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I’ve taken a long reprieve from blogging. Since my last post my wife and I had our second baby girl (Ruthie), I’ve started a new initiative at Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) for blended learning and whole school improvement, and our outreach work in Haiti continues to be incredibly successful and growing (more on that soon).  Things have been busy.

My last post was arguing for the merits of blended learning.  But the proof is in the pudding.  Last year I worked along side of an ACE graduate in Seattle, Kelly Surapaneni, to lead ACE’s first foray into blended learning.  We worked with St. Paul School in Seattle, WA, and conceptualized the project as a whole-school strengthening effort, including things like leadership development, instructional coaching, PLCs, data driven instruction, and efforts to strengthen school culture.  We thought that these best practices, combined with the personalized attention and differentiation allowed by blended learning, could result in significant gains in student learning and help renew a struggling school.

The early results are in… and it was an impressive success.  We are now working in six Catholic schools in three cities, Seattle, the Twin Cities, and Toledo, and continuing plans to expand the model for next academic year.

See below for a summary from the ACE news release.

Seattle students achieved 147% of growth targets in math and 122% in reading during the first year of the program

Students at St. Paul School in Seattle, a school that serves lower income Asian Pacific Islander and African-American students, are achieving impressive academic gains using an innovative blended learning and school improvement model developed by the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) at the University of Notre Dame.

As measured by the Northwest Evaluation Association Measurement of Academic Progress (NWEA MAP), students achieved 147% of growth targets in math and 122% in reading during the first year of the program, similar to a school wide average of a year and a half of growth in math and a year and a quarter in reading. The average eighth grade student achieved 233% of growth targets in math—akin to two and one-third years of growth—over the past academic year.


“The initial results are particularly promising,” Rev. Timothy Scully, C.S.C, the founder of the Alliance for Catholic Education, said. “St. Paul students are performing remarkably well—we are thrilled by the promise this model shows, and believe it can be a powerful tool that more schools like St. Paul can deploy to continue the Catholic school legacy of providing students with an excellent education.”

TJ D’Agostino, who directs the project at Notre Dame, said the success St. Paul students are experiencing is due to teachers more effectively meeting the needs of each child with the benefit of powerful blended learning software, and school leaders continuously strengthening teachers with targeted professional growth in high yield areas like the use of data and deepening a culture of high expectations, key areas of focus for the training and support that ACE provides.

“Blended learning can be a powerful driver for schools to provide a customized education for every child,” D’Agostino said, “though it is most impactful when paired with other best-practices, like data driven instruction, professional learning communities for teachers, and ongoing instructional coaching.  We work closely with the principal and a team of lead teachers to implement these comprehensive strategies.  The results have been transformative.”

Thanks, Andrew, for pointing out some great questions and proposals. If I can try to summarize the thesis of your post it is this: technology is perhaps better used or best used as a creative tool that fully engages student interest and more open-ended learning, rather than mere rote learning.

First, I think we agree more than we disagree! Creative and open ended learning that maximizes student interest is the pinnacle, it is the ultimate goal, and we need more of it. Technology can help here, but it need not be the focus. Good old fashioned Socratic discussion, group work and hands on or other project based learning opportunities are at least as beneficial and should exist alongside meaningful uses of technology to create, synthesize and explore.

This form of teaching and learning, if done well, can do a great deal to respond to one of the major challenges in education, student motivation. Unleashing student creativity and curiosity in open-ended, creative, self-directed learning situations that requires the use and integration of multiple skills nourishes student intrinsic motivation. Too much of what happens in modern classrooms kills natural curiosity and creativity ( Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk And here). Furthermore, such learning opportunities tend to be deeper and more lasting and more conducive to complex and higher level thinking.

But what about the other great question of modern education: How do we ensure an adequate education for all children? We are failing too many of our students in achieving even basic mastery or proficiency. The achievement gap for minority and low-income students, who are pushed through the system despite major learning deficiencies, is well documented. What about the students who need more time to get the basic concepts, and for whom the cohort model of education is not working well?

Deepening their creativity is important, absolutely, but so is ensuring that they can read on grade level, write effectively, and possess basic mathematical competency. These are the foundations of learning and their mastery is more important than learning to use Prezi (I know this is not really what you are saying, but you know what I mean).

That is why – though interested in using technology to create and foster open-ended and social learning – I have focussed on blended learning, which I think is the strategy in the Ed Tech arena for addressing the problem of mastery for all.

