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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

RAND links personalized learning to gains

At a South Carolina school that’s experimenting with personalized learning, sixth graders plan a recipe during math class. Photo: James Jason Lee/Education Week

Personalized learning produces gains in math, concludes a new RAND study of 40 schools participating in a Next Generation Learning Challenges program funded by the Gates Foundation. Improvements in reading were not statistically significant.

“On average, the students started the 2015–16 academic year below national norms and approached those norms by the end of the year,” RAND reported. “Looking at individual schools, nearly half showed significant positive effects and about one-fifth showed significant negative effects.”

Students at all achievement levels showed gains, researchers reported.

Personalized models vary significantly, researcher John Pane told The 74.

. . . pioneers of schoolwide personalized learning came from charter school networks with the flexibility to create schools that function differently than those in traditional districts. “As we look at scaling and implementing in typical schools and with pre-existing resources,” Pane says, “operating policies have not necessarily been optimized for personalized learning, making it harder to implement.”

Thirty-one schools in the study were charters, which primarily enroll low-income,  minority students. Nine were traditional schools.

“This may not work everywhere,” Pane told Education Week. While charters showed gains, some district-run schools showed drops in achievement.

In the world of K-12 education, personalized learning generally means using software and other digital technologies to tailor instruction to each student’s strengths and weaknesses, interests and preferences, and optimal pace of learning. The idea has gained significant traction with groups such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has given more than $300 million to related initiatives since 2009, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which says it intends to invest hundreds of millions of dollars annually into efforts to bring its own vision of personalized learning to scale. Research evidence to date has been thin, however.

Teachers in personalized-learning schools “frequently said they didn’t have enough time to develop customized lessons for each student,” reports Ed Week. They worried that students moved too slowly through self-paced lessons.

However, teachers said they were able to “make more time for one-on-one instruction” and work with small groups of students with similar learning needs.


Beth Hawkins, writing in The 74, describes how schools in two districts — Piedmont, Alabama and Horry County, South Carolina are experimenting with personalizing learning.

In addition, she writes, Fulton County Schools in suburban Atlanta have “rolled out not one but 94 models, customizing personalized learning for each of its schools.”

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