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.

Future teachers

Digital learning will change teachers’ jobs, but we’ll still need teachers, writes Michael Horn in Forbes.

As blended learning grows in K–12 education, it is not eliminating teachers, but eliminating certain traditional job functions of teachers. This change in the role of the teacher is, as others and I have noted, in part about allowing computers to do what computers do well to free up teachers to do what only humans can do.

. . . It appears likely that there will be more room for teachers to focus on deeper learning by working with students on higher-order skills and the application of knowledge in rich projects. Teachers should spend less time handling mundane administrative tasks that suck up time and less time delivering one-size-fits-none lesson plans. Teachers will have far more time to work with students one-on-one and in small groups and target their interactions in more meaningful ways.

Many blended-learning schools are unbundling teachers’ roles, Horn writes.

Some teachers serve as content experts and others as mentors and learning coaches. Some focus on tutoring, whereas others specialize in small-group projects or on making the learning relevant to the outside world. Still others act as case workers or counselors (but actually spend the majority of their day in the learning environment with students) to focus on the non-academic problems—like food, health, or emotional issues—that too often trip up students (and sadly receive short shrift in many schools today).

Unbundling has enabled Rocketship Education to pay teachers more. At Summit Public Schools, a team of teachers works with students in a large learning environment.

D.C. debates growth of charter schools

The majority of public school students in Washington D.C. could be attending charter schools in a few years, reports the Washington Post.

Rocketship Education, a California nonprofit group that blends online and teacher-directed learning, wants to open eight D.C. charter schools that would enroll more than 5,000 students by 2019. Rocketship’s model has worked well for low-income and minority students in San Jose.

Rocketship’s charter application — which is the largest ever to come before District officials, and which might win approval this month — arrives on the heels of Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s decision to close 15 half-empty city schools, highlighting an intense debate about the future of public education in the nation’s capital.

. . . “Maybe we need an entire school system full of charters,” said Virginia Spatz, who co-hosts a community-radio talk show on D.C. education. “But we need to have that after public conversation, not by accident.”

Reading and math scores rose significantly in Washington, D.C. from 2005 to 2011, note Aaron Churchill and Mike Petrilli in a Flypaper post that asks: Do demographic shifts explain cities’ test-score changes? Median household income also is on the rise in D.C. (Your tax dollars at work!) 

PRI: Flip the regulations

Students are learning more in “flipped” classes that use Khan Academy lessons, concludes a Pacific Research Institute report by Lance Izumi and Elliott Parisi. Furthermore, flipping could save tax dollars and extend the reach of excellent teachers. However, the free-market think tank sees bureaucratic obstacles to the spread of flipped and blended learning.

In a pilot in a Silicon Valley school district, some fifth- and seventh-grade math teachers used Khan’s instructional videos and student-tracking software. During class, students worked on problems and projects in small groups or directly with the teacher. Math scores rose, writes founder Salman Khan in The One World Schoolhouse. Twice as many seventh graders reached grade level. With each student working at his or her own pace, “we were seeing that students who were put in the ‘slower’ math classes could actually leapfrog ahead of their ‘non-slow’ peers,”  Khan writes.

Urban charter schools also piloted Khan math lessons. At an inner-city Oakland charter school, sixth graders who started with a third-grade mastery of math reached the  fifth- and sixth-grade level in six months, Khan writes.

Excellent teachers can work with more students in a flipped set-up, argues the report, citing education technology experts Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel.

. . . if one class out of four in a school’s 4th grade has an excellent teacher, and she spends half her instructional time on whole group instruction and half on more dynamic/personalized learning, then if Khan takes over the former whole-group instruction, two 4th grade classes could have that teacher just for personalized/dynamic learning.

A relatively low-cost aide can supervise computer labs where students view lessons, saving money. That’s the model at Rocketship charter elementary schools, which are posting very strong test scores.

To expand Khan Academy, Izumi and Parisi recommend awarding credit for mastering subject matter rather that “seat time,” changing state funding to follow students to online and blended-learning courses and expanding school choice.

Replicating Rocketship

Rocketship Schools‘ blended learning model is producing high test scores in the network’s San Jose charter schools. Can Rocketship replicate? Learning Matters takes a look.

The model is being updated: Rocketship is considering shifting students’ online time from learning labs to the classroom and looking for ways to use online data to improve classroom teaching.

