5 Lessons Other Districts Can Take Away From Latest Rand Personalized Learning Study of Small High Schools

Those frustrated by the slow accretion of hard evidence about personalized learning can take comfort in one thing: Studies of the model released to date may be limited and inconclusive, but for the most part they are identifying the same strengths and roadblocks.

The most recent entry is a RAND Corp. early evaluation of a Carnegie Corporation of New York effort to create and monitor new high schools featuring both high levels of personalization and positive youth development, known as the Opportunity by Design initiative.

In 2014, RAND began tracking 10 district schools that are part of the initiative and that opened in either the 2014–15 or 2015–16 school year. The programs are small high schools in traditional districts, including Denver; Providence, Rhode Island; and Prince George’s County, Maryland.

“Designing Innovative High Schools” reports on their progress observed over the first two years. Researchers will be able to analyze data on academic performance and other markers in late 2018 or 2019, when the evaluation period ends and scores from tests that measure fall-to-spring academic growth are available.

RAND (Text)

The September 2017 interim report, meanwhile, jibes with feedback collected by other personalized learning researchers, including a different set of RAND researchers who in July found modest but promising results in a set of schools receiving Gates Foundation Next Generation Learning Challenges grants in Alabama and South Carolina, among other places.

Here are five top takeaways from the latest look:

Quality curriculum is scarce. Teachers agree students are more engaged when given the opportunity to apply what they learn to real-world problems. And technology is one avenue that enables teachers to facilitate this, tailoring lessons to student passions and skills in development. But materials — particularly online resources — are often low-quality and not in line with the new academic standards recently adopted by many states.

Although teachers told RAND they like this aspect of teaching in an Opportunity by Design school, they also say they need more time and support to find good alternatives.

“A lot of teachers enjoy this,” researcher Laura Hamilton told The 74 in an interview. “It’s a way for them to apply their professional knowledge and creativity.”

Like its predecessors, the new report suggests that identifying good curricula is an arena in which support from district staff or an “intermediary” organization is crucial.

Assessing mastery is also a challenge. One of the schools’ chief design principles, determining when students have mastered a topic and are ready to move on, continues to be difficult. Just as quality curriculum is in short supply, reliable tools for gauging student understanding are hard to find.

Teachers also report feeling pulled in conflicting directions. The concept of basing student advancement on competency is geared toward allowing some students to move ahead at a quicker pace while others, who may be years behind in core subjects, master missing skills. Yet teachers still feel pressure to prepare students for annual state assessments of grade-level proficiency.

Teacher hiring and retention are crucial. If only because of the novelty of the model, teachers with experience in both personalization and youth development, a kind of social-emotional learning, are in short supply. This is particularly true when it comes to teachers licensed in high-demand areas, such as math, science and engineering.

Although all are part of traditional school districts, the majority of the schools in the study sample have the freedom to work around contracts to hire teachers who have the right skills and are motivated to work in a personalized setting. Those that must hew to district hiring rules face additional hurdles, researchers found.

One frustrating result: Teachers too often sacrifice time set aside to collaborate and refine their classroom strategies to cover for vacant positions.

Principals crave mentoring and coaching. Carnegie worked with an organization called Springpoint: Partners in School Design to help principals build capacity for leading their schools. Springpoint organized structured tours of different Opportunity by Design schools and consulted with individual schools, providing technical assistance. This support was extremely valuable, principals told RAND, in terms of thinking through the challenges presented by the principle of mastery.

It’s important to keep in mind, Hamilton emphasizes, that not only are the schools in question trying to implement new models, they are also busy trying to deal with the endless challenges that come with simply being a new school.

“It’s very hard to start a school from scratch,” she says. “There are a lot of challenges that are more mundane than designing a personalized learning curriculum.”

Students don’t yet own their learning. One of the tenets of personalized learning is that students should both be empowered to help design their educations and accountable for understanding what steps they need to take to meet an academic goal, such as a particular college entrance score or career certification.

While numbers varied by school, about one-fourth of students in the 10 programs studied were unsure whether they were on track to graduate from high school. Schools’ data systems are good for enabling students to track whether particular lessons meet learning standards, but don’t do enough to help students put that information into context or use it for long-term planning.

Student focus groups, Hamilton concludes, provide “grounds for optimism.”

“We heard a lot of students who appreciated having the opportunity to work on something that was tailored to their interests, participating in decisions and having a voice in how the school is run,” she says. “These are things that are important to the non-academic skills they will need.”

Disclosure: The Carnegie Corporation of New York also provides funding to The 74.

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