And also, I disagree heartily with Gary Stager’s article, contrasting standards-based curriculum and assessment, which he caricatures as the interests of “the system”, with open-ended and creative uses of technology as the ideal. Standards that tell us the skills that all children should know are extremely important to ensuring that we are not leaving major gaps in learning for large portions of our students. And rigorous assessments, aligned to those standards, allow us to differentiate instruction appropriately and come far closer to mastery for all students.

Far from being dehumanizing, I think blended learning is actually more human. It addresses the reality that not all children learn at the same time, in the same way, or struggle with or excel at the same concepts and skills. It does not treat all children with the same approach and hope that all “get it,” but allows space for those that need more time, more attention, more review, more practice, and it gives teachers a means of monitoring this and intervening in a customized and targeted manner.

But here is where we really agree. We can’t stop with mastery of the basics or this will be a dumbing down of education, which is a serious risk. Blended learning must use the creative and open ended. See Sal Khan discussing this point. This is the very virtue of blended learning as opposed to virtual learning. It allows the continued and vital role of the teacher and community of learners to provide the critically important opportunities for deeper, richer, more creative and complex learning experiences, while also supporting mastery of the basics for all students, and better data for teachers on the results. Thus the “blend.”

I’ve got a question which I’ll pick up on another post: is Khan Academy getting unnecessarily harsh treatment from its critics? More to come…

There seems to be a lot of hyperbole thrown around about various educational technologies lately. See if you can guess which innovation received this praise:

Chalkboard Quote

No, it’s not Bill Gates on the marvels of the Khan Academy. It’s Josiah F. Bumstead, praising the chalkboard in 1841.

I’m certainly not the first to point this out (see “Is this press release from 2012 or 1972?”), but it’s easy to get caught up in the fervor of new technology. This allure is especially profound during a period of such prolific technological innovation in the classroom. However, whether we’re talking about chalkboards, SMARTboards, individually prescribed instruction, calculators, or laptops, the essential aim is not to repeat the mistakes of the past, but to learn from them.

How can the benefits and shortcomings of previous educational technologies help us build and employ better strategies for our students today?

To this end, our dialectic seems to be reaching the unsurprising agreement that the details of how a teacher or a school implements blended learning is the key to success (and that giant learning labs are a particularly impoverished form of blended learning). I think TJ nailed my hopes for blended learning in his last post, and I’d only add that my suggestion is not to ponder how blended learning could help liberate students from assessments, but from busywork (“rote tasks like homework, lectures, and busywork”).

All students, especially students in poverty, deserve to have experiences with technology that go beyond direct instruction and test taking. English teacher and avid blogger, Larry Ferlazzo, draws a distinction between agitation and irritation in the classroom. Irritation is “challenging people to do something that we want them to do” (like create data sets). Agitation, however, is “challenging them to do something that they want to do.” Can educators use technology to agitate our students “to amplify their human potential”?

Here are three educators who offer visions of what this might look like in action:


A former high school math teacher now working on a PhD at Stanford, Dan Meyer espouses the importance of being “less helpful” and helping his students encounter perplexity. He captures videos and images with his smartphone in a quest to help his students think mathematically. By recognizing the drawbacks of textbook problems and giving his students the opportunity to ask the questions, he embodies the vision of the agitating educator. His popular TED talk, “Math Class Needs a Makeover,” gives a great example of what this looks like in action.

In addition, Meyer’s “101 Questions” project extends a challenge to both teachers and students to harness the power of smartphones to find mathematical questions in the world around them.


An ACE graduate and filmmaker, Brick Maier creates rich and structured moviemaking experiences for students. Maier’s “Tabletop Moviemaking” method teaches the writing process and digital storytelling with a production studio that fits on a desktop. The method, which was featured online in Wired Magazine last year, draws on a rich history of puppet theatre and drama and encourages students to master the elements of plot, digital literacy, the writing process, and filmmaking. The finished products can then be published on youtube and shared via social media, and students can watch their films alongside other student films (like those from workshops that Maier holds at organizations like Dave Eggers’ 826 Valencia Writing Center).


Winner of the 2013 TED prize, Dr. Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” experiments demonstrated that students – even students in abject poverty who had never seen computers before – can learn to use the Internet on their own to teach themselves complex concepts (even in foreign languages). Dr. Mitra set up Internet kiosks, gave children an interesting challenge, and then left without telling them how to do anything. Putting the agitation vs. irritation distinction succinctly, Dr. Mitra claims that “if children have interest, then education happens.”

So what can we learn from the successes of these educators? Who else should we look to as we seek to understand the capacity for blended learning and educational technology to amplify our students’ human potential?

