Selected readings on US charter schools
“Blended learning” curriculum considered cutting-edge and controversial as a big portion of instruction is by computer with small group discussions and one-on-one instruction.
INDIANAPOLIS — When visitors to the Carpe Diem charter school see 175 students wearing headphones and staring into computer screens from small cubicles, principal Mark Forner is ready for a skeptical reaction.
“Our critics say it looks like a telemarketing call center,” he said, pre-emptively. “I tell people it reminds me of a university library.”
The tightly arranged cubed seating in a large, open room isn’t the only way Carpe Diem doesn’t look like a traditional school. There’s also this fact — there are only five teachers for 175 students.
That’s a 35-1 student-to-teacher ratio, a little out of line for what many middle and high schools offer. Eventually, the five teachers — with the assistance of aides — will be expected to educate 300 students as the school grows, creating a 60-1 ratio more common in Third World countries.
That’s because Carpe Diem offers a “blended learning” curriculum. It’s a cutting-edge and controversial concept that delivers a big chunk of instruction to students via computer at school and occasionally at home and mixes it with periodic small group discussions and one-on-one instruction.
Carpe Diem, which serves grades 6 to 12 with a 13-member staff, brought blended learning to Indianapolis for the first time last year.
Three more blended learning charter schools recently opened in Indianapolis — Phalen Leadership Academy, Nexus Academy and Enlace Academy — but the concept is only starting to ramp up. More than a dozen blended learning schools are planned to open here over the next five years.
“Our intuition is that it does work,” said Earl Martin Phalen, founder of the Phalen Academy charter school. “If you watch a two-year-old grab an iPad and flip through it, you see our kids are pretty adept with technology. We certainly understand it can be a learning tool.”
Electronic instruction is hardly new — online-only schools have been around for more than a decade. But blended schools claim to have developed a hybrid they say is more effective for many kids. It allows students to work at their own pace to conquer concepts they can handle and consult a teacher or their peers when they need extra help.
Proponents say blended learning is potentially a leap forward, using technology to carefully tailor instruction to best suit each student’s needs.
“We’re just a one-room school house for the 21st century,” Forner said. “Teachers are responsible for every student at every grade level. Instruction is personalized.”
Learning model or profit machine?
Critics of blended learning, however, lump this concept in with other online schools and say they have concerns about the quality of the learning experience and the true motivations of the purveyors of electronic instruction. Some wonder if they care more about learning or profits.
After all, it can be far cheaper to teach a student with a computer in a cubicle than with an actual person standing in front of the classroom. That, in turn, can free up dollars that can be paid out in profit that can go to school operators and the testing companies that make several of the hot-selling software programs they buy.
Many of the schools that offer online instruction are run by for-profit companies, including those that manage Carpe Diem and Nexus.
Last year, the consulting firm The Parthenon Group did a study that aimed to estimate the cost of blended learning instruction compared with a traditional classroom model. It found the difference could be as much as $2,400 per student below what traditional public schools spend on instruction. That’s almost 25% less than what the typical traditional public school spends, the study said.
Phalen, whose charter school opened in Indianapolis this year, acknowledged that there are those who use online tools to cut costs. But he said his schools and others like them are trying to do what every business aims to do — find ways to deliver services that are cheaper and better at the same time. Phalen Academy is not entirely a blended learning school but uses some blended learning techniques in its classes.
Rick Ogston, who founded Carpe Diem in Arizona, said cost-cutting was the last thing on his mind when he began experimenting with blended learning at his first school. His motivation, he said, was to find a way to tailor instruction to the point where it was personalized to each student.
“It isn’t about economics,” he said. “It’s an instructional strategy.”
Carpe Diem’s Indianapolis principal, Mark Forner, is a former insurance agent who changed careers to become a teacher by joining Teach for America, a program that places new teachers in needy schools nationwide. Forner, 47, said he studied blended learning in graduate school.
“The great thing about blended learning is no two kids move at the same pace,” he said. “In traditional school if you are a kid who gets it, you have to wait until the next year to move up to the grade. Here you don’t have to wait for the cohort.”
That’s what brought student Sydney Pedigo to Carpe Diem from Western Boone High School last year as a 10th-grader. A math whiz, she said she was often bored in math class. Even when teachers gave her more advanced work to do on her own she would often zip through it and be stuck waiting for the rest of the class.
“I was always in higher classes but I wasn’t learning anything,” she said. “I would fall asleep in math class all the time.”
Pedigo, who wants to be a veterinarian, had her eye on a different charter school, so on her visit to Carpe Diem she had planned to be unimpressed. But she said she couldn’t help but like what she saw.
“I could work really fast,” she said. “Last year I got four semesters of math done. I skipped an entire year.”
Carpe Diem’s approach is sometimes called the “flipped” classroom. Lectures that used to take place in class are instead routinely watched online on video. Students then work their way through exercises based on the lecture content and take a short quiz. A lesson typically takes about 40 minutes to complete.
Then, when students go to class, their work is focused on discussion, group work and individual help, said Liz Retana, the school’s English teacher.
So far, the results are impressive.
Most new charter schools start with low student scores, and the good ones raise them over time. In its first year, Carpe Diem saw 73% of its students pass English and math on Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress, just a half-point below the state average.
By comparison, Indianapolis Public School 27, which two years ago converted to the highly regarded Center for Inquiry curriculum, saw just 54.7% pass.
The two schools have very similar demographics. Carpe Diem has slightly more poor and minority students and slightly fewer students learning English as a second language or in special education.
For Retana and her teaching colleagues, though, serving so many students requires more planning than when they worked in traditional schools. Planning all her lessons for the week on Sunday night doesn’t work at Carpe Diem, Retana found.
“I’m here lots of late nights,” she said “It’s a lot of work.”
Too few teachers?
Butler University education professors Shelly Furuness and Kelli Esteves, who have experimented with blended learning in their college classes and support the idea, nonetheless worry about the workload for teachers such as Retana.
“No matter how good you are, 60-1 (student-teacher ratio) is … exhausting,” Furuness said. “It’s a process that uses people up so they can’t perform at that volume.”
Furuness and Esteves have used blended learning for core foundation courses in learning theories, education concepts and educational history at Butler. Their decision to try blended learning was also influenced by the goal of individualized instruction.
“It starts with the premise of designing instruction so everyone can tap into it in a way that makes sense to them,” Esteves said.
But the two were quick to point out that they co-teach a class with 25 students when they do blended learning — a 12-1 ratio of students to teacher — and only for select classes. The two are skeptical of blended learning as a central concept for a whole school.
“I wouldn’t want people to read this and say flipped teaching is a good systemized, whole-school approach,” Esteves said.
Furuness said she worries when she hears about students who quickly complete high school courses by relying heavily on online tools. At college level, she said, students often struggle not because they haven’t passed tests on basic concepts but because they can’t connect those concepts through critical thinking.
That sort of skill is typically honed in conversation with teachers and peers.
“Sometimes they’re collecting gold stars when they should be connecting dots,” Furuness said.
Forner, Carpe Diem’s principal, doesn’t disagree.
“We are very clear with parents we are not an online school and that we have high-quality teachers,” he said. “There are some things you cannot get from an online-only school that you can only get with a high-quality teacher. That includes real-world application. You can only get that from a great teacher down in the classroom.”
Source: USA Today – by Scott Elliott, The Indianapolis Star