Online, blended schools face critics

Photograph of Elizabeth Novak-Galloway
Elizabeth Novak-Galloway, 12, center, seen with mother Gabriela Novak and sister Kira, 8, was pulled from a K12 school by her dissatisfied mother. Photo: Dai Sugano, Bay Area News Group

Virtual (all-online) and blended learning schools aren’t doing as well as traditional schools, concludes a National Education Policy Center report. Performance is especially low at for-profit schools, researchers said.

The report recommends slowing or halting the growth of virtual and blended schools, writing rules that specify a student-teacher ratio and other measures, reports Hechinger’s Nichole Dobo.

Officials at K12 Inc., a for-profit company that operates a significant share of the nation’s online schools, said they had noticed flaws in the data – such as missing schools and inaccurate demographic numbers. They took issue with the report’s methodology, saying that high turnover rates in online schools make it difficult to compare these schools to more traditional models.

K12’s California Virtual Academies were accused of “cashing in on failure” by the San Jose Mercury News after a recent investigation. In particular, graduation rates are very low.

I think it’s hard to compare students who choose all-online schools with those in traditional schools. It’s not just apples and oranges. It’s apples and zucchini. Overall, though, research suggests that learning online requires maturity and motivation — or, at least, a parent’s close supervision. Students who couldn’t succeed with an in-person teacher aren’t likely to do better with a virtual teacher.

The report is way off base on blended learning, responds Julia Freeland Fisher, director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute, who questions what’s counted as a “blended learning school.”

Furthermore, “Does blended learning work?” is the wrong question, she writes.

That is tantamount to asking: Do textbooks work? Do lectures work? Do small group interactions work? Of course these delivery methods—like blended learning—vary widely in their effectiveness depending on how they are implemented. Instead, we need to evaluate specific blended learning models relative to acute problems that individual school systems are trying to solve.

Blended learning — a mix of online and face-to-face instruction — is spreading rapidly, she writes. By 2019, half of high school courses will incorporate online learning with “the vast majority of these using blended learning instructional models.” Christensen researchers predict.

Catholic schools change to survive

Hard hit by demographic changes and competition from charter schools, Catholic schools are trying new strategies to survive, while remaining true to their religious mission, write Kelly Robson and Andy Smarick in Education Next.

A Cristo Rey student works at a medical center in Baltimore. Photo: Cristo Rey

A Cristo Rey student works at a medical center in Baltimore. Photo: Cristo Rey

Urban Catholic school students – especially those from low-income, minority families — “are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, earn higher wages, and engage in pro-social behaviors like voting and volunteerism,” they write.

At its mid-1960s peak, Catholic schools educated 5.6 million students in approximately 13,000 schools, they write. That’s down to  fewer than 2 million students in 6,500 Catholic schools. Many urban schools have closed.

Now, school consortia are helping Catholic schools tackle common problems and achieve economies of scale.

Private school management organizations, nonprofits that manage a set of schools, also provide economies of scale and educational expertise.

Girls at Lourdes Academy, a Notre Dame ACE Academy . Photo: University of Notre Dame

Girls at Lourdes Academy, a Notre Dame ACE Academy . Photo: University of Notre Dame

Technology is helping boost engagement — and achievement — while reducing costs. Seton Education Partners is helping Catholic schools use blended learning effectively.

Another cost-saving model known as “micro-schooling” splits “students’ time between classroom, home, and online learning,” write Robson and Smarick.

In addition, voucher programs, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts are helping lower-income parents afford a Catholic education for their children.

Teachers want tech, but need training

“It seems a waste,” writes Hechinger’s Meghan Murphy. Despite “millions of educational apps, millions of lesson plans available online, millions of laptops in the hands of students,” few teachers “find ways to infuse technology into their lessons.”

Teachers say they need more and better training, she writes. In a 2015 survey, 90 percent of teachers said technology was important for classroom success; almost two-thirds wanted to integrate it into their lessons, but said they needed more training.

Paul Andersen, a Bozeman High School science teacher and Montana Teacher of the Year, showed other teachers how to create YouTube tutorials to "flip" the classroom.

Paul Andersen, a Bozeman High science teacher, showed how to create YouTube tutorials to “flip” the classroom.

A nonprofit and several teacher-founded companies are developing interactive training methods to help teachers use digital tools effectively.

Jessica Anderson has “blended” her ninth-grade earth science class in Deer Lodge, Montana. She’s is the state’s Teacher of the Year for 2016.

