Professional Learning

Budget Crises and Technology Could Break the Mold of the Little Red Schoolhouse

August 2, 2010

Editor's Note: Today's guest bloggers are Susan Colby and Caitrin Moran Wright from the Bridgespan group, a non-profit strategy consulting firm.

The "little red school house," filled with 25 to 30 students of varying aptitudes and presided over by a pointer-wielding teacher, no longer exists. Yet that venerable learning environment still endures. Worse, all indicators show it's a model for educational failure -- even when school districts have had the luxury of spending dearly to hire more teachers to reduce the number of students per class. With its emphasis on set periods of time to cover certain subjects, rather than on actual student learning effectiveness, it's a costly anachronism.

What's needed are solutions for the four inherent flaws in this inflexible 19th-century educational template: A lack of personalized content for each student, an inability to meet individual student learning needs, a one-size-fits-all instructional style for teachers that ignores their varying strengths, and a set of costs that far exceed the rest of the world's but with much worse results. Put another way, we need to augment the capabilities of good teachers to reach every student in, ideally, a personalized way.

The silver lining in the recession may be that schools may simply no longer be able to afford today's version of the solitary "school marm" that they'll be forced to find better, more cost-effective ways to teach America's next generation of workers and leaders. In fact, it's starting to happen with the adoption of so-called "hybrid" education solutions which blend face-to-face and computer or technology-mediated instruction in ways that can customize learning to the individual student.

Hybrid may not be such an elegant name for a potential revolution in teaching. But just as hybridized crops transformed the world's ability to feed its population, so could mixed human-computerized teaching methods create vastly higher yields of educated citizens. Let's look at four examples of how technology-enabled and redesigned teaching methods can address the persistent flaws in today's educational system:


Schools today are anything but tailored to students. Sorted by age, children progress based on the calendar regardless of personal needs. Some are bored because they are already proficient; some are stymied because they don't have the skills. The independent Swedish school network Kunskapsskolan attacks this head on. Each student works with a personal coach. Students can choose lectures, workshops, seminars, laboratory experiments or whatever method matches their individual interests and needs. Moreover, there is no set time period to do this. Kunskapsskolan's model is underpinned by an online knowledge portal, accessible to teachers, parents and individual students. The portal sets out graduation standards, and shows student progress at any point in their studies.

Targeting various learning modes

School systems have striven mightily to reduce class sizes in order to help teachers address individual student needs. Florida's class-size reduction initiative, for example, cost $20 billion over eight years. But analysis shows no gains for students at most grade levels. There are many reasons, but one seems obvious: Not every student thrives in today's one-size-fits-all class structure. Realizing this, New York City's School of One pilot program offers a variety of learning modes, including group and small-group instruction, one-on-one teaching and online instruction. The program uses technology to match students with specific lessons and modes. Each student has a daily online "playlist" based on the progress they made the day before through very quick pre- and post-assessments. An independent study of the organization's initial summer pilot (run in 2009) found strong performance gains for participating students. As a result, School of One will be deployed in three elementary schools for the 2010-2011 school year.

No longer treating teachers as widgets

Assembly line methods serve neither students well nor their teachers, who have widely differentiated styles and strengths of their own. Universities have institutionalized these teacher differences. They routinely employ multiple teaching modes and don't try to make instructors interchangeable. They understand that there's a big difference between those who make spellbinding lecturers, those who are strong section leaders attuned to the hands-on needs of learning in laboratories, and those who seem born to lead small seminars on creative writing. Secondary schools need to take a page from higher education, matching teachers' innate abilities with the skills needed to reach students.

Reducing costs while increasing effectiveness

Rocketship Education, a nonprofit elementary charter school, offers a good example of linking the seemingly contradictory goals of better teaching at less cost. Rocketship operates two innovative elementary schools in San Jose, California, a state in the midst of a terrible fiscal situation. Rocketship operates within tight budget constraints by creating a period each day during which students pursue online learning under the supervision of a trained adult, not a costly certified teacher. The schools use the money saved to hire specialists in math and English language arts, where they are needed. The approach works: Rocketship's 2009 state Academic Performance Index (API) scores made its schools the highest performing low-income elementary schools in San Jose and Santa Clara County, and third in California.

Employing several elements of hybrid education, Chicago public school officials just announced a plan to introduce an eight-hour school day (lengthened by two instructional hours) to as many as 100 struggling city schools, using laptop computers and instructional software. Under the "Extended School Day Initiative," one-half of first- through eighth-graders in these schools would take computerized classes in math and reading for two hours at the end of the day, the other half would attend them before regular classes start.

Allen Michael Mosley, principal of Bontemps School in Englewood, says he's already seen impressive results from an afterschool math software program, which gives both individualized attention and signals when tutoring is needed. The online courses would be overseen by lower-cost "proctors," not certified teachers, and would keep students in school from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Teachers need the kind of support that hybrid education promises. Research consistently shows that the most important factor in student learning is the quality of the instructor. Yet data are beginning to reveal that very few teachers - as low as 10 percent in many schools - are effective at advancing the majority of their class by a full year of proficiency. Technology is not the answer in and of itself. Expect no robo-teachers. Yet technology that both frees teachers to do what they do best - and most importantly, puts students at the center of educational strategy - could well be the long-awaited 21st century replacement for the little red schoolhouse.

This article is based on the work originally published here: Next Generation Learning: Can We Crack Four Problems to Unleash Quality Education for All?

Susan Colby is a founding partner of Bridgespan's San Francisco office, where she leads the organization's work in K-12 education. Susan works with nonprofit and government organizations, as well as foundations to help all kids get the education they deserve. She has co-authored several major articles including, "Zeroing in on Impact," in Stanford Social Innovation Review; "The Strategic Value of a Shared Understanding of Costs," in Strategy & Leadership; "Going for the Gold " in Education Next; and "Galvanizing Philanthropy," in Harvard Business Review."

Caitrin Moran Wright is a manager at Bridgespan's San Francisco office. As a member of the strategic consulting practice, she focuses on the group's education, foundation strategy, and environment work. Her clients have included several large foundations, a national dropout prevention organization, a national charter school network, and a county commission on early childhood education. She is the co-author, with former partner Jon Huggett, of "Who Decides? Mapping Power and Decision Making in Nonprofits" (Nonprofit Quarterly, September 21, 2008).

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