At Santa Rita Elementary School in Los Altos, Calif., a scene unfolded in 2010 not too different from scenes in schools around the country. A fifth-grade student, Jack, started the year at the bottom of his class in math. He struggled to keep up and considered himself one of those kids that would just never quite “get it.”
From there, however, the story took a less familiar twist. His school transformed his class into a blended-learning environment. After 70 days of using the Khan Academy for a portion of his math three to four days a week, rather than remain tracked in the bottom math group, Jack rose to be one of the top four students in his class. He was working on material well above grade level.
Jack’s rapid progress sounds like the stuff of movies or magic, but it isn’t. It’s an example of online learning’s power to help teachers differentiate and customize learning to fit a student’s needs.
Supporting Students at Their Current Level
Starting in the 2010-11 school year, Los Altos students tackled the beginning of Khan Academy’s Knowledge Map – that is, they started their math lessons by reviewing number sense and basic addition and subtraction. From here, they began to progress, each at his or her individual rate of learning.
The teachers, who tracked students’ progress in real-time on an iPad while wandering around the class, noticed that many students – who were ostensibly able to do fifth grade math – were getting stuck on second and third grade concepts. Equipped with data on where each child was getting stuck, they offered individual help to each student at the point of struggle. In Jack’s case, once he grasped a couple of basic concepts he had not fully mastered in earlier grades, he flew through the math curriculum with ease and confidence.
Why don’t all schools offer opportunities for students like Jack? One reason is that today’s schools were not designed to do what we ask of them at present.
Reflecting on School History
Today’s schools were designed over a century ago to emulate the efficient factories of that era. By batching students up in classrooms and standardizing—teaching the same thing to students in the same way on the same day – schools could educate children just as factories produced widgets. Not every child would master her learning, but this helped schools sort students into different career tracks. The model worked well when most students went directly to industrial jobs.
But the world has changed. In 1900 only 17 percent of all jobs required knowledge workers, whereas more than 60 percent do today. The world also has grown far more competitive. As a result, we now are asking our schools to educate successfully each child, but schools were instead built to sort students.
Experimenting with New Types of Classrooms
Individual school systems, like Los Altos, have recognized that we have an education system that mandates the amount of time students spend in class, but that does not expect each child to master her learning. The result has been that students don’t receive the support they need to master each concept before they move on to the next one. This creates gaps in most children’s education, which haunt them later in their schooling.
In Los Altos, school leaders and system officials brainstormed how to respond to this changing world. They built out the necessary infrastructure and cobbled together the hardware and technology to begin a pilot blended-learning program. The larger task, however, was familiarizing leaders, teachers and staff with the idea that students can and should take ownership of their learning by demonstrating mastery before moving on. The pilot started with five fifth and seventh grade classrooms at two schools. The teachers in the pilot believed that their role should not be that of the sage on the stage, but rather a coach, mentor and facilitator to support student success. Without this teacher buy-in, training, collaboration and support, Jack would still be stuck sitting in the back of the class daydreaming through his teacher’s lecture. These teachers loved the experience of working with students one-on-one. Word of mouth from satisfied teachers, along with great student results, proved a powerful lever for change. Two years later, over 1,000 students in grades five through eight in Los Altos learn math in blended-learning environments.
In a portfolio-school model, school systems allow each school to make purchasing and leadership decisions based on ground-level knowledge of student and staff needs.
The pilot schools in Los Altos benefitted from school system leadership that was willing to give autonomy to school-level leaders. Those closest to the students are generally able to make the best decisions about curriculum, spending and support needs. In a portfolio-school model, school systems allow each school to make purchasing and leadership decisions based on ground-level knowledge of student and staff needs.
Although a few school systems and schools across the country are beginning to experiment and implement individualized learning systems, most remain trapped in the factory-based system, because the majority of policy is still focused on rewarding the systems, providers and operators that best meet certain input measures. Focusing on inputs has the effect of locking a system into a set way of doing things and inhibiting innovation; focusing on outcomes, on the other hand, encourages continuous improvement against a set of overall goals and, in this case, can unlock a path toward the creation of a high-quality student-centric education system. To this point it appears that policies that create access to online learning – as evidenced in the rapid growth of the movement – are outpacing policies that reward quality for each student.
Considering Changes to Transform Schools
To unlock the power of personalized learning on a more systemic, scalable level, we must create the conditions for both innovation and quality. As a starting point, that means that policymakers must eliminate the majority of input-based rules.
First, it no longer makes sense to fund schools based on seat time, when we know that six hours of a student in a seat does not translate to six hours of student learning. Some students may progress quickly; their afternoon time might be spent better in an internship. Others may benefit from extended-learning time and extra tutoring. One size does not fit all. School leaders and teachers are, in most cases, in a far better position than the State Department of Education to determine what their students need to reach annual student-growth goals.
Second, eliminating well-intended student-teacher ratio requirements is critical. California’s Milpitas Unified School District had to apply for waivers to implement its innovative plan to transform two elementary schools into blended-learning schools. Principals and teachers decided collectively to increase their elementary class sizes to 36. At any given time, 12 students from each class are in a large, mixed-age learning lab using online curriculum to work on Math and English Language Arts skills. The 24 remaining students rotate within the classroom between group work and direct instruction. This innovative model shows real promise, but leaders had to first work around state policies. Giving schools the flexibility to deploy inputs as it makes sense in their circumstance to help students grow and master their learning is essential.
To that end, as states free up schools around inputs, they should focus more on individual student-learning outcomes that value individual growth. Having systems of assessments – from objective exams to projects and portfolios of work – that students can use to show mastery as they complete their work, will be critical.
Embracing the Online Learning Opportunities
As online learning continues to grow such that students are no longer limited to the menu of course options offered within their school system, more states are moving toward funding mechanisms that allow dollars to follow students down to the course level, such that students can get access to the high-quality courses they need and want regardless of where they live. As this happens, funding student outcomes – not just access – will be important. In Louisiana, for example, which passed a course choice program last year, an online course provider receives 50 percent of the cost of the course up-front and the last 50 percent when the student completes the course. This is a step in the right direction, but ultimately this policy should evolve further to reward the provider not just for output-based performance – as in, when a student completes a course – but for real learning outcomes verified independently through the systems of assessments.
In order for the American education system to make the sharp pivot from standardization to personalization for students, all levels of the system must participate in the change. Legislators and policymakers must clear the way for innovation and provide students access to online courses. At the district level, leaders should give autonomy to school leaders and teachers. At the school level, principals and teachers must be thoughtful and deliberate in designing a system no longer dictated by strict whole-class lesson plans and time-based units.
With all that in place, hopefully all students across the country will soon have the same opportunity as Jack – access to a truly personalized learning experience.
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