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The Power of Personalized Learning for School Improvement

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Personalized learning is on the rise in the American classroom, but let’s be honest: much of the interest has been driven by hope, wishful thinking, and platitudes about the needs of “digital natives.”

But now, with over half a decade of on-the-ground implementation to examine, the buzz around personalized learning is being justified by more than just hope. Hard data and peer-reviewed research are confirming the great potential of a well-implemented personalized learning model for creating rich, engaging learning environments that result in dramatic improvements in student achievement—and this research is informing everything that occurs in the personalized classroom.

Perhaps most prominent among this research—and one that is helping drive current classroom practice—is a study called The Turnaround Challenge, which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In the study, school improvement experts described what they saw as the most effective personalized learning model, where instruction is organized around:

…a short feedback loop of formative assessment, adapted instruction, further formative assessment, and further adapted instruction… The evidence from HPHP effective-practice research on this strategy is overwhelming: Chenoweth’s recent case studies (2007), [1] the CPE/Caliber Associates research review (2005), [2] Marzano’s meta-analysis of research on student achievement (2000) [3], and most individual studies cite this kind of feedback-based instruction as having profound impact on student achievement.[4]

Research-Informed Innovations

Since the 2007 publication of The Turnaround Challenge, educational technology has blossomed to offer new, research-informed innovations for transforming traditional school models, redesigning education with “next generation learning [that] is blended, personalized, and competency-based.” [5] As blended learning experts explain, “an important part of student-centered learning is that students develop a sense of agency and ownership for their progress and a subsequent ability to guide their learning.” [6]

These blended learning models offer students unique pathways—different paths towards common standards-based learning targets—and voice and choice in how they learn. Guided by their own goals and standards-based learning targets, a personalized learning platform allows students to co-construct learning sequences based on learning preferences. Students map their own learning path, scaffolded by real-time feedback, multimodal learning tools, interventions, and continuously adapted instruction.

Personalized Learning Success

With support from Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), personalized learning experts from The Getting Smart Team recently published a study of 14 NGLC grant recipients called Lighting the Path to Personalized Learning: Inspiring Stories from Next Gen Schools. More specifically, these schools are designed to “improve the nature of student outcomes dramatically” [7]by combining the best of face-to-face and online instruction to meet “high expectations for college readiness, personalized learning for all students, and a school model optimized to scale."[8] For example, they profile Nolan Elementary-Middle School, a low-performing, high poverty school in Detroit, Michigan that was taken over by the state’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA). Collaborating with personalized learning providers Agilix and School Improvement Network, along with the Michigan Excellence in Education Foundation, the EAA developed a blended, student-centered model driven by a strong pedagogical vision, a powerful personalized learning platform, and great teaching in every classroom. Authors Michael Horn and Heather Staker note the impressive and promising results in their new book, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools (2015). Citing state test scores, they note “at the end of its first year of turnaround, 71 percent of students at Nolan achieved one or more years of growth in reading and 61 percent in Math. Nolan ranked third out of 124 Detroit schools in reading growth."[9]

Transformation Driven by Professional Support for Teachers

An array of research studies have documented the diversity of blended models and their success, with most studies, including large meta analyses, showing modest gains in student achievement.[10]  However, with new emerging models designed from the ground-up for personalized learning, the potential of these resources is unleashed. For example, in a blended learning study released in April 2015 by the Evergreen Education Group and Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, the profile for Spring City Elementary Hybrid Learning School in Pennsylvania highlights unprecedented improvements, with state test score gains in all grades and subjects. “Between 2013 and 2014, the percentage of students scoring at ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ levels on reading scores on the PSSA rose 19 points to 82.9%, math scores rose 24 points to 85.4%, and science scores rose 27 points to 90%.” Most significantly, the highest gains were for students with IEPs.[11]

With these types of impressive gains, however, it is important to remember that both Nolan and Spring City did more than just implement technology and curriculum—they drove a transformation to personalized learning by leading their teachers with a strong pedagogical vision, supported by professional development training and ongoing coaching to help teachers take pedagogical shifts into real practice. Experienced blended learning leaders emphasize:

The key to transformation lies in nurturing and supporting teachers as learners and leaders. The very qualities, skills and characteristics that we seek to nurture and develop in our students are those we must first nurture and develop in our teachers. Creatively structuring time for professional development, including job-embedded learning, and focusing on leadership opportunities for teachers are essential if we are to transform our educational system.[12]

Excellent teachers lead to excellent outcomes and this remains true in the personalized learning classroom. These findings from blended learning experts underscore the importance of selecting a facilitated transformation process, with ongoing, job-embedded professional development support focused on the pedagogical strategies in personalized learning that lead to student success.

The conclusions from both school improvement experts and new blended learning research is clear – personalized learning is powerful. New intelligent technology, designed from the ground up to support personalized learning, empowers and engages students while freeing teachers to further individualize instruction, intervention, and feedback.


[1]Chenoweth, K. (2007). It’s Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

[2]CPE/Caliber Associates. (2005). Research Review: High-performing, High-poverty Schools. Retrieved from Center for Public Education website: http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org.

[3]Marzano, R. J. (2000). A New Era of School Reform: Going Where the Research Takes Us. Retrieved from Beresford,

[4]Calkins et al., The Turnaround Challenge.See pg. 35.

[5]Mead, M., Schneider, C., Vander Ark, C., & Vander Ark, T. (2014, November). Lighting the Path to Personalized Learning: Inspiring Stories from Next Gen Schools. Retrieved February 13, 2015, from Getting Smart: http://gettingsmart.com/publication/lighting-path-personalized-learning/. See pg. 4.

[6] Horn, M. B., & Staker, H. (2015). Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. See pg. 10.

[7]Mead et al. Lighting the Path to Personalized Learning. See p. 5.

[8]Ibid. See pg. 4.

[9]Horn & Staker. Blended.

[10]For example, a blog post from EdWeek.org April 13, 2015 is entitled, “Blended Research: The Seven Studies You Need to Know.” Accessed April 21, 2015 from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/DigitalEducation/2015/04/blended_learning_research_the.html?utm_source=feedblitz&utm_medium=FeedBlitzRss&utm_campaign=digitaleducation-educationweek

[11]Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation and Evergreen Education Group. (2015, April). Proof Points: Blended Learning Success in School Districts: Spring City Elementary Hybrid Learning School. Retrieved April 22, 2015, from Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation: http://www.christenseninstitute.org/publications/proof-points/. See pg. 2.

[12]Mead et al., Lighting the Path to Personalized Learning. See pg. 51.

This article was sponsored by School Improvement Network and not written by the EdSurge editorial staff.
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