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Credit: Nichole Dobo

Traditional school districts that attempt to bring a new model of education that provides personally designed lessons for students often face conflicting priorities that make it difficult to follow through, according to a new report released Tuesday.

And schools should not expect a dramatic or sudden increase in math and reading test scores, according to the new research from RAND Corporation.

“It’s not going to be a slam dunk win right off the bat,” said John Pane, distinguished chair in education innovation and senior scientist at RAND.

The researchers from RAND tracked 31 charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, and nine traditional school districts. They served many low-income and minority children. All but two of the schools were in urban areas. All of the schools participated in a program that is meant to support something called personalized learning.

Personalized learning is an amorphous phrase that can be difficult to talk about without first defining the terms. Most researchers say personalized learning isn’t merely personal attention; it provides students with custom-fit lessons and takes into consideration students’ interests and pacing preferences. Some schools use a lot of technology to create and deliver custom-fit lessons, while others use technology sparingly in favor of more human interaction.

“For personalized learning to achieve its promise it has to run for several years. It is not going to work if people abandon it after a few years.”

The new report from RAND follows a 2015 study of personalized learning that generally found more positive results. The earlier research included some of the leading pioneers in personalized learning, such as Summit Public Schools and Rocketship Education. The new report includes a more diverse subset of schools that are not part of big networks. In other words, it might provide a more clear-eyed look at how personalized learning strategies play out in typical public schools.

The new report from RAND found that traditional schools tended to run into roadblocks more often than charter schools did. Part of this could be organizational issues. For instance, charter school teachers were more likely to say they customized lessons for students and gave the children the ability to study at their own pace. However, the sample size was small, so it’s difficult to draw a conclusion; more research is needed to confirm if this is happening more broadly.

Related: Tipping point: Can Summit put personalized learning over the top?

Pane said that more time is also needed to fully understand if the method will work in schools beyond the early adopters. This allows time to iron out the implementation and fully see the effects.

“For personalized learning to achieve its promise it has to run for several years,” Pane said. “It is not going to work if people abandon it after a few years.”

The educators in the study tended to report they were using more practices that focused on the individual needs of students, including one-on-one, custom-fit support for students, use of current data to measure student progress, allowing students to track their learning and making flexible use of classroom space. However, educators in the study reported difficulty with implementing other aspects associated with personalized learning, such as allowing student choice of topics studied and materials used, and using up-to-date information on student strengths and goals.

The differences in this latest study from the rosier 2015 report on personalized learning point to the challenges that schools will face if they attempt to replicate a school model made popular by early adopters.

“What I hope happens is people see this is a promising approach, but it requires a lot of things to fall into place for it to work right,” Pane said. “People need to have patience; they need to do it a while. Teachers and students need to get used to it.”

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