Around the country, a growing number of schools and districts are leveraging personalized learning — an instructional model centered around student needs and customization to meet individual skill levels, learning styles, and interests. Although the approach is gaining traction, efforts to develop high-quality personalized learning models have largely been concentrated in urban schools. For most of the nearly one in five students attending rural schools in America, the schooling experience has yet to embrace these promising innovations in teaching and learning.
This is a missed opportunity for rural areas, where schools face significant challenges — both similar to those in urban contexts and unique to rural communities. Many rural students face bleak postsecondary outcomes, and rural schools frequently confront geographic isolation, human capital shortages, and a rapidly changing economy. Personalized learning could help overcome some of these challenges by increasing student access to highly effective teachers and specialized coursework and by deepening the connections between K-12 schooling and postsecondary opportunities.
This paper, “The Promise of Personalized Learning in Rural America,” explores the application of personalized learning in rural schools, discusses and proposes solutions to the practical and policy barriers to implementation, and shares lessons learned from early adopters, including three case studies from rural communities in different parts of the country. The paper also addresses policy challenges, particularly around testing and accountability structures that may be incompatible with personalized learning, and funding constraints that challenge the transition to a new model.
Significant differences in the realities of rural school life mean that simply implementing a personalized learning model from an urban context may not be successful. As is the case with many education policies and innovations, a rural approach to personalized learning will require thoughtful tailoring, community input, and appropriate policy conditions in order to truly meet the needs of rural students and educators. For example, rural schools face uneven broadband access and infrastructure to support technology-based instructional tools as well as capacity challenges with small staffs in adopting what may be a radically different instructional orientation. But examples of personalized learning approaches in rural schools are emerging around the country, from Maine to Wyoming. Though these pioneers are few and most are in the early stages of implementation, they do provide insights for state policymakers and rural school leaders.
We make several recommendations for policymakers and rural practitioners, including:
- ways states can build the needed infrastructure and support the capacity of rural schools to explore and implement personalized learning;
- suggestions for creating a personalized learning-friendly policy environment through increased flexibility around staffing and assessment;
- options for districts to creatively solve connectivity and capacity-related barriers; and
- recommendations for rural leaders around developing implementation strategies, building community buy-in, and supporting teachers in transitioning to a personalized instructional model.
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