Cristo Rey: Work, study, get ahead

Students from Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, Baltimore, at their employer’s office.

Combining academics, Catholic values and work experience is working for the Cristo Rey network of high schools, according to a new Lexington Institute report.

Twenty-eight Cristo Rey schools serve 9,000 students, nearly all low-income and working-class Latinos and blacks. Each student’s family contributes $1,000 for tuition, on average. Employers pay the rest — and provide one day a week of work experience for students.

Ninety percent of Cristo Rey’s 2014 graduates enrolled in college.

A new San Jose school is using self-paced, “blended” learning to help students catch up in an intensive summer program.

Cristo Rey is showing that “education can untie the Gordian knot of poverty,” writes Daniel Porterfield in Forbes.

The weekly work experiences helped students mature. They learned work etiquette and became problem-solvers. They figured out how to talk with adults of all ages and ethnicities. They discovered that they liked working. It gave them new skills and self-confidence.

The jobs showed them why school matters too. They could see that there was real opportunity in their city’s local economy—and that adults with college degrees had interesting careers that paid well.

In Putting Education to Work, Megan Sweas explains how Cristo Rey creates a culture of high expectations — and keeps improving.

Hacking higher ed

Online “competency-based education” (CBE) is a faster, cheaper, more flexible way for adults to earn college credentials valued by employers, I write on Mozilla’s new e-mag, The Open Standard.

CBE lets students progress at their own pace. They may watch mini-lectures, read, work through exercises, chat with virtual classmates, consult with a faculty mentor – or apply what they’ve already learned on the job, in the military or through independent study.

“The idea of divorcing learning from seat time – rewarding people for mastery – has radical implications,” said Julian Alssid, chief workforce strategist at Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America.

To earn credit, students demonstrate mastery of a “learning objective” by taking quizzes and tests, writing papers or completing a project. Those who haven’t fully mastered a competency don’t get a B or a C. They keep trying until they learn it.

Most programs work with employers to design the competencies, so students — nearly all are working adults — will have the skills employers are seeking.

President Obama has endorsed the idea. The Education Department is experimenting with student aid for CBE students.

Western Governors University was the pioneer, but now state universities — the University of Wisconsin and, just this week, the University of Michigan — are offering online CBE programs.

Personalized learning — without fairy dust

Like many high-poverty middle schools, Oakland’s Elmhurst Community Prep is trying to reach students who are all over the map academically. One third are working at grade level in reading and math, says Principal Kilian Betlach. Another third are one to two years behind. The remaining third are three or four years behind — or more. “You can’t teach them by aiming for the middle and providing these little supports,” says Betlach.

“Teachers are told to sprinkle your differentiation fairy dust,” says Betlach. With 32 students in a class, and no aides, “it’s not possible.”

What is possible?

A foundation-funded experiment is testing whether “blended learning” can personalize instruction in eight Oakland schools. I write about how it’s working in Beyond the Factory Model in  Education Next.

Credit recovery goes online

As high schools struggle to raise graduation rates, many have turned to online credit recovery programs, writes Hechinger’s Sarah Carr on Education Next. Are students learning — or just being moved along? It’s not clear, but many are dubious.

“There’s a political motivation,” says David Bloomfield, professor of educational leadership, law, and policy at Brooklyn College. “It’s an end run around higher standards.”

Oceanside Unified in California improved graduation rates after opening three centers that offer online credit recovery. Superintendent Larry Perondi believes “the centers have improved the life prospects of students who would have dropped out otherwise, including young parents and teens battling drug addiction.”

Perondi “encourages the district’s best teachers to work” in the centers and assigns extra counselors and social workers to support students.

Three New Orleans charters enroll only students who’ve fallen behind in coursework.

Their supporters argue that the schools provide a much-needed safety valve for students who don’t work well in conventional settings and prefer to move through courses at their own pace; critics worry about the quality of the online courses and fear they take the onus off of traditional high schools to meet the needs of all students.

At the Jefferson Chamber Foundation Academy, the average student is an 18-year-old sophomore. “Some of the students failed the same classes multiple times; others dropped out for a period of months, or years,” writes Carr. “The school supplements the online courses with in-person tutorials and small-group instruction.”

The NET, another charter for high-risk students, combines online courses with traditional in-person classes and “advisories.”

Students and teachers say the online courses have some universal benefits: the teenagers can move at their own pace and get instant feedback on how they are doing.

. . . The biggest drawback, however, is that many of the courses are either too easy or too hard. . . . stronger schools and teachers are increasingly figuring out how to use the online courses as a jumping-off point to address individual students’ needs, supplementing easy courses with more challenging material, for instance, or harder courses with extra in-person tutorials.

But some schools rely exclusively on the online courses.

Credits for competency

Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America has no courses, credits or teachers. Helped by an online academic coach, students complete assignments that show their mastery of 120 “competencies,” such as distinguishing fact from opinion or conveying information through charts and graphs. Students can move at their own pace to earn an accredited associate degree, paying $1,250 every six months.

CCs look at self-paced, online tutorials

Self-paced, online courses backed by data analytics could help community colleges get remedial students up to speed, said Khan Academy founder Salman Khan in a keynote speech at the American Association of Community College convention.  Some community colleges are creating their own online tutorials, often geared to remedial students.


