Date: 
Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Technology-Based Personalized-Learning Schools Could Fall Short on Productivity Promise

New analysis shows fiscal challenges of implementing personalized-learning models in schools

Seattle, WA - Schools that attempt to personalize student learning by blending computer-based and teacher-led instruction promise to help educators meet children’s individual needs by allowing schools to organize and prioritize staff and technology in more productive ways. But a new fiscal analysis of personalized-learning schools finds that early difficulty forecasting enrollment and revenue can undermine the full implementation of their model.

According to a new policy brief by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington, eight pioneering new charter schools that implemented personalized learning this year grappled with missed enrollment and revenue projections and ended up spending less on technology, and more on personnel, than planned.

“The schools we studied planned to allocate their budgets differently than traditional public schools in order to support their vision of personalized learning,” said lead author Larry Miller, a senior research fellow at CRPE who is leading the study. “But when budgets got tight and cuts were necessary, these schools cut spending on technology, protected spending on staff, and ended up using their resources like the schools they were trying to differentiate themselves from.”

CRPE is midway through a two-year cost study of 20 personalized-learning schools chosen to receive competitive start-up grants as part of the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) initiative. The study examines how the schools allocate their resources, how they manage the new costs of technology, and whether they can become financially sustainable on public revenues.

The eight schools included in the analysis published today have struggled to fully implement their model in several ways:

  • Enrollment and revenue projections were often off the mark, with fewer students and fewer dollars than expected (an average of $250,000 less per school).
  • The eight schools studied had planned on spending a combined $1.7 million on technology in the early stages, but wound up spending just $650,000, while the share spent on human capital was higher than planned.
  • Student-to-computer ratios were higher than planned and schools were forced to spend less than planned on instructional and performance reporting software.
  • Projected budget deficits in five of the schools threaten their ability to sustain on public funding.

Not all budget cuts limited personalized learning’s potential, according to principals interviewed as part of the study: schools that switched laptop manufacturers, generating six-figure savings, put themselves on the path to financial sustainability and have been able to deliver the personalized-learning model as planned.

The early findings from this study offer several cautions and lessons for those hoping to implement personalized-learning models in the future. Among the briefs recommendations:

  • Invest in student recruitment efforts up front to ensure enrollment targets are met.
  • Develop a ‘worst-case scenario’ budget where fundraising and enrollment estimates fall 20–25 percent below target.
  • Manage contracts proactively: be explicit about needs, establish performance requirements, and negotiate trial periods to make sure products meet the school’s needs.

The brief, Is Personalized Learning Meeting Its Productivity Promise? is available at crpe.org. CRPE will continue to track spending in all 20 NGLC schools this year and publish its findings next spring. The study is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.