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Bay Area Blended Learning Policy Tour: Bringing policymakers to the forefront of innovation in education

By Molly Thelosen, National Grants Manager

Last week DFER state directors brought state-level Democratic legislators from across the country to the Bay Area to see firsthand how technology is transforming education. Blended learning, which is the combination of digital learning and in-person instruction in a traditional school setting, served as the focus of the event. Exemplar blended learning models, Sal Khan, and some of education’s most innovative leaders provided a glimpse of how schools of the future may look and function, while also raising critical questions around policy implications and the best ways to meaningfully integrate technology into schools.

Sal Khan, recently featured on the cover of Forbes as the first “celebrity teacher,” talked with legislators about his completely free, incredibly extensive online learning platform know as Khan Academy that is available for use in schools throughout the country. The goal of Khan’s program is to provide a “free, word-class education for anyone anywhere”; a model that has brought Khan Academy, and digital learning as a whole, into the national spotlight. The Khan model allows students to track their progress and identify gaps through assessments and knowledge mapping through an online system. If used in a classroom/tutoring setting, the program provides teachers a dashboard to track student and class data in real-time.

After hearing from Khan, legislators visited blended learning classrooms at Summit Public Schools and talked with students, obtaining a firsthand account of how learning from Khan Academy and other digital programs impacts the education of a high school student. Summit Public Schools' Rainier and Tahoma campuses exhibited how the combination of more traditional instruction with personalized digital learning can transform how students learn math. Students aren’t confined to a grade level, but can advance at an individual speed, receiving targeted interventions and support along the way. The school’s 9th and 10th grade students learn math at an individualized, self-directed pace primarily through an online “playlist,” an in-person tutoring “bar” and regular assessments. Sounds like an Apple store, right? Colorado State Senator and Social Studies teacher Andy Kerr reflected on his experience at Summit saying, “It is amazing to witness first hand the ingenuity and creativity displayed by other teachers and students who are trying new ways of learning in different places. I look forward to working virtually and in-person with these creative minds as we all strive to improve education in the 21st Century."

As a very new pilot, Summit doesn’t have extensive longitudinal data to demonstrate the effectiveness of their program. However, they do demonstrate an impressive ability to quickly assess what is working, what isn’t, and then adapt accordingly within a few weeks (especially impressive to legislators given the antithetical process of policy). Student performance data is regularly tracked and student focus groups are held weekly to determine how to improve their blended learning math pilot.

While at Summit, we listened in on a few student focus groups and heard comments ranging from, “I love Sal Khan and I’m learning a lot though his tutorials” to “I’m distracted and not making progress.” These student responses are representative of the messy, complex process of integrating technology into education. Summit offered policymakers a “behind the scenes” look at how schools are figuring out the most effective ways to blend technology and traditional instruction. There will be mistakes along the way, certainly, but progress as well. Too early for polish and perfection, Summit instead is paving the way for schools across the country to begin empowering their students to take charge of their education through technology.

After visiting kids at Summit, legislators took a short bus ride to Rocketship Education’s Mosaic Elementary. The Rocketship Education network of schools was founded in 2006 with the goal of eliminating the achievement gap. The network now serves as one of the oldest and most established blended learning programs in the country, providing an example of how primary school students can benefit from integrating technology into their learning.

Mosaic’s elementary students spend 80 minutes daily engaged in individualized online math and literacy programs in a large, open, and remarkably quiet room full of computers. Everything about this space has these young students in mind. Everything from the bright orange tiger-print headsets to the online login process (their individual passwords consist of a series of images such as a rainbow, a cat, a tree, etc.) is designed with the elementary student in mind. Concurrently, teachers are available to work one-on-one with a struggling student or with smaller groups of students on more complex skills. Achievement data for students at Mosaic demonstrates this arrangement seems to be working. Students at the school (90% free and reduced lunch and 75% English language learners) outperform both schools in the same neighborhood and schools across the state according to California’s Achievement Performance Index.

The learning techniques used at Mosaic are certainly impressive, but they don’t capture the entirety of what makes the school successful. What I find significant about Mosaic Elementary (and I believe many on our trip would agree) is the deep dedication of teachers, parents and students. Throughout our visit school leadership, teachers and parents stressed the importance of this triumvirate in the ultimate success of their school. Parents, for example, are required to volunteer for at least 30 hours each year and teachers focus on high-level work with students while earning much higher than average salaries. Blending quality in-person instruction with individualized digital learning certainly appears to be an important part of Mosaic’s equation, in conjunction with high quality teachers and engaged parents.

Policymakers, the private sector, school leaders, teachers, parents and students must work together to figure out how to blend learning in the most effective ways. The ability of technology to individualize learning is a reminder that blended learning will look differently among students, schools and states. Although an idea with enormous potential, blended learning isn’t a miraculous solution to education’s greatest challenges. Even blended learning’s greatest advocates don’t attest to this, but rather emphasize that when implemented well, and in conjunction with great teachers, blended learning can play a major role in improving student learning outcomes, especially for the most underserved students. Our school visits certainly conveyed that blended learning alone isn’t a panacea, but rather is an innovative approach to enhancing student learning. Senator Rodney Tom of Washington State wraps up the visit very well when he said, “No matter how many times you read about the great things they're accomplishing, actually meeting with the teachers, students, and parents helped me fully grasp the power of technology when it's infused into our educational system, instead of just overlaid onto it. Blended learning is the lever we need to take student achievement to a whole new level.”

Molly, National Development Manager, joined the DFER team after working in a variety of education contexts, spanning from policy to practice. Initially coaching a summer Cheer/English camp in Nogales, Mexico, Molly developed an interest in the transformative power of education. Teaching in Bogota, Colombia she continued to learn about the challenge of providing quality education for kids. An interest in improving education outcomes, especially for the most disadvantaged students, inspired her study at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. While studying, she worked on a project developing an index to measure state-level primary school quality in Mexico's public schools.