On a day in December, a girl worked on her laptop to illustrate the cycle of water through the atmosphere, while a boy used Google 3-D glasses to take “a virtual field trip, researching various ways that communities across the globe use minerals.” Each student was on a self-directed path, writes Murphy.

BetterLesson, founded by former teachers from Atlanta and Boston,  provides “master teachers” who help someone like Anderson “create a strategic plan for doing blended learning” and a way to measure effectiveness, writes Murphy. “The team then meets along the way for coaching, feedback and accountability.”

When Jessica Lura taught a lesson on mood in writing, she used a PBS Kids video as a hook for her eighth-graders at Bullis Charter School in Los Altos, California, writes Murphy.

By the end of the lesson, they’ll have written sentences in various moods, written and recorded a monologue, and made that monologue come to life with an animation app.

Lura’s teaching is captured in the “Lesson Flow in Action” video on Graphite, which is Common Sense Media’s portal for teacher resources. Common Sense featured Lura because she’s one of their certified educators who integrates technology comfortably into her classroom. Her lesson plans are hosted with about 2,200 other lessons on the site, which also has almost 12,000 app reviews accessible to its more than 310,000 teacher members.

Another sites, Teachers Pay Teachers, provides free and paid resources. Teachers have earned $175 million for their lessons.

Public: 30% of time on computers is OK

How much class time should students spend learning via computers? Thirty percent is about right, says the public in an Education Next survey. Teachers say 20 percent. Blended-learning experts said that about 40 percent of classroom time should be spent “receiving instruction independently through or on a computer.”

Is personalization the future of learning?

Should Personalization Be the Future of Learning? asks Education Next.

Ben Riley questions whether students will learn more if they have control over what they learn and when and how quickly they learn it.

Effective instruction requires understanding the varying cognitive abilities of students and finding ways to impart knowledge in light of that variation. If you want to call that “personalization,” fine, but we might also just call it “good teaching.” And good teaching can be done in classrooms with students sitting in desks in rows, holding pencil and paper, or it can be done in classrooms with students sitting in beanbags holding iPads and Chromebooks. Whatever the learning environment, the teacher should be responsible for the core delivery of instruction.

Technology can help teachers teach well, Riley writes. For example, “using a tablet with a screencasting app, teachers can record their students grappling with a problem and reflect on what led to their understanding (or failure to understand).”

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon

In addition, technology can provide “almost real-time data on student learning that can be quickly analyzed and acted upon.”

Also Francis Bacon

Also Francis Bacon

But he’s seen technology-rich, learning-poor classrooms where students write “essays on Baconian science with texts about the 20th-century British artist Francis Bacon and on the problems that Martin Luther King had with Pope Leo X and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.”

“Teachers are best positioned to lead cognitively challenging activities like Socratic seminars, deep reading, and math talk,” responds Alex Hernandez. “Personalized learning environments are better suited to teach basic skills and background knowledge than to teach critical thinking.”

Students can spend part of the day using technology to develop basic skills and background knowledge, he writes. That will free teachers to create “challenging tasks and compelling experiences.Teachers should be in the business of creating ‘aha’ moments for children, not figuring out seven different math lessons for 25 different students.”

3rd graders spend 75% of day on iPads 

Third-graders follow and annotate a text on climate as their teacher reads it aloud. Later the children will be asked to post photographs related to the topic. Photo: Gail Robinson

Third-graders follow and annotate a text on climate as their teacher reads it aloud. Later the children will be asked to post photographs related to the topic. Photo: Gail Robinson

In Glued to the screen, Hechinger’s Gail Robinson looks at third-graders who spend three-quarters of the day on IPads. The affluent New York suburb of Mineola has supplied tablets to all students.

In Morgan Mercaldi’s class, many students use eSpark, which creates a “playlist” of education apps geared to each student’s needs, reports Robinson. After researching online and in books, students organize a first-person narrative about frogs on their iPads, then write it up on paper. The teacher pairs each student with a partner to revise their writing.

“Working with eSpark, Mineola selected apps, readings and videos” geared to Common Core standards, writes Robinson.

Third-graders began with the variety of apps available on eSpark and then added MobyMax, which provides electronic curricula, mostly for math. Teachers began using Edmodo to allow students to submit their work electronically for quick review.

Mercaldi teaches a short math less on multiplying to determine the area of rectangles. Students use their iPads to answer questions she’s posted on Edmodo. The software makes it easy to see where a student may need extra help.

Later the class will divide into four groups working at different levels.  While one group reads with the teacher, the others will do lessons on eSpark, Edmodo or MobyMax.

