Hyping Hybrids and Customized Learning

Yep, the reform-bound train has left the station and the diesel is roaring down the track spouting promises of a rosy technological future for public schools. Oops! Delete “schools” and insert “customized services.”

On board the train are cheerleaders (e.g., Tom Vander Ark, Rick Hess, Michael Horn, Paul Peterson, Jonathan Schorr) writing press releases, articles, and books. They tout hybrid and virtual schools (e.g., “New York City’s School of One,” San Jose’s Rocketship schools, San Diego’s “High Tech High,” and the Florida Virtual School) that are in the vanguard of transforming districts and schools into customized service providers.

Techno-centric reformers celebrate the efficiency (less cost and more productivity) and individualized instruction in “blended” learning and virtual schools. These hybrids immerse students in a digital world where individual lessons are electronically-crafted to fit students–this is where differentiated instruction enters–for part of the day. In these schools, some teachers teach traditional lessons while others coach individual students. Hybrids have fewer teachers–that is where efficiency enters–with much student time spent online. For hybrids located in largely minority and poor high schools, however, the double task of helping students erase academic deficits while preparing them for college-level work is a tall mountain to climb. In such hybrids, it makes sense to combine face-to-face teaching and computer lab work for part of a day. .

So what’s the big deal about converting schools into hybrids and “blending” individualized technology-delivered lessons and face-to-face contact between teachers and students? The Big Deal is that champions of this approach imagine hybrids as a mid-point toward the destination  of dismantling most schools. Instead of “schools,” they think “services” that parents can buy once they have sufficient information. As one cheerleader put it:

If we re-imagine schools as mechanisms that provide students with an assortment of services instead of delivering an indivisible package of “education,” we can start to disentangle the components of that package and customize them to fit specific student needs and abilities   EduO-2011-03-g )….

[B]reaking the stranglehold of the whole-school model ultimately requires that states and districts shift away from a vision of choice in which students merely choose between schools and toward a model more akin to that of the health savings account in health care.
Rather than just paying for students to go to approved school A or B, the state would deposit money in an account in the name of each student and then allow parents to use that money to procure services from an array of state-approved providers….”

If this sounds like a system of market-based choices, it is.

Train engineers on this track to this future want to “unbundle” school structures (i.e., no more age-graded school, subjects taught by teachers in self-contained classrooms) and academic subjects into an array of individually purchased services (e.g., Advanced Placement courses, foreign languages, art, music)  tailored to what parents see as the individual needs of their children and deliver these services via technology at home and various sites including even  schools. Unbundling school structures and content approximates a stylish version of  vouchers for parents to use in selecting educational services.

So what? What’s wrong of hurtling down this railroad track of creating hybrids with an eye toward converting all schools into a shopping menu of educational products acquired electronically? What is gained and what is lost?

The gains are obvious to those hyping hybrids and online instruction.There is increased access to educational services tailored to individual parents’ and student’s needs.  Also projected is increased efficiency in schooling through decreased costs–yes, fewer teachers–and higher productivity in student outcomes. Advocates point to a 2010 study of online and blended learning that concluded:

In recent … studies contrasting blends of online and face-to face instruction with conventional face-to-face classes, blended instruction has been more effective…. When used by itself, online learning appears to be as effective as conventional classroom instruction, but not more so” (  finalreport-4 ).

And the losses? Another digital divide. Students in largely minority and low-income schools will receive more and more online instruction in regular courses and credit recovery programs (many summer schools have been canceled) than students encounter in affluent districts.

The second loss stems from a common error that enthusiasts for hybrids and online instruction including passionate futurists make again and again. They equate access to information with becoming educated.  These very smart people ignore crucial purposes public schools have served historically in a democracy.

Schools have never been solely information factories; they have been and are social, political, and moral institutions whose job is to help children and youth acquire multiple literacies,  enter the labor market well prepared, vote, serve on juries, contribute to their communities, think for themselves, and live full and worthwhile lives. Few policymakers, few philanthropists, few civic and business leaders have challenged (or are willing to challenge) the decided tilt toward transforming schools into information factories.

The losses, to me, exceed the gains.



Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

10 responses to “Hyping Hybrids and Customized Learning

  1. Cal

    Rocketship Academies are elementary schools, aren’t they? I ask because there’s a big difference between unbundling “services” like AP and foreign language study on the one hand, and giving kids with lower abilities hours and hours of needed practice without a teacher or friends around to distract.

    You do a great job of pointing out something that hybrid and online advocates neglect to mention: what they’re really talking about, when all is said and done, is using computers more in low income schools, usually with underrepresented minorities.

