If you set your mind free, baby
Maybe you’d understand
Starfish and coffee
Maple syrup and jam
—Prince, Starfish and Coffee

On a recent morning show, reporters profiled Khan Academy under the headline Teachers vs. Tech.  My buddy, an educator, yelled at the screen in his best Arnold Schwarznegger voice, “Only one shall survive!”  Let’s face it, honest, nuanced conversations are hard to come by in K12, but new innovations are forcing us to question much of what we know about schooling.

Blended learning’s (potential) gift to educators is the freedom to design new school models by loosening the constraints found in traditional schools.  Here is a preliminary framework to understand these new flexibilities and the choices they create.

Three Choices

Once again, let’s do a thought experiment and imagine a school where students spend 50 percent of their time working independently online. The students’ work is personalized, engaging and productive, and requires a different level of teacher supervision.1

Increasing the amount of time students work independently creates flexibility for school operators, affording three basic choices:

  1. Create more time for teachers.
  2. Reallocate resources to things schools otherwise can’t afford.
  3. Reduce costs to cope with declining budgets

Let’s unpack each of these, knowing that they are not mutually exclusive; schools will take different approaches and pursue one or more of the above flexibilities in their models.

Create more time for teachers. This choice allows schools to “free up” teachers by giving them back their time while students work independently.  The teacher now has the opportunity to pull small groups of students to address learning gaps (individualization), enhance or extend the curriculum (rigor), or spend time analyzing student data (monitoring).  At places like Carpe Diem and the Flex Academy, teachers move around the building to work with students without the overhead of managing a traditional class at all times.

This choice has deep implications for teacher sustainability as we shift the teacher’s job from “spending a little time doing a lot of things” to creating a space for sustained, individualized instruction.  Teachers get to spend more time… teaching.

The potential also exists to differentiate or modularize teacher roles.  Rather than having each teacher try to do everything, we can conceive of a model where master teachers primarily engage in activities that leverage their extensive instructional expertise while less experienced teachers focus on building student relationships, providing first-tier academic interventions, and collaborating with master teachers to expand their practice.  Cornerstone Schools and Open Education Solutions both have strategies to unbundle the teacher job and specialize staff roles.

The K12 sector is unique in that first-year professionals are expected to do the same work as experienced professionals.  Blended learning can bring flexibility back to how we think about teachers’ roles and job sustainability.

Reallocate resources to things schools otherwise can’t afford. One of the greatest challenges for school leaders is that the cost structures of traditional schools are essentially locked – labor and facilities can account for 80-90% of budgets right out of the gate, forcing leaders to fund programs and extra-curriculars that families care deeply about out of a very small percentage of the budget.

Blended learning models, where students spend significant time working independently via online platforms, can require fewer staff members, freeing up resources to invest in things like academic interventions, professional development and/or extra-curricular enhancements.  I estimate that blended learning models where students spend 25-50% online will give school leaders discretion over an additional $1,000 – $2,000 per student, although roughly $300-500 per student will be required to fund the online learning platform.

For example, Rocketship Education has its K-5 students spend 25% of the time working independently in a Learning Lab and reallocates dollars to pay its teachers ~20% more than the local district, provide additional teacher coaching, and implement a leadership development program to create career paths for teachers. Rocketship students are among the highest performing in California even as the state experiences massive funding declines.  In spite of a difficult funding environment, blended learning leaves operators with choices to allocate resources to things they otherwise can’t afford.

Reduce costs to cope with declining budgets. States across the country are projecting a collective $112Bn in deficits next year, representing approximately 18% of their budgets.2 Barring a stunning recovery in the US economy, it looks to be a lost decade for school funding.  California schools, for instance, have suffered three years of persistent budget cuts and a recent uptick in tax revenue will, at best, keep school funding flat. Meanwhile, rapidly increasing pension and benefits costs will continue to pressure strained budgets.

Blended learning offers a path to strategically reduce costs while enabling a high-quality learning environment.  I recently visited a blended school with an effective 45:1 student:teacher ratio.  I asked a student what he liked about the school and he responded, “the small class sizes.”  Whenever he was in front of a teacher, he typically was in a group of five or less; this was made possible by increasing the amount of time students work online at their own pace.  The tradeoff at this school is less overall face-to-face time with teachers but the time students do have with teachers is in small-group, personalized environments.  This strategy lies in stark contrast to the traditional cost-cutting playbook of cutting programs, increasing class sizes and laying off the least tenured teachers regardless of performance.

What do we want? Flexibility!  When do we want it?

The amount of flexibility school leaders have in maximizing one or more of these choices is based largely on the percent of time students work independently.  A blended learning school where students spend 50% of time online will offer more degrees of freedom than a model where students spend 25% of time online.

Using the models referred to in the Rise of K12 Blended Learning, I’ve anecdotally seen Flex schools be most aggressive in pursuing ways to create more time for teachers and Rotation schools be creative in reallocating resources to their highest, best use.

That is not to say that there is one right answer.  Entrepreneurs will create different permutations to meet the needs of their students.  These innovations will only prove successful if they result in learning environments where student dramatically outperform their peers in traditional schools.  The real question is how quickly school operators can take new models and optimize their face-to-face and online environments to deliver great results.

The Future: Accelerated Learning

I agree with Tom Vander Ark who predicts that personal digital learning will increase the amount of learning that occurs per hour by 2x or more.  We may already be seeing this in the home school market where high performers finish their work in 3-4 hours vs. the 7 hours they would spend at a traditional school.

Accelerated learning presents a whole new set of flexibilities.  One choice is to let students spend more time studying at an accelerated rate.  Another approach is to compress core academics so students have more time to pursue the arts, academic projects, internships, etc. that extend and enhance the curriculum.

This is a “third way” to approach the current debate around narrowing the curriculum.  The Acton Academy, an independent school in Austin, TX, helps us glimpse this future where students work on core academics for half of the day in a blended learning environment and then might put on lab coats the second half of the day to build things.

As blended learning models allow learning to accelerate, I expect we will see more schools that successfully serve the whole child.

A Smile Beneath My Nose

The K12 reform debate is tough, partisan and unforgiving and the results have been more incremental than transformational.

But these days you’ll see my happy face because new entrepreneurs are beginning to grasp what’s possible for learning, especially as blended learning loosens constraints that we once thought were impossible to break.  To be fair, I think K-12 has been thinking about the right things: individualization, differentiation, and rigor. It’s just unclear whether the traditional school model is best suited for this undertaking.

I predict the next decade or two will forever change the way we think about K12.  And while I’m waiting, I’d like to order the butterscotch clouds, a tangerine and a side order of ham.

1 For the purposes of this conversation, let’s assume that online learning time is as good as or better than face-to-face instruction. See Heather Staker’s post on how quality, adaptive learning programs can boost learning with relatively modest face-to-face support.

2 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. States Continue to Feel Recession’s Impact. March 9, 2011.

Alex Hernandez is a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a venture philanthropy that provides growth capital for high-performing charter school networks. He leads CSGF’s “next-generation” learning investments in blended learning programs and is eager to talk to social entrepreneurs who want to re-invent schools. twitter: thinkschools


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