Break open the egg crate

End the Tyranny of the Self-Contained Classroom — an “egg crate” with a four-walled classroom and a qualified teacher for every 25 (or 30 or 35) students — writes Arthur Wise in Ed Week.

Contrast schools with other professional workplaces, where seasoned professionals and novices work together, incorporate technology into their work, see each other in action, and collaborate in ways that allow novices to contribute and to learn while senior professionals remain firmly in charge and accountable to clients for performance.

. . . As one example of breaking free of the divisive egg-crate model, we could define “classroom” as 150 students served by a team of professionals and others. At the cost of six fully qualified teachers, a team of 17 full-time members, led by a well-compensated, board-certified or otherwise accomplished teacher, could serve the class. Senior teachers would remain accountable for the learning of the 150 students, but many other human and technological resources would be available to help students.

New Classrooms, created by School of One founders, is designing out-of-the-box instruction, starting with a middle-school math model called Teach to One: Math. ”The factory-model classroom of one teacher and 28 or so students in an 800 square foot room has outlived its time,” said Joel Rose.

 Students will learn in multiple instructional modalities: in small groups, working one on one with teachers, using educational software and studying with expert online tutors.

Teach to One will launch in Chicago, Perth Amboy, New Jersey and a third city in fall 2012.

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.”

Beyond tracking

To eliminate bad tracking — dumping some kids in dead-end classes — reformers have eliminated honors classes and dumped “all agemates in the same class” regardless of their preparedness, writes Mike Petrilli on Education Gadfly. He hopes to get beyond tracking by customizing instruction.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or even a cognitive scientist—to know that kids (and adults) learn best when presented with material that is challenging—neither too easy so as to be boring nor too hard as to be overwhelming. Like Goldilocks, we want it just right. Grouping kids so that instruction can be more closely targeted to their current ability levels helps make teaching and learning more efficient.

Online-learning technologies and more targeted assessments should enable schools to “pinpoint exactly what students know and serve up instruction that meets them there,” Petrilli writes.

At School of One, a middle school math program in New York City, students are placed in specific learning modules based on their performance the previous day, and on a sophisticated algorithm. Some kids are sent to small-group instruction with similarly-abled peers; others head to one-on-one online tutoring; others work independently on a computer; others get more traditional classroom instruction. It’s all customized to match the students’ needs and abilities. (Read more about School of One and other models of individualized instruction in this excellent Education Next article.)

Teachers are struggling to “differentiate instruction” to meet the needs of students with a wide range of abilities and disabilities, performance levels and English fluency. Half the teachers in high-need schools say they’re not able to do it well, according to the MetLife survey. I think this is a major cause of teacher burn-out.

The future of digital learning

How can technology help students learn? National Journal’s Education Experts look at the “digital learning gap.” 

The recently launched Digital Learning Council and other groups are working to translate powerful ideas about technology and education to powerful results in the classroom. A minority of schools, such as School of One, are already taking advantage of technology to provide innovative instruction models.

Digital learning will “boost persistence and performance” and make public education more efficient, writes Tom Vander Ark.  

 Virtual options will double in enrollment in the next few years, but most students will learn in blended settings that combine the best of multiple learning modalities. Blended learning hold the promise of extending quality affordable secondary education to more than 500 million young people worldwide.

Sherman Dorn is skeptical. Technology is not a silver bullet, he warns.

 The reality is that the appropriate and inventive use of technology in education is as much of a tough slog as anything else in a classroom.

. . . In addition, I worry about “technological individualization” becoming one more boondoggle that diverts scarce resources to vendors who are far better at marketing than at programming or education. Experienced teachers around the country are already familiar with district administrators and governing boards who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on bells-and-whistles programs that would supposedly save hundreds of hours of time… and ended up being useless.

“Technology should be in the service of solid instruction and not the other way around,” Dorn concludes.

On Education Next, Mark Bauerlein critiques “the century-old child-centered premises at the root of the techno-pedagogy vision,” in response to Connie Yowell, a digital learning enthusiast.

School of One

Once a school troublemaker, Ta-Nehisi Coates became a successful journalist.  He wonders if a personalized education would have worked for him. In The Littlest Schoolhouse in The Atlantic, he looks at the School of One, a personalized after-school math program for seventh graders at a three New York City middle schools.

Joel Rose, a Teach for America veteran, uses computers to teach each child at his “optimal level.” He worked with Wireless Generation to create an algorithm weighing a student’s academic needs, learning preferences and classroom resources.

. . . first, the student and his parents and teachers are surveyed about his classroom habits. Then the student takes a diagnostic test to see how well he understands basic math. Those data are then sent to the New York Department of Education’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan, where School of One’s algorithm produces a tentative lesson plan. That lesson plan is then e-mailed to the student’s teachers, who revise it as they see fit. At the end of every day, the student takes another short diagnostic, which is used to create another tentative lesson plan that appears in the teachers’ inboxes by eight o’clock that evening.

The result is that one student might learn to add fractions at a dry-erase board with a small group, while another student uses the Internet to practice calculating the area of a circle with a tutor in Kentucky, while still another student learns about factoring through a game on his laptop.

Piloted in 2009 as a summer program at a Chinatown middle school, School of One raised scores by 28 percent. Coates visited tech-savvy I.S. 339, a Latino-and-black school in the South Bronx that’s trying the program.

Principal Jason Levy, who started as a Teach for America teacher, had tried to personalize education by “grouping his teachers into teams assigned to the same students, enabling them to compare notes and design specific strategies for kids who were faltering.”  Test scores rose dramatically with 62 percent of students now on track in math, up from 9 percent six years ago.  Levy welcomed School of One.

. . .  30 or so kids in small groups were hashing out the nuances of seventh-grade math. Some worked by themselves on laptops, with headsets linking them to a virtual tutor. Others were at a dry-erase board with a teacher or high-school tutor. At the front of the room, a large electronic monitor, like an airport arrivals board, identified every student in the room and the station where he or she should be working.

Next year, School of One will replace the math curricula in the three pilot schools. Most of the funding will come from private foundations.