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The Cost of Personalized Learning? Six Figures, Then Status Quo

Shifting to a personalized-learning model requires that schools make a six-figure upfront investment, more than 40 percent of which is likely to go to technology, according to a new analysis of six "breakthrough" Chicago  district and charter schools.

After that one-time infusion of resources, though, it's possible for schools to sustain such new approaches with only nominal changes in how much money they spend on both ed tech and people, the analysis found.

The real long-term changes come in how schools organize their work, said Katie Morrison-Reed, the director of Afton Partners, a consulting group that provides financial analysis for schools and education organizations.

"If I look at a financial statement, there's not a lot of change in line-item spending," Morrison-Reed said in an interview.

"But if you drill down deeper, schools are shifting the focus of what's happening within those line items."

The analysis is part of a new report, titled "Sustaining Innovation & Preparing for Scale: Financial Sustainability and Analysis of Personalized Learning School Models," released Tuesday by Afton Partners and LEAP Innovations, a nonprofit that supports personalized learning.

The focus is on six Chicago public schools that are involved with the Breakthrough Schools Chicago initiative, which is part of the larger Next Generation Learning Challenges effort. Launched in 2013, the Chicago initiative, which includes a total of 22 schools, is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Chicago Public Education Fund, and others.

The schools included in the Afton study each take a different approach to personalized learning. Common elements include personalized learning paths, flexible learning spaces, teachers who collaborate across grade levels, and a focus on keeping student-teacher ratios relatively low. There's also a big role for technology, including adaptive software that adjusts content according to each students' strengths and weaknesses, and data systems that aim to provide teachers and administrators with real-time information for decision-making.

The schools received between $338,000 and $780,000 in one-time start-up costs, the Afton Partners analysis found. The breakdown of how that money was spent: 

  • 41 percent on technology, including devices, software, and infrastructure
  • 21 percent on teacher professional development
  • 11 percent on stipends and bonuses for teachers
  • 10 percent on instructional support staff (other than teachers)
  • 6 percent on consultants
  • 4 percent on administration

Morrison-Reed described  that startup funding as a one-time bump.

In subsequent years, all of the schools were able to sustain their approaches based on their regular funding levels from public sources, with the breakdown of how money was spent mostly returning to normal.

Prior to undertaking their personalized-learning experiments, for example, the schools sent an average of $125 per pupil on technology. In the first year of their transitions, that figure jumped to $187 per pupil. By year five, though, technology spending had fallen back down to $140 per pupil. 

Spending on staffing followed a similar pattern.

While schools' budgets didn't change dramatically, how they spent time did. 

After moving to a personalized-learning model, teachers in the schools did more collaborative planning, had more access to outside experts, spent more time in one-on-one conferences with students, the report found.

One barrier to change: principals lacked the flexibility to create new career pathways and compensation schedules for teachers moving into leadership roles.

The findings broadly mirror the results of a similar analysis undertaken in 2016 by the Center on Reinventing Public Education. 

"There's not necessarily a 'right' cost of personalized learning," Morrison-Reed said. "But there a few things to keep in mind. The resourcing level you're starting from, the complexity of your model, and your willingness to work with what's available rather than buying all the new fancy bells and whistles all matter."


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