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Personalized Learning a Big Challenge in High School Redesign, RAND Finds

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Personalized learning is hard.

For the ed-tech community, that, again, is the takeaway from new research by the RAND Corporation.

This time, the findings come from an early-stage evaluation of "Opportunity By Design" high schools, which are funded and supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The schools share 10 common "design principles," including a heavy emphasis on personalization (defined as tailoring student experiences to meet individuals' needs and interests) and mastery-based learning (defined as expecting students to demonstrate deep understanding of rigorous standards before advancing.)

The schools faced numerous hurdles in turning those ideals into classroom realities, said Laura S. Hamilton, an associate director of RAND Education and one of the study's authors.

"There are a lot of challenges to doing this work well," Hamilton said, including "a lot that's not currently under the control of schools."

The RAND team did find positive signs. The schools they studied had clear missions. Teachers and students alike reported an emphasis on key features of mastery-based and personalized learning, such as providing opportunities for students to work with particular material until they fully understood it. There were also examples of creative use of data to customize instruction.

But the report, titled "Designing Innovative High Schools: Implementation of the Opportunity by Design Initiative After Two Years," offers a detailed account of the early obstacles the schools have faced.

Chief among them: 

  • Lack of time for teachers to create or find lessons and learning materials that are differentiated for each student.
  • External pressure to move students towards graduation, whether they had mastered material or not.
  • Inconsistent expectations for what "mastery" means.
  • Inconsistent access to high-quality data about what students know and can do.
  • Lack of quality online learning materials.

Such challenges broadly mirror the barriers faced by other personalized-learning efforts, including a separate cohort of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded schools that RAND is also evaluating.

"These results are very preliminary, but they do provide a valuable assessment of what is going on at the classroom level, including daily challenges and possible solutions," said JoEllen Lynch, the executive director of Springpoint Partners in School Design, an independent nonprofit that is providing technical assistance to the Opportunity by Design Schools.

"This will inform our work, and we hope, provide lessons for the field as more and more schools employ these types of approaches," Lynch said.

Redesigning High School

The Carnegie Corporation launched the Opportunity by Design initiative in 2013. The goal is to spur development of innovative high school models in high-poverty areas.

Participating schools are expected to embrace a wide range of shared design principles, ranging from having a clear mission to adopting a mindset of "continuous improvement."

The new RAND evaluation focuses on 10 Opportunity by Design schools that opened during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years. Findings come from classroom observations; interviews and focus groups with dozens of principals, teachers, and students; and surveys of more than 1,000 students.

The focus is on three "power principles" emphasized within the Opportunity by Design framework: Mastery-based learning, personalization, and positive youth development.

The first of those two are likely to be of especially high interest to the education-technology sector. Backed by major philanthropists and investors such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, the ed-tech industry has aggressively pushed the idea of "personalized learning." But on the ground, the concept remains nebulous, and research evidence remains thin.

In July, for example, RAND released the latest findings from its ongoing evaluation of 40 personalized-learning schools that have received funding via an initiative called Next Generation Learning Challenges.

Those schools showed modest gains in math and reading scores. But the researchers also found a wide variety of management and instructional practices, as well as a host of barriers to personalization.

Many of those same challenges also showed up in the Opportunity by Design schools.

For example, almost two-thirds of teachers said lack of time was an obstacle to creating learning materials that were tailored to each student.

Teachers and principals also consistently reported feeling pressure to move students along through the curriculum and toward graduation, whether or not they had actually mastered the material they were learning.

And some teachers described difficulties with getting students to attend school, complete their work, and turn assignments in on time.

Together, such factors in some cases contributed to an over-reliance on software and online curricula—despite a widespread worry that the digital tools available weren't providing solid learning experiences for students. 

"Although many teachers we interviewed were concerned that the online curricula in their schools were of low quality, utilizing [such curricula] seems to be the only approach thus far that allowed students to truly progress...at their own pace," the report says.

Defining "Mastery"

Other details from the new RAND report shed new light on the challenges associated with personalized- and mastery-based learning.

In some cases, the very notion of "mastery" itself proved problematic.

Educators, for example, said they often struggled to find effective ways to regularly assess whether students had actually learned content, sometimes turning to standard worksheets and short quizzes for lack of better options.

Standards for what counted as "mastery" varied from school to school, and sometimes from student to student.

And the children in the Opportunity by Design schools weren't always receptive to teachers' attempts to explain why "demonstrating mastery" was the new coin of the realm.

"Students often became upset when they perceived that they were given more, or different, work than others," the report reads.

Furthermore, giving students the opportunity to choose what topics they pursued and instructional materials they used in class was not a regular point of emphasis. It was often difficult for teachers to find high-quality curricula that was differentiated to students' varying ability levels.

And the use of technology tools within the Opportunity by Design schools was "all over the place," Hamilton said.

"There's a pretty steep learning curve when you're adjusting your practice to teach in a more innovative, tech-based environment," she said. "We need to be thinking about whether teachers have the training, support, and time they need to implement these models and use these tools."

Encouraging Signs

Despite all the obstacles, the RAND team also saw plenty to encourage proponents of personalized- and mastery-based learning:

  • Most teachers and students said that the new models were taking root, despite the challenges. Fifty-six percent of students said they were required to show they understood a topic before moving on.
  • 89 percent of teachers reported a heavy-to-moderate emphasis on using a wide variety of class materials and instructional approaches to accommodate students' individual needs and interests.
  • The strong majority of teachers also said they emphasized adapting course content to meet students' needs (80 percent) and frequently regrouping students (74 percent.)
  • Three of the Opportunity by Design schools found that assigning more than one instructor to a classroom "appeared to facilitate personalized approaches."
  • The Opportunity by Design schools that opened in the second year of the initiative also seemed to face fewer challenges than the first cohort of schools, with teachers saying they felt better prepared and perceived fewer obstacles.

There were also positive signs on some of the design principles not having directly to do with personalization and mastery. Staff and students reported positive school climates, for example, as well as strong partnerships with community-based organizations.

"Overall, we're encouraged that these school's grassroots efforts have gotten as much traction as RAND describes, despite a lack of off-the-shelf tools and the challenges associated with being one of the first out of the gate," said Lynch of Springpoint Design Partners.

"This is a nascent initiative, but we feel that there is a strong foundation to build upon."

(Photo credit: Getty Images)


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