    Schools have never been solely information factories; they have been and are social, political, and moral institutions whose job is to help children and youth acquire multiple literacies, enter the labor market well prepared, vote, serve on juries, contribute to their communities, think for themselves, and live full and worthwhile lives.

    But once schools were expected to deliver “equal results”, the only thing that mattered was academic achievement and schools are forced to invent ways to erase (or pretend to erase) the gap. I know I sound obsessed on this subject, but I can’t help but point out again that the achievement gap and efforts to erase it (or, again, pretend to erase it) have consumed educational policy. Look at any development that concerns you, Larry, and it won’t take you long to find the politics of the gap behind it.

    No one is seriously proposing online education or hybrid models for suburban schools with middle class or higher students–even at Title I schools like mine. The tax bases wouldn’t stand for it because they know full well that education is more than just access to information. Besides, if all their kids are going to do is sit at a computer all day, they may as well do that at home. The online model is primarily focused on finding ways to cheaply deliver passing grades to the alarming number of URM students who have failed algebra and English multiple times and need graduation credits or, as I mentioned earlier, younger kids who can’t learn the material without additional practice that kids with stronger abilities don’t need.

    I don’t know if you’ve read about the big push for Algebra II lately, but I wonder how much of this is driven by people with a financial interest in online education. The failure rate for algebra II is already huge. If the second year of algebra is mandated, it will even further drive the need for a “makeup model” of delivering algebra II to kids who require it for graduation.

    And of course, at that level, “passing algebra” is not anything to brag about. The standards are very low and if the students who passed using this method are persuaded by well-meaning but deluded advisers to go to college, they will end up in remediation anyway.

  2. Larry, this is a helpful article, as is any dash of cold water on overheated hyperbole. And, you commit a bad fallacy by assuming that making schools more like information factories (a pejorative and flawed metaphor) necessarily means that they won’t still play social, moral, political roles.

    I help direct a hybrid high school (College Pathways in Colorado Springs) where students are on campus about 40% of the time and online for the rest. For students who are not as comfortable in the social setting of a traditional classroom, the hybrid model is a superior setting to find their voice and engage in the kinds of interactions that prompt personal, moral, social and political learning—and technical proficiency as well.

    While starry-eyed reformists may make the fallacy of equating access to information with learning, you make the fallacy of equating presence in a traditional classroom with all the development you list above. You are in the untenable position of defending a system that abandons an unacceptable number of students as dropouts and tolerates a massive population of “dropins” who keep attending but stop learning.

    Your perspective is necessary, but as overstated as the reformers you criticize.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that for some students hybrids work very well. And I further agree that hybrids can certainly meet the larger purposes of public schools beyond transmitting knowledge. So those points are well taken. But those were not my points in the post. I did not assume that regular public schools are now meeting the civic, social, and political purposes I mentioned. After all, for the past 30-plus years public schools have been closely tied to the national agenda of increasing economic competitiveness with other nations. The testing and accountability structures shaping school and classroom practices, in my opinion, have only weakened achievement of purposes that go beyond economic goals. I understand why you may think that I have slipped into a logical fallacy, I appreciate the chance to clarify what my intent was–to provide a “dash of cold water on overheated hyperbole.”

  3. Pingback: A Dash of Cold Water

  4. These are important concerns and the cold water has my attention. But what next?

    What course of action do you suggest? Should we stop online and blended learning ideas in their tracks? Or, are you suggesting a different approach?

    Also, you reference specific programs. Were these just examples for the reader, or do you see your two main losses playing out in these specific programs.

  5. larrycuban

    Thanks for the comment. I found your Education Next piece helpful. Some of the following points will be familiar and some may not.

    Economic retrenchment and the lure of online learning in K-12, hyped by smart, influential people, have combined to set up a situation that is familiar: Save money by using machines to do more and better teaching (as advocates claim) and still get students to improve their achievement. Where this occurs most often, thus far, is in low-income, largely minority areas. Sure, students in rural and top suburban schools take AP, foreign language, math, and science courses unavailable to them but most of the hybrids and online courses show up in New York City, San Jose, Miami, and other urban districts.

    In such districts, there are two very tough tasks to accomplish: erase the academic deficits that so many children and youth have in traditional classes while, at the same time, accelerate what students learn to prepare them for getting into college and completing the degree. This is a huge job that few software developers, administrators, and teachers can do within a few lessons or even a course, much less the 36 weeks that are available in a school year. Doing both requires more time, different school organization, qualified and stable staffs with strong academic credentials and the grasp of the complexity of the tasks they face.

    So I suggest that a conceptual awareness of the dimension of the academic catch-up and simultaneous need for accelerated learning in largely low-performing districts be made part of any policy debate on hybrids and online learning. Do I believe that in this climate of opinion, such an awareness will emerge? No, I do not.

