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Why Traditional Education Reformers Struggle With Blended Learning

By Michael B. Horn (Columnist)

For years education reformers have fought to create new, publicly-funded schools to drive change. The rise of blended learning has accordingly vexed many of them because much of its growth is happening in classrooms inside existing public schools, as opposed to new ones.

But reformers are remiss in ignoring the abundant opportunities for innovation in traditional district schools—however unlikely it may seem.

There are, of course, sound reasons to create new schools. These efforts have launched important new models of schooling, management, and governance; pushed the bounds of what society thought was possible for low-income students; and created thousands of critically needed high-quality seats for students. And because the country has been collecting data at the school level in math and English Language Arts, we can track how many students are in new schools funded by public dollars and their results.

But the work of creating new schools is slow—and not just because creating high-quality schools is hard work. Creating new schools that use public dollars competes directly against school districts for scarce resources. Districts and their various partners have strong incentives to fight back. Because they are the establishment with most of the resources—financial and regulatory—they are often successful in these battles. This slows the change and helps explain why, in the 2012-13 school year, charter schools still educated just under five percent of public school students.

Even as some education reformers have grabbed onto using blended learning to accelerate the creation of high-quality schools, the use of blended learning in this way doesn’t change the fundamental competitive dynamics.

But blended learning is also a key strategy for district schools to transform internally. And that is where blended learning has, over the last two decades, grown fastest—and scaled far faster than many would have guessed possible in traditional districts. Teachers are flipping their classrooms, principals are creating station rotations, and superintendents are introducing Flex and A La Carte models of blended learning to offer classes that their students could not otherwise take.

Innovating within existing schools is critical. Society created our current system of age-graded classrooms to serve a large number of students in the most economically efficient way possible by standardizing the way we teach and test. We must change this—in both old and new schools. As Curtis Johnson, my co-author on “Disrupting Class,” wrote in his acknowledgments to the book, “It is a mistake to confuse either the permission to create new schools or setting rigorous standards with learning. What matters is what happens in class, whether physical or virtual.”

The innovation within existing schools contradicts the theory of change that many education reformers hold. They have accordingly struggled to understand blended learning’s growth and whether—or how—to maximize its potential to personalize.

The struggles are understandable. Data often doesn’t exist to show if blended learning is making progress. Society emphasizes results for whole schools, not for individual students. We have few good ways to track progress in subjects or skills that are not strictly academic, or do not fall under math or ELA. When a student takes a history course that was not available previously or makes up a failed credit through blended learning, whether the experience was a “good” one—or better than the alternative, which was often nothing—appears unclear. The government does not reliably track the numbers of students learning in blended or online settings for a part of their day.

We do know that at least 75 percent of districts are doing some online and blended learning, but we don’t have a sense of the intensity or impact of those implementations. That is, how many students are they serving? For how much of their day? What are the outcomes?

Efforts like the Clayton Christensen Institute’s Blended Learning Universe Directory, a collection of 12 case studies on blended-learning proof points in district schools done in partnership with the Evergreen Education Group, and reports from groups like Digital Promise and the Lexington Institute seek to capture some of this activity. The reality, however, is that it is hard to track and see the impact of what, in many cases, isolated educators—lone wolves as BetterLesson calls them—are doing.

Accordingly, reformers have to take an intellectual leap and rely on a different theory of change in the absence of sufficient data.

When they do, some gravitate naturally toward big, splashy efforts that garner headlines. Costly, high-profile flameouts that promised to personalize learning—like inBloom and Amplify—only serve to increase reformers’ confusion, even if massive, top-down efforts generally fail for predictable reasons.

All of this adds up to an education reform movement that, on the whole, often doesn’t embrace the change blended learning is making within the district schools where there are willing partners to innovate. It means that many districts often innovate without the benefits in dollars, ideas, talent and lessons learned those reformers could bring. Even as sound theory suggests that these innovations—imperfect and as hard to understand as they may be—represent the most likely path for blended learning to scale and transform schooling, it means society could capitalize more on the opportunity before us.

Michael Horn (@michaelbhorn) is an EdSurge columnist and a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions


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