These three districts blended their learning. You won’t believe what happened next

About ten days ago we and the Clayton Christensen Institute released the next three profiles in our Proof Points series. Unlike the first set of six profiles, the three newest profiles are of districts (Horry County, SC; Mooresville, NC; and Washington DC) that have received quite a bit of media attention. In the first release we aimed to highlight districts that have not received much coverage. With these three our goal was to dig into student outcomes in districts that are farther along in their blended learning development.

Perhaps the most important theme across these districts is that getting to success has taken time—and measuring it remains difficult. Mooresville told us that it was in the third year that the district started seeing measurable outcomes. Then in 2012, a change to new curriculum associated with the Common Core resulted in a drop in student test scores across all of North Carolina, including in Mooresville. This made a simple comparison across all years of implementation impossible, and created a new baseline. The district appears to have sustained its success, and MGSD became the highest ranked school district based on North Carolina’s Annual Measurable Objectives. But even in a district that has received accolades in many national publications (for example Education Week and the New York Times), building success took years—and measuring and explaining success continues to have some challenges.

Horry County began its blended learning implementation more recently, but similar to Mooresville the district has received considerable attention. We found leaders at Horry to be remarkably forthcoming about their attempts to measure outcomes using NWEA MAP, and the profile documents improvements that appear likely to continue. But Horry is a good reminder of the truth of the quote from Arizona State University’s Executive Vice Provost, who said, “It’s not like we’re going to use this technology, and now all of the grades are going to go up by 15 percent.”

We live in a time in which people and organizations often expect rapid change, and a fast return on investment. The Proof Points research is showing that blended learning can improve outcomes, but the studies are also showing that results take time and high levels of effort. For a skeptical superintendent, school board, or community, it can be a hard sell to explain that the blended learning program will take time and effort, and results will start to show in several years. But that type of timing and impact is not unusual, and advocates for change will be well served by being straightforward about the challenges involved.

What happened when these districts implemented blended learning? They worked hard, for years, overcoming all sorts of issues that usually had more to do with organizational, cultural, and behavioral constraints than anything directly related to technology. Eventually, they found success. But people looking for results that make for good clickbait are often going to be disappointed.

Will Education Savings Accounts bolster course choice policy goals?

Keeping Pace has tracked course choice programs and policies in our 2014 print report and several blog posts (for example here and here.) Among our findings has been that course choice programs and policies (in which students can take a single online course and have public funding go to the course provider; also called course access by some advocates) have not yet grown at rapid rates. In some cases, such as in Louisiana, the switch from the state funding a state virtual school to course choice has resulted in a clear reduction in the number of students taking online courses. In other cases such as Texas, the promise of increased student access has not materialized because of policy and/or organizational constraints. With the sessions for most state legislatures done or winding down for 2015, it seems clear that there has not been a significant expansion of course choice programs for the 2015-16 school year and beyond.

Recently Nevada passed a law that could pave a different path to course choice: education savings accounts (ESAs) that allow students to use funds for online courses. From the Christian Science Monitor:

“A groundbreaking law in Nevada allows virtually all parents of K-12 students to opt out of public school but use their children’s state education dollars for a customized education, including private or religious schooling, online classes, textbooks, and dual-enrollment college credits. (emphasis added)

The money goes into an education savings account (ESA), and dollars not spent by the parent in a given year roll over for future spending – until the student finishes high school or opts back into public school… Nevada is not the first state with ESAs, but it is the first to offer them not just to select groups of students. Nevada is giving them to all who have been enrolled in public school for at least 100 days – about 453,000 children, or 93 percent of school-age students in the state.

The way in which the law allows for the funds to be used for private and religious schools has received the most attention, and is the law’s most controversial element. It will undoubtedly be compared to school voucher laws, but as Rick Hess explains in Education Week, Nevada’s bill has the potential to be much stronger than voucher laws, in large part because it allows for unbundling of education services in ways that most voucher laws do not. It is precisely this unbundling that could lead to students choosing online courses.