    The probability that hybrids and online learning will dominate policy discussions for the near future–what I call hype and others call a “disruptive innovation”– is high. So is the probability that such programs will end up lodged in urban districts because the academic needs and problems are nested there far more than in suburban districts, particularly in the La Jolla’s, Winnetkas, and Massapequas of the country. Now, if all this talk of hybrids and online learning were to be converted into programs adopted by wealthy suburbs for most of their students, then I would have to dial back my concerns about a growing digital divide and the absence of a serious grasp of the complexity of improving academic performance through electronic means .

    What course of action do I suggest? Hybrids and online learning are the reform du jour and there is little that I can do to shrink the hyperbole other than raise the predictable danger of conceptual nakedness and the anticipated compounding of inequities from buying more machines and electronically crafted courses for mostly low-income students. I suggest that where hybrids and online are adopted in urban low-performing districts there should be leaders who say publicly what they are doing, have available explicit designs of lessons and courses that can erase academic deficits while preparing students for getting in and staying in college, and funds to support ongoing evaluations of these designs.

    The other issue I raised about the multiple purposes of schools and how, especially, online learning traps well-intentioned people into thinking that schools in a democratic society are solely about acquiring information–well, that kind of policy discussion and action is absent from current decision-makers’ agendas for school reform. It seems so ethereal, so removed from the current practical strategy discussions on pay-4-performance, charters, and giving iPads to kindergartners. Lack of public discussion about purposes or current leaders who raise these issues and take action is self-evident. It would be policy-relevant and refreshing for such discussions and actions to occur.

  6. I just listened to Joel Rose talk about his experiences in the HR Dept of the NY City Schools. http://vimeo.com/22042942 He says, “What percent of 8th grade math teachers in New York can get 1 years’ worth of growth for the students. 12%. For reading, it is half of the math numbers. Unless you think there are bad teachers in NY City, there are some, but it is quite the opposite. There are some phenomenal teachers in NY City. And in fact, there are so many college grads that want to spend their 20’s in NY City they have over 7 applicants for every position. If you have 7 applicants for every position and only 12 or 13 percent are as successful as you need them to be there is something wrong with the job. We have never had this conversation in K12 before. Is the job doable, in the way we are now defining it.”

    I am on the board of a school district where the outcomes are wretched. My son went to school in this district. He had to repeat high school in community college. I look at the outcomes at Rocketship and in the redesigned courses developed by the National Center for Academic Transformation and see ways to use technology to improve the outcomes for our students. This is not handing the students and teacher computers and telling them to go for it. Students do learn at computers doing math, where now they either sit and listen or are led in discussions where little discovery is going on

    In the state of Washington, 80% of K-4 teachers have not taken math since 10th grade. There is hardly anyone in our schools who can teach the subject. And then there is the matter of classes with students who span 6 grades in ability and students in differing levels of English language ability. The job is not doable. I don’t necessarily think that the School of One is the answer but I do think Joel Rose has analyzed the problem correctly.

    My school district uses very little technology, not because we can’t afford it, we have never even gotten that far in the discussion, but because of arguments like yours. We are stuck in a bad situation, with no way out because of a romantic view of education, where teachers just need autonomy to be successful. Teachers need adaptive software to education their students, to provide curriculum guidance, and to keep expectations high. I do not see any other way. Traditional education has been tried and it does not get the job done.

  7. “The other issue I raised about the multiple purposes of schools ….well, that kind of policy discussion and action is absent from current decision-makers’ agendas for school reform. ”

    Ever since my role as a housemaster in a co-educational UK boarding school, many moons ago, I’ve been interested in precisely the key questions you raise here, Larry, about what great schools really do. I’ve always been a bit frustrated by the reality that although there are truly great schools out there, doing everything right and getting the results, researchers and policy makers alike hunt down every excuse they can to explain away their success.

    It really is about time more of those people found some genuine objectivity and accepted that just as there are awful schools, failing everyone, there are truly great schools working wonders. The more we can learn about how they do that, the often very subtle, embedded codes and ethics which children and staff alike imbue with weeks and months of joining such a community, the better. I’m very happy to share with people my experience and views of how great schools do this: but as you note Larry, I don’t find policy makers or decision makers knocking down my door to find out! One of the reasons of course, is that you have to have worked in a great school to understand.

    Mind you…I have just been asked to speak at a major Education Reform conference in Westminster later this year, so maybe at long last…

  8. “Lack of public discussion about purposes or current leaders who raise these issues and take action is self-evident. It would be policy-relevant and refreshing for such discussions and actions to occur.” – True, and thoroughly depressing.

    This might be worth a peek in terms of adding to the hype:


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