Gates Foundation: Personalized Learning Pays Off


A new report by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation takes a closer look at the effects of personalized learning in schools– a trend the Foundation summarizes as both positive and promising.

The study, Early Progress, found that over the last two years, students who are studying with personal learning strategies are making greater strides in math and reading than a virtual control group of similar students.

Personalized learning is an educational approach used by teachers where specific systems, tools and methodologies are used in the creation of instruction methods to meet the needs, skills and interests of each student on an individual basis.  The goal of this method is to accelerate and deepen each student’s learning.

While personal learning is still considered to be an emerging practice, with new models and approaches and supporting technologies emerging all the time, similar approaches are constantly being implemented by early adopting schools.

The study looked at 23 public charter schools in predominantly urban locations and about 5,000 students, mainly from low-income families.

While results did vary across the 23 schools, 2/3 of the results showed a positive change in students’ math and reading scores on the Northwest Education Association’s Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessments.  Students in these schools who started the year with scores below the national average typically ended the school year with math and reading scores above the national average.

Each school varied in its implementation of personalized learning.  However, each school did use one or more of the following key practices: learner profiles, personal learning paths, competency-based progression, and flexible learning environments.  Of the teachers surveyed for this study, 2/3 said they use learner profiles and learning plans and 86% said classroom instruction is paced by student needs.

Teachers across the board had a positive attitude toward using personalized learning, as well as its impact on student success and the success of the school community.  Higher expectations in these schools are being translated into a student culture that now places more emphasis on graduating and going on to college.  “Things are changing. This year’s seniors had more drive and academic mindset than some other classes have had,” said one teacher.

The study is the first in a long-term series of reports that will focus on the variety of approaches to personalized learning used at various schools.  The research hopes to identify those features of new school models that show the most promise; to find the challenges most often faced by these schools in the implementation of the models; to discover the most critical aspects of personalized learning; and to offer independent feedback.

All of the schools to participate received funding from the Gates Foundation to be used toward personalized learning implementation.

The next phase of the study will look at 29 additional public charter and district schools.