“Waiting for Superman,” “The Cartel,” and “The Lottery” are among the best known of documentaries, books and news stories sounding the alarm about the failures of America’s public schools.
But where are the stories, the documentaries about the solutions?
As a new school year begins, this documentary features happy students and inspired teachers. The students are learning, getting good test scores and look ready to take the next step forward in their lives. The teachers are excited by their success with students.
The show is called “Fox News Reporting: Fixing Our Schools.”
The documentary reveals how the answer to troubled schools is allowing teachers to teach to one child, catering to the student’s strengths and weakness with the help of computers.
The results are evident in dramatic improvements in student performance in several schools nationwide. From the “Carpe Diem” school in Yuma, Arizona to the “School of One” in New York City and the Mooresville school district in North Carolina, pilot programs using “Digital Learning” have reported a marked increase in student performance and sharp decline in drop-outs.
The key is making learning materials from texts, tests and even assignments available electronically. That allows the students, their parents and teachers to track a student’s performance in real time.
It enables teachers and parents to identify a student who is falling behind and give that young person extra help, specifically tailored to get them back on track and moving up.
It also allows teachers to reward the best students. Top students no longer have to wait for students who are struggling before the class can move ahead. Instead with customized or “Digital Learning” teachers can challenge the best students to achieve their full potential with advanced coursework.
But more importantly, in each of the schools we visited, I noticed high student morale. I saw happy children with a positive attitude towards learning who seemed genuinely glad to be at their schools. In some cases the infamous ‘Achievement Gap,’ between minority students and white students was eliminated with the help of “Digital Learning.”
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has been one of the leading intellectual architects of education reform. He made digital learning a cornerstone of the “Florida Formula,” his educational policy during his time as governor.
“There are new technologies to make it easier, perhaps, to have an accurate assessment. There’s movement to make it so one test won’t be the end-all and be-all. There’s a way to test now that if you’ve mastered the information, you can move on to the next information, so we’re not holding kids back” he said.
“Given the technological advancements, [opposition to] testing, I think, will be less of a political tool by those that resist change” he added.
In an interview for “Fixing Our Schools,” Michael Horn, co-author of the book “Disrupting Class,” points to the large number of remedial classes in even the best colleges for students that have graduated high school but failed to learn the basics of writing and math.
The answer, Horn argues, is the combination of good teachers and technology – “Digital Learning.”
“It’s the Swiss Cheese problem – that’s what we call it in education,” said Horn. “They [students] move on even though they have big holes in their understanding. If you customize [curriculums for each student by using computers] and allow them only to move on once they’ve actually mastered something…whether it is through projects, lectures [computer programs] you give them a chance to actually succeed…this is what every child needs so they can succeed in the 21st century economy.”
Out of 65 countries around the world measured by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), students in the United States ranked 30th in Math, 23rd in Science, and 17th in Literacy.
Civic and political leaders — most recently former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former New York City Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein — are pointing to the decline of public education as a threat to America’s national security – with so many students failing to qualify for the military or diplomatic corps. And schools that fail to prepare students to be capable works as well as innovative thinkers are also challenge to America’s global economic competitiveness.
Talk of the need for overhauling our school—“No Child Left Behind” to “Race to the Top,” — has gone on for too long with too little result. Generations of American children have grown up and lost their way while unions, politicians and foundations have talked, thrown around money and failed to make any big change.
One million students drop out of American public schools every year. Thirty percent of all American high school students drop out and never graduate. For black and Hispanic students, the number is above fifty percent.
When the tragic scale of damage to minority communities is considered, the education crisis has rightly been called the “greatest civil rights challenge of the 21st century.”
My main take-away from reporting for this documentary is that “Digital Learning” shows tremendous promise as an immediate solution for helping American students to succeed immediately.
And it helps America’s teachers, parents, students, employers and political leaders regain their trust and enthusiasm for our public schools.
As Joel Klein, the former Chancellor of New York City Public Schools who now works for News Corp. [the parent company of Fox News Channel] told me the computer revolution has touched every part of our lives but our schools.
“I think about how different the world is today in terms of the media, in terms of medicine, in terms of the way people really experience their lives,” Klein said. “But education is stuck in a 19th-century model. So I’m convinced that we can change the way we educate our kids. “Use technology not [just] by giving a kid a computer but by really improving instruction, by helping teachers do their work in a much more effective way” he added.