High tech and high touch

Rocketship charter schools are known for “blended learning.” Students — most from Mexican immigrant families — spend two hours a day in a computer lab.  But at Rocketship’s Discovery Prep, Thomas Toch discovered a high-tech school that’s also high touch, he writes in The Atlantic.

Each morning at Discovery Prep and the rest of the Rocketship network, everyone gathers on the playground for announcements and a sing-a-long. Students receive recognition and rewards for outstanding behavior and achievement and teachers and students (the oldest are 5th graders) sing and dance to songs by Michael Jackson and other pop stars, surrounded by parent-volunteers. In the same spirit, teachers greet every student by name as they enter their classrooms, a routine that Rocketship calls a “threshold invite.” Personal connections between adults and students are paramount.

Parents are everywhere in the life of 640-student Discovery Prep. The schools organize meetings on curriculum, instructional strategies, and student behavior to enlist parents as educational partners. They take students and parents on bus trips to Stanford, Berkeley, and other local colleges and universities to get them invested in higher education. And they ask parents to spend 30 hours a year in their children’s schools and most do.

“A uniform and a deeply engrained behavior-management system creates clear expectations for students along with lots of positive reinforcement,” Toch writes. That creates a safe, orderly atmosphere.

Every day, students spend two hours in headphones in one of a hundred brightly colored cubicles in a big, open “learning lab,” doing a wide range of exercises in reading and math through programs with lots of audio and animation. They also routinely take “adaptive” quizzes that adjust the difficulty of questions to the accuracy of students’ answers.

Rocketship saves money by hiring aides to supervise the lab. The savings fund tutoring for students who need individual or small-group help. Rocketship also pays its teachers more and invests in improving the quality of teaching.

Because students work on basic skills in the lab, teachers have more time to teach advanced skills.

During my visit to Discovery Prep, a first-grade teacher was working with her students on “thinking like a scientist,” having them sit in a darkened room and develop hypotheses about what would happen when she shined a flashlight at aluminum foil, plastic wrap, and other materials.

Students’ lab results are analyzed to show their progress in mastering state and national standards, giving teachers “data dashboards” they can use to design classroom lessons, Toch writes.

But using technology intelligently isn’t enough, Toch concludes. Young students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds need caring adults. Digital education without flesh-and-blood people won’t work.

K-1 kids learn math online

Online learning produced significant gains for young students at three Rocketship charter schools, according to an SRI analysis.

Kindergarten and first-grade students who used the DreamBox Learning program to practice math skills outperformed the control group by 2.3 points on the NWEA test, the equivalent of moving from the 50th to the 55th percentile. All students received 100 to 110 minutes per day of math instruction in the classroom. Half spent 22 hours on DreamBox over the 16-week period; the control group used DreamBox for only five hours.

Rocketship’s hybrid model combines traditional classroom learning with individualized instruction through online technology in the Learning Lab and intensive tutor-led small groups. Because the Learning Lab is supervised by aides rather than teachers, Rocketship saves money that can be used to pay teachers more, hire tutors and extend the school day.

It’s a big win for edutainment software, writes Venture Beat, which notes that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings bought DreamBox last year.  A long-time charter advocate who served on the state board of education, Hastings is a Rocketship backer.

DreamBox has created math software that is “adaptive.” That is, a child can log into the online game and solve problems and the game can react to the skill level of the child. If the child does well, the game adapts the lessons so that they are harder. If the child needs more help, the game adapts the lessons so they are easier.

Teachers don’t have to worry about being replaced by computers says Andrew Elliott-Chandler, a Rocketship math teacher who’s moving up to the principal’s job.

“A lot of the grunt work of teaching is switched out for getting to know kids,” he says. “That’s one of the exciting changes. As learning the math facts shifts to the Learning Lab, there is a whole array of activities and programming that I no longer have to do in the classroom and instead, I’m able to spend more time looking at my kids’ needs . . . really exploring more high-engagement, high-leverage lessons with my kids.”

Rocketship’s Chief Schools Officer Aylon Samouha says the organization is planning further studies to compare the effectiveness of the available software programs with additional tutoring and class time for teaching given concepts.

Though most Rocketship students come from low-income Hispanic families, test scores are much higher than the California average. The network is opening four new schools and wants to have a 29-school network by 2018.

