Personalized Learning is a Movement That Takes Time

By David Irwin

Radically changing the core of what a school does is hard work. It requires vision and commitment from district leadership, incredibly strong leadership from principals and dedicated teachers that truly believe the educational options they have provided their students can be better. Since 2010, my organization has been incredibly lucky to have worked with more than 500 schools across more than 100 school districts that have done just that (with impressive results).

We read the recently released RAND report “Insights on Personalized Learning Implementation and Effects (July 2017)” with optimism, but also a little bit of concern about over-generalizations from their findings and conclusions. First, it’s important to note that 40 schools included in the RAND report received funding from the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) with the intention of creating one innovative school model. In the case of the schools and districts we support, they are teeing up the funding (as well as models, infrastructure and support) for many more schools from the beginning.

Why is this important?

It’s our belief and experience that in order to begin changing a teaching and learning model that has been in place for more than a half-century (if not longer), buy-in and commitment are needed across the entire district, and they need to have “skin” in the game. While it can be phased in and iterated on, personalized learning should not just be an initiative or a pilot, it should be something districts show a commitment to on a foundational level, from the start. It should include planning how to roll it out and sustain it across the district.

Though outside funding is always helpful and welcome, districts need to recognize that they need to do more for their kids on their own and buy-in needs to come from all stakeholders. Additionally, districts need to be ready to buckle up for the long haul as changing a teaching and learning model that has been in place for what seems like forever is hard work. Actually, it’s probably harder than they could even imagine, but that doesn’t mean it should not or cannot be done.

Can you name a half-century (or older) company that radically changed their business model from top to bottom in one year? Even two years? If you can think of a company that has done that, name one that has shown immediate and large results during the first year of change. It’s pretty hard to do.

Change takes time, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. As the RAND report points out, the concepts and hopes of personalized learning have been around since at least 1984, when Benjamin Bloom’s research showed that individualized instruction tailored to each student’s needs produced large student achievement gains relative to whole class instruction.

It is important to not only recognize that it takes time, but also recognize that it takes effort and a systemic approach. Districts that think about and plan for scale early, and provide school leaders and teachers with ample support are more likely to see the types of gains Bloom demonstrated. Districts that have been deliberately working on implementing personalized learning with fidelity are starting to see some positive gains. During the 2015-2016 school year, more than 17,000 students from five of the districts we support that took the NWEA MAP saw average growth 42% greater than nationally normed growth targets in reading and 21% greater than nationally normed growth targets growth in math.

In addition to consistently high growth in reading and math, there are cumulative benefits over consecutive years of personalized learning. This year in Horry County Schools (in South Carolina), a district we have been supporting for 4 years, their 6-8 grade students grew by 40% more than nationally normed growth targets in reading and 37% more than nationally normed growth targets in math. Compared to 4 years ago, that’s a 40 percentage point rise in average reading growth and a 45 percentage point rise in average math growth.

This data provides more hope than the RAND report did, but it is clear there is much work still to be done. Though it might seem like this movement has been around for a while, we are in fact just now entering a new frontier of personalized learning, and we need to focus our efforts on what will make a difference: technology still needs to be refined and developed (and deployed correctly); mindsets of parents, administrators, principals, superintendents and state and federal education leaders need to be changed; and research needs to be continually conducted and shared to inform what’s working and what’s not.

But what is crystally clear, especially having observed the more than 400,000 students that have benefited from the work we have done, is that students want and can’t wait any longer for our teaching and learning models to change. So we can’t wait either.

For more, see:

David Irwin is a Managing Partner at Education Elements. Follow them on Twitter: @EdElements

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