One of the constant challenges facing educators is to find coherence in the work we are doing. We need to understand how our efforts relate to and support each other in pursuit of student learning. This task can be difficult, especially in an environment where we are working to transform our education system while also trying to maximize student success in the current system. The relationship between efforts to implement Response to Intervention (RtI) systems and our work to personalize learning offers a good example of this dilemma.

The intent of RtI is to intervene early with students who are not succeeding in response to initial instruction. The goal is to prevent these students from falling so far behind so that they cannot catch-up and keep up with peers and expectations.

The Personalized Learning Initiative advocates a different organization and approach to learning that is committed to getting learning right the first time. The goal of personalized learning is for students to experience their maximum rate of progress as the level of challenge and complexity in their learning grows so that falling behind is not a concern.

The initiatives share the goals of student learning success. Both are committed to assuring that students are able to experience consistent progress in response to learning challenges. Both approaches are designed to facilitate early intervention when students are not experiencing success. They even share a number of strategies and characteristics such as relying on real-time or near real-time data to guide interventions and instructional adjustments and a focus on demonstrated learning progress rather than the amount of time invested. Indeed, several of the strategies employed in an RtI model may well serve educators in supporting students in a personalized learning environment.

However, RtI and personalized learning differ from the perspective of the type of educational systems within which they are presumed and designed to exist. For the most part, RtI is designed to serve within the current system where batch processing of learners and learning is part of the design. Frequent occurrences of failure to learn are predictable and expected in the legacy system. RtI is designed to ameliorate this reality by effectively intervening before students fall too far behind.

An educational system that is designed to support personalized learning is structured differently from the current system. Instruction is designed to wrap around the learner at all times. The framework of a personalized learning approach enables educators to position intervention to occur as soon as the learner needs it. As a result, success is designed in from the beginning and learners are less likely to experience the loss of confidence that too often accompanies repeated failure to learn in the current system. Much remediation today must address the confusion and misconceptions learners may have from “first learning.” If students are able to learn constantly in a way that best fits them, “first learning” is less likely to become a significant barrier.

We need both approaches to support today’s learners. As long as students are expected to learn in the current system we need to have available strategies and structures to intervene early when students are not learning and progressive approaches to increase learning support when initial interventions are not enough. Meanwhile, we need to be expeditious about building and moving toward a new system that has designed in many of these supports from the beginning so that learning struggles can be addressed before they become failures and are more difficult and expensive to address.

Our “split screen” approach to leadership applies here. While increasingly moving to a transformed system that avoids and prevents many of the challenges we face in the current system, we need to support students to find success wherever and how ever we can in the legacy system of learning. Herein lies the coherence of our present reality.