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Customized Success: New Study Hints at the Power of Personalized Learning

Earlier this month, I wrote about some new brain science (sorry for the technical terminology) highlighting the potential benefits of personalized learning for children with ADHD. And as if that wasn’t interesting enough, I soon discovered another juicy piece of new research on personalized learning in charter schools.

Before I could really chow down on the wonky goodness, though, reality demanded that I detour back to Jeffco for a quick update on the district’s ongoing, still-nonsensical drama. Then Douglas County, that pesky bastion of meaningful school reform, had to go and regain its spot in the top tier of Colorado’s school accreditation system. Yeah, it was a busy couple of weeks in Colorado education.

Things have settled a bit now, so I’ve been able to sit down and devour my latest tasty wonk morsel: A study on the effects of personalized learning from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the RAND Corporation. Using test data, teacher logs, teacher surveys, student surveys, and a few interviews with administrators, the study looks at 23 charter schools that have implemented personalized learning approaches. Importantly, most of the schools included in the study are located in urban areas and have high percentages of low-income and minority students.

It’s a pretty lengthy study with a lot to say, and I encourage you to read the full report if you need something tasty to chew on. For now, though, we’ll just focus on what I think is the most important highlight: Student achievement results.

Researchers used data from the Measures of Academic Progress to compare student performance in the 23 charters to the performance of students in a “virtual comparison group” designed to allow an apples-to-apples comparison and better illustrate the unique impact of personalized learning. The findings aren’t terribly surprising:

… [S]tudents attending the schools in the study made gains in mathematics and reading over the last two years that are significantly greater than a virtually matched comparison group made up of similar students selected from comparable schools.

In other words, it looks like personalized learning approaches to teaching are helping disadvantaged kids do better in two of K-12’s most important academic areas. Surprising? No, not really. Encouraging? Absolutely. And just in case you need some more encouraging news, researchers also found:

[M]any positive developments in the schools’ environments, including positive perceptions among teachers about professional development, working conditions, and access to and use of technology that were conducive to implementing personalized learning practices.

As promising as the study’s results are, my inner edu-scholar compels me to point out its limitations. First, this is only an interim report in a larger research effort. Future reports will include more data from more schools. Second, methodological limitations prevent the study from making concrete claims about what exactly the schools are doing to achieve their results. Sadly, that means the study offers no insights into which aspects of personalized learning are the most impactful.

That said, the study does identify some consistent practices in personalized learning approaches. These include:

  • Learner profiles that provide a clear, detailed understanding of each student’s individual strengths, weaknesses, and progress.
  • Personal learning paths that allows students to chart their own educational course while maintaining high expectations.
  • Competency-based progression that sees students move forward on the basis of mastery, not default.
  • Flexible learning environments that allow schools to “mix it up” when and how they need to in order to better serve their students.

That all sounds pretty good to me. And if these early results are any indication, personalized learning should be sounding better and better to anyone who would like to see education break out of inertia and move forward. We’ll have to wait for more definitive data to make any conclusive claims, but this is certainly good news in the meantime.