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Chapter 2: The Essential Preconditions for Change

The reason donors care about education, in competition with the world’s myriad other woes, is that schools are the engines of opportunity. Get this investment right, and you reap dividends in human capital that few other categories of philanthropy can match: happier people, more prosperity, even things like better health outcomes as levels of education rise. Not to mention a stronger and more successful nation.

There’s plenty of evidence that most American schools aren’t getting their educational investments right at present. Every few years, a new wave of lackluster scores on international comparison assessments such as the TIMSS (Trends in International Math and Science Study) and PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) leaves Americans burying their heads in their hands. The PISA exam tests several thousand 15–16 year olds from a variety of countries in different subjects. U.S. students ranked 24th out of 29 industrialized nations in math in 2003. In 2006, U.S. scores in science were lower than the average score in 22 other lands, and lower than the average in 31 other places when it came to mathematics. In 2009, the PISA expanded to include more countries. The good news is that the U.S. came out ahead of developing nations such as Uruguay and Azerbaijan. The bad news is that the U.S. didn’t move up in the rankings from its earlier middling scores. In 2009, the U.S. was 31st in math, 23rd in science and 17th in reading. Figures released in late 2012 from the 2011 TIMSS found that some progress had been made in fourth-grade reading, math and science, with U.S. elementary schoolers placing sixth out of 60 countries in reading and ninth in math. The discouraging news is that the rankings were considerably lower for eighth graders, meaning that the U.S. school system, rather than turning out globally superlative scholars, makes students less competitive the longer they stay in it.

When Americans hear these numbers, they assume these rankings are the result of failing urban schools. Certainly, the statistics associated with such schools are bleak. Only 52 percent of young black men graduate from high school in four years, as do just 58 percent of young Latino men. Students who drop out will later have trouble supporting themselves and their families; 44 percent of high-school dropouts under age 24 are jobless.

It’s a serious mistake, though, to think that educational mediocrity hasn’t infiltrated our well-funded suburban schools too. Some do all right, but even “good” schools generally aren’t that good from an international perspective. An April 2009 McKinsey report on the economic impact of achievement gaps reported that compared to their counterparts abroad, America’s top 10 percent of students ranked 25th out of 30 on PISA math results—not that different from overall results. Indeed, the scores of the top 10 percent of students in the U.S.—those students who might qualify for gifted programs—would be considered middle-of-the-pack in top-scoring countries like South Korea, Finland, and Belgium.

In a globalized world, it is no longer enough to be competent by the standards of one’s local economy. American students will compete globally, and only a small fraction have the skills to thrive in a world where not just manufacturing jobs, but even routine mid-skilled jobs can be outsourced to lower-wage countries, and where countries such as China and India have their own intellectual elite.

The problem of educational stagnation has been debated at length during the three decades since the report A Nation at Risk warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity.” Explanations abound for why we’re so mired in underperformance, even in schools serving mostly intact and economically successful families, and why we are doubly failing in schools facing the family woes endemic to high-poverty districts. These explanations differ depending on people’s politics and personal experiences, but what we do know for sure is that the American education system is plagued at all levels by chronically low expectations.

And, to repeat, America spends more per pupil than the other developed countries to achieve these unimpressive results. If spending isn’t the solution, what is? Clear-eyed donors and reformers have followed two routes toward change: expanding choice and introducing accountability. These factors are what improve quality and outcomes in other parts of American life. They are just as important in schooling.

School choice and the accountability movement have shown exciting potential. However, neither strategy has so far managed to create widespread breakthroughs in achievement. Yet choice and accountability have created conditions that allow the rise of alternatives like blended learning—which may turn out to be more viral, more disruptive, and more widespread, ultimately yielding educational improvements that are broadly effective and unable to be blocked, even by the most stubbornly resistant parts of today’s educational establishment.

School Choice

The first wave of school reform focused on giving families options. School choice is rooted in the same theory of competition that governs and hones the rest of our economy. If schools have to compete for children, market disciplines will force them to improve themselves.

Nobel Prize–winning economist Milton Friedman envisioned a voucher system in which parents could spend their children’s publicly allotted school funding at whatever institution appealed to them, so long as it met minimum standards. A number of cities—such as Milwaukee and Washington, D.C.—have tried voucher programs, but they’ve had to drag political opponents every inch of the way. Consequently, charter schools have outpaced vouchers as a form of (much more limited) school choice. Charter schools have been the focus of many major philanthropic investments since Minnesota passed the first law in 1991 allowing outside groups to “charter” schools that would operate independently from central district authorities.

