When computers pick lessons

A blended learning classroom at David Boody Jr. High School in New York City.
A Teach to One math classroom at a New York City middle school.

A computer system decides which students need which math lessons at Boody Intermediate School in Brooklyn, writes Nichole Dobo on the Hechinger Report.

In a corner of a very large room, John Garuccio wrote a multiplication problem on a digital whiteboard. A computer system had identified which 20 students — out of 150 sixth graders in the room — need this lesson, based on yesterday’s quiz.

“Where does the decimal point go in the product?” asked Garuccio. When a boy provided the right answer, he added, “Tell me why. It’s good to have the right answer, but you need to know why.”

Teach to One: Math combines small group lessons, one-on-one learning with a teacher, learning directly from software and online tutoring.

Math class spans two 35-minute sessions, with students and teachers rotating to new stations after the first session. . . . On a recent day in December, the classroom was staffed with one math director, five teachers, two teaching assistants and a technology aide.

. . . The software used by the Teach to One system pulls lessons from a database created and curated by the program’s academic team.

A recent study found above-average learning gains at most Teach to One schools. In the study’s second year, Teach to One students performed 47 percent better than the national average, notes NPR.
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Teach to One co-founder, Joel Rose, “credits that to the algorithm’s ability to improve itself, but also to second-year schools becoming more acclimated with the program and learning how to train teachers to better use the software.”

Here’s Justin Reich’s analysis of the research and the response by New Classrooms.

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.

Techies try home, un and micro schooling

Parker and Simon Cook.

Parker and Simon Cook are “unschooled” in Berkeley.  Credit: Timothy Archibald/Wired

Homeschooling — and unschooling — are attracting well-to-do techies, reports Jason Tanz on Wired.

Chris Cook never liked sitting in a classroom. He dropped out of college to work on computers. Samantha Cook blogs about parenting, education reform and other topics and “started a network of hackerspaces for kids,” writes Tanz. She “unschools” their two boys at home; their daughter has chosen private school.

“The world is changing. It’s looking for people who are creative and entrepreneurial, and that’s not going to happen in a system that tells kids what to do all day,” Samantha says. “So how do you do that? Well if the system won’t allow it, as the saying goes: If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

. . . Jens Peter de Pedro, an app designer in Brooklyn, says that five of the 10 fathers in his homeschooling group work in tech, as do two of the eight mothers.

“There is a way of thinking within the tech and startup community where you look at the world and go, ‘Is the way we do things now really the best way to do it?’” de Pedro says. “If you look at schools with this mentality, really the only possible conclusion is ‘Heck, I could do this better myself out of my garage!’”

Technology is making new education models possible, says Jyri Engestrom, a “serial entrepreneur.” He started by homeschooling his children with his partner, Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr and Hunch. That became a 10-student “micro-school.” Now students go part-time to an AltSchool  micro-school in which “teachers help students create their own individualized lesson plans,” writes Tanz. AltSchool is a startup created by an ex-Googler.

Homeschooling has its limits. Many parents don’t have the time, personality or ability. But the technology-enabled micro-school could be the next big thing in alternative education.

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.

Study: Blending boosts math scores

Urban middle school students improved significantly after using a personalized, blended-learning math program, according to a new study from Teachers College, Columbia, reports Ed Week.  Low achievers gained the most after using Teach to One: Math.

The program employs a computer algorithm to deliver individualized lessons to students daily and provides a personalized instruction schedule for teachers. Teach to One: Math combines teacher-led instruction, small-group collaboration, digital lessons and virtual tutoring and was inspired by New York City’s School of One, which focuses on personalized instruction for middle school students.

. . . During the 2012-13 school year, students using Teach to One: Math gained math skills at a rate about 15 percent higher than the national average. In the second year of the program’s implementation students made gains of about 47 percent above national norms, even though some of those students were still in their first year of using Teach to One: Math.

New Classrooms Innovation Partners, a nonprofit, developed the program. In the first year, the curriculum included fourth and fifth grade math, but it now goes down to second grade, said Christopher Rush, the chief program officer.

In 2012-13 the lowest-achieving group using the program gained 37 percent more than low-achieving students nationally; in 2013-14 that number rose to about 81 percent higher than national norms for that group.

High achievers did not outperform the control group.

‘Personalized learning’ helps in math, reading

“Personalized learning” appears to be raising math and reading scores at 23 schools, according to “interim research” by Rand for the Gates Foundation.

Teacher Pete Knight works with students at an Oakland middle school.

Teacher Pete Knight works with students at an Oakland middle school.

