Amidst Edtech Horror Stories, Some Blended-Learning Schools Shine

As schools swing back into session, stories of mismanaged 1-to-1 computing initiatives in schools are filling the news—and unsurprisingly so in many cases, as I wrote back in 2011. But there are plenty of good “edtech” stories, too, worth highlighting.

In almost every case, the schools that are getting it right are focused on the problem they are trying to solve and designing an instructional model first. Then they add the technology to support that model, rather than leading with technology for technology’s sake or 1-to-1 computing—a big reason why my colleague Julia Freeland implored the field to strike 1-to-1 from the edu-dictionary.

There is also a narrative emerging in certain quarters that charters are getting blended learning right, but that school districts aren’t. At least some results from the last school year beg to differ, even as it’s important to note that none of these results were conducted in a rigorous randomized control trial.

Education Elements, a personalized-learning solution provider, works with district and charter schools. In the 2013-14 school year, across nine districts and over 5,000 students, the students in blended-learning classrooms outperformed those in the non-blended classrooms within the same schools and districts in terms of growth (a complete list of their results can be downloaded here).

One of Education Elements’ district clients is the Enlarged City School District of Middletown in New York, which in 2012 won a U.S. Department of Education Race to the Top-District grant to personalize learning. Thirty-three teachers opted to implement a blended-learning program last school year. Utilizing i-Ready for both reading and math, alongside Dreambox Learning, Lexia Learning, Achieve3000, and myON—depending on students’ specific needs—students in the blended-learning classrooms outperformed students in non-blended classrooms, as they gained 35% more in reading and 47% more in math on NWEA benchmark exams. Over 70% of students using i-Ready progressed through more than one grade level in one year in math, and over 50% of students progressed through more than one grade level in reading.

And all the teachers in the program said that they had more time to differentiate instruction and increase their effective instructional time and that students were more engaged.

At Whittemore Park Middle School in Horry County Schools, another district working with Education Elements, students who started 6th grade at a 3rd-grade reading level ended at a 5th-grade reading level—an astounding two years of growth.

Elsewhere, students participating in the Kansas Reading Initiative—a two-year pilot blended-learning program that provides Lexia Learning’s Lexia Reading Core5 at no cost to the participating schools so long as they meet and maintain minimum usage requirements, which cleverly insures some implementation fidelity—saw dramatic gains in the first year of the initiative with roughly 20% —or 225— of elementary schools in the state participating.

Of the 11,000 students using Lexia at recommended levels, the percentage meeting their grade level benchmark increased from 45% to 70%. Even more interesting, 2,091 students in the program were considered to be at-risk of not meeting grade level end-of-year benchmarks, but by the end of the school year, 99% of these struggling readers accelerated their reading skill acquisition by mastering more than one year of content, and 87% advanced two or more grade levels. Just 1% exhibited no gain.

Although blended learning is certainly not a magic bullet nor is it foolproof, these examples, which are growing in number, also show that used well, blended learning—and hence education technology—can help boost student achievement, in both charter and district school settings. It is of course important to learn more, so along with Evergreen Education, we at the Christensen Institute are now embarking upon a project to find more districts that are obtaining good results for students—concrete and objective—from blended learning. The opportunity is big; schools nationwide need to learn how to seize it, and we want to spotlight those who are and shed light on how they are doing it.

-Michael Horn

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