Juan Williams is a Fox News political analyst. He is the author of several books including “Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America–and What We Can Do About It” and “Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate.”
On May 2, under a glorious spring sky, a new charter school officially broke ground on the Northwest side of San Antonio. Carpe Diem Learning Systems’s first Texas campus will be located on Military Drive in the heart of District 6 and Northside Independent School District.
The event carried all the ceremony and anticipation appropriate for an effort that has been years in the making. In 2011 when Victoria Rico, chair of the George W. Brackenridge Foundation, sought out Carpe Diem’s founder Rick Ogston at a Philanthropy Roundtable Conference she was told that he was unavailable because of a meeting with Melinda Gates.
Fortunately, Rico is not easily deterred, and four years later Carpe Diem Innovative School – Westwood is slated to open in the fall of 2015. If charter enrollment trends are any indicator, the blended learning innovator will have no problem filling up to 400 slots for 6-10th graders in its first year. From there the school hopes to scale with the 10th graders until they enroll 600 students in grades 6-12.
At the ground breaking event Carpe Diem Innovative Schools – San Antonio Superintendent Nick Fleege hinted that there was space on the 6.116 acre lot for downward expansion. This kind of entrepreneurial gusto is characteristic of the high performing charters out of Arizona. Carpe Diem will join BASISand Great Hearts Texas as the third Arizona-bred chain to capitalize on the charter-friendly climate in the Texas legislature.
Carpe Diem Learning Systems originated in Yuma, Arizona. Each expansion focused on a city with uniquely appealing characteristics. In Indianapolis, the mayor is authorized to award charters, cutting out layers of bureaucratic hurdles. The Cincinnati Public School system literally opened their doors, authorizing and sharing a campus with the Carpe Diem school. Fleege says that the blended learning approach is ideal for this sort of collaboration.
“I’m hoping to find a partnership like that in San Antonio,” Fleege said.
Whether or not any of San Antonio’s school districts will eventually share space with a Carpe Diem school remains to be seen, but for now the relentless pursuit of education reformers like Rico has played a large role in getting San Antonio to the top of the list for charter school expansion.
Carpe Diem is enjoying considerable local political support, in addition to the heavy hitting philanthropic foundations dedicated to their success.
“You can’t go into a market without knowing you have the support of the market,” says Joe Bruno, president of Building Hope.
Choose to Succeed, the Ewing Halsell Foundation, the George W. Brackenridge Foundation, Building Hope and the Charter School Development Corp have backed the $7.25 million project. Councilmember Ray Lopez (D6) and Texas District 124 Representative Ina Minjarez were on hand at the May 2 event to show their support as well.
Minjarez kept her remarks brief, having been in office for only a few days. Lopez, on the other hand, recounted the story of a long career seeking educational opportunity for the children in District 6. For him, the influx of school choice is only as good as its accessibility to all students.
“Those who don’t have the ability to come, we need to go get them!” Lopez said.
He praised the school for doing an excellent job informing the neighborhood about their new educational option. The showing of neighborhood families at the event represented the outreach efforts underway as Carpe Diem walks the neighborhood and builds its database of interest.
While the heavy machinery and hard hards left no doubt as to what was being celebrated, Robert Sommers, CEO of Carpe Diem Learning Systems, reminded the crowd that the real celebration, and the real work was yet to come.
“This is the easy part, the hard part is educating kids. That’s the real job,” Sommers said.
Valerie Robertson, principal of the Westwood campus was on hand and ready to accept that challenge.
“If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been walking around with a big smile on my face,” Robertson said.
If you ask Fleege, he’ll tell you that smile is the smile of confidence, because the administration of Carpe Diem Innovative School – Westwood believes that the students in their classrooms are getting the best education available.
“I think that Carpe Diem is what the future of education is going to look like,” says Brandon Seale, board chair of Carpe Diem Innovative Schools – San Antonio.
The hallmark of the system is blended learning. In addition to instructional classroom hours, the students spend half of their day in the learning center working with a software program that has been tailor-made to their academic levels. That’s “levels,” plural. Carpe Diem does not expect that a student will be on an even grade level across all subjects. While a few classes will be age/grade specific, such as state mandated 7th-grade Texas history (which, every out-of-state charter administrator finds worth mentioning), the rest will be grouped according to mastery level. Their highly tailored approach allows individuals to accelerate in one subject, while they work toward mastery in another.
