Cover: High School Teachers' Perceptions and Use of Personalized Learning

High School Teachers' Perceptions and Use of Personalized Learning

Findings from the American Teacher Panel

Published Aug 10, 2020

by Elizabeth D. Steiner, Christopher Joseph Doss, Laura S. Hamilton

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Research Questions

  1. Which mastery-based PL practices do teachers report using?
  2. How strongly do teachers emphasize social and emotional learning topics in their instruction?
  3. Do teachers report having appropriate professional development opportunities for personalized learning?
  4. Which obstacles do teachers report as most hindering PL?
  5. How often do teachers receive student performance data to support PL?
  6. Do teachers feel they have quality data to inform their PL instruction and the skills to use that data?
  7. How do teachers' perceptions of data access relate to their use of PL practices?

Technology-facilitated personalized learning (PL) approaches have become increasingly common in K–12 schools across the United States, and as distance learning becomes more common during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, they are poised to become even more widely used. PL aims to create individual learning experiences and pathways for students. PL takes a wide variety of forms and typically involves changes to instructional materials and practices as well as school and system-level organizational conditions. These changes are often facilitated by technology. Despite the popularity of PL, little data exists on the prevalence of PL practices, and there is only limited understanding of the conditions needed to support high-quality PL implementation, particularly in high schools. This report presents findings from RAND's 2018 American Teacher Panel. As part of the survey, a nationally representative sample of high school teachers responded to questions about their use of instructional practices consistent with PL and access to necessary supports. The findings should be useful to practitioners, professional development and support providers, researchers, and policymakers who are interested in understanding how high school teachers are using PL practices and which supports and resources they need to use them effectively.

Key Findings

Teachers reported tailoring course content and addressing social and emotional growth

  • Teachers reported providing a variety of instructional materials and adapting course content to meet students' needs; offering students choices of instructional topics or materials was less common.
  • Teachers reported using mastery-based assessment more frequently than they reported using other mastery-based practices.
  • Most teachers reported addressing students' social and emotional growth in their instruction.
  • More teachers reported using student data for tailoring instructional approaches when teaching a specific topic or content area than for adjusting how quickly students advanced through content.
  • High school teachers' reported use of PL practices and supports did not vary substantially by school or teacher characteristics.

Most teachers received professional development to support PL but reported multiple barriers

  • Teachers reported that their professional development helped them learn how to use PL approaches but was less helpful for addressing students' social and emotional needs.
  • Teachers identified structural factors, such as scheduling constraints and pressure to cover specific material, and student-level factors, such as absenteeism, as limiting their ability to enact PL practices.
  • Teachers reported infrequently receiving data on the learning progress of individual students and needing better school data systems to support PL.
  • Teachers who reported access to high-quality data systems and higher use of student achievement data reported engaging in higher levels of some PL practices.


  • High school data systems should be improved to increase usability and access so teachers have the opportunity to access specific data on individual students more frequently.
  • Because teachers reported using teacher-directed PL practices more often than student-led PL practices, targeted professional development could help teachers increase their use of student-led learning practices.
  • Attending to students' social and emotional skill development is a key aspect of personalized and mastery-based practices; PL advocates and implementers should consider how to incorporate social and emotional learning practices into PL models.
  • State and local education agencies should consider how policies support or hinder personalization. Scheduling constraints, pressure to cover specific material as a result of state or district standards or testing requirements, and the need to spend excessive amounts of time developing content that meets individual students' needs were all reported as obstacles to PL.
  • Educators should monitor equity in PL opportunities and outcomes both within and across schools. Further research could examine the prevalence of PL practices and supports and quality of implementation in high schools from multiple perspectives.

Research conducted by

This research was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and conducted by RAND Education and Labor.

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