Kim Gibbons
Associate Director
Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI)

During the 2017 Spring MASA conference, I had the pleasure of participating with Jim Rickabaugh in a keynote address on the topic of personalized learning and Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) frameworks. The task was to do a cross-walk between personalized learning and MTSS. The talk was not intended to be a contentious debate about the relative merits of personalized learning versus MTSS, but an opportunity for attendees to better understand how the two frameworks work together (rather than an “either-or”). Overall, it was a wonderful opportunity to have a professional dialogue about innovative ways to improve student outcomes. There were similarities between the two approaches – most notability in the goal of improving outcomes for all learning through matching instruction to student need and building an effective infrastructure to support learning. There were also some differences including assessments, goal-setting, and evaluating the impact of these frameworks.

For the past few years, I have focused less on what we call what we are doing and more on ensuring that we evaluate the impact of what we do and that what we do is specifically matched to the needs that exist in each district and supported by research. Over the past several decades, we have said hello (and sometimes goodbye) to a myriad of philosophies and approaches to improving instruction including RtI, Differentiated Instruction, Project-Based Learning, Flipped Classrooms, Constructivism, MTSS, Personalized Learning, Design Thinking, Outcomes Based Instruction, and Whole Language to name a few. The list could continue for several pages. In his book “Learning to Improve1,” Tony Bryk talks about an affliction that is common among educators – Solutionitis. Solutionitis occurs when educational leaders jump quickly on a solution before fully understanding the exact problem to be solved. Popular ideas move very quickly, and each initiative becomes the new “hot” hammer to fix educational problems. Many times, the ideas lack a research base, outcomes are not satisfactory, and we move on to the next hot new idea. Solutionitis is often referred to as siloed reasoning because complex problems are often viewed through a narrow lens. My only hesitation about personalized learning was whether there was adequate research showing the effectiveness of this framework before bringing it to large scale and that it would become the next “hot” hammer.

As it turns out, the Gates Foundation funded a major study of personalized learning schools that is being conducted RAND Corporation researchers. In a recent Education Week interview2, the researchers of personalized learning were interviewed about the most recent findings of the study. They summarized a few big ideas (Marshall, December 20173):

The evidence base for personalized learning is very weak at this point. More research is needed to validate this approach. While some schools are seeing positive results, it is too early to generalize the conclusions to other settings.

Consensus has not been reached on a common definition of personalized learning. While many districts implementing a personalized learning, framework are creating individual learning plans and using a mastery approach where students do not move on to new material until they have mastered previous content. In addition, the use of technology is often a common denominator. However, there is great variability in how personalized learning is implemented.

There are barriers to implementing personalized learning. Time is a very real challenge. Teachers need time to create materials that are matched to student’s instructional levels, and collaboration among colleagues can be challenging with so many personalized lessons.

The message is not to abandon the implementation of personalized learning frameworks, but rather, to evaluate the impact of the framework on the desired outcomes. Program evaluation information may be used to improve implementation.

There are myths around the “pitfalls” of personalized learning. One myth is that students receive the bulk of their instruction via technology when in fact, teachers are still instructing students in large and small groups.

The major recommendation from the RAND research is to wait for current research to be completed and keep the focus on effective instruction. Collaboration is important, and educators should continue working as teams to accomplish the schoolwide vision.

The Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) wants to help avoid solutionitis! We are here to partner with districts to help evaluate the impact of various initiatives and frameworks on student outcomes and help improve implementation of various programs and frameworks. Feel free to e-mail me at if you would like more information! 

Bryk, T. (2015). Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better. Harvard Educational Press: Cambridge, MA.

“6 Key Insights: Rand Corp. Researchers Talk Personalized Learning” – Benjamin Herold interviews Laura Hamilton, John Pane, and Elizabeth Steiner in Education Week, November 8, 2017 (Vol. 37, #12, p. 10-11),

Marshall, K. (December 11th, 2017). Marshall Memo 715,

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