Personalized learning in K–12 education is at a crossroads. Its big ideas—giving students more freedom and control over their learning, allowing students to move at their own pace, and letting students’ interests and talents drive what they learn—resonate with many parents, students, and educators. Its emphasis on self-direction, agency, and complex reasoning aligns with a society and economy that increasingly rewards creativity, problem solving, and adaptability.
Although the big ideas of personalized learning draw from long-standing themes associated with progressive education, personalized learning in its current form is still a relatively new phenomenon. As Kevin Bushweller explained in a recent Education Week special report, “Opinions about what it [personalization] should, or should not, look like vary widely” in the field. RAND Corporation researcher John Pane said in the same report that the ideas behind personalization seem intuitive, but “the evidence base is very weak at this point.” Meanwhile, advocates of personalization believe in its promise but are also unsure how to best move beyond a few isolated exemplars to spread personalization to more students and schools.
To better support the spread of personalized learning, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched two ambitious initiatives in 2014: the Next Generation Systems Initiative and the Next Generation Learning Challenge Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools initiative. The foundation funded six districts and six regional partners (see below). The Foundation charged the grantees with . That is, the Foundation expected the grantees to create coherent strategies for how schools should organize time, teachers, and students and the instructional approaches they should use—an ambitious goal given the nascent state of the field and the complex problems associated with change in schools. Though the Foundation wanted this investment to generate models for personalized learning and hoped that some models (or at least the start of models) would emerge during the grant period, they and their grantees understood that this grant program was the start of a much longer effort that would continue after the grants concluded.
Next Generation Grantees
In 2015 the Gates Foundation asked the Center on Reinventing Public Education to observe these grantees through the first two years of the initiatives. Our goal was to learn more about how these districts and regions were beginning to define and pursue personalized learning and what they were learning about how to innovate around personalized learning at scale. We oriented our work around two central questions:
- How do teachers and principals go about designing and implementing personalized learning approaches?
- How do the capacities, policies, and structures in schools and districts support or impede school-level innovation and its spread?
To answer these questions, we conducted over 450 interviews with more than 300 teachers, principals, superintendents, and central office staff in 17 different towns and cities. We observed classrooms in 39 schools and held focus groups with students. We surveyed 908 teachers from the initiatives about their instruction in these schools, as well as a nationally representative sample of about 3,600 teachers, which we used as a benchmark on teacher practice. We reviewed documents pertaining to district and partner plans for implementing personalized learning and other documents generated from the initiatives.
For the majority of schools we visited, we observed the first and second years of their effort to explore personalized learning. For a small number of schools that launched later in the grant period, we only observed their first year. Accordingly, it’s important to keep in mind that our findings focus on a specific period of time in the life cycle of this innovation effort. It’s also worth noting, however, that every school, district, and partner taking up personalized learning must navigate the early stages of this ambitious work. Understanding the opportunities and challenges they may encounter is critical for identifying how systems can better support a fundamental and innovative shift in teaching and learning.
After two years of study, we learned:
Personalized learning has strong supporters in schools—and they are changing instruction. “I wish I had the opportunity to be in my own classroom as a student,” an enthusiastic elementary teacher in Florida said. “I love teaching like this,” she continued, “the students can see how excited I am, so they’re feeding off of that.” A principal of a Colorado elementary school said that personalized learning “is right for kids, and it’s not just a feeling … kids in the school are seeing growth.” In Dallas, an elementary school student said personalized learning was “not like any other kind of learning. We learn different stuff than other schools in a better way.” This enthusiasm was matched by significant effort on the part of teachers and, for some teachers, examples of interesting and exciting new practices.
“I wish I had the opportunity to be in my own classroom as a student.”Elementary school teacher in Florida
At the same time, principals let teachers define personalized learning on their own, leaving academic rigor to chance and hindering schoolwide approaches. During the course of our fieldwork, personalized learning practices rarely got beyond a handful of pilot classrooms in most of the schools we visited. In those pilot classrooms, teachers often focused on changing structures in their classrooms (e.g., seating arrangements, stations) rather than on rethinking how teachers and students engaged with academic content. At the district level, most central offices responded to personalized learning by granting schools waivers and exceptions rather than changing the system to support new approaches. At the end of two years, despite some pockets of innovation, few schools had developed replicable strategies for personalized learning as originally envisioned by the Gates Foundation.
Teachers were tasked with innovating but didn’t have the strategies or supports they needed to successfully innovate. In the end, the early stage challenges we observed in the initiatives reflect what happens when educators try to innovate—that is, discover ideas, procedures, and processes that are new to their school and use them—in systems and conditions that were not designed to support innovation. Among the challenges schools faced:
- Teachers and principals struggled to translate abstract goals into meaningful student outcomes to guide classroom practice.
