A new analysis released today by LEAP Innovations, finds that after small upfront costs, personalized learning whole-school models can be financially sustainable innovations that enable learning experiences tailored to a students’ specific needs and strengths.

The study, conducted by education finance consulting firm Afton Partners, examined six district and charter Chicago Public Schools implementing personalized learning models over the last two years. The study found that upfront investments in personalized learning, in these cases, cost no more than 7 percent of total per-pupil funding. While technology accounted for about 40 percent of start-up costs, total recurring IT spending did not increase substantially, and accounted for about two percent of schools’ total budgets by year five.

“At a time when schools across the country are still grappling with limited budgets, this analysis shines light on a big question: how can we scale personalized models of instruction? In Chicago, we’re finding that these innovations in teaching and learning can be self-sustaining and scalable,” said Phyllis Lockett, Founder and CEO of LEAP Innovations. “This study also confirms that personalized learning isn’t about spending big on technology. It’s about rethinking how we approach teaching and learning, and develop models that encourage collaboration between all the adults and students in the building.”

In particular, innovations around staffing structures both drove personalization in schools and contributed to the models’ financial sustainability. In the study, teachers and non-teacher instructional support were consistently considered the most important resource by principals in implementing personalized learning. A consistently used strategy is a teacher-leader model, in which teachers are elevated to leadership positions, compensated with additional stipends, and lead team-taught, multi-age classrooms. Additionally, principals are dedicating existing professional development time to plan for and implement personalized learning, and teams have made it a focus in their existing professional development days.

"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. "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."

Afton also assessed long-term sustainability in the face of budget cuts. According to interviews and financial scenario analyses, principals may be able to sustain severe budget cuts in a way that is comparable to or exceeds the capacity of traditional Chicago Public Schools while personalizing the learning experience of students.

“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, “ said Katie Morrison-Reed of Afton Partners. “These relatively small investments can have big returns on learning.”

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