As Education Elements moves into its sixth year supporting schools and districts, its latest impact report builds the case that personalizing learning for students isn’t just a one-hit wonder but a sound strategy for boosting outcomes for all students.
In 2015, the Christensen Institute and Evergreen Education Group published 12 case studies of how traditional school districts improved students’ learning outcomes after implementing blended learning. As I noted at the time, it shouldn’t have been news that districts were using blended learning. They may use it more often than charters. What was news was that a handful was achieving great results. Sadly, it was challenging to find more than 12 getting concrete results on which we could report—a key reason why charters have received more attention than their district counterparts around blended learning.
Fast forward to now. The Education Elements report alone specifically highlights seven districts with concrete, measurable, and objective positive results around student outcomes from personalizing learning. And given the overall results from the portfolio of districts, there are undoubtedly more shining stories.
The anti-Hawthorne effect
Many innovations in education result in a boost in student outcomes in the first year, only to fade away over time as people stop observing them as intently—a classic case of the Hawthorne effect.
In contrast, it appears that the benefits from personalizing learning may grow over time. Several of the districts with which Education Elements works have now completed their third year of blending learning. For example, the Enlarged City School District of Middletown, NY, which serves over 7,000 students, 74% of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, is in its third year of implementing blended learning. Thirty-three percent more students hit their growth targets in reading and 39% more did so in math this past school year. And in years past they also saw improvements-it’s just that that scores keep going up. In other words, more students are doing better as the district gains more experience personalizing learning.
Growth and proficiency
As others and I have written, measuring individual student growth should be the most significant element in determining quality. But as I’ve also written, today’s most widespread measures of growth are sometimes misleading. They do not easily help us understand if students are growing toward proficiency, not just growing more than students in their “norm group.”
Kudos to Education Elements for reporting the growth measures in ways that are not misleading, but also for providing multiple outcome measures. The districts in the Education Elements report appear to show evidence of academic quality along proficiency, growth that greatly outpaces nationally normed targets, and improvement relative to schools and classrooms in the same district that are not blending.
In Piedmont City School District in Alabama, schools saw huge increases in students in grades 3 through 5 scoring college and career ready (proficient or above) on the ACT Aspire summative exam—from 47% in 2014-15 to a whopping 71% in 2015-16 in math and from 28% in 2014-15 to 42% in 2015-16 in reading. Piedmont Middle School just completed its second year of personalizing learning and showed similar leaps in students scoring proficient or above on the ACT Aspire exam— from 22% in 2014-15 to 47% in 2015-2016 in math and from 27% in 2014-15 to 41% in 2015-16 in reading.
Across almost 17,000 students from five of the districts that work with Education Elements and take the nationally normed NWEA Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), students achieved average growth of 142% in reading and 121% in math, compared to nationally normed MAP growth targets.
In Greeley-Evans School District 6 in Colorado, nine schools have implemented blended learning. According to the report, “students in grades 2 through 5 in blended classrooms outperformed the district average on every Math and ELA common assessment. Across the district, 56% of blended students scored proficient or advanced on math common assessments, compared to the district average of 49%, and 45% of blended students scored proficient or advanced on ELA common assessments, compared to the district average of 37%.”
What’s also interesting is that 93% of teachers say that thanks to blended learning, they can now provide more differentiated instruction. This is important because research has shown that while differentiating—or personalizing—can be important for student success, executing it in a classroom with lots of students is really hard. As James Delisle put it in a commentary for Education Week, “Although fine in theory, differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back.” This data point suggests that through blended learning, differentiating is no longer aspirational.
Not just academic
Academic outcomes matter, but increasingly people are awakening to the fact that other outcomes matter, too. In schools personalizing learning, 85% of district leaders say students are more engaged compared to before they implemented blended learning, and 70% of teachers agree. In measures that start to address whether students are building agency—likely critical for college and career success—three-quarters of school leaders say students are taking more ownership of their learning since implementing blended learning, and 78% of teachers say students are showing more self-direction.
In upstate New York, Syracuse City School District, which serves over 20,000 students across 34 schools, began personalizing learning at 10 of their elementary, middle, and K–8 schools in 2015-16. Over 90% of teachers report feeling more effective and say they enjoy teaching more in a blended-learning environment.
Outcomes not inputs
Ultimately what I love about this report is that the districts and schools featured are breaking the mold of “how” school has always been done and they are getting results. They are throwing off the confines of public policies and regulations that have focused on compliance and inputs with the knowledge that they lock a system into a set way of doing things and inhibit innovation. Focusing on outcomes, on the other hand, encourages continuous improvement against a set of overall goals and can unlock a path toward the creation of a student-centered education system.
Of course, the inputs do matter. And these districts are sweating the details of those inputs. Just not the ones prescribed in a one-size-fits-all way. If these districts were personalizing learning for students but not seeing results, then using blended learning to personalize would be a negative, not a positive. But that is not the case.
And as Education Elements closes the book on its 5th year of working with schools, that’s ample reason to be excited for the next 5 years ahead. Public schools are working hard, and that hard work is paying off.
About the author:
Michael Horn is the co-author of two books which fundamentally changed the way we think about education: Disrupting Class and Blended. Both an Education Elements board member and one of the predominant thought leaders about personalized learning, Michael will share his thoughts on how the world has changed since writing his books and what we can expect of the future. If you have heard Michael speak before prepare yourself for a different experience this time around.
Originally published on Medum.com