 

What computers do best, what teachers do best

“There are things that the computer does best and things that teachers do best,” says John Danner, co-founder of Rocketship Education, in a conversation with Liz Willen on the Hechinger Report. Rocketship uses a “hybrid” model:  Students spend part of the day in small classes taught by well-paid teachers and the rest working at their own pace in a computer lab supervised by an aide. The San Jose elementary schools, which primarily serve low-income, immigrant students, are among the top-scoring high-poverty schools in the state. They even do well compared to schools with middle-class students.

There are things that the computer does best and things that teachers do best. We think that computers do basic skills best. Traditionally, people have maligned computers in the education space for ‘drill and kill,’ but computers help kids practice things and help kids who don’t understand what they are practicing figure it out and go back to the original lesson. Computers can adapt on the fly to an individual child’s mistakes or successes, and that would be impossible for a teacher in a class of 25-30 kids.

What are some of the things that teachers do best?

We think it is social and emotional learning, and helping kids to think critically, along with project-based learning and integrating skills. Very few teachers became teachers to teach basic skills. They became teachers because they like to work with kids and help them learn values—and take what they know and apply it to problems, and help kids understand and cement concepts. There is a big difference between that and what you will see in low-income schools, where teachers have to spend all their time on basic skills. We can do both.

Rocketship hopes to open 20 charter schools in Silicon Valley by 2017 through partnerships with up to 11 school districts. Danner’s ultimate goal is to expand the Rocketship model to 50 U.S. cities, he tells Willen.

Study: Best charters don’t get most dollars

California’s best charter schools don’t get the most philanthropic dollars, concludes a study by Cato’s Andrew Coulson.

American Indian Public Charters‘ students score more than four standard deviations above the norm on the challenging California Standards Test, based on Coulson’s measure of effect size, yet the schools rank 21st in donor funding.

Oakland Charter Academies rank second in performance and 27th in funding, Wilder’s Foundation is third in achievement and 39th in funding and Rocketship Education is fourth in achievment and 10th in funding. All outperform Whitney High and Lowell High, district-run schools that select students based on high test scores, according to Coulson’s effect-size analysis.

Coulson also looked at the number of black and Hispanic students passing AP exams, excluding foreign languages:  “The correlations between charter networks’ AP performance and their grant funding are negative, though negligible in magnitude.”

Aspire Public Schools is the number one recipient of charter-school philanthropy in the state. It’s been around for a long time: Founder Don Shalvey, a former district superintendent, started the first charter school in the state. But Aspire ranks only 23rd among the state’s charters in student performance.

Philanthropists are replicating the charter schools with well-connected leaders, not necessarily those with the highest achievement, the study concludes.

Sturdy hybrid vigor

“Hybrid” schools that combine face-to-face teaching by teachers with online instruction are the next big thing, reports Education Next. The Rocketship schools in San Jose, School of One in New York City, Denver School of Science and Technology, Carpe Diem in Yuma and San Diego’s High Tech High “use technology intensively and thoughtfully to tailor instruction to individual students’ needs, and provide robust, frequent data on their performance,”  write Jonathan Schorr and Deborah McGriff, NewSchools Venture Fund partners.

In the lab, the 1st graders log in by selecting from a group of images that acts as a personal password, and then race through a short assessment that covers math and reading problems. Faced with the prompt “Put all the striped balls in one basket and all the polka-dotted balls in the other basket,” a student named Jazmine uses her mouse to move the objects to their places. Then it’s on to the core activity of her 90 minutes in the lab: a lesson on counting and grouping using software from DreamBox. . . .  A bit later, she’ll read a book from a box targeted at her exact reading level, and make a return visit to the computer to take a short quiz about what she read.

Hybrid schools realize productivity gains, Schorr and McGriff writes. Rocketship hires an aide to monitor 43 students in the computer lab. The money saved is used to pay teachers more and keep class size down in the face-to-face part of the day.

In the future, Rocketship hopes children will be able to “learn much of their basic skills via adaptive technology like the DreamBox software, leaving classroom teachers free to focus on critical-thinking instruction and extra help where kids are struggling.”

Likewise, teachers will be able to “prescribe” online attention to specific skills. Part of the model involves providing teachers with a steady stream of data that will help them adjust instruction to kids’ specific needs, and to guide afterschool tutors.  overwhelming to teachers.

High Tech High uses ALEKS, “a Web-based, artificially intelligent assessment and learning system,” which provides “a snapshot of a student’s knowledge in a given content area, recognizing which topics he has mastered and which he has not.”