- Teachers lacked useful systems and structures to learn through prototyping and iteration.
- Principals often failed to provide the coordination and guidance necessary to formalize and codify individual teacher experiments and convert them into school-level practices and principles.
- Central offices, despite encouraging schools to experiment and explore personalized learning, generally failed to fundamentally change structures, policies, and supports to facilitate innovation in schools.
Betheny Gross: Innovation vs. Implementation in Personalized Learning
In our study of personalized learning, we expected that teachers would be implementing existing models, but instead they were trying to create something new.
Implications and a Path Forward
Taken together, the experiences of the schools in the Foundation’s personalized learning initiatives followed a familiar pattern of promising practices struggling to replicate at scale across systems. For all their promise, the initiatives’ challenges through the first few years of effort underscore the difficulty of innovating inside a system that was never designed for innovation.
The lessons learned from the successes and struggles of educators, school and district leaders, and partners who participated in the initiatives suggest that leaders must do four important things to build a more strategic system to support innovation at scale.
First, districts must help leaders and teachers in schools get clear on the problems that need to be solved and what needs to change to address them by:
- setting clear goals to focus innovation
- bringing together educators to identify important problems
- reviewing the needs and contexts of their schools and treating each school as a case that needs tailored support
Second, districts must create flexibility in the system, at both the school and classroom levels, by:
- being explicit about what flexibilities already exist and identifying remaining rules and administrative practices that create specific pain points for innovating schools
- engaging all central office departments in personalized learning goals for students and ensuring they respect promised freedom of action for schools
- giving principal supervisors and principals more flexibility to consider broader outcomes in evaluation
- looking for or creating “spaces” that provide opportunities for flexibility, such as after school programs, summer school, or special purpose innovation “zones”
Third, districts must build support for adult learning and knowledge management strategies for innovation by:
- building embedded coaching supports for prototyping and iteration in schools
- creating structured support systems that help school leaders with change management
- creating and implementing a plan to collect, refine, and distribute knowledge and information with the goal of getting it in the hands of many educators
Fourth, districts must identify which principals and faculties are positioned to design new models for instruction and which are positioned to adopt and adapt existing innovative practice by:
- seeking leaders who are interested and motivated to innovate by hosting discussions about personalized learning and the system’s broader goals for students
- establishing communities of practice to recruit and support collaborative learning among teachers and leaders from several schools
- supporting a design competition for schools to map out a new personalized design
- seeking out local charter partners who are poised for innovation and open to collaboration with the school district
In light of the major social and economic changes likely on the horizon, public education must find ways to support more innovation and experimentation. As public education pivots toward a future where learning and work will look fundamentally different than it does today, personalized learning offers a path forward. But if personalized learning and other innovative approaches to improve teaching and learning are going to make the most of their potential and succeed at scale, public education must build a new strategic system for innovation. In the following sections, we elaborate findings and discuss in greater detail what the early experiences of the schools and districts we studied suggest about a building a system that is designed for innovation.
Changes the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Hoped to Support
In 2013 the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation issued a request for proposals to school systems and external regional partners to launch and expand the number of schools personalizing learning. The ambitious program recognized that achieving personalized learning at scale would require school systems to change how they organize, operate, and oversee schools. It also recognized that schools could take different approaches to personalized learning.
With that in mind, the Foundation identified four broad elements of personalization as guidance, rather than telling districts and schools to implement a specific model. These elements included:
- Learner Profiles: Captures the individual skills, gaps, strengths, weaknesses, interests, and aspirations of each student.
- Personal Learning Paths: Learning goals and objectives for each student. Learning experiences are diverse and matched to students’ individual needs.
- Individual Mastery: Continual assessment of student progress against clearly defined standards and goals. Students advance based on demonstrated mastery.
- Flexible Learning Environment: Multiple instructional delivery approaches that continuously optimize available resources in support of student learning.
In 2014 the Foundation funded six school districts, and six external organizations to partner with school districts to seed and scale personalized learning. The school districts were funded under the Next Generation Systems Initiative (NGSI), while the external organizations were funded under the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools initiative. The two initiatives supported work in different locations and did not overlap, although near the end of the grant period the Foundation twice convened leaders from both initiatives to discuss their work.
Both initiatives were committed to helping schools design personalized learning models to replicate across a district or region. Grantees were expected to have 1 percent of their students enrolled in schools with personalized learning models by the 2015-2016 school year, and 10 percent by 2018-2019. Grantees also were expected to reshape school district policies and functions to support their new personalized learning models. This system-level focus was a departure from the Foundation’s earlier investments in personalized learning in individual schools (often charter schools).