Charter schools are public schools, supported by public dollars (aided, sometimes, by fundraising), but they have more flexibility than traditional schools. As a practical matter, this often means that school leaders can choose their own staff. Teachers at many charter schools are not unionized. School leaders can experiment with variables like the length of the school day and—critical for blended learning—different formats of instruction and different class sizes.

It’s a serious mistake to think that educational mediocrity hasn’t infiltrated our well-funded suburban schools too.

If charters are undersubscribed, or underperforming, they can be shut down—thus adding market discipline as a condition of freedom. This probably needs to be done more often in the future than it is right now—a study from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers found that the percentage of schools being denied charter renewals has been declining over time. In the school year ending in 2009, 13 percent of charters that came up for renewal were shuttered; in 2010, 9 percent were; and in 2011, just 6 percent were closed. This could indicate that charter quality is improving, but one 2009 study from Stanford found that 37 percent of charter schools produced worse test scores than their traditional counterparts. If that’s the case, then the non-renewal rate should be closer to 37 percent to show the system is working.

Of course, among traditional public schools, the proportion of poor performers closed each year is close to zero. And charters are coping with more than their share of difficult students—many enrollees are students who had serious problems in their previous schools. Meanwhile, good charter schools do so well that they are massively oversubscribed. The heartbreaking lottery scene in the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman illustrates just how much pent up demand for good schools there is.

For donors designing an education strategy, good charter schools will often be centerpieces to be studied, supported, and expanded. Vehicles such as the Charter School Growth Fund and the NewSchools Venture Fund now provide donors with an efficient way to replicate high-performing charter schools that have proven they can take children from disadvantaged backgrounds and graduate them from high school and send them to college at high rates. The KIPP schools—numbering 125 elementary, middle, and high schools nationwide as of late 2012, serving 41,000 students—enroll 95 percent African-American and Latino students, 87 percent of whom qualify by income for free or reduced-price school lunch. Yet more than 80 percent go on to college. To cite another example among many, some 96 percent of graduates of Summit Public Schools in California (featured in Waiting for Superman) are accepted to a four-year college.

What’s fascinating about high-performing charter schools, though, and what is a bit troubling from a broader education-reform perspective, is that many of these high-school graduates still don’t post particularly high standardized test scores or college completion rates. KIPP recently discovered that while the vast majority of its graduates were enrolling in college, only a third graduated within six years. That’s much better than the percentage of disadvantaged children at large, but it’s lower than KIPP would like—and it’s one reason schools in the network have been looking at blended learning and its potential for boosting rigor and deepening actual intellectual attainment.

Another troubling question is how widely high-performing charter schools can expand. Sometimes the business model is not sustainable on state per-pupil allocations. Charter schools typically receive much lower total reimbursements from states than traditional public schools. As a result, many rely on philanthropy and grassroots fundraising to stay afloat. This is yet another place where blended learning may be able to reinforce and magnify the value of charter schools.

In addition, some successful schools lean heavily on exceptional individuals who cannot be cloned—a principal willing to work 70-hour weeks, for instance, who inspires her teachers do the same. Brian Greenberg, CEO of the Silicon Schools Fund, a nonprofit fund that supports the creation of new blended-learning schools, notes that many high-performing charters “aren’t scalable under the old model—because you don’t have enough great teachers. It burns people out.” He spent 12 years in schools, and “I lasted four times longer than most.”

School choice is rooted in the same facts of competition that hone the rest of our economy.

While some people accuse charter schools of skimming up the cream of high-performing students, studies have show that to be wholly inaccurate. It may be true, however, as Greenberg notes, that because of their flexible administration and high standards, charter schools skim up “the best teachers, not kids. There are not enough of these people to go around.”

A wonderful charter school can help hundreds and eventually thousands of students, making it a worthy recipient of charity of all sorts. But where philanthropy is undertaken with the goal of changing education broadly, saving one neighborhood of children is a miracle with limits. While they are growing fast, charter schools are still only 6 percent of all schools today. For many donors, wider scale is the goal.

Ambitious donors want to take a charter school that works and make 100 more just like it. Ideally they’d like these schools to operate without requiring any extra funding beyond the per-pupil financial allocations for charter schools that are provided by each state (which are often unfairly set well below the allocations for conventional schools). If blended learning can help address these sorts of practicalities—by stretching the supply of good teachers, by providing proven standardized curricula, by reducing operating costs to the level of state reimbursements—then it becomes much more likely that America’s millions of poorly educated children can get schooling that draws them closer to their potential.

