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Personalized Learning May Boost Achievement, Charter Study Says

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By guest blogger Michelle R. Davis. Cross-posted from the Digital Education blog.

Charter schools using personalized learning approaches boosted their students' math and reading achievement significantly more than similar schools using more traditional educational techniques, according to a new report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, released Wednesday.

The study of 5,000 students in grades K-12 attending 23 charter schools over two years, completed by the RAND Corporation, was released today at the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, 2014 symposium, held in Palm Springs, Calif. Though the study could not conclusively say that personalized learning caused the achievement increases, researchers did find that the students in schools using data to customize learning had measurable improvements in reading and math over similar students in similar charter schools not using personalized instructional approaches.

"If you look at the fact that this is impacting the kids we've historically had a problem accelerating, it's got some real promise," said Vicki Phillips, the director of education, college ready, for the Gates Foundation. "It's a real glimpse of what could be possible."

The charter schools studied, mostly urban serving low-income students, all received funding, either directly or indirectly from the Gates Foundation. The philanthropy has been a backer of charters schools, among many other K-12 strategies and school models to receive its support. (Education Week receives support from the Gates Foundation for its coverage of college- and career-ready standards.)

Education Week recently took a closer look at personalized instruction in a special report, "Taking Stock of Personalize Learning," which highlights successful programs, looks at challenges and controversies emerging from efforts to customize instruction to student needs—such as questions about protecting students' data privacy—and examines the connection between personalized learning and formative testing.

Skeptics of personalized learning question whether the approaches used by schools (and aggressively marketed to them by companies) truly represent an improvement on traditional instruction—or merely an attempt to capitalize on an attractive-sounding concept. Others say that many technology-based strategies in personalized learning are in fact quite limited—and often amount to simply tailoring materials to individual students of different abilities—rather than actually giving them a choice of activities that will deepen and enrich their learning. 

Though the schools studied used personalized learning in a variety of ways, there were some consistent approaches.

Teachers in the schools had access to the latest information about each student's strengths, needs, motivations, and progress; students followed customized learning paths while being held to high standards; students' progress toward clearly-defined goals was continually assessed and students moved ahead after demonstrating mastery; and student needs drove the design of a flexible learning environment.

The Gates study determined that over two years, the students in the 23 school observed had an "effect size" of .41 in math and .29 in reading. That means that a student who would have scored in the 50th percentile in math in the control, or non-personalized, group would have scored in the 66th percentile in a school using personalized learning. Similarly, for reading, the 50th percentile student would move to the 61st percentile.

Significantly, students in schools using personalized learning instruction who started the furthest behind academically made the most significant gains, Phillips said. For example, among students who began in the bottom quartile of achievement, 79 percent showed learning gains in math greater than their peers in the control group. That number was 75 percent for reading. In the top quartile of students, those numbers were 48 percent for math and 39 percent for reading. There were positive effects across grade levels, but the effects tended to be larger in the elementary grades.

In addition, at the end of the two years, elementary and middle school students using personalized learning had scores in math on Measures of Academic Progress assessments that exceeded the national average. In reading, those scores were at or near the national average.

Researchers cautioned that the study results are preliminary and could not pinpoint what strategies had the most significant impact. 

However, by looking at student performance data, teacher logs and surveys, student surveys, and using interviews with school or district administrators, researchers also found that teachers and students believed the environment in the personalized learning schools was supportive and felt the schools had a strong focus on student learning and high expectations. Some of the obstacles reported included students' inadequate technology skills and slow internet connections or inadequate bandwidth.

The study will continue over the next several years and will add an additional 29 public charter and district schools to the mix, Phillips said.

"We don't want to wait until the study is completely done to see whether this worked or didn't. We want to share our findings with the field as things are emerging," Phillips said. "We're exhilarated by the possibilities, but we also want to be appropriately cautious...so that we ask the tough, challenging questions." 

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