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Newswire: August 30, 2011

BACK TO SCHOOL ’11

Forget the notebooks, pens and binders. What we need to help our kids start school right is some common sense in policy! Here’s the first of our BTS wishes for the new school year. More next week!

WISH # 1  MORE BLENDED LEARNING. You know an innovation is on the rise when they write a white paper about it. And, so it is with blended learning, a mixture of on-line and brick-and-mortar education. “The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning: Profiles of Emerging Models,” the white paper, was published by Innosight Institute, a research firm, and the Charter School Growth Fund, which invests in charter school management organizations. Report authors call blended learning a “disruptive innovation,” a term coined by Harvard’s Clayton M. Christensen that describes those innovations that “fundamentally transform a sector by replacing expensive, complicated and inaccessible products or services with much less expensive, simpler and more convenient alternatives.” Blended learning, which is beginning to bubble up around the country, may be the spark that totally transforms the delivery of American education. In 2000, only 45,000 K-12 kids took an online course. By 2010, 4 million students participated in some type of on-line learning, according to “The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning.” The paper tells us that it started with a small group of students – homeschoolers, gifted kids needing classes their schools didn’t offer, rural students, kids needing remedial support and others. But, now it is weaving its way into a broader population, sometimes embraced because it is seen as soft on the budget and sometimes because it simply supports student and family flexibility.

At a recent conference, Harvard reformer (yes, it’s true) Paul Peterson spoke of digital learning as a “trend to blended learning.” It seems to be an outgrowth of a combination of homeschooling and widespread digital opportunities in school. Some districts look at it as a way to regain homeschoolers who need flexibility in their schedules (kids at high levels in the arts, sports). Whatever the reason behind the growth in blended learning, the tools and technology coupled with a focus on individualization of education are reason enough to put more blended learning on our wish list. The white paper provides multiple models for blended learning and defines the various forms it already is taking. Blended learning is a choice option on the move. So, let’s get disruptive and encourage more blended learning opportunities for families.

(Open Solution’s Tom Van der Ark tells us why teachers should like blended learning)

WISH #2  REPLICATE WHAT’S WORKING. A major problem in American education is not that we don’t have the information and models for what’s working to improve student achievement. Blocking our path to create positive change is the inability to replicate success which, in many cases, is fueled by a lack of urgency to do what’s right. In his study, “The Other Lottery: Are Philanthropists Backing the Best Charter Schools?,” Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson not only makes the same charge, but shows via sound research the lack of connection between philanthropists’ dollars and California’s charter school outcomes. Coulson briefly reviews charter school research, concluding that while it is difficult to state with certainty how charters stack up against traditional public schools in terms of student test scores, “we can say with greater confidence. . . that some charters perform significantly better . . . “). But, are these successful charters the ones receiving grants that could go a long way toward replication? No, not at all in the state under review. The highest-performing California charter school networks (American IndianOakland Charter AcademiesWilder’s Foundation) rank significantly lower in terms of grant money they receive. Coulson concludes that given his findings, we cannot “assume that philanthropy is a reliable mechanism” for replicating success in education. But, knowledge is power, so spreading the word on his report may encourage some of those high donors to make our wish to replicate success come true.

WISH #3 TAKE THE EDUCATION MAJOR SERIOUSLY. For some time, the ed major has been considered “Mickey Mouse” material, eg. “look at those nice kids who care about children going to college to study education!” Certainly a care for kids is fundamental to teaching and yes, there are some high-achieving students in teacher prep programs, but what is driving many of the top minds away from those ed schools is that they offer little intellectual challenge. A report from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) gives depth to this long-but-little-known fact. “Grade Inflation for Education Majors and Low Standards for Teachers: When Everyone Makes the Grade,” suggests that low grading standards are the reason students in ed schools are consistently higher than grades in other disciplines. This is not a recent phenomenon. A 1960 analysis shows undergrads taking education classes were twice as likely to receive an “A” compared with students in business or liberal arts departments. Of course, the consequences are severe. First it means we are training teachers who know less (no kidding); and second, it means that education departments are contributing to the culture of low standards for educators (perhaps a reason why there is so much outrage over new and more rigorous teacher evaluation systems). Even the AFT admits teacher educators and their liberal arts counterparts fail to collaborate to ensure that ed majors have both pieces of the teaching equation: pedagogy AND subject matter. While the AFT thinks the Common Core may be reason enough for the two sides to play together, we do not. But, what may do the job is tougher teacher evaluations — and performance pay. But, that’s a wish for another day!