The 23 urban charter schools in the study predominantly enroll low-income students with below-average scores. Yet students ended the school year above or near the national average. The lowest performers improved the most.

Most teachers use technology — adaptive software programs with short lessons and quizzes — to personalize instruction. Students work at their own pace and their own level, moving forward only when they’ve demonstrated mastery. Typically, teachers work with small groups while other students are working independently.

Slightly less than half of teachers said students use technology for educational purposes about a quarter to half of the time, and about 20 percent said students use technology between 50 to 75 percent of the time. Among the remainder, nearly 20 percent reported an even higher level of technology usage, and nearly 20 percent reported a fairly low level of technology usage.

Most schools used common elements, notes Chalkbeat

  • “Learner profiles,” or records with details about each student;
  • Personalized learning plans for each student (students have the same expectation but have a “customized path”);
  • Competency-based progression, in which students receive grades based on their own mastery of subjects rather than on tests that all students take; and
  • Flexible learning environments, in which teachers and students have physical space and time in the schedule for small-group instruction or tutoring.

Denver’s  Grant Beacon Middle School has used blended learning to personalize for three years, reports Chalkbeat. Test scores and student engagement have improved, says Alex Magaña, the principal. Denver may create several new schools modeled on Grant Beacon.

I wrote about experiments with blended learning in Oakland schools — mostly district schools — in Education Next.

For more on using blended learning to personalize, check out: Blended. Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve SchoolsHow to get blending learning right and Does blended learning work?

Learning from disruption

Rocketship charter schools experimented with 100-student “flexible” classrooms, then returned to its more conventional — and very successful — blended-learning model. Was it just a failure? asks Christina Quattrochi on EdSurge.

In Rocketship schools, students spend 3/4 of their time in teacher-led classes of 27 students and the rest in a learning lab, where they work on adaptive software.

Two years ago, Rocketship put fourth- and fifth-graders in 100-student spaces for the entire school day.

Three teachers and one learning coach decided everything from the class schedule to how the 60 Chromebooks were used.

. . . In a class of 100, one teacher could give a lecture to 20 students, much like a traditional classroom. Meanwhile, another teacher could oversee small group projects for 30 students. 40 students could be working independently online, with the remaining 10 receiving one-on-one tutoring from the third teacher.

Learning gains “depended a lot on the dynamic of the (teaching) team . . . and that dynamic is difficult to control and predict,” says Charlie Bufalino, manager of growth and policy. “So thinking about scaling and building it into a model was difficult.”

Rocketship has “throttled back” its ambitious multi-state expansion plans.

Test scores fell. Rocketship went back to the old model, with some modifications. Teachers in grades 3 to 5 will get 10 Chromebooks in their classrooms and more time for collaboration.  This year, schools will implement a 40-minute “flex block” in which students in the same grade will be “grouped based on their skills and work collaboratively on targeted practice assignments.”

“Disruptive innovation” can disrupt students’ learning write Richard Whitmire and Michael Horn on the Hechinger Report. But, even after the experimental year, Rocketship’s students are doing much better than their neighborhood friends in the nearest San Jose Unified school.

Take Mateo Sheedy, the Rocketship school that suffered the biggest setback. Mateo Sheedy embarrassed itself as its test scores fell. The 2013 student proficiency rates for its students fell to 62 percent in English and 76 percent in math (from 2010 proficiency rates of 83 and 90).

. . . if Rocketship were not around, where would its students go to school? . . . Gardner Elementary, a San Jose Unified school (is) located less than a mile away from Mateo Sheedy. The schools serve a similar demographic of students, both in terms of the percentage of Hispanic students and in terms of the poverty rate. The proficiency rates for Gardner students in English and math for that same year: 19 percent and 32 percent, down from 30 and 45 in 2010.

Rocketship saw a problem and moved quickly to fix it, they write. Mateo Sheedy and the other Rocketship schools “mostly recovered” this year,  according to the network.

Whitmire is the author of On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools Are Pushing the Envelope.

‘Lots of different ways to educate’ kids

‘Kids Are Different: There Are Lots of Different Ways to Educate Them,’ Glenn Harlan Reynolds (aka Instapundit) tells Julia Ryan in The Atlantic.

In The New School, Reynolds predicts “the future of American education is rooted in technology, choice and customization,” writes Ryan.

Vouchers, charters, homeschooling and private schools are competing for students, says Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee.

