One Way the Gates Foundation Is Pushing Forward on Personalized Learning

When Bob Hughes took over the K-12 funding program this past summer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we identified personalized learning as one of the many issues and subjects vying for his attention — and one that it is vital for the funder to get right. 

Personalized learning has been touted as a step away from the "one-size-fits-all" model of K-12 schooling. It recognizes that children possess varying strengths and weaknesses, hold differing interests, and process information differently. Personalized learning responds to this by tailoring lessons and instruction to the individual student. In practice, educational technology often plays an important role.

This approach to education has grown in popularity among educators and funders, as we've reported. It's especially appealing to newer funders from Silicon Valley who are rooted in an industry that's all about personalizing everything. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have made this personalized learning central to their K-12 funding, as has Laurene Powell Jobs and quite a few others from the tech community. 


The Gates Foundation's growing interest in personalized learning is especially significant given its resources and large footprint in K-12. The foundation's collaboration with a leading charter school organization in this area offers a glimpse of how this interest is playing out. 

Summit Public Schools, a charter network based in California, has a partnership with Facebook to develop the Summit Personalized Learning Platform (PLP), which gives students a view of their academic responsibilities and allows them to set their own pace on projects designed to achieve those goals and increase their self-management abilities.

The journal Nonprofit Quarterly reported in August on the Facebook-Summit partnership, though not without some trepidation. NPQ has made no secret of its reservations about the rapid proliferation of charter schools and has been skeptical of past K-12 investments by Gates, expressing concern about charters diverting funds from district public schools while enrolling smaller numbers of at-risk students.

In response, Gates' deputy director of K-12 education, Don Shalvey, defended the funder's work in this area and touted early successes of personalized learning. Shalvey was a founder of the Aspire charter school network before coming to Gates. In a Sept. 2 commentary, he wrote that personalized learning platforms enable teachers and students to work together to create individualized learning plans and monitor progress. Tools such as Summit's PLP can position teachers to act as coaches and mentors for students.

Shalvey called Summit a success story, citing more than 90 percent of graduates accepted to a four-year college, and more than half completing a degree within six years. He added that more than three quarters of Summit students are children of color and that nearly half are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches.

During the summer, Shalvey reported that 1,500 educators, including many from district schools, participated in Summit's Basecamp program, which prepares teachers to integrate personalized learning into their classrooms. Summit is helping more than 100 schools across the country with personalized learning, and the majority of them are district schools, he wrote. 

The charter school movement, now a quarter-century old, is not going anywhere and will likely continue to grow. The same can be said of personalized learning, which the RAND Corporation has found has the potential to boost student achievement in both public charter and district schools "that are pursuing a variety of personalized learning practices.”

It's significant that Gates and other advocates of personalized learning have an eye on ensuring success in non-charter settings. District schools, after all, still educate the overwhelming majority of America's K-12 students.