Four Personalized Learning Essentials

By: | 01/29/2021
Categories: Data Culture, Distance Learning, Instruction, Leadership

The past year ushered a seismic shift in the adoption of technology in K–12 education. From Zoom™ to Google Classroom to TikTok®, teachers and districts across the country invested in tools and trainings to level up their tech fluency and engage students. And as demand for EdTech solutions surged, investors jumped in on the action. In fact, according to EdSurge, in 2020, US education technology raised more than $2.2 billion in funding. With money pouring in, it seemed personalized learning finally had a fair shot at proving its worth.

Despite the promises of EdTech transforming how students learn, change in K–12 personalized learning has been, at best, incremental. Edtech innovation in 2020 was largely focused on serving families with the means to afford such services, leaving teachers largely out of the equation. If anything, the pandemic has shined a light on the fact that technology itself is not a panacea, and any serious plan to address learning loss must be centered around the needs of both students and teachers.

So, How Are Teachers Feeling at This Moment?

A national survey of teachers conducted by Curriculum Associates in the first half of the 2020–2021 school year* revealed that while teachers remain confident in their ability to connect with students, confidence in their ability to address unfinished learning has been eroding since the start of the school year. But what factors should an educator consider to mitigate the disruption in learning? One important consideration should be a reevaluation of their personalized learning tools.

Educator Sentiment
(% Somewhat/Strongly Agree)

Graph showing teachers' confidence in addressing unfinished learning.
The percentage of teachers who were confident in their ability to address unfinished learning decreased from 73 percent in September to 61 percent in December. The trend of declining confidence was consistent across in-person, hybrid, and virtual settings.

Four Personalized Learning Essentials

1. Promote Grade-Level Proficiency

Teachers are sorting through myriad approaches to address unfinished learning, but any approach must be rooted in a common understanding of the goal: grade-level proficiency. While conventional goal setting such as, “a year’s worth of growth” or “the 50th percentile of growth” helped us understand if students were tracking with peers, they generally didn’t help us understand if students were closing in on the goal of grade-level proficiency. If we track students to normative goals, based on historic averages (e.g., average or 50th percentile), they will tend to hover around the average indefinitely and will inevitably “stick” at a level of performance even further below grade level. Unfortunately, goals like this put students on a never-ending path of remediation that never actually gets them to grade-level proficiency, which can serve to perpetuate systemic marginalization of certain learner groups.

If we agree that grade-level work is the right goal for all learners, then growth goals that are grounded in averages are not the right starting place. In a year during which students from under-served backgrounds started out significantly behind, “average-growth” goals will prove insufficient.

Each student should have a goal that is both realistic and ambitious. Realistic means it’s obtainable—something we know is possible with the right level of support. Ambitious means it helps the student close in on proficiency. Even if proficiency is not attainable within one academic year, it needs to be every students’ North Star.

Despite the promise of #Edtech transforming how students learn, #K12 personalized learning has largely remained the same. To help teachers tackle unfinished learning, consider these 4 #personalizedlearning tech essentials.

2. Save Teachers Instructional Planning Time

A recent report by the Christensen Institute found that 85 percent of teachers spend more time on preparation and planning now than they did last year. When teachers spent more time creating, curating, and adapting materials for remote instruction, they had less time for things like connecting personally with students and their families, learning best practices for remote instruction or student-centered learning.

A comprehensive system that combines student data, instructional resources, and personalized learning tools reduces complexity, saves teachers time, and makes differentiated instruction achievable in every classroom.

To amplify a teacher’s capacity, a learning system must:

  • Segment students to facilitate connection points across similar student characteristics.
  • Identify prerequisite skills along the continuum of learning.
  • Strategically scaffold to introduce key concepts in accessible ways.
  • Deliver lesson plans that help teachers plan for small group, classroom, and 1:1 instruction.

3. Engage and Motivate ALL Students Equitably

The best-laid growth goals and strongest lesson plans fall short of addressing unfinished learning if they fail to engage students. Engagement is not about getting a student’s attention—it's about helping students find their spark and passion in learning.

Richard Ryan & Edward Deci, (2000), have identified four key characteristics to support student engagement:

  • Autonomy
  • Self-Efficacy
  • Relatedness
  • Relevance

Every personalized learning experience may not have all these elements at once but striving to have all four is key. If students have autonomy, self-efficacy, relatedness, and relevance during their personalized instruction, it will have a collective impact on their learning.

Additionally, students should have personalized learning experiences that are culturally and linguistically responsive—they reflect their own cultural experiences and that of others. When teachers use materials that feature content about various races, appearances, etc., students can make connections to backgrounds of their own lived experiences and to those of others. As classrooms continue to see notable shifts in student demographics and access to technology, this important aspect of personalized learning should not be neglected.

Distance-Learning Success

Since the beginning of distance learning, 95 percent of West Homestead K–8 Center students were logging on and regularly using their i-Ready Personalized Instruction. Learn how a group of committed Florida educators went above and beyond to overcome the digital divide, deliver a successful spring 2020 i-Ready Diagnostic remotely, and ensure learning continued for their students.


4. Expand Teachers’ Data Literacy and Instructional Toolbox

We know that teachers need timely insights on student performance to inform lesson planning and adjust instruction to meet student needs. When done effectively, the use of data to differentiate instruction not only helps students learn but also deepens teachers' own content knowledge and improves their instructional skills.

This type of adult learning helps deepen conceptual understanding of the core content they teach in the classroom. When teachers use data to support instructional next steps, they continuously deepen their own understanding of common student misconceptions, learning progressions, and insightful ways of scaffolding content.

When teachers can better frame learning experiences for students and personalize instruction based on data, we know engagement increases and student learning grows. To do so, teachers must start with the end in mind. They should be able to articulate what content and skills students must master prior to the end of a unit of study. If teachers don’t know where they are going, they may or may not get there. And, if the goal is for all students to succeed, teachers and students must embrace lifelong learning with a growth mindset.


*Curriculum Associates National Monthly Teacher Climate Survey. Data collected from random national sample of teachers each month from September 2020 to December 2020.

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Teacher and students sitting on the floor.

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Curriculum Associates’ grants and funding team has assembled resources to help educators and administrators make sense of new federal funding sources, plan for summer school, and understand how our programs meet funding requirements. 

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