Personalized learning (PL) is becoming cause célèbre in education circles, drawing support from important outside influencers like RAND and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. It has the potential to revolutionize classroom practice. And a new analysis from KnowledgeWorks indicates that PL has strong support across the country, at least according to state ESSA plans. Researchers looked at all the plans submitted to the U.S. Department of Education—some of which have been approved, and some of which are still under consideration—to identify nationwide trends related to PL.

With the definition of PL an unsettled matter, KnowledgeWorks sets forth their own criteria: instruction aligned to rigorous academic standards and social-emotional skills students need to be ready for what’s next after high school; customized instruction allowing each student to design personalized learning experiences aligned to his or her interests; varied pacing of instruction based on individual student needs, which allows students to accelerate or take additional time based on their level of mastery; real-time differentiation of instruction, supports, and interventions based on data from formative assessments and student feedback; and access to clear, transferable learning objectives and assessment results so students and families understand what is expected for mastery and advancement.

KnowledgeWorks finds that most states evince one or more of the above criteria in their ESSA plans, and fully one-third of them have personalization at the core of their vision statements for K–12 education. Support for competency-based practices; a focus on readiness, social-emotional, or employability skills; and provision for multiple pathways to achieve and demonstrate readiness are the most prevalent features across state plans.

Most of the support for PL shows up in the accountability portion of state plans. Thirty-seven plans, for example, include an extended-time graduation-rate indicator that gives schools credit for successfully boosting students who need extra time to earn their diploma. Thirty-five states incorporate multiple pathways for demonstrating student readiness based on a pupils’ trajectory into career or college or military service. Twenty-five feature proficiency indicators that include growth measures, which better represent students’ true academic status. And nineteen states establish informational dashboards for families to evaluate schools and to keep track of students’ progress toward readiness via multiple indicators.

Yet personalized learning also shows up in ESSA plan sections that concern improving low-performing schools, supporting teachers, using Title IV funds, and personalizing education plans for all students. Eleven plans, for example, prioritize PL strategies as the first line of support for struggling schools. These strategies include real-time data tracking of students’ growth toward mastery, community and family engagement, and a whole-child focus that comprises wraparound services and efforts to boost social-emotional learning opportunities. In terms of teacher supports, more than fourteen states offer personalized professional development opportunities, flexible micro-credentialing, and specific training on in-class PL strategies. Twenty-one states devote portions of their Title IV dollars to social-emotional learning and whole child supports. And nineteen states ensure that all students will have personalized education plans that align to their academic needs, interests, and goals.

The news is not, however, all good for those looking for a nationwide movement toward high quality personalized learning. As KnowledgeWorks notes, the flexibility afforded by ESSA did not seem to encourage a trend toward new and better assessments. “Several states are advancing new performance-based science assessments,” they wrote, “a few are exploring local assessments, and one state is committed to more granular score reporting.” But the status quo reigns for the most part. KnowledgeWorks promises continued vigilance on this front, looking for a move toward innovative assessments with a focus less on standardization and more on personalization along with more useful and timely reporting of results. Assessments that inform students and families and guide practice must be part of successful PL. KnowledgeWorks gives props to the community engagement process required for ESSA plan development for bringing personalized learning to the fore.

It is clear that parents, policymakers, and the public are looking for education that produces well-qualified graduates across the board—young people ready and able to take on whatever challenges they choose. The proof of the pudding is in the tasting, they say. The recipe is largely here. And it’s time to get cooking.

SOURCE: “Personalized Learning and the Every Student Succeeds Act: Mapping Emerging Trends for Personalized Learning in State ESSA Plans,” KnowledgeWorks (March 2018).

Jeff Murray is a lifelong resident of central Ohio. He previously worked at School Choice Ohio and the Greater Columbus Arts Council. He has two degrees from the Ohio State University. He lives in the Clintonville neighborhood with his wife and twin daughters. He is proud every day to support the Fordham mission to help make excellent education options more numerous and more readily available for families and…

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