Blended Learning Schools

  • Education
  • 2006

Marrying K-12 education with the technology revolution has been a slow and uneven process, with many dead ends. Halfway through the first decade of the new millennium, however, some educators with philanthropic backing began to figure out new ways of instructing that could increase quality and efficiency in some of the same ways that other fields have been dramatically upgraded by computerization. An emerging synthesis concentrates on freeing teachers and students to work together intensively on each child’s blindspots by transferring to computer software much work that is either drill-based or best accomplished when personalized for each student.

One of the schools that pioneered this new mix of human and electronic learning was Rocketship Education. Founded in 2006 by a donor who had been both a teacher and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, the school won financial backing from some prominent technology entrepreneurs like Netflix founder Reed Hastings (who donated $250,000 for each of the first eight schools opened), Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and her husband Dave Goldberg of SurveyMonkey, and Arthur Rock, as well as philanthropic heavyweights like the NewSchools Venture Fund, the Charter School Growth Fund (which offered a $2.3 million grant in 2008 to expand the chain), and the Broad, Schwab, Dell, and Koret foundations.

Rocketship began with one San Jose school that integrated two hours of online learning into every day, relying on personalized-learning software that both instructs and tags problem areas identified via frequent quizzes, while teachers circulate through the learning lab to solve individual problems. By 2014 there were eight Rocketship schools in San Jose, serving more than 4,500 students (with 2,500 families on the waiting list).

Their results proved powerful: though 90 percent of the students came from low-income families, and 75 percent were English-language learners, fully 80 percent of Rocketeers scored at the “proficient” or “advanced” level on the California Standards Test (results otherwise seen only in schools located in California’s ten most affluent districts). With funding from the Bradley Foundation and other philanthropists, Rocketship expanded beyond Silicon Valley to Milwaukee, then to Nashville, and will open a school in Washington, D.C., in 2016, with other locations to come.

Another early inventor of blended learning was the Arizona school Carpe Diem. It relies on personalized computer instruction supplemented with old-fashioned one-on-one and small-group teaching to help students when they reach sticking points in their online work. Its 300 sixth to twelfth graders begin their efforts at computer workstations, and when software programs identify areas where they are not understanding concepts, a master instructor swoops in for special tutoring. Thanks to donor support there were Carpe Diem schools operating by 2015 in Indiana, Ohio, Texas, and Arizona, with more planned.

In many other schools as well, impressive test results and heavy demand from families have turned blended learning into one of the more promising fields within the U.S. school-reform movement. Scores of donors are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to launch new blended schools, expand existing ones, fund software ventures, and found coordinating organizations.