I think the sort of savior for the public school system is charter schools and things that let people exercise a lot of educational choice while within the public school system because when people stay within the public school system they retain loyalty to it, so they are more likely to support taxes for it and they get counted as enrollees for federal funding and the like.

Brick-and-mortar colleges won’t go away, but they’ll also have to compete for students, Reynolds predicts. 

There are a lot of older people who really don’t want to go back and spend four years as Joe College and Betty Coed going to classes but need to get an education. . . . Now whether it will also start to cut into the traditional 18 to 22 college population, it’s hard to say but if it’s going to be cost-effective, sure it will. If you’re 18 years old and you can go to college online, and also work in a job and also live at home, your net cost of going to college is vastly lower than if you leave home, go somewhere where you really can’t work much, have to pay to live in a dorm, have to buy a meal plan, and have to pay full tuition.

Reynolds’ daughter “did almost all of her high school” online.  She focused on one class at a time. “She finished a year’s worth of work in one class in three weeks of intensive effort instead of little dribs and drabs along the year the way they do in public school.”

Rocketship tries Blended Learning 2.0

Old-fashioned blended learning uses the rotation model:  Half the class may be watching Khan Academy videos and taking quizzes geared to their performance level, while the teacher works with the other half on the math skills they need to learn. Rocketship charter schools are trying Blended Learning 2.0, reports Education Week. The classroom has more teachers, more students and more flexibility. 

Here’s how the charter operator’s new instructional model looked in action at Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary in San Jose, Calif. on a recent chilly morning:

On one side of the large, rectangular 4th grade classroom, teacher Juan Mateos leads a lesson on identifying figurative language. He projects a poem about California earthquakes on to a screen: “Palm trees begin to sway all by themselves / Here, the earth likes to dance, cha-cha-cha.”

Twenty-two students—grouped together based on their similar academic abilities, which put them in the middle of the classroom pack—are gathered on a carpet, reading along. At Mr. Mateos’ instruction, they turn to classmates and debate whether the poem is a metaphor or an example of personification.

Twenty yards away, teacher Jason Colon works with 22 of the school’s most-advanced 4th graders, also grouped according to ability. The children sit in pairs, facing each other across their desks, binders upright between them. To keep this ambitious lot engaged in his math lesson about graphing coordinates, Mr. Colon has the children create their own x- and y-axes, plot “battleships,” and attempt to sink each other’s fleets—a creative twist on the classic board game.

The lowest-performing 4th grade students work at learning stations or laptops. An aide keeps an eye on them while “working from a scripted curriculum to help four students learn letter sounds.”

Then Mr. Colon reteaches a lesson to the low performers, the middle group moves to computers and Mr. Mateos “adapts his lesson to push the more-advanced students to write their own figurative language.”

Under Rocketship’s old “station rotation” blended learning model, still used in early grades, class sizes are more traditional, and students of mixed abilities rotate from regular classrooms to stand-alone “learning labs,” where they receive computer-assisted instruction. Rocketship officials say that under that model, it’s difficult to address the needs of top- and bottom-performing students—a challenge many schools face.

Teachers now specialize. Mr. Mateos teaches each reading and language arts lesson in three different ways. Mr. Colon adapts math to three different groups.

In a flexible day, a student may spend time in a group of five students to 109 students.

Rocketship made its name by posting very high test scores for low-income, Latino students. Test scores fell when schools shifted to the flex model, reports Ed Week. Rocketship also was trying to save money on staffing and open new schools.

In response, the charter network is slowing the transition to flexible classrooms, using flexibility only in grades 4 and 5 in existing schools. The new model no longer is expected to generate cost savings.

Blend, flip, disrupt

In Blend, flip, disrupt, I report on a a Blended Learning in K-12 conference at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

When she introduced Khan Academy videos and quizzes to her sixth-grade math students, Suney Park had to “give up control,” she said.  “That’s hard.”

But the software lets her students work at their own level and their own pace, moving on only when they’ve mastered a lesson. More are reaching proficiency, says Park, who teaches at Eastside College Prep, a tuition-free private school in all-minority, low-income East Palo Alto, California.

“I’ll never go back,” Park said.

Before she tried blended learning, she struggled to “differentiate” instruction for students at very different levels. “You can try it, but you can’t sustain it,” she said. “Teaching to the middle is the only way to survive.” Now, her advanced students aren’t working on a task devised to “keep them out of the way.” They’re moving ahead.

Personalizing lessons for each student’s needs and providing immediate, actionable feedback on each student’s mastery (or not) are two of the biggest advantages of blended learning, said Michael Horn, co-founder of the Christensen Institute.