Blended learning holds unique promise to improve student outcomes dramatically. Schools will not realize this promise with technology improvements alone, though, or with technology and today’s typical teaching roles. In a new Public Impact policy brief, A Better Blend: A Vision for Boosting Student Outcomes with Digital Learning, which we co-authored with Joe Ableidinger and Jiye Grace Han, we explain how schools can use blended learning to drive improvements in the quality of digital instruction, transform teaching into a highly paid, opportunity-rich career that extends the reach of excellent teachers to all students and teaching peers, and improve student learning at large scale. We call this a “better blend”: combining high-quality digital learning and excellent teaching.
A year ago, Public Impact began working with school design teams of pilot schools in the Charlotte and Nashville public school districts to choose and tailor school models for extending the reach of excellent teachers to more students.
We didn’t know for certain how well the design processes would go. We chose these districts because they had leaders who showed real commitment to expanding the impact and authority of already-excellent teachers and a burning passion to help disadvantaged students. But would that be enough?
We shared design process principles, which include teacher involvement in design decisions. We shared five Reach Extension Principles for the new school models they would craft or tailor to their needs; they call for reaching more students with excellent teachers in charge of their learning, for more pay, within budget, while boosting development opportunities for all teachers and clarifying authority/credit for great teachers.
But we didn’t know how school teams would respond. Could they make design decisions that gained administrators’ support? How would the many good, solid teachers in these schools who were not on the design teams respond to their peers’ design choices? Would the teams craft roles that appealed to excellent teaching peers for recruiting purposes? All of these schools are high-poverty, and these teachers are no strangers to repeated “school improvement” efforts that can easily provoke skepticism.
On all fronts, these school teams exceeded our expectations.
Do teachers care about terrific career opportunities that let them stay in the classroom? Do teachers long for jobs that pay them more—substantially more—for leading their peers and reaching many more students with their excellent teaching? Do teachers want jobs that give them time during school hours to collaborate with and learn from their peers? Judging from the 708 applications now stacked at Project L.I.F.T., teachers are thundering, “Yes!”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools started Project L.I.F.T. to support gap-closing reforms in high-need and historically low-performing schools; it and three pilot schools in the Metro Nashville Public Schools’ “Innovation Zone,” are the first district sites to use Opportunity Culture school models developed by Public Impact to reach more students with excellent teachers, for more pay, within budget.
The flood of applications didn’t surprise Zone Superintendent and L.I.F.T. Executive Director Denise Watts. “Teachers really want to have an impact in the classroom—they don’t all want to be principals.”
And to those who argue compensation doesn’t matter to teachers, “be real,” Watts says. “I’ve been on the other side of the desk when a teacher tells me she’s pursuing other opportunities because of the compensation. Teachers are not afraid of the accountability if we provide them those compensation avenues.”
As Stacey Childress and many others have pointed out, Andy Kessler’s closing remarks at this week’s big ed-tech conference at Arizona State University went way off track. By positioning technology as a way to replace teachers, Kessler missed the mark on two key points.
First, great teaching will matter more, not less, in the digital age. As we’ve written here and here, digital learning has the potential to level the educational playing field on learning the basics. As digital content gets better and better, students around the globe will be able to learn basic content and practice skills through this new medium.
In that flat world, what will differentiate outcomes is how motivated students are to undertake the work of learning; how well they tackle the inevitable barriers to achievement, including social and emotional challenges; and whether they move beyond the basics and engage in the higher-order learning that’s increasingly important for college, careers, and life. And how well that happens for students will depend on what it’s always hinged on: the effectiveness of the adults in their lives. For most students—and for nearly all whose parents struggled in school—the adults who tip the balance are teachers.
How could cities see their charter school sectors take off in quality, matching or besting the performance of their district schools, and the state? Public Impact researchers working with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute on a new study found that replacing low-performing charter schools while replicating high-performing ones could dramatically improve quality within just a few years. (For Fordham’s take on this, see the Ohio Gadfly Daily.)
Searching for Excellence: A Five-City, Cross-State Comparison of Charter School Quality, with research by Lyria Boast, Gillian Locke, and Tom Koester, and foreword and Fordham analysis by Terry Ryan and Aaron Churchill, considered charter schools in Albany, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, and Indianapolis—all of which have a decade-long history of charter schools and relatively large market shares of charter school students.
The study shows that the charter school sectors in five cities outperformed their home districts’ schools, which had similar levels of student poverty.
But within each district, quality varied widely, from very high-performing charter schools to dismal ones.