Accountability

The second front in the larger battle for education reform is accountability, and here too blended learning may prove a powerful tool. Accountability, mostly in the form of testing, was the backbone of No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s 2003 law that mandated annual testing in grades 3–8 in reading and math. The law required schools to show adequate yearly progress toward a goal of having all students proficient in reading and math by 2014. Schools that consistently failed to show progress could be shut down.

The No Child Left Behind law was a blunt instrument. It did make accountability, and the tracking of student data, part of the national conversation, and that was a huge advance. Few people now argue that students shouldn’t be tested. Only holdouts believe that you can’t tell anything about a school or a teacher from the test results of students (subscribing to the defeatist attitude that Newark school superintendent Cami Anderson describes as “I taught it; they didn’t learn it.”) But there were big problems with NCLB, too.

In deference to federalism, states were allowed to create their own NCLB tests and competency thresholds. Some watered them down to the point that passing had little or nothing to do with mastery of the subject. The National Center for Education Statistics has, for years, benchmarked state proficiency standards against the National Assessment of Educational Progress—a uniform, national assessment sometimes called “the nation’s report card.” In 2009, achieving a proficient score in eighth-grade math on Alabama’s state assessment corresponded with a 246 on the NAEP. In Massachusetts, the proficiency standard corresponded with a 300. Even if Alabama and Massachusetts showed similar pass rates, students in Alabama would be much less prepared for college and careers.

Some critics claim a focus on testing math and reading skills has turned attention away from history, science, and the arts. And amid the pressure to get failing students up above the bar, gifted students have been neglected; a 2008 Fordham Institute report, High-Achieving Students in the Era of No Child Left Behind, found that progress among the top 10 percent of students has slowed compared to others. One way to reduce the achievement gap, it turns out, is to lower the ceiling, rather than raise the floor.

The education establishment is shuffling and stumbling beyond NCLB. The majority of states have now been granted exemptions to meeting the law’s standards. Education reformers have been working on the problems that block true accountability in teaching.

Most intriguingly, under powerful leadership from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other private philanthropists, 45 states have signed on to the idea of a “Common Core”—a series of rigorous objectives that all students should know to be college and career ready, and which all these states would agree to test. The mission statement of the Common Core standards is that they will “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

The Common Core—and basing annual tests on the objectives spelled out within it—is an exciting idea. But annual tests are just too slow, infrequent, impersonal, and inexact to be adequate in the digital era. Even individual quizzes or papers—the way many teachers assess what each of their students know and don’t—are needlessly slow and laborious and often fail to produce useable results. Say you get a 70 percent on a math test. What does that mean? You got a “C” and hence you passed, and the class is moving forward, but a 70 means you don’t know almost a third of the tested material. What if that 30 percent is critical to a later learning objective? Do you have a chance to go back and try again and learn from what you got wrong?

To address this problem, many textbooks circle back to earlier material in their first chapters, but this is a blunt instrument too. Kids who have mastered the earlier material get needlessly bored and waste time when it’s presented again. And for kids who didn’t get it the first time, presenting it again the same way may not help, any more than speaking English louder will increase comprehension for someone who speaks Chinese.

The testing needed to assess whether students are actually catching on can also overload teachers. Grading tests, worksheets, and papers is numbingly tedious. Moreover, test results can be hard to draw conclusions from, since most classes clump together students with a wide mix of abilities. What do you do as a teacher if you can see that 20 percent of the class knows the material cold, 50 percent can sometimes produce the right answer, and 30 percent of the class is completely confused? Even if you have this data, you can do little with it given your need to teach this highly mixed group as a group, without much time for individual tailoring.

Blended-learning classrooms don’t just allow more finely screened assessment. They also provide more individualized opportunities to respond to the specific deficiencies of each student. The computerized assessment mechanism is yoked directly to a computerized instruction mechanism that can immediately be used to fill in the gaps in understanding that have been uncovered.

To think about how outdated old-style group teaching can be, contrast annual testing, or even regular in-class tests, to another thing students spend a lot of time on: video games. The “levels” in video games are an immediate personalized adaptation to where each player stands in knowledge and competence. You move up only after you master the level where you start. You can’t advance if you’re 70 percent through the obstacle course, or 70 percent of the way to rescuing the princess. When you’ve beaten a level, you know it.

