Personalized learning is gaining attention as an innovative approach to public education that could better prepare the workforce of the future. A new multimedia report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) reveals the challenges faced by some early adopters and offers critical recommendations for school districts.
The report, Personalized Learning at a Crossroads: Early Lessons from the Next Generation Systems Initiative and the Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools Initiative, examines the results of two Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded initiatives that tapped six school districts and six regional partner organizations with designing, launching, and replicating personalized school models. Drawing from more than 450 interviews with teachers, principals, superintendents, and central office district staff, classroom observations across 39 schools, and a survey of 900 educators, the authors found a wealth of information about what worked and what must change to support future success.
“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.”
While the pilots were designed to support school districts and educators in developing strategies for how to organize time, teachers, students, and instructional approaches, one key limitation was the lack of shared understanding around the why and how of personalized learning. While principals encouraged teachers to “take risks” and “fail forward,” resource constraints, bureaucratic rules, and misaligned incentives stopped educators from innovating.
Teachers who had opportunities to collaborate with peers fared better, but such collaboration was not typical, as only 12 out of 39 schools studied reported collaboration. Without direction, many teachers changed classroom structures (like seating) instead of ramping up the rigor.
The report outlines four key recommendations for school system leaders:
- Help schools get clear on the problems that must be solved and what must change to address them.
- Create flexibility in the system–at both the school and classroom levels.
- Build supports and knowledge management strategies for innovation.
- Distinguish schools that favor innovation from those that favor replication and adaptation.
Despite the challenges involved in developing a new approach to instruction, the majority of teachers interviewed were excited about personalized learning, with one noting, “This is the way we’ve always wanted to teach.” If implemented well, personalized learning could provide students better opportunities to build the skills they need after high school, but there are a range of systemic changes needed.