From cohorts to competency

Technology makes it much easier to personalize education through show what you know” promotion, concludes The Shift From Cohorts to Competency, a Digital Learning Network Smart Series paper.

The cohort model — children are grouped by age — moves on students who aren’t ready and holds back students who could excel, the authors write. “A competency-based system frees up students to learn at their own pace and according to their own needs,” said Carri Schneider, one of the authors. “Competency education is the ultimate path to personalization.”

Khan: Tech-powered teachers can do more

Khan Academy videos — and interactive exercises — will empower teachers, not replace them, writes Salman Khan in Education Week.

Khan Academy’s free videos now cover every subject from algebra to art history for grades K-12, he writes. In additions, students can practice math skills, move forward at their own pace and receive feedback while teachers monitor their students’ progress.

Teachers are struggling to meet students’ different “abilities, motivation levels, and incoming knowledge,” Khan writes.

Some are ready for grade-level content, while others have not fully mastered the prerequisites. Still others have already learned the grade-level material and are ready to move on to more advanced concepts. Ideally, teachers would like to meet all those needs simultaneously, but it is only humanly possible for them to teach one lesson at a time.

. . . when used appropriately, technology can enable teachers to lead differentiated and interactive classrooms. When teachers have real-time data and a clear understanding of every child’s needs, they can use their precious classroom time more effectively and flexibly. When students are learning at a pace and level appropriate to their individual needs, they are less likely to disengage or act up.

. . . Technology will give teachers valuable real-time data to diagnose students’ weak points and design appropriate interventions. It will enable teachers to more quickly gauge students’ comprehension of new topics so they can adjust their lesson plans on the spot.

Khan Academy’s latest platform teaches computer science as a “creative art,” he writes. He hopes to use the platform to “create interactive virtual labs with simulations of projectiles, pendulums, and the solar system.” In addition, a new feature lets users ask and answer each other’s questions, increasing the sense of online community.

Khan in the classroom

Can Khan Move the Bell Curve to the Right? asks June Kronholz on Education Next. She visits “affluent, tech-savvy” Los Altos, which is using Khan Academy math for all fifth and sixth graders and seventh graders with average or below-average proficiency.

While teacher Rich Julia met individually with fifth graders to refine their learning goals, everyone else logged on to the Khan web site to work on the math concept they were learning.

Some watched short video lectures embedded in the module; others worked their way through sets of practice problems. I noticed that one youngster had completed 23 modules five weeks into the school year, one had finished 30, and another was working on his 45th.

As youngsters completed one lesson, an online “knowledge map” helped them plot their next step: finish the module on adding decimals, for example, and the map suggests moving next to place values, or to rounding whole numbers, or to any of four other options.

Julian, meanwhile, tracked everyone’s progress on a computer dashboard that offers him mounds of data and alerts him when someone needs his attention. He showed me, for example, the data for a child who had been working that day on multiplying decimals. The child had watched the Khan video before answering the 1st practice problem correctly, needed a “hint” from the program on the 3rd question, got the 7th wrong after struggling with it for 350 seconds—the problem was 69.0 x 0.524—and got the 18th correct in under a minute.

. . . The classroom buzzed with activity, and amazingly, all the buzz was about math.

At Oakland’s Envision Academy of Arts and Technology, an inner-city charter, Ruth Negash uses Khan in her ninth-grade algebra class. While some students are learning geometry, “other students struggled with addition and subtraction, and one quarter don’t know their multiplication tables.”

Khan Academy developers want students to learn basic skills, then move forward, but Gia Truong, superintendent of Envision Schools, worries that students are too far behind. “If you do that, you might never get to the algebra standards” that California students must pass in order to graduate.

If you don’t know how to multiply, you’re not going to learn algebra.



A business built on failure

After 37 years with NPR and PBS, John Merrow claims he’s leaving the non-profit world to go into the remedial education business.

I know it’s going to be a gold mine. All I need are failing kids, and I don’t see any signs that the supply is drying up.

He’s not serious, but many readers missed the satire. I think it’s because his fictional business makes a lot of sense. He writes:

I have some definite advantages over schools: (1) the technology to diagnose deficiencies and create specific programs that address those shortcomings and measure accomplishment; (2) a population of (finally) motivated young people who realize they need certain skills if they want to find decent jobs; and (3) powerful financial incentives that encourage me to teach them quickly.

He proposes self-paced modules, instead of semesters. “Learn it, prove you’ve learned it, and you’re done.”

Students will be motivated to learn so they can move on to the world of work. He’ll be motivated to help them do that.

Unlike today’s educators, I will get paid only when the students succeed. Should I fail, I get hurt where it matters: in the pocketbook. In most education systems, failure is blamed on the students. And then their failure is usually ‘punished’ by promotion to the next grade.

He won’t use the word “remediation,” which is a downer. Instead, he’ll “certify” his students’ skill levels.

If Merrow could teach useful skills to failing students — and be paid only for success  — he’d deserve to earn a profit. Of course, it may be harder than he thinks. And, if it’s not, he’d have lots of competition.

The fact that businesses make money supplying books, tests, technology, desks or pencils — or tutoring,  training and consulting — to schools  is not a problem, if those supplies and services are worth the cost.