“Our curriculum doesn’t just have a personalized component, the whole thing is personalized,” Fleege said.
The mastery component is another distinctive. Carpe Diem’s method treats mastery as a process, not a test score. They are not allowed to proceed to the next level until they have reached 80% or higher on all assessments. However, because they are working online, teachers have access to detailed records that show where the student is struggling. The teachers, who are freed from administrative minutia by the softwares record keeping, can then focus on instruction to help individual students in areas where they struggle. Rather than starting over and retaking the entire level, the students can revisit particular subjects or skills and work toward their 80% mastery.
“In our curriculum you can get one of three grades: A, B, or the opportunity to do it again,” Fleege said.
The benefit of this approach, according to Fleege, is twofold. First, students are not allowed to build on a shaky foundation. Trying to build calculus on 60% mastery of algebra is a doomed enterprise. Second, it keeps students from being held back in areas where they excel while they work on areas where they need more time.
The individualized approach also anticipates that not every kid will go to college. However, it is Carpe Diem’s goal that every student be well prepared for that option, and thus they intend to educate future tradesmen, craftsmen, entrepreneurs, and service members to the same standards. On every student’s workspace in the learning center will hang a card that reads, “Aspiring (career) …” Fleege anticipated changing those cards repeatedly as the students grow, focus, and learn, but whether the aspiration of the moment is academic, professional, or athletic, Fleege intends to honor that.
*Featured/top image: Future students join administrators, elected leaders, and philanthropists in the ground breaking ceremony for Carpe Diem Innovative School – Westwood. Photo by Bekah McNeel
The lunch hour is winding down on a spring Friday at Anne Frank Inspire Academy but several students have already moved on to their next task. In the plaza—a high-ceiling, open room with clusters of chairs throughout—groups of students sit working on laptops. In a nearby glassed-in porch, a student pores over a rock collection he’s gathered from the grounds and upstairs an instructor reviews the day’s algebra assignment with a few students.
If it doesn’t sound like a typical middle school, that’s because it’s not. One of a growing number of public charter schools in San Antonio, Anne Frank—which is part of the John H. Wood Jr. Public Charter District and will this fall add ninth grade plus an elementary campus—operates in what students describe as “controlled chaos.” Instead of seven separate classes focused on teacher-driven lectures, students meet with an advisor each morning and work through subjects at their own pace, hearing from facilitators (their version of teachers) in morning seminars and then consulting them for guidance throughout the day. “There are no teacher desks or chairs, student desks or even hallways,” says Superintendent Bruce Rockstroh. “What you’ll see is a big open plaza with learning opportunities throughout the school.”
Though not yet on par with Houston where more than 125 charter schools are in operation, San Antonio is quickly becoming a hub for Texas’ school choice movement. That’s not by mistake. Four years ago Victoria Rico, a trustee at the Brackenridge Foundation, began looking into what other communities had done to improve education. The research led her to advocating for the growth of charter schools in San Antonio, where KIPP San Antonio already was making an impact in low-income neighborhoods. She partnered with other philanthropists and helped create the nonprofit now known as Choose To Succeed. The group has raised more than $30 million to support charter school growth and in its first two years helped recruit three Arizona-based schools with successful track records. Basis opened in fall 2013 and added a second campus last year. Great Hearts finished its first year in June and will open its second campus this fall. Carpe Diem will open a campus for the 2015-16 school year. “We make choices in every other dimension of life,” says Christi Martin, interim president and CEO at Choose to Succeed. “It’s natural. This is not unique across the nation, but we’re one of the few cities that has been so intentional about recruiting a variety of high performing charter organizations.”
By 2020, Choose to Succeed aims to have 27,700 “quality” charter school seats available in San Antonio, up from the approximately 5,800 established already. The organization defines quality seats as those within charters that have an established record of success in turning out college-ready graduates, and state standards help promote quality across the board, shuttering charter schools if they have three years of poor state financial or academic ratings. When the new law was first enforced in 2014, five San Antonio schools had their charters revoked. Gov. Greg Abbott has supported the expansion of charter schools and charter advocates continue to work toward more state funding or access to public facilities.
