A bipartisan consensus should embrace transformational educational models that are closing achievement gaps and saving taxpayers’ money.
The U.S. House of Representative’s Committee on Education and the Workforce passed its version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) last week, the Student Success Act of 2013, one week after the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee’s mark-up and passage of Senator Tom Harkin’s version of the ESEA re-authorization, Strengthening America’s Schools Act. In one key way, there’s plenty of room for bipartisan compromise – incentivizing a new and promising instructional design model that is closing achievement gaps and transforming education.
Buried deep inside Harkin’s bill is reference to the instructional innovation called “blended learning.” The instructional model effectively individualizes instruction by marrying online content and assessments to face-to-face teaching. Unlike the traditional classroom model where a teacher standardizes instruction – often at the lowest common denominator— and lectures a class of 20-30 students, blended learning customizes the education of every student by targeting learning and collecting data on the student’s individual progress across subjects and tracks mastery or competency. Students watch videos, interact with peers and content, and take frequent standards-based assessments on what they learned (often no more than a short quiz).
Crucially, that real-time and accurate data is analyzed to help classroom teachers target instruction in small-group and one-on-one settings. If a student is struggling with right triangles, the teacher could know in minutes and catch the struggling student up. Online tools and effective teachers can do what for decades education experts have known works – differentiated or individualized instruction.
Harkin’s proposal defines blended learning as “the combination of online learning and traditional in-person classroom instruction, or technology-based learning, in a supervised classroom setting with some element of student control over time, place, path or pace.” The Senate Education Committee Chairman incentivizes states and school districts to implement blended learning programs by requiring them to use a small portion of No Child Left Behind’s Part D state and local grants for innovative and competitive instructional design changes.
Unfortunately nowhere in the House’s latest ESEA bill does the term ‘blended learning’ appear. This is disappointing because House Education Committee Chairman John Kline included blended learning in the 2012 version of ESEA, in the form of an amendment by Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr., which never became law. The 2012 Hunter-Kline language specifically required states to prioritize blended and hybrid models in awarding competitive grants to charter schools – a similar approach to Harkin’s.
Although policymakers have a lot to consider – from the prescriptive nature of state content standards to reforms to the Title I grant program for disadvantaged students –one thing private discussions and public comments make clear: no one on Capitol Hill is satisified with the progress to date in improving proficiency for all students.
High-quality blended learning models are tackling that challenge to great success And in what should music to lawmakers on both sides, blended learning – as Harkin’s own bill language acknowledges – can be used “to increase education productivity and reduce costs through the use of technology.” Blended learning, when done well, has the potential to transform the K-12 classroom delivering high-quality instruction both more effectively and efficiently.
Blended learning is proving especially potent for students being underserved by the current system, and the movement is spreading beyond charters.
More and more traditional public school districts recognize the power of blended learning to deliver the right lesson to the right student at the right time. California’s Oakland Unified School District launched a 4 school pilot under this model in the fall of 2012 and internal benchmarks are promising.
In central and eastern Pennsylvania, dozens of schools, including Lebanon High School with 72% free and reduced lunch eligible students, have introduced the blended learning model under the Pennsylvania Hybrid Learning Initiative.
Charter schools are already closing the achievement gap with blended learning. In inner-city Los Angeles, a handful of charter schools including the KIPP Empower elementary school in South Los Angeles and the LA Alliance middle and high schools have recently opened under the blended learning model.
The early results are promising. At LA Alliance’s Tennebaum Tech campus in Glassell Park, not one student could pass the state exit exam at the beginning of the school year, by year’s end 70% do. KIPP Empower, which is phasing in the program with its youngest grades, saw its proficient and advanced literacy scores rise from 36% to over 96% in the first year.
Not only is the model proving more effective at educating students, its proving more efficient. Since students are self-directed and supported on ongoing basis, staff can be differentiated with head teachers designing and implementing curriculum as “learning coaches” support students on an as-needed basis. The arbitrary student-to-teacher ratios, and the resulting high per-pupil costs, of the traditional classroom are becoming irrelevant.
High scoring Arizona charter school Carpe Diem Middle and High School educates each student for $5,300 a year – half the national average and 30% less than neighboring Arizona schools. Blended learning proves you can drive student learning without spending more.
Well-designed and implemented blended learning models can individualize instruction, deliver excellence and do it efficiently – a truly bipartisan aim.
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