Education Research

Paying for Personalized Learning

Paying for Personalized Learning

Just how much does it cost to set up a personalized learning plan for an entire school, and is it really sustainable? Could a typical school budget cover the expense — and what would happen if budget cuts had to be made? Those are the questions addressed in a new report out from LEAP Innovations and Afton Partners. LEAP works directly with schools to implement personalized learning; Afton focuses on financial and operational efficiency aspects of public school districts and charter schools.

A joint study examined six district and charter schools in Chicago Public Schools that have implemented personalized learning models over the last two years. All of the schools are part of LEAP's Breakthrough Schools initiative, which supports the launch of innovative school models.

According to the report, "Sustaining Innovation & Preparing for Scale: Financial Sustainability Research & Analysis of Personalized Learning School Models," in a personalized learning environment teachers and school leaders facilitate "learning over delivering instruction" and use "new teaching and learning strategies designed to enable student choice and foster student agency." Strategies include "frequent one-on-one student-teacher conferences to review student progress and to set goals, increasing student choices in how they learn and demonstrate mastery and using real-time data to inform instruction."

Afton found that upfront investments in personalized learning for these schools cost no more than 7 percent of total per-pupil funding. In terms of start-up costs, technology accounted for the largest portion — 41 percent. Yet, total recurring IT spending didn't increase substantially and by year 5 accounted for only about 2 percent of the schools' total budgets. However, the report noted, the expense of replacement devices needed to be considered "as a recurring, long-term investment."

Use of funds by category (percentage). Source:

Use of funds by category (percentage). Source: "Sustaining Innovation & Preparing for Scale: Financial Sustainability Research & Analysis of Personalized Learning School Models," from LEAP Innovations and Afton Partners.

The second-largest category of start-up spending was dedicated to professional development, which consumed about 21 percent. Stipends and bonuses consumed 11 percent on average. Three of the schools used teacher leadership in their models. As the report explained, "these schools have moved away from traditional classroom staffing approaches and adopted team-teaching models with teacher-leaders assuming additional responsibility." The snag, however, was that current compensation policies don't cover any increase in teacher pay for taking on these teacher-leader roles. To get around that obstacle, principals at those schools "either used budget flexibilities to compensate teachers with stipends out of one-time funding, or they sought waivers to formally increase salaries." In this area of expense, "long-term, scalable solutions remain an open question," the report stated.

Instructional support staff drew 10 percent of the start-up costs. According to Afton, non-teacher instructional support staff was used in two of the six models. "In one case," the report stated, "non-teacher instructional staff were critical to the school's multi-age, co-teaching model, staffed by master teachers, resident and intern teachers and instructional coaches." At another school, student teachers served to support teachers "in a rotational model," while simultaneously filling "the pipeline of teacher candidates who have significant exposure to innovative learning models."

For the schools in the study, introducing personalized learning models throughout the entire building required "modest investment to start." Start-up costs ranged from $338,000 to $780,000; on a per-pupil basis that was between $233 and $1,135. The models could be sustained "without ongoing grant funding on typical district budgets," even during severe budget cuts, Afton reported.

"Our move to personalized learning is quickly proving to be a sustainable approach with incredible impact," said LeViis Haney, principal at Joseph Lovett Elementary School, in a prepared statement. "Personalized learning is about supporting great teaching and meeting students where they are. We were able to make the shift even in an era of shrinking budgets because it isn't about new bells and whistles — it's about personalized teaching and learning strategies, along with innovative approaches to time use, teacher collaboration and other school structures. We have quickly found that our initial investment in time and resources to redesign the school have resulted in students who are more engaged and excited about learning and teachers and staff who are reinvigorated."

Schools participating in the program have shown "promising indicators of success" with their adoption of personalized learning. One school, for example, reported a surge in the percentage of students performing at grade level between the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 school years, moving from the 46th percentile to 59th percentile in reading and from the 31st percentile to 50th percentile in math, based on reporting by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) Measures of Academic Progress assessments. A second school reported that 39 percent more students in the fourth-grade pilot classrooms met their annual NWEA growth goals in reading in 2015-2016 than they did as third graders in 2014-2015.

The report offered a series of recommendations on improving the cost effectiveness of personalized learning and scaling the personalized learning model. Among the advice:

  • Make sure principals understand the flexibilities regarding funding and other categories that are at their disposal;
  • Try piloting a compensation structure that supports the teacher-leader model;
  • Combine resources across a district for common unmet needs, such as adoption or development of a learning management system; and
  • Be strategic in the use of grant funding; for example, develop a five-year financial plan that shows how the models will remain sustainable even after the grant-funding expires.

"While this study is a small sample, it is instructive. Given the early promise of personalized learning and the budget realities across the country, we must understand how to make this kind of innovation not only effective for students, but also sustainable, " added Katie Morrison- Reed of Afton Partners. "These relatively small investments can have big returns on learning."

The report is available on the LEAP Innovations website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.