For Basis, Great Hearts and Carpe Diem schools, Choose to Succeed assisted in establishing charters in Texas and in finding and financing local facilities. “It’s what’s called the harbor master approach so you’re not trying to do it yourself,” says Peter Bezanson, CEO of Basis, which prides itself on a rigorous academic curriculum in which high school students pass an average of 11 AP exams and almost always go on to college. Great Hearts, too, has high expectations for students but does so through a Socratic method that relies on student-engagement rather than lectures plus a focus on great books and primary texts. Instead of reading a textbook on the Constitution, for example, students read the Constitution. “Our society has fundamentally underestimated children,” says Peter Crawford, headmaster at Great Hearts Monte Vista. “Not only are they capable of much more, but they want much more.”
KIPP and IDEA Public Schools also are college preparatory institutions, but focus on low-income students rather than all sectors. “In the beginning the goal was to create one school that could prove that our low-income kids of color could perform as high as anyone in the city,” says KIPP San Antonio founder Mark Larson, who plans to see the school grow to 15 campuses, all located inside of Loop 410. “What we’ve been able to demonstrate is that the school can be the change agent.” Carver Academy, the private elementary school Spurs legend David Robinson founded in 2001, welcomed IDEA to San Antonio in 2012 when Robinson elected to restructure the school as a public charter aligned with IDEA. The school has since opened four more campuses and welcomes students to a new East Side campus this fall.
Charter schools aren’t without their critics. And, while many are successful, others, like the now closed San Antonio Preparatory Academy, have struggled. Martin says Choose to Succeed knows charter schools aren’t “the silver bullet” to improving education in Bexar County, but the trustees see them as an important piece. The hope in providing parents more choice through charter schools, she says, is that traditional public school districts also will offer more options, whether through more magnet campuses or other specialized programs. It’s a challenge incoming San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, who has a history of partnering with charter schools, welcomes. “I want to make sure that our schools are redefining excellence and demonstrating to our families that we have great programming in our schools to compete with any school,” he says.
Just like families choose what park or library to take their children to, Martin says, they should be able to decide where they’re educated. “I would love to see—and I think we’re on the path toward—an increasingly vibrant education sector with lots of opportunities for educators and a culture of continuous improvement,” she says.
By Ben Jackson
This post was originally published on the TNTP Blog.
If you ask 100 people to picture a baseball diamond and imagine where each player stands, they’ll all probably describe the same thing. But according to the New York Times, the traditional baseball set up started changing around 2010, based on new evidence about where batters tend to hit the ball.
If you ask 100 people to picture a school, they’ll probably all describe the same thing, too: a building with walled off classrooms, each filled with one teacher and twenty to thirty students of the same age. The difference is that unlike baseball, schools and teachers are still organized in largely the same way they were decades ago. If the third baseman doesn’t have to stand right off third base, why does a teacher still need to stand in front of 25 students?
The answer is rooted in tradition. Schools look the same largely because they’ve historically been designed the same way: built and staffed from the district central office outward. But these models are often out of sync with what we know about how students learn and the expectations for today’s workplace. Not all students learn best by listening to a single teacher lecture at the front of the room, and many careers now require people to access information independently and generate ideas and solve problems virtually and collaboratively. Yet, most American schools have made only minor adjustments to their design.
Just as some baseball teams have pushed the envelope by using data to place their defenses more strategically, across the country, there are districts and charter networks responding to these changes and beginning to do things differently. At TNTP, we’re starting to think about how to support innovative school design, so we’re chewing on three key questions that need to be answered to build schools that start from students, rather than central offices:
1. What do students need? Who’s at bat?
Teams play defense differently against a powerhouse hitter than a pitcher who is likely to bunt. The stats dictate where the defense plays on the field. Similarly, designing a school, whether it’s brand new or a turnaround, requires figuring out what the students there really need. For some students, the traditional school model with some updates and adjustments still works well. But what about students who, for example, learn better in a project-based setting or who may struggle with writing, but understand advanced concepts in science and need more challenging work? While many needs are common to most students (like effective teachers), there may be some that are more critical than others for a given group of kids.
2. What’s the plan to get students what they need? What’s the right defensive strategy?
Teams use other information—who’s on base, the score and how many outs there are—to determine the best defensive strategy for that situation. In a school setting, once students’ needs are determined, an instructional model should be determined to make sure those needs will be met. Would a blended learning model work? Or an expanded school year?
