George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Budget Crises and Technology Could Break the Mold of the Little Red Schoolhouse

Betty Ray

Senior Editor at Large
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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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Wendy Evans Bradley's picture

I enjoyed this article. The school in which I attended for my undergraduate work, we had hybrid classes and even total online classes. I enjoyed this because it gave a freedom on the day that I did not have to attend class to get other things done and still make the deadline of the class without the pressure of feeling time wasted sitting in class and thinking about the other things I need to get done.
I agree with finding other avenues to cut costs for the classroom and school. However, when I hear about budget cuts that usually means electives such as art and music are the first to be cut; then it's the teacher's jobs. I think that there should be a way to keep the electives and teacher's jobs without hurting the students. With less teachers means bigger class sizes which means less one-on-one instruction and more work for the teacher. I know that there has to be a middle ground, just wished we could get the "powers that be" to listen to teacher's suggestions, since we are the ones in the classrooms.

Brian's picture

I enjoyed reading this article. What I thought was most fascinating was reading about the Kunskapsskolan network. It's always interesting to see how education is implemented outside of the United States. I think it's about time that students had more of a choice as to what they learn. The students will be more interested in what they're learning about and would have more drive to complete assignments and progress. Technology is what is really helping out here. More students need individual time with computers to progress at their own rate. A good point in the article is that teachers don't need to be around for this to happen. A well trusted adult with a little training may be just as effective as an ordinary teacher. The only problem is finding enough adults at this time of the day to help out. This may be difficult in some communities.

Linda Muir's picture

Here in Florida students have the option of taking classes online. At first it was offered as an option for some classes, this year there has been a push with radio spots offering it as a total alternative to regular classroom courses. This total online learning alternative is definitely more cost effective and was already available for college students. I have taken online courses. Forums allow us to share and "socialize" with the teacher and other students. The hybrid view seems promising, as long as we do not keep heading towards Asimov's "computer teacher" world and remember that "No man is an island" (Hemingway).

Brandon Maxwell's picture

I enjoyed reading your article. I am interested in finding out more about the types of software programs available that support the English content area. It seems like, if designed well, they could be a great benefit to classrooms.

A few questions came to mind while I was reading:

1. It seems like revamping current educational structure would hardly be cost saving. How much teacher training is needed in order to effectively switch to a hybrid classroom?

2. The district I am teaching in lost funding for 1 to 1 personal laptops for students. It was said to be a great program, but it was not supported by taxpayers. What is the ideal computer to student ratio in a school in order to run a hybrid program, and do you think the benefits can be presented convincingly enough that communities would support an increase in taxes?

3. Another suggestion given in the article which I am interested in clarification on is treating teachers as widgets. The suggestion of taking a page from higher learning, once again, does not seem like an inexpensive restructuring. How do you suggest a switch is made from the current educational model, specifically one that does not conflict with the proposed silver lining of the recession? Would it mean completely reforming teacher training, and how could it be implemented short of redeveloping the entire educational framework?

Thanks again for the article and intriguing ideas. I look forward to future postings and more information on what you have brought to light.

Maria Peterson's picture

I enjoyed reading your article. I understand that education is not tailored to suit every student and their needs, however, when are computer skills taught to students? I am not against using technology with students, but when are they introduced to the different types of platforms (Mac/PC) and who/how are they monitored to ensure that they have the skills to successfully manipulate the programs? There was mention of a trained person monitoring, but if there is difficulty with the information presented, this person is not certified to engage in a teaching moment. I agree, however, that the red schoolhouse is long gone and we need to incorporate technology into the school day more often than we do, however, with the vast layoffs of teachers throughout the nation, it doesn't look like this hybrid reform is going to occur any time soon.

Melissa Robertson's picture

I too agree that the days of the little red school house are over. I also think that it is theoretically good to have individualized lesson plans for students. Teaching special education, I can do that. However, for general education teachers, I think this is very unrealistic with all of the the stress and pressure many of them endure regarding state testing. Now with overcrowding in classrooms, it is becoming increasingly difficult for teachers to accommodate students even when providing minimal accommodations.

Karen's picture

Yes, I do believe that we need to address each student as an individual, and not group them by age. My own son, who is in the enrichment program at his school is grouped with students of different abilities, but he is pulled into an enhanced group for reading and math. Also, I believe that class size is important. In the district that I teach in, some of the primary grades have 28 students, but the room sizes do not fit and most students are crammed into the classroom.

Tameaka's picture

I agree with many of your points regarding meeting children's individual learning needs. I'm not sure how I feel about using the computer as a supplement to teacher teaching. One thing we do at my school is a lot more small group than whole group instruction. This has worked well when I'm doing either enrichment or remeidiation.

cebrear's picture

Just as the little red school house is not the solution for all students, technology is not the solution for all students or all teachers. I agree that technology is powerful and schools are not using it to the fullest potential. I also love how the recession is forcing schools to change the way thy work with students. Some very exciting and innovating solutions to educational problems are developing. However, I can't say the solution is to make every teacher use technology, nor every student can learn better with technology. There needs to always be a balance and an understanding that we all learn differently.

Agriculture Teacher's picture

The days of the little one room school house are over, but I feel that at the time the style was effective. I don't know if there was a lot of research done on education and learning back then, but I think that the students in the small school learned. Times have definitely changed. Most of the students back then really only needed the basics which would allow them to return home to work on the farm. Most students now are many generations removed from their farming heritage. Everyone is raised in a different style of family with various values. A long time ago most families were basically the same; had similar occupations, values, religions, and expectations. All families are unique so education has evolved to accomodate this change.

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