It’s not entirely clear how the law will play out for individual courses and providers (for more information see this detailed summary). Arizona has a fairly broad ESA law, but only about 1% of eligible students are taking part in that state’s version of ESAs—so it’s entirely possible that the law will not lead to a significant increase in the number of students taking online courses in Nevada. Still, with course choice programs apparently stalling in other states, it’s worth watching to see if ESAs may be another path taken by students in Nevada, and by course choice advocates in other states.

Using mastery-based learning to overcome Satan

For educators working in digital learning, a common concept is that schools and states should embrace educational approaches in which time is the variable, and learning is the constant. This concept is almost a mantra within online learning circles, having been a key tenet of the Florida Virtual School (FLVS), and particularly FLVS founder Julie Young, and many other early innovators in online learning. This concept contrasts online learning with the typical school in which students are moved along to the next grade based on the changing of the calendar, (almost) regardless of how much they have learned

But as Competency Works and others have discussed, making learning the constant and time the variable can be implemented without using digital learning. In fact, early efforts by the Chugach School District in Alaska, and the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, were not heavily based on technology. Mastery-based learning, personalized learning, and digital learning can be represented by circles that overlap partially, but not entirely.

How far back does the concept of mastery-based learning go? According to Wade Whitehead, in a conversation that we had after his keynote presentation at the Growing Together Summit in Colorado, in the 1600s the first public schools in what would become the United States were based on mastery.

What was being mastered? Reading. Why? Because reading was necessary to ensure that people could read the Bible, thereby protecting them from the delusions that Satan would plant into their heads. Students would stay in school until they had mastered reading and writing; then they could return to working the fields. “All children, and servants as well, should be able to demonstrate competency in reading and writing as outlined by the governing officials,” explains one summary of what has been called the “Old Deluder Satan Act.”

With some minor editing, that quote could apply to the Common Core or other 21st century standards. And according to the source linked above, the reason for a law requiring that students master reading and writing was as much so they could understand the laws of the Commonwealth as to read the Bible. Still, the concept is hundreds of years old—and at least partly based on helping students resist evil.

Competency-based learning is innovative compared to the state of education for the past century or so. But in many ways it is simply a return to a much earlier time, only now it is often facilitated by digital learning.

“This isn’t as good as what we were doing”

A previous post explored the ways in which Arizona State University is implementing online learning technology, and in particular its view that “we kind of don’t pilot stuff here.” According to Philip Regier (Executive Vice Provost, ASU), pilots often don’t work well at the start and therefore don’t reach scale.

“If you start with a pilot and you go a semester or two and it’s, “Hey, this isn’t as good as what we were doing,” you’ll never get to scale. In our case, the experience with math is a very good example of that because working with a new technology is not a silver bullet. It’s not like we’re going to use this technology, and now all of the grades are going to go up by 15 percent. What you have to do is work with the technology and develop the entire learning ecosystem around it, and that means training faculty. We are moving faculty away from standing up in front of a room delivering content to looking at a dashboard and figuring out which students they need to work with on a 1-on-1 or a small-group basis in order to succeed… If faculty don’t have multiple time periods or multiple teaching sessions to get used to that, it’s easy to resist, and if you resist it, it fails.

There is much to unpack from Regier’s quote.

First, this point: “It’s not like we’re going to use this technology, and now all of the grades are going to go up by 15 percent.

That is exactly what we are seeing in our Proof Points research. It’s taking districts several years of implementing blended learning before they see results, and often the results are much smaller than a 15% increase in scores. That doesn’t mean that it’s not working. It does mean that change takes time, and real change across a large district may manifest as a small percentage increase in overall student outcomes.

Second: “What you have to do is work with the technology and develop the entire learning ecosystem around it, and that means training faculty.”

Implementing blended learning is about so much more than using technology. The cultural and pedagogical changes are much more difficult to implement, and take much more time.