At Carpe Diem Meridien in Indianapolis, no two students are taking the exact same course load. As teacher Josh Woodward explains in Education Week, students’ course loads are determined by their instructional needs in each subject, as well as their areas of interest. Students and teachers have one-on-one and small group time to work on collaborative projects that bring their digital curriculum to life.
At Generation Schools, students have up to 30 percent more hours in the school year, compared to most traditional school models, and teachers have a notably reduced course load and a minimum of ninety minutes per day for collaborative planning. Match charter schools incorporate a high dose of one-on-one tutoring into every student’s school day. A Colorado district abandoned grade levels to move toward a competency-based model that’s more closely aligned to their immediate learning needs. All of these models are examples of districts and charter networks getting creative with school structure to put students’ unique needs first.
3. Who can get students what they need? Who’s on first? And second?
Some personnel are more effective in different situations—that’s why baseball teams have closers. A typical school district spends a majority of its budget on personnel. But different instructional models require different personnel, and if districts can allocate budgets based on the instructional model rather than the number of students in the building, there’s more room for innovation. A blended learning model might mean fewer teachers are required to reach students, because students divide their time between digital and in-person learning. The Match approach requires additional tutors. At the Academies of Nashville, Metro-Nashville Public Schools’ Career and Technical Education program, students spend time learning from professionals in various practical and technical fields.
In addition to staff, there are considerations around how much time should be allocated for different activities (and for the entire day), what materials are needed to deliver on the instructional model, and what the school space should look like, to name a few. There’s no reason for these to be uniform from school to school.
Baseball has been slow to change over time. And in some ways, this is a good thing. We love the game because of its traditions. In the same vein, the traditional school design model still has some advantages: Centralized district bureaucracy tends to be fairly stable, for example. But its biggest advantage is near-universal social and cultural acceptance—that very fact that everyone thinks of the same thing when they hear the word “school.” The real challenge is that most of us literally cannot imagine the alternatives. Like baseball, American public schools are treasured institutions that, for most of us, go back to our childhoods, so we shouldn’t expect that changing them will be easy: The anxiety that comes with upending a set of deeply ingrained expectations and values is genuine. But for school design to take significant leaps, we have to confront that.
Now is the time to do so. Data have done a lot for the game of baseball. Likewise, the past century has taught us a lot about how students learn and teachers teach, and about the best use of technology in aiding that process. As we move forward, districts will need to adapt to support a variety of schools. And they’ll have to grapple with big questions, like how to get parents, teachers and students to embrace changes in what the school experience looks like, how to remain flexible so schools and classrooms can continuously adapt over time, and how to address the urgent instructional needs of students while helping future and current teachers transition to new ways of teaching.
If America’s pastime can evolve, though, surely our schools can too.
Ben Jackson is Partner, Emerging Services at TNTP.
Makoko Floating School. Lagos, Nigeria. The school that floats.
In the floating neighborhood of Makoko, this all ages school serves as a communal learning space and example for future building projects in Africa’s coastal regions.
Makoko’s triangular frame is three stories high, built to resist rising water levels in the lagoon. At 1,000 square feet, the school (created byarchitecture firm NLÉ, the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the United Nations) includes a play area, compost toilets, and classrooms, all of which can house up to 100 students or residents.
AltSchool. San Francisco, California. The school of Silicon Valley.
AltSchool is a complete departure from traditional education, shirking the traditional testing model for one that improves technology skills and gets kids thinking flexibly so they can adapt as the world changes.
Kids turn everyday objects into circuit boards and learn 3D modeling to build playhouses, all in the pursuit of feeling comfortable with the future that greets them.
Brightworks School. San Francisco, California. The school that teaches dangerously.
Launched by visionary Gever Tulley in 2011, Brightworks takes some of the most dangerous things parents tell their kids not to do and makes an entire curriculum out of them. Kids in grades K to 12 get dirty, play with fire, take apart home appliances, and complete art projects all in the same day.
Samaschool. San Francisco, California. The school that says it’s not too late.
In-demand jobs are hard enough to find, let alone for people in low-income areas. But those are the peopleSamaschool wants most, which is why the school gives adults who struggle to find employment a leg up, with an education focused on the digital and entrepreneurial skills necessary in today’s market.
