Julia Freeland, a research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, and I coauthored this piece.
For a number of years, educators in both district and charter settings around the country have been leveraging advances in online-learning technologies to move toward blended-learning environments in their brick-and-mortar classrooms and schools to improve the educational opportunities for all children. An ongoing lawsuit in New Jersey, however, is attempting to reverse this trend by shutting down blended-learning programs in two charter schools, Newark Prep and Merit Prep.
The move to blended learning matters because learning science has long told us that students learn at different paces, have different working memory capacities, and possess different background knowledge—or long-term memory—when they enter a learning experience. Our current education system, however, operates on a factory-based model that treats all students the same. As technology improves rapidly, blended learning holds the promise to personalize our education system to individual students’ needs and interests.
Although the lawsuit seems to have little chance of success, it creates frivolous headaches and expenses for the school leaders, which distracts from improving the schools themselves to realize the full promise of personalizing learning for all students.
The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), a teachers union that operates outside of Newark and the entity that brought the lawsuit, claims in a recent filing that the two blended-learning schools violate the state’s law authorizing charter schools. That law has been interpreted, rightly or wrongly, by the New Jersey Department of Education to prohibit full-time virtual charter schools—charter schools where students access all of their schooling remotely, through an online platform. The complaint against these two brick-and-mortar charter schools, however, misses on two key fronts: first, NJEA misrepresents the New Jersey Legislature’s stated policy purpose of charter schools. Second, the lawsuit conflates blended-learning approaches inside brick-and-mortar schools with full-time virtual schooling.
NJEA’s argument that blended-learning charter schools violate the charter law runs afoul of the Legislature’s own statements on the benefits charter schools offer to educators and students alike. Specifically, the Legislature has said that chartering schools is “a mechanism for the implementation of a variety of educational approaches which may not be available in the traditional public school classroom.” Charter schools also, in the Legislature’s own words, “increase for students and parents the educational choices available when selecting the learning environment which they feel may be the most appropriate; encourage the use of different and innovative learning methods… and establish new professional opportunities for teachers.” In short, the charter sector, by the state’s own design, provides space for new and different approaches inside the classroom. Blended learning constitutes one such innovative approach.
NJEA claims that nowhere in the law does the state allow for online learning in charter schools. It is true that New Jersey’s charter law does not specifically call for blended or online models. This is true, however, only in as much as the law does not call for any particular type or model of school. The law does not mention, for example, schools centered around the performing arts, social justice, classical education, dual-language instruction, or technology-focused schools. Yet, there are state-approved charter schools open—and not under attack—in New Jersey that address these different models of instruction and education.
But rather than merely rehash the tired union-charter debate around the explicit purpose and role of charter schools, the NJEA goes on to make bold and inaccurate claims about which “different and innovative learning methods” Merit Prep and Newark Prep are currently deploying in their schools. In so doing, their argument conflates the concept of full-time virtual charter schools with charter schools implementing blended learning inside brick-and-mortar school buildings.
In the NJEA’s words, Merit Prep and Newark Prep’s models “significantly and almost exclusively rely on on-line educational instruction for the keystone of New Jersey’s educational requirements – the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards.”
The reality, however, is quite different. Upon entering these schools, it becomes apparent quickly that students interact directly, each and every day, in-person, with their New Jersey-certified core content teachers. As Merit Prep founder Ben Rayer told The Hechinger Report earlier this year, “no longer do we teach just one lesson in front of a class of 30 or 40 students; we teach many lessons during a day to students based on their individual needs.” Technology, in other words, is a tool to enhance personalized learning inside these schools. But computers and online instruction have neither replaced face-to-face teachers nor the school buildings themselves.
It’s not a coincidence that the New Jersey Legislature has stated that “the establishment of a charter school program is in the best interests of the students of this State and it is therefore the public policy of the State to encourage and facilitate the development of charter schools.” Further, blended learning is one method by which teachers are honing more student-centered approaches inside these schools (as well as in New Jersey’s district schools it’s worth noting). Charter schools implementing these blended approaches are not only operating within the bounds of the law, but they are also delivering on its very promise to grow innovative learning methods that stand to bolster personalized educational opportunities for New Jersey’s students.