In addition, the “ecosystem” approach is necessary but difficult. In a recent column in Education Next, Michael Horn explored why charter schools get most of the attention regarding blended learning when there is so much activity in district schools. One of his reasons is that charter schools have “used [blended learning] to transform their entire schooling model” whereas traditional schools have “often been a bit more ad hoc—a class here, one subject there.” A big part of the reason for that difference is that transforming the “ecosystem” is far easier in a new or small school. Charter schools are more likely to be new or small, or both, than traditional school districts, and in at least some cases they are free of regulations that make change more difficult in traditional schools.

Finally, there is an important distinction between a post-secondary institution and many K-12 schools. Colleges are schools of choice; if students don’t want to attend them they can choose another option. States and school districts vary in the extent to which students can choose a different school than the one closest to them geographically. In situations where students do not have the ability to choose from a range of schools, it’s not quite so easy for a K-12 educator to say, essentially, “we’re going to try this new approach and we’ll adjust until we get it right”—if that means, for example, that fewer students will be successful in learning geometry over the next two years. Innovating is easier when the stakes are lower, or when those who are being experimented on have some say in it—or at least the ability to leave.



Three more successful district blended learning programs profiled in Proof Points series

In April Evergreen and the Christensen Institute released the first six case studies that examine successful blended learning efforts in traditional school districts, and the associated improvements in student outcomes. Proof Points: Blended Learning Success provides profiles of leaders in blended learning and explores their innovative strategies.

We have now released the next three profiles in the series. The three new ones are:

  • District of Columbia Public Schools, Washington, D.C., has redesigned 17 schools to incorporate blended learning. It has recorded extensive and well-studied student gains in math and reading on district-wide assessments and the National Assessment of Educational Progress since implementing blended learning.
  • Horry County Schools, Conway, SC, began its blended learning initiative, called the Personalized Digital Learning program, in the fall of 2013. Elementary and middle school student growth scores in math and reading have improved since the district began implementing blended learning; these increases have been greatest in middle school, which has had the most comprehensive blended-learning implementation.
  • Since 2007, the Mooresville Graded School District, Mooresville, NC, has been implementing what it calls the Digital Conversion Initiative to employ technology in ways that improve teaching and learning through increased student engagement, including the use of blended learning. Student scores on end-of-grade and end-of-course exams have steadily increased since 2007, and MGSD was rated number one in North Carolina for meeting the state’s targets for proficiency and other measures in the 2013–14 school year.

These three new profiles are added to the original six, which were the following:

  • Innovations Early College High School, Salt Lake City, UT, was created to address concerns about the number of students who were becoming disengaged and dropping out of their schools. For the 2013–14 school year, its graduation rate was substantially higher than the average graduation rate of the district, state, and nation.
  • Poudre School District Global Academy, Fort Collins, CO, opened in the fall of 2009 to provide a flexible school option for students in grades K–12. Based on student growth measures in several different grade levels and subject areas, the PSD Global Academy is ranked as the first or second best school in the district and is in the top 5% of all schools in the state.
  • Randolph Central School District, Randolph, NY, created a blended-learning program at the elementary school that focused on differentiated instruction. Since implementing the blended program, math scores on state assessments have improved significantly across the board.
  • Spokane Public Schools, Spokane WA, has developed and implemented blended learning in numerous programs across the district with a goal of increasing graduation rates and college and career readiness. The district has increased its graduation rate from 60% in 2007 to 83% in 2014.
  • Spring City Elementary Hybrid Learning School, Spring City, PA, uses a three-station Station Rotation model of blended learning. It has seen improved test scores in math, reading, and science since implementing its blended-learning program.
  • The Virtual Instruction to Accentuate Learning (VITAL) program of the Putnam County School System, Cookeville, TN, provides a wide range of blended-learning options to students across the district. It has improved the district’s graduation rate and allowed hundreds of students to gain college credits while in high school.

We are researching our final three profiles and looking forward to releasing them in the coming weeks.


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