Ørestad Gymnasium. Copenhagen, Denmark. The school in a cube.
Ørestad Gymnasium is one giant classroom, where more than 1,100 high school students spend half their time learning in an expansive glass cube — a “gymnasium,” as parts of Europe still call secondary schools — to avoid traditional instruction.
By encouraging students to collaborate in wide-open settings, the school hopes kids will be equipped to think flexibly on diverse topics later in life.
Sra Pou Vocational School. Sra Pou village, Cambodia. The school for building community.
Designed by Finnish architecture firmRudanko + Kankkunen, the all-ages Cambodian school was built by community members, for community members, to learn how to turn their passions into full-fledged businesses. A local NGO provides teachers to guide students on that path.
Building the school was a lesson in itself, as architects created the structure side by side with local residents, giving them pointers on how to construct similarly styled buildings on their own.
Carpe Diem Schools. Aiken, Ohio. The school built like an office.
The Carpe Diem school look more like an office building than a classroom.
Inside the main room, known as The Learning Center, there are 300 cubicles (one for each student). These cubes house a computer that guides the student through his or her education.
Big Picture Learning. Providence, Rhode Island. The school in the real world.
The Big Picture Learning model breaks down the walls between education and the working world.
From the beginning, k-12 students learn their creative passions will come first. To help stoke those passions, students are paired with mentors who work in the fields the students want to someday enter.
P-TECH High School. Brooklyn, New York. The school that bridges high school and college.
P-TECH was launched in 2011 by IBM to give teens in New York a way into college that avoided the usual four-year high-school track.
Instead, P-TECH students complete a six-year degree. Boosted by mentorship and internships in STEM fields, the fifth and sixth years earn students an associate’s degree from the nearby New York City College of Technology, and many go on to pursue a bachelor’s degree afterward.
Innova Schools. Peru. The school built by world-class designers.
Innova is Peru’s response to failing standardized education in the country. The school combines several different forms of instruction — tech-heavy online learning, guided lessons, group work — in a setting that was designed to be modular and adaptable to the location.
Ex-engineer Jorge Yzusqui illionaire businessman Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor approached Yzusqui with plans to collaborate and expand, with help from global design firm IDEO. Today, there are 29 schools across the country.
Egalia Pre-school. Stockholm, Sweden. The school without gender.
The Egalia school system is founded on total equality between students. The system is made up of two schools, Egalia and Nicolaigården, which reject gender-based pronouns in the hopes of grooming kids to think of one another on equal terms.
Instead of “he” and “she,” kids are either called by their first names or referred to as “they.” It’s part of a mission to avoid discrimination of all kinds.
Steve Jobs School. Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The school that thinks different.
Like its namesake suggests, the Steve Jobs school rejects the conventional wisdom in full: Instead of corralling kids through the same educational system, they go at their own pace.
Maurice de Hond, the school’s founder, tells Tech Insider that each student begins with an Individual Development Plan (IDP), which is evaluated and readjusted every six weeks by the child, his or her parents, and the coach. (The school doesn’t call them “teachers.”)
Blue School. New York, New York. The school fusing compassion and creativity.
Creativity is king at Blue School, which was founded as a playgroup in 2006 by the Blue Man Group. Sensing a gap in how schools operated, the group strove to bring its quirkiness and love of inquiry into education.
As part of the curriculum, kids in grades 2 to 8 come up with ways to improve recycling, create 3D models of New York City, and fix home appliances.
A new way of teaching and learning is making its way into some public schools that, if it gains enough traction, could turn the traditional education system on its head. “Blended learning” is not about credits or grades; it’s about mastery through personalized learning. Students typically have no preset grade level. Nor are there predetermined course completion dates.
Blended learning combines face-to-face and digital lessons in an adult-supervised environment. The way it’s done varies from school to school, but a common denominator is that the location, tools and pace of instruction are carved out for each student’s learning needs.
“They get through at a pace based on their individual goals — not because they are in seventh grade. And they don’t accept a ‘C’ or ‘D’ because it is passing. They stay with [the class] until they master it. Conversely, if [advanced students] finish in nine weeks rather than 15, they move on to the next course,” said Bob Sommers, CEO of Carpe Diem Learning Systems, describing that Ohio-based company’s blended curricula, which is similar to other programs.