In their video games, students don’t have to wait a week or a month for a single test to find out if they’ve mastered the skills necessary to move forward to the next level. The feedback is instant on each skill. They get usable data in real time. Kids tend to choose games that are just a little bit more difficult than what they’re comfortable with, so they’re reasonably challenged, yet able to succeed with hard work. Frequent practice combined with constant feedback leads to mastery. That is the potentially revolutionary innovation that, at least in theory, separates tech-assisted learning from earlier forms of education.

Smart games collect mind-boggling volumes of data; DreamBox, the popular math software program for elementary-school students, records 50,000 data points per student per hour. Technology can do amazing things with information, not only in games but in everything it touches. Consider a retail store trying to figure out what to stock. “Can you imagine Wal-Mart operating without point-of-sale data?” asks John Danner, founder of the Rocketship schools, one of the early explorers of blended education. The stores wouldn’t make it through a week, because their rock-bottom prices depend on accurate prediction of what customers have, need, and want.

Immediate, specific, personalized data can transform education as thoroughly as it has transformed retailing, our phone system, and hundreds of other sectors—leading to lower costs, more individual service and customization, and better outcomes. It can enable mastery learning, when students move at their own pace as they demonstrate knowledge, rather than at whatever pace the syllabus dictates. Technology could revolutionize teaching.

Good blended-learning software measures progress by placing final results in the context of where a student began.

It’s amazing, though, how little it has transformed to date. There has been no great technology ripple in schooling, as there has been in almost every other sector of America within the last generation. The tendency in schools has simply been to layer technology lightly on top of existing practices, without fundamentally changing anything. Some new devices have been bolted onto the 1950s model of a classroom, but there has been little rethinking of fundamentals. “We’ve taken for granted that school has to be a teacher standing at the front of a box filled with 25 kids,” states Alex Hernandez, partner at the Charter School Growth Fund. “When you loosen that constraint, what can school look like?”

This is where new-style digital learning may be a game-changer. If computerized curricula that include constant student testing become widespread in classrooms, with daily reports showing how every student in a class is doing on various fronts, then accountability becomes much easier to enforce. Teachers, principals, and parents will know right away if students are learning and understanding.

Good blended-learning software puts all final results in the context of where the student started out, so separating good instruction from bad instruction isn’t just a crude matter of who aces the end-of-year test. What each class adds to the pre-existing stock of skills of each child within it becomes the measuring stick. That is fairer to teachers working with difficult students, and it prevents complacency among teachers fortunate to start a year with high-achieving students. This focus on individual results opens new options to donors who insist that their investments should make demonstrable differences in children’s lives.

What Can Blended-learning Advocates Learn from Charter School Creation?

“With the benefit of hindsight, the charter school movement would have fared a lot better if, from the outset, it had paid far more attention to the quality and effectiveness of these new schools, not just their numbers; to both sides of the ‘charter bargain’ (i.e. both freedom and accountability); and to the new-fangled governance arrangement that we know as ‘authorizing.’

“The partisans of digital and blended learning—and I count myself as one of them—need to avoid similar mistakes, which is to say they need to think much more comprehensively about what’s needed for their idea to be effective, efficient and uncompromised—not just to spread across the land.”

—Chester Finn Jr., president, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation

Slow Uptake of Technology in Both Health Care and Education

Education isn’t the only field that’s been slow to adopt improved ways of doing things via technological breakthroughs. People joke about doctors’ handwriting, but it has taken years of pressure from insurers and government for medical practices to adopt even today’s rudimentary electronic medical records. Without easy access to a patient’s medical history, healthcare workers order repeated and unnecessary tests or don’t learn from treatment protocols tried before. This is very like teachers who lack easy access to a student’s education history (best created from numerous micro-assessments, not one blunt end-of-year test) and thus waste weeks, if not months, of the school year figuring out where everyone stands.

The healthcare field is also just starting to unite behind evidence-based medicine, which involves following certain tested protocols after an initial diagnosis. There’s a case to be made for evidence-based teaching, too. A teacher who encounters a child who is two grade levels behind in math but closer to grade level in reading may have tricks up her sleeve to help, but she seldom knows what tools have been proven to work in the past for students with similar profiles. If she had clear evidence in front of her, she could be far more effective in bringing that child up to grade level.

Why are education and health care so resistant to technological refurbishment? One explanation is that both establishments have the government as their dominant customer. Both sectors rely heavily on funding from the government which sets rules and rates in monopolistic ways, without the competition that constantly refreshes other industries.

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