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Study Explores Link Between Personalized Learning and School Finances

By guest blogger Danielle Wilson

A recent analysis of a select group of newly launched charter schools shows that many of them struggled to fully implement technology-based personalized learning for financial reasons and because they struggled to obtain substantial enrollment.

Those factors forced the charters to cut technology budgets during their first year putting in place personalized learning. The schools reverted to budgetary models similar to traditional schools they were trying to differentiate themselves from, and they reduced technology costs in favor of maintaining instructors and staff, according to the research published by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, based at the University of Washington.

Of the eight schools evaluated, all of which were launched in 2012, five reduced their technology spending, seven missed their projected enrollments, and nearly all the schools experienced a significant shortage in total revenue.

The findings were published in a paper titled, "Is Personalized Learning Meeting Its Productivity Promise? Early Lessons From Pioneering Schools," which highlights early results of a two-year financial analysis being conducted by the center. The research examines how the new charter schools, which are public schools, allocate public, private and grant funding while setting up personalized learning classrooms with technology. Schools in the analysis provided five-year financial plans to the researchers, along with actual results from their planning year and first year in operation.

The schools in the study were found to have a total revenue shortfall of $250,000 or $2,000 per student per school. This was due to both a lack of public and private donations and missed student enrollment targets.

The average school received $120,600 less in predicted private donations than they thought they would collect, and they also missed out on $135,000 in public revenue due to students who did not enroll. The schools were found to have missed enrollment projections by 18 students on average. One school leader blamed an "overly optimistic" enrollment expectation for the shortfall. He believed the school placed more focus on highlighting the technology it would offer than it did work to attract parents and students unfamiliar with the school's learning model. Many parents and students were said to believe that the technology would replace classroom teachers. 

Reverting to Traditional Spending

When the charter schools' budgets became strained, school officials focused on ensuring that the jobs of teachers and staff were protected and the technology budgets were cut. This was despite the fact most of the schools did not operate with "traditional" labor agreements.  According to the analysis the sample schools told the researchers that they had originally planned to spend 34 percent of their budgets on staff and 27 percent on technology. In reality they spent 58 percent on staff and just 10 percent on technology.

Even at two schools that were in relatively good financial shape, school leaders chose to invest more heavily in personnel than in technology, the researchers found. As a result, the school did not have the kind of computers and other digital devices necessary to tailor instruction. For more perspective on personalized learning classrooms and the role of technology, see this recent Education Week story.

One school squeezed by difficult budget conditions and saved technology costs by switching from MacBook Air laptops to less expensive Chromebooks. The school also reduced the number of application purchases, and assigned purchasing authority only to teachers who had significant software experience.

Overall, the researchers concluded that five of the eight schools were operating with "structural" deficits. According to their five-year plans they planned on reducing costs in the future by increasing the student-teacher ratio from 17:1 to 23:1 on average. The schools expected the technology based learning model to compensate for the increase in class size without sacrificing the quality of instruction. This assumption did not consider the impact a decrease in the technology budget would have.

The authors of the study made several suggestions in regards to how the schools could implement personalized-learning models despite facing budget challenges. These changes included hiring lower-cost tech support, implementing a bring-your-own-device program to reduce hardware costs, delaying the hiring of staff and reducing the number of days the schools are fully staffed. It was also suggested that they partner with other schools and districts to negotiate bulk software license fees.

The 20 schools being studied are all recipients of grants from the Next Generation Learning Challenges program. The NGLC is a collaborative effort between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and various educators and technology leaders to promote technology-based personalized learning. This project is funded by the Gates foundation. The full report is expected to be published next year.

For additional coverage of the study see this story on Education Week's Charters & Choice blog.

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