Mineola also is working with School4One to “compile digital portfolios that will track student progress in meeting individual Common Core standards.”

Mastery grading: Learn it now or later

Ohio Gov. John Kasich wants to pilot “competency-based education“– aka mastery grading or standards-based education — writes Jessica Poiner on Ohio Gadfly.

New Hampshire is the national leader in competency-based education. In Ohio, it’s being tried at Metro Early College School and MC²STEM high school, as well as the Pickerington school district.

Mastery grading assesses how well a student has learned specific skills and concepts. It doesn’t count homework completion, daily assignments, class participation or tests on multiple standards.

. . . Instead of interpreting what Tyrone’s B in algebra means, Tyrone and his parents know that he understands polynomials at 97 percent mastery and two-variable equations at 90 percent mastery; but he has trouble with inequalities and the quadratic equation, where his mastery hovers at 65 percent.

. . .  let’s imagine that Tyrone needs additional help to master the quadratic equation. This extra help can take multiple forms: Tyrone could log in to Khan Academy. He could receive one-on-one tutoring from his teacher during or outside of class. Or he could work in a group of similarly struggling students to complete a project on the real-life applications of quadratic equations. . . . After receiving remediation for the material he hasn’t mastered, Tyrone retakes the assessment. If he achieves mastery, he moves on (say, to exponents and factoring). If he doesn’t achieve mastery, he receives more support.

Providing all that support — and designing advanced work for fast-moving students will require more from administrators and teachers, writes Poiner. Teachers will need time to plan and share ideas and resources. They’ll need to use technology.

Teachers can leverage online resource-sharing hubs, including sites that boast lessons written by effective teachers. There are applications that make tracking mastery data easy, allowing teachers to focus on planning instead of tracking. The rise of blended learning and adaptive models makes effective, personalized remediation real without asking teachers to build a system from scratch on their own.

Some think master grading sets students up for failure by denying “points for showing up, points for being on time, points for homework completion, points for participation, points for extra credit.”

Diligence should be tracked separately, Poiner argues. The hard-working, well-behaved kid who hasn’t learned how to solve a quadratic equation, understand DNA or write a persuasive essay needs a chance to learn those skills — not a worthless diploma and a future of frustration.

Standards-based grading can give parents much more information, writes Matt Collette on Slate. He reports on a Brooklyn middle school. Via a “continuously updated online grade book . . . students are rated on more than 70 different skills, such as the ability to write persuasively, determine the main idea of a passage, or multiply fractions. . . . Students need to demonstrate proficiency three separate times—through homework, on a quiz, or through some other means—to be considered proficient.”

How to blend tech and teachers

Liz Arney’s new guidebook, Go Blended!,  shows “how schools should think about using technology and blended learning to better serve students,” writes Andrew J. Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners.

Arney, one of the contributors to the Blend My Learning blog, is director of “innovative learning” for Aspire Public Schools‘ charters.

Blended learning — using learning software for part of the day — is often used to enable students to work at their own pace, freeing teachers to work with small groups.

Disrupt and personalize

Online learning can personalize instruction — and make it less boring — says Michael Horn in a Reason TV interview. Horn is co-author of the new book, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.

Differentiation is a failure

Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students,” writes James R. Delisle in Education Week. A consultant on gifted students and a part-time teacher, Delisle is the author of Dumbing Down America: The War on Our Nation’s Brightest Young Minds (And What We Can Do to Fight Back).

Differentiation sounds great, but “is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back,” he writes.

Toss together several students who struggle to learn, along with a smattering of gifted kids, while adding a few English-language learners and a bunch of academically average students and expect a single teacher to differentiate for each of them. That is a recipe for academic disaster . . .

. . . the only educators who assert that differentiation is doable are those who have never tried to implement it themselves: university professors, curriculum coordinators, and school principals. It’s the in-the-trenches educators who know the stark reality: Differentiation is a cheap way out for school districts to pay lip service to those who demand that each child be educated to his or her fullest potential.

Dismantling special classes for gifted kids, struggling learners and disruptive students has “sacrificed the learning of virtually every student,” argues Delisle. 

I volunteered in my daughter’s classrooms when she was in elementary school in Palo Alto. Nearly all the students were being raised by highly educated white or Asian-American parents. Yet, in what may have been the least diverse school in California, there was enormous variation in children’s abilities to sit still, pay attention, follow directions, write letters, read fluently, etc.

I predict “blended learning” — using technology to personalize instruction — will expand rapidly as a way to help teachers manage classrooms in which students have a wide range of skills. But it has its limits.

Here’s another hit on the myth of learning styles.