Ninth-grader David Unthank had a whole curricula tailored for him, at least with his chosen elective in interior design, which he plans to study in college.
“It’s a software program where you design 3D room models. You can drag and drop furniture from an aerial view,” said David.
He also uses tools enabling him to research average income and what a day would be like as an interior designer. And he can check out college programs online.
David usually starts his day in the learning center at his charter school, which is part of Cincinnati Public Schools. He logs on to his computer, and up comes a blue screen with color-coded charts, telling him the percentage of each course he has completed. Throughout the day, the chart turns from red to blue to green, depending on whether he is on track, falling behind or ahead.
“It’s intimidating if you get behind, but you can always get help,” he said. Students shoot a virtual ticket to the instructor, roaming the room with his electronic notepad, who walks them through their challenge.
“When I am ahead, I am free to go to other classes. I don’t end up bored, working on what I can already do,” said David. While the student next to him studies Biology, David listens to a “virtual teacher” elaborate on the Civil War PowerPoint presentation that fills his screen. Later he regroups with a few peers who heard the same presentation, and they sink into an in-depth conversation about what it will mean for freed slaves to enlist in the Union Army.
Schools around the nation are reporting improved performance outcomes -especially in low-income districts where kids have struggled, such as two California schools. The top score on that state’s academic performance index (API) is 1,000; 800 is the target score. Two years after implementing blended learning, a Los Angeles school got a 991 on the API and, shortly after, a neighboring school’s score jumped to 978.
A US Department of Education meta-analysis found that students in fully online courses outperformed those in “live” classes. And blended learning students outperformed those in fully online courses.
Riverside School District in California offers blended learning in kindergarten through 12th grade. Requested test scores were not disclosed to Huffington Post. But Rick Miller, the superintendent of schools who brought the model to Riverside, shared anecdotal testimony.
“Students are increasingly better learners and more inquisitive,” he said, recalling what happened after each child received a device with Internet access.
“We got a bill from the phone company with roaming charges. These kids were off on vacation, still working on their Algebra. We hear from parents they’re in the car on the way to Grandma’s doing their assignments. They are reading chapters two or three times when they may not have read them through once in a text book,” said Miller. He believes the motivation is driven by two factors: students’ ability to immediately access information and their attraction to technology.
Miller is bringing blended learning to Santa Ana Public Schools, the sixth largest school district in California. The project is a work in progress as he addresses issues like limited bandwidth, and obtaining a computer for each student.
“We should have a bandwidth of 2 gigabytes by the end of this year. In another year we should be at 5 gigabytes, which is when everyone can get on line.
“And today, I have 30,000 devices and 60,000 students. So we are half way there.”
Blended learning demands a radical change in teachers’ roles.
“Teachers are transitioning to facilitators who must use multiple resources [such as computer programs tracking student’s progress]. They have to decipher from a lot of data that shows how students are doing.
“And they must be able to adjust their [lesson] plans, based on that information to reinforce concepts,” said Kelli Campbell, senior vice president at Discovery Education. Discovery develops digital curricula that schools around the world use to supplement live classroom work. The organization also sends coaches into classrooms to teach faculty an entirely new way of doing their jobs.
Their “Flipped Classroom” model exemplifies some new demands on teachers. Lessons that are traditionally done in class become homework. And what is traditionally homework is done in class.
“Students may listen to a recorded lecture at home. Then come to school and engage in interactive lessons based on concepts they gleaned from the lecture,” said Campbell.
“The teacher may have to adjust instruction based on what needs to be revisited, and be prepared to give feedback immediately.”
Often, parents can log into a secure portal to track their children’s progress and attendance.
David’s mother, Kim Unthank, likes this — and she likes that she can talk face to face with her son’s teachers and the school board. She home schooled her son for years.
“In time, I felt he had surpassed me academically and that I wasn’t challenging him enough. But I didn’t want to send him to a traditional public school. He would have been in three classes of 30 kids each; I didn’t want to throw him in that huge mix.
“I feel like he’s in better hands education wise. But I can still be involved.”
Currently, there are more than 7 million online learners in kindergarten through 12th grade, according to Michael Horn, co-founder of Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit engaged in education policy conversations. As the trend continues, he said, “I think we will see more innovation in mainstream public schools. But we are in early stages of making change.”
Read “Blended Learning (Part 2): Policy Issues and Best Practices”