Personalizing the Learning Experience: Research-Based Policies and Practices for District Leaders

We know from experience with other transformative innovations in education that personalized learning will work in our schools only if we have strong leaders at the district level. District leaders are needed who can guide stakeholders through a comprehensive needs assessment, a discussion why a community wants to personalize learning, and the creation of a shared vision that all members of their communities feel a part of, including students, teachers, parents, school leadership, and school boards. Once these crucial first steps have been taken, district leaders then develop a plan for realizing the vision that all stakeholders can fully embrace. To be considered comprehensive, the plan must reflect an understanding of the systemic changes that must be made and the new roles that each stakeholder must play.

As any district leader knows, unifying a diverse group of stakeholders with different views is challenging. But as difficult as consensus and commitment is to reach, it’s only the beginning of the hard work. A plan is only as strong as its execution.

Models for implementing personalized learning are evolving daily as a growing number of forward-looking school districts around the country are trying a variety of approaches, evaluating their effectiveness, and making necessary modifications and improvements as they go. As these districts experiment and learn what works, there is a great desire among leaders of other districts for access to evidence-based practices and advice from the leaders who have been successful at expanding the capacity of their districts to implement, accelerate, and scale personalized learning.

Through our Future Ready Leaders project, the U.S. Department of Education has responded to this need. We started by synthesizing the best available research-based policies and practices being implemented by exemplary Future Ready districts who were leveraging technology to transform learning outcomes for all of the students they serve. One of the four key focus areas identified in the research synthesis is personalized student learning. It is supported and enabled by the other three focus areas: collaborative leadership, a robust infrastructure, and personalized professional learning for educators.

Filming for the Future Ready Leaders project in Coachella Valley Unified School District

Once the research synthesis was completed, we captured video stories illustrating the policies and practices from superintendents, students, parents, teachers, principals, district and school staff, school board members, and members of the community that they serve from all across the country. For personalized learning, our videos take visitors on virtual site visits to 8 districts and 24 schools where they can see first hand some great examples of the practices in action.

The set of research-based policies and practices, and videos of district leaders sharing their experiences with their peers, can jumpstart the efforts of districts beginning their implementation of personalized learning. They can also help districts in the process of implementing overcome some of the inevitable bumps in the road.

Six evidence-based practices for effective personalized learning

The research with Future Ready district leaders identified the following six practices as essential and proven ways to ensure a successful personalized student learning implementation. Each of the practices is brought to life with a video story from a district that has put the practice into action.

1. Ensure a clearly defined set of district- and school-wide learning outcomes to guide instruction.

Learning outcomes are defined based on competencies and alignment with the district’s vision for Future Ready teaching and learning and state standards.

Learning Without Boundaries: Governance, Kettle Moraine School District, WI

They reflect the multidisciplinary nature of knowledge; prepare students for our participatory culture through attention to digital literacy and citizenship; and attend to general skills and dispositions, such as reflection, critical thinking, persistence, and grit.

Practice in Action: Kettle Moraine demonstrates the importance of governance as part of a comprehensive implementation of personalized learning.

2. Put policies into place that ensure the district provides educators with the tools, professional learning, and ongoing support to collect and analyze evidence of student learning on an ongoing basis.

Personalized Learning Tied to Student Passion, Howard-Winneshiek Community School District, IA

The types of evidence that are collected are diverse and include student and teacher observations and reflections, student work, formative and summative assessment results, and data from analytics embedded within learning activities and software. Analysis is aided by real-time availability of data and visualizations such as information dashboards.

Practice in Action: Howard-Winneshiek supports teachers as they help students pursue their passions.

3. Put policies in place to ensure that students have the opportunity to develop and demonstrate competencies aligned to shared learning outcomes through personalized sequences of learning activities that challenge them and reflect their interests and learning preferences.

Examples of Pedagogical Change and Personalized Learning, Coachella Valley Unified School District, CA

Learning activities are selected through a combination of student choice, teacher assignment, and adaptive recommendation by software, informed by assessment results. Completed activities are documented through a student profile or portfolio.

Practice in Action: Coachella Valley embraces technology to enable students to pursue their interests anytime and anywhere.

4. Put policies in place that ensure that students learn through a diverse set of activities.

Personalized and Blended Learning, Indian Prairie School District, IL

Activities include both self-directed collaborative work. Students engage in active and multidisciplinary learning through projects and inquiries, often focused on genuine problems in their communities. Technology is integral to most designs and is used daily within and beyond the classroom for collaboration, inquiry, and composition, and to connect with others around the world.

Practice in Action: Indian Prairie uses blended learning as a lynchpin of empowering students and teachers to change learning practices.

5. Ensure that students and teachers have on-demand access to high-quality content and tools aligned with outcomes and activities, yet are sufficiently diverse to allow choice.

A Continuum of Personalized Learning Examples, Palisades School District, PA

Content spans multiple media, integrates social learning, and includes openly licensed educational resources. Students access content, conduct inquiry, collaborate, and create using technology. Physical spaces for learning are designed to support the broad range of learning activities.

Practice in Action: Palisades provides multiple pathways to motivate and inspire student achievement.

6. Foster a district culture in which teams of teachers are encouraged and supported to take leadership in developing learning outcomes, designs, pathways, and assessments, grounding their designs in collaborative analysis of evidence.

Examples of Personalized Learning, St. Vrain Valley Schools, CO

Teachers engage students, school and district leaders, and other stakeholders in the process and receive appropriate support, incentives, and recognition for this work. In the classroom, teachers serve as educational designers, coaches, and facilitators, guiding students through their personalized learning experiences.

Practice in Action: St. Vrain Valley prepares students for college and career readiness by providing access to real-world learning opportunities.

As the research demonstrates and these stories of Future Ready district leadership display, there is a growing body of proven practices, advice, and first-hand experience available to any district leaders ready to begin their own journeys on the path to personalized learning. Additional Future Ready tools, including a comprehensive interactive planning tool called the Planning Dashboard, a new one-stop Hub for district leaders’ ongoing professional learning activities, and in-person summits and workshops are also available at no cost and can be found on www.futureready.org.


Bernadette Adams is a Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. She leads the development of online tools and policy reports focused on learning analytics, expanding evidence-based practices, connected educators, future ready leaders, personalized learning, and noncognitive factors.