this research, and The 74.

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