Rand Corporation just released the latest in its Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-sponsored research series on personalized learning. I’ve seem some good reporting on the study but also plenty of spinning of the findings by advocates (pro and con). In cases such as these, there is no substitute for actually doing the work and reading the study. While I may revisit the study (or series) in future posts, my purpose today is to share one counterintuitive finding (to me) reported in the study:

Students in Personalized Learning Programs Feel Less Positive About School Than Students in Other Schools

The data (from Figure 8 “Students’ opinions about their school environment” on page 24 in the section entitled, “What Does Personalized Learning Look Like, and How Does It Differ from Practices in Schools Nationally?”):

This figure shows that students in schools implementing personalized learning – by virtue of a receiving a Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) grant – are less likely to report feeling safe in school, less likely to report that there is at least one adult in the school that knows them well, and less likely to say they feel like they are an important part of their school community.

These are among the few data points reported in the descriptive section of the report that ran counter to the narrative I expected to read. And, I have to admit to wondering if these data points were in some way an anomaly or insignificant (statistically speaking). Perhaps it was an artifact of how the study sample or national comparison group was drawn? Unfortunately, the description of the study methods were insufficient to answer these questions.

So, I changed my tack and decided to review a prior report in the same series (done by the same principal investigator and published in November 2015) to see if this was indeed a pattern.

Lo and behold (from Chart 9 “Students at personalized learning schools reported perceptions that were generally different from a national sample of students”on page 33 in the section entitled, “National Comparison of Survey Results”):

This figure shows that students in personalized learning programs are statistically less likely to report enjoying and feeling comfortable in school; feeling engaged in and enjoying schoolwork; and…well, to be honest, I don’t really understand the label for the last construct. Thankfully, the 2015 report appendices (Appendix 3 in this case) do report details on the items that make up these three scales:


This seems significant and worthy of further study:

  • Do personalized learning programs actually feel less personal to students?
  • Do students in personalized learning programs like their schools and schoolwork less than students in other schools?
  • Are any gains in student outcomes worth the costs to student attitudes toward schools and learning?
  • How can personalized learning programs better attend to students feelings of less connectedness, support, and safety?

My working assumption reading the report was that advocates would argue that students in personalized learning programs – by virtue of increased choice and customization – would like schoolwork and school more and hence feel more connected to their schools. While some may argue that these sorts of affective characteristics don’t really matter if student academic outcomes are demonstrably better in personalized learning programs, in the real world they do. It affects parent and educator support for implementation – initially and over time.

Indeed, an education reform that works is one that is sustainable over time.