Can Blended Learning Improve Equity in One of Nation’s Most Diverse...

Blended Learning

Can Blended Learning Improve Equity in One of Nation’s Most Diverse Districts?

By Jen Curtis     Feb 14, 2017

Can Blended Learning Improve Equity in One of Nation’s Most Diverse Districts?

New Jersey’s Morris School District is no stranger to change. Following a 1971 court-mandated merger designed to address racial segregation, the district has been forced to adapt. Today, Morris is one of the most diverse districts in the nation, serving a student population that is 52% white, 11% African American, 32% Latino, and 5% Asian, with 35% of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. In 2014, they were named a model for desegregation by the Center for Diversity and Equality in Education.

However, although MSD offers a hopeful counterpoint to segregated schools nationwide, there is still room for improvement. While growth is happening across the district, certain groups of students, including English Language Learners and low-income students, are experiencing less success than others. In order to address these equity concerns, the district is increasingly turning to technology--in particular, blended learning--to allow all students to succeed.

Embracing Blended Learning

The districtwide shift towards blended learning began in 2015 when Erica Hartman was hired as Supervisor of Technology Integration. Hartman stresses that the district remains committed to finding what works best for students, with or without technology. Regardless, she says, most teachers now use computers daily, favoring station rotation, which combines small-group instruction with independent work time, usually online. Students are grouped by academic need so teachers can review topics with struggling students while the rest of the class works at their own pace, often on a playlist of exercises assigned by Canvas (grades 6-12) or Google Classroom (K-5). After a certain amount of time, groups rotate, allowing everyone to get personalized attention from the teacher.

The station rotation model is utilized across the district, at the elementary, middle and high school level, in both bilingual and mainstream classes. To ensure all students reap the benefits, the district has made equitable access to technology a priority. Initiatives have been created to provide free home WiFi to students in need (paid for by nonprofit Morris Educational Foundation) and equip every student with a free Chromebook, which students in grades six through 12 are allowed to take home. For district leaders, the investment in technology is a necessary step towards improving equity.

Students at Normandy Park Elementary in Morris School District. Image credit: Erica Hartman

Innovation and Inclusion

Teachers across MSD agree that technology presents a new path for meeting diverse student needs. Teddie Salas, a 4th grade teacher for the district, believes computer-based blended learning is the key to keeping her classroom “as inclusive as possible.” Salas teaches a racially diverse group: 40% Latino, one native Mandarin-speaker, the rest either African American or white. She believes blended learning is useful because it provides students with a “level playing field.” “When students come to school, everyone is equal. Everyone has the same device, everyone has the same opportunity. Even if students are working at different grade-levels, they don’t feel excluded.”

This sense of inclusion is particularly important for Morris’s growing ELL population, a group which has historically faced racial, economic and linguistic isolation within the American school system. Lora Clark, principal at Morris’s Normandy Park Elementary School, explains that due to the range of students’ language levels, bilingual classes remain necessary. However, she notes that because of the success of their blended program, individual student needs are being met with direct instruction and feedback.

Salas, who works with many bilingual students, is similarly enthusiastic about blended learning’s potential to support ELLs. She uses i-Ready, which provides both diagnostic assessments and level-appropriate practice. Even for students with the most basic English skills, she feels “i-Ready is effective. It not only provides appropriate content, it also builds up students’ vocabulary and phonics skills.” When ELLs are reclassified into the mainstream, they can use i-Ready alongside their more linguistically advanced peers.

Besides helping improve equity for ELLs, station rotation can also foster stronger student-teacher relationships. Research shows that for low-income students, this can be the difference between success and failure. Mark Manning, the principal at Morristown High School, emphasizes this point. “Our low-income students often go home to empty houses because both parents need to work.” As a result, he explains, “their opportunities to engage authentically with adults may be few and far between. Our model allows students to feel known and valued.”

It seems counterintuitive. How can spending more time on computers create stronger human relationships? For one, Manning says, the constant stream of data gives teachers a better sense of individual needs. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the small group and one-on-one instruction. “It builds rapport in a way traditional lecturing simply cannot.”

Tools used throughout Morris School District

So, How Well Is It All Working?

As teachers across MSD have embraced blended learning, student outcomes have been promising, particularly at the elementary school level. According to 5th grade scores on the 2015-2016 PARCC (a Common Core-aligned test similar to SmarterBalanced), students of all racial backgrounds have experienced a significant rise in English language arts proficiency since the school went blended, especially when compared to state averages. Morris’s African American students saw particularly impressive gains this past year, with an 8% increase in students meeting or exceeding expectations—more significant ELA growth than that of their white peers, who scores increased by 6.4%.

PARCC Scores-Grade 5 ELA 2014-15: Students who Met or Exceeded Expectations 2015-16: Students who Met or Exceeded Expectations
State 51.5% 53.2 +1.7
Hispanic/Latino 42.1% 46.9% +4.8%
African American 50.1% 58.1% +8%
White 78.2% 84.6% +6.4%
Economically Disadvantaged 42.1% 43.4% +1.3
Non-Economically Disadvantaged 76.9 85% +8.1%

The 2015-2016 math scores were similarly impressive, with growth across the board. It’s important to note that MSD’s students of color and low-income students still fall below state averages in terms of math proficiency. However, Morris’s African American, Hispanic and low-income students all experienced far larger growth over the past two years than students elsewhere in the state.

PARCC Scores-Grade 5 Math 2014-15:Students who Met or Exceeded Expectations 2015-16:Students who Met or Exceeded Expectations
State 41% 47.2% +6.2%
Hispanic/Latino 25.9% 47% +21.1%
African American 29.4% 54.8% +25.4%
White 57.8% 79.4% +21.6%
Economically Disadvantaged 22% 48.4% +26.4%
Non-Economically Disadvantaged 59.4% 76.6% +17.2%

Is student growth the direct result of blended learning? It’s tough to say. Many educators within the district feel the new model has made a difference, however. “Struggling students make the biggest gains because their needs can actually be met,” Salas explains. “Before [the shift to blended learning], if you were below grade level, you needed one-on-one support. Now students can be working throughout class. I think that’s why we’ve seen such improvement.”

Meanwhile, In High School and Middle School...

While Elementary schools across MSD can feel proud of the test results, at the middle and high school level, growth is harder to see. Manning insists this is not because the blended model isn’t working at the high school level, but because reliable data doesn’t yet exist; in 2015, he explains, almost 60% of students opted out as parents protested the test. Subsequently, students have struggled to take PARCC seriously.

Technology Supervisor Hartman says student enrollment in AP courses is a better place to look to see the benefits. In 2016, over 300 students enrolled in an AP course, the highest rate in 10 years. In terms of equity, however, the numbers are less impressive. At the middle school level, only 20% of Latino students and 35% of African American students were enrolled in Honors ELA as 8th graders, compared with 62 and 89% of white and Asian students. The pattern continues into high school, with AP classes continuing to be dominated by white and Asian students. Although more students of color are remaining in high-level classes once placed there, Hartman says, the disparity is still clear.

Administrators across the district remain optimistic that for ELLs and low-income students, blended learning will continue to improve outcomes with time. Manning says he’s already seen a substantial shift in the school’s culture. “Teachers are re-energized, students are engaged in meaningful learning, and better support and resources are being offered, in language acquisition in particular.”

This year, the high school has plans to put special emphasis on the test in order to prove blended learning is effective. And if it’s not, the school is determined to continue to look for solutions that benefit everyone. After 45 years focused on innovation and inclusion, the district has no plans to stop now.

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