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Are U.S. Schools Ready to Move from Traditional to Personalized Learning Environments?


NOTE: This is part one of a three-part blog series where Matthew Friedman, EdD, shares his findings about the trends, strengths, and weaknesses of the Future Ready Schools® network across the four regions of the United States and looks at the exciting possibilities for personalized learning in schools in the post–COVID-19 world.

It’s a typical day for this middle school class. The room is humming, yet everyone is intent on their tasks—students, teachers, and the local entrepreneur who has dropped by to mentor a group during the morning session.

Nine students are in the makerspace working on prototypes for their latest invention, aiming to solve a community problem they identified last semester.

Mrs. Zhang focuses on the group who watched a video last night for homework. Today they are discussing the information and its implications for a project they want to implement.

Jenna and Jose are engrossed in a novel. They struggled with reading last year, but today an audiobook helps them identify words. Dylan and Dakota are reading and listening too, but they are working in Spanish.

Is this scenario possible in your school? Probably not.

What’s the Issue?

With industry booming in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, our country needed many skilled laborers and few university graduates. It suited society to have one-size-fits-all classrooms that mimicked factories because that is where so many workers ended up.

In the twenty-first century, life is different. Factories are automated; shopping has moved online. You can eat in your car or have food delivered to the house.

Outside of school, young entrepreneurs already work online, and social media has changed the landscape forever. We can talk to whomever we want, whenever we want, whether they live next door or halfway around the world. But we also can show ourselves as we want to be, not as we really are.

Today, society requires new skills from its citizens. The technological age needs lifelong learners. People who collaborate, solve complex problems, and are open, flexible, and creative. They understand the effects of online marketing and how to protect their privacy online. Their working lives are relaxed—nine to five is losing its meaning.

How can we enable such learners in an education system that no longer models the world our into which our students will step? We can’t. Massive change is essential, but how does the transformation happen, and where are schools and districts in the journey?

Looking Inside Transformative Learning Practice—A Study of Future Ready Schools®

“What is the gap in knowledge and skills that Future Ready Schools® face?” I asked. “And how close are they to making this transition?” This was central question in my recent doctoral study, which investigated whether Future Ready Schools® (FRS) districts and leaders believe they are close to transforming their learning environments.

FRS is an initiative of the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) “dedicated to helping educators ensure that each student graduates from high school with the agency, passion, and skills to be a productive, successful, and responsible citizen.”

The FRS framework provides a pathway for schools to follow and includes seven key aspects (called gears) that guide schools to a successful transition from teacher-led to student-centered learning.

Districts pledge to work toward a student-centered system using the gears and looking at four stages of implementation:

  1. Investigating—becoming informed
  2. Envisioning—identifying viable directions and building scenarios
  3. Planning—establishing key strategies with projected benchmarks, budgets, and management plans in place
  4. Staging—undertaking pilot trials and preparing for full implementation

These district plans envision an environment where students can access online coursework with intelligent adaptive learning and use formative and summative assessment data to decide their next learning steps. They imagine schools where social media, blended learning, and e-communication provide real-world connections, and students have many ways to demonstrate their understanding and achievement.

Evaluating the Data and Searching for Trends

During the 2018–2019 school year, 649 districts completed the FRS readiness survey. I worked with members of the FRS team to review the pertinent confidential data. Together, we looked at the similarities and differences in how district leaders felt they were implementing real change across their schools.

We also analyzed the data to investigate the nation’s personalized learning trends in schools and districts in the northern, southern, western, and midwestern regions of the United States. We looked for common strengths and weaknesses and whether differing student-teacher ratios and student populations played a part. We also investigated whether a there is a relationship between the availability of multimedia tools, learning management systems, and other digital learning elements and a district’s level of preparedness.

Understanding the Results

This study is the first to bring together figures from the FRS readiness surveys and identify the trends. Results show that our education system is in flux.

Overall, several schools are either implementing parts of the seven gears strategy or are almost ready to do so. These schools are at the staging phase. When we average the data across all the gears, we find that most other schools are working through the envisioning and planning stages, while only a few are still thinking about getting started.

Schools have focused firmly on creating robust infrastructure and safety, privacy, and security, so these stages are the most advanced.

Robust infrastructure includes electronic devices, access to high-speed internet, infrastructure, and support systems, all of which take significant investment.

Overall, schools and districts located in the northern part of the country scored significantly higher collectively on all seven gears than those in other regions. It also is the region that has the highest per-student spending. In 2019 GoBankingRates calculated that New York state spent $22,366.37 per pupil, while Utah in the West spent only $6,953.12 per pupil.

Southern districts and schools tended to have the second-highest mean scores while western and midwestern states consistently scored lower in their readiness to implement the seven categories.

But, while schools have focused on the infrastructure and budget and resources gears, other stages lag well behind. Least prepared are use of space and time; community partnerships; and curriculum, instruction, and assessment, which overall fell into the envisioning stage of readiness.

Why the Data Matters

The data clearly shows that space and time; community partnerships; and curriculum are the areas where districts, organizations, and interested companies should concentrate their expertise, money, and time.

Every one of our students deserves the absolute best education—and our best could be exceptional. The whole country will benefit from having more highly paid people who can think flexibly, solve problems, communicate, and collaborate. That is truly why we all should work to move schools and districts across the United States into the twenty-first century.

Download the full dissertation, Evaluating District Leaders’ Perceptions of Preparedness to Transition from Traditional Personalized Learning Environments.



Dr. Matthew Friedman, Ed.D is currently the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction of the South Orange Maplewood School District in New Jersey.  In addition, he is a university professor in the graduate school of education at two universities and a nationally recognized consultant.  Connect with Dr. Friedman on Twitter: @mfriedmanPGH.

Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action