Report: “Personalized learning” shows promise, but barriers remain

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Valor fifth-graders discuss how they are going to make their school the best in Nashville during an all-school morning meeting, which is held daily.

“Personalized learning” is in — the Tennessee Department of Education has an office dedicated just to the approach. But just what makes learning “personalized,” let alone whether such programs work, is less clear.

A new report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the RAND Corporation aims to define and analyze the performance of schools focused on personalized learning. It concludes that while early personalized learning efforts are promising, there remain practical and systemic barriers to expanding programs that aim to tailor instruction to individual students’ needs and skills.

“It seems theoretically like a good idea to let children work at their own pace and continue working on things until they get mastery on a topic,” said John Pane, a senior scientist at the RAND Corporation who led research for the report. “But it’s important to see if these schools did produce stronger takeaways than traditional schools.”

On that question, the report, ”Early Progress: Interim Report on Personalized Learning,” is cautiously optimistic. Researchers from RAND found that students in 23 personalized learning schools  did better on a computer-based reading and math assessment known as MAP than peers in a control group, and students who started out behind were even more likely to show growth.

But the report specifies that it’s not yet clear whether the personalized learning programs are responsible for the gains. Other elements of the schools — all charter schools that use technology in instruction — might help explain the scores, the report notes.

“Clearly it’s not harming students,” Pane said. “And it might be a possible explanation for why they’re doing well. We need to do more work to decide.”

The researchers looked at schools that had been using personalized learning programs for at least two years and had gotten funding from the Gates Foundation or other philanthropies to support technology, professional development, and other elements of personalized learning, but each had designed its program independently. (Chalkbeat also receives funding from the Gates Foundation.)

Although not all of the features were in place at every school studied, researchers found that the schools tended to use

  • “Learner profiles,” or records with details about each student;
  • Personalized learning plans for each student (students have the same expectation but have a “customized path”;
  • Competency-based progression, in which students receive grades based on their own mastery of subjects rather than on tests that all students take; and
  • Flexible learning environments, in which teachers and students have physical space and time in the schedule for small-group instruction or tutoring.

The report highlights advantages of personalizing learning beyond boosting test scores. Most teachers in the schools reported that they felt supported by administrators and that their professional development helped them tailor lessons to students’ needs.

It also highlights areas where teachers said their schools’ personalized learning efforts fell short. Fully half of teachers said the training they got took up more time than it was worth, and only a third said they got data about their students’ performance in subjects other than math and reading.

Vicki Phillips, who heads the Gates Foundation’s U.S. education division, said the results “give us a sense of what’s possible.”

“We have a lot more to learn and a broader band of schools to see if this is more effective — and a lot more to do to really isolate what works,” she said. “But if we don’t talk about it, we don’t grow or mature as a field.”

Personalized learning is a central approach at several Tennessee schools, particularly in the charter sector. Green Dot, which just opened its first Memphis school this year, says the approach is the backbone of all of its schools. And Valor Collegiate Academy, a Nashville charter school, cites personalized learning as part of what makes the school unique. “Every scholar is different, but all are wired for greatness,” the school’s website says

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”