For that matter, what can we learn from TJ’s anecdote from our friend Joe Womac about the veteran teacher at Alliance Charter schools? Why did she feel that the new blended learning model helped her so much? How did the model allow for and support her students’ success? A look at the school’s website reveals that the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools are implementing a thoughtful, scalable model that incorporates both instruction and production. Those details are important.

While for-profit corporations might be content shilling for a vague concept of “blended learning,” reflective educators and practitioners will be compelled to talk about the nuts and bolts of what works, why it works, and how we can use it to give all students the opportunity to flourish and access their God-given potential.

Reflective practitioners will celebrate what students are doing with technology – not the technology itself. Students are asking probing mathematical questions; they’re making movies with establishing shots, setting tone with lighting, and crafting well developed plots; they’re teaching themselves advanced science in a foreign language!

There’s no hyperbole here, simply description.

Now I’m eager to take a stab at the broader, substantive question that Andrew posed in this post, he wrote:

How can schools use blended learning and technology to improve curricula and enhance pedagogy in meaningful ways? In other words, how can we use technology not to “fill the pail” but to “light the fire?” One of the primary concerns with some examples of blended learning is the learning theory that undergirds some models. Instead of transferring the inadequacies of outdated pedagogies and textbooks to computer based delivery-mechanisms, why not use blended learning to get rid of rote tasks like homework, lectures, and busy-work? …Certainly some technologies liberate the teacher from homework, grading, lectures, and worksheets: Should they be liberating the students from these burdens as well?

I would be eager to have Andrew unpack the possible concerns about “the learning theory that undergirds some models.” I would also like to understand more fully what role he envisions for practice, assessment, and mastery of conceptual and procedural knowledge (i.e. lower level bloom verbs – the ability to identify, explain, summarize, and apply procedures or concepts to novel situations). If we liberate students from assessments, practice and means of acquiring the building blocks of knowledge, are we really liberating all of them?

Constructivist pedegogies are great tools to have in a teacher’s tool belt, but can they effectively ensure that all children have adequate knowledge of the basics without a mix of other methods (like practice and assessment)? Do constructivist pedegogies – used exclusively – risk leaving some students behind or with major gaps in their learning? Do they adequately scaffold?

It is my understanding that basic chunks of knowledge (concepts, etc.) provide an important foundation for more complex and inter-related skills and competencies. For example, the complex skill of analysis requires the capacity to explain particular units and describe their relationships, which requires basic conceptual understanding. To analyze Plato’s treatment of “writing” in The Phaedrus, for example, one needs to have a broad vocabulary, be able to interpret a complex, non-narrative text, have some familiarity with logic and be able to follow complex, nuanced, reasoned arguments. There needs to be subtle attention to context and voice. In short, there are a number of discrete skills that need to be mastered and integrated to allow effective analysis of a text of this sophistication. Some students can pick this up in more organic, complex, and student-centered forms of learning, others may need more scaffolding to get to mastery. I’m all for complex, rich and rigorous content and questions that stretch students to go beyond basic conceptual skills. But if basic skills are lacking, rigorous and dynamic questions may be unrealistic for some students. There is a place for practice, repetition, and procedural and conceptual knowledge, if we intend to aid all students in reaching mastery. So that would be my first and main point, the basics aren’t bad teaching, it’s just bad of we never get beyond them. Ensuring that all have mastered the basics prevents us from leaving some children behind and with “Swiss cheese learning.”

Constructivist pedegogies are wonderful and valuable, great for motivation and fostering wonder, yet there is a place for smaller units of knowledge that can be delivered effectively, and practiced effectively, in a variety of forms. There is a place for drill work and recall! This is, after-all, the major criticism with writing in the Phaedrus! The Egyptian Pharoe claims it will kill memory, and there is some truth to his argument (think for a moment that epic Greek poems like the Iliad and Odessy were memorized and sung by an oral culture!

All this to say that I’m OK with blended learning with various pedagogical styles, ranging from project based learning, to solid reinforcement of the basics through more “drill” like methods.

It is the role of the teacher to ensure that the learning is rich and complex, that question rigor is high, and that learning tasks cultivate 21st century skills, the capacity to reason and ultimately, cultivate wisdom. That is why technology does not and cannot replace the teacher, that is why it is “blended.” Dialectic is still alive and well! Blended learning can help ensure that all have the needed foundation to participate effectively in the dialectic, and to allow the teacher to know the strengths and challenges of the student to engage them in a more personal and effective manner.

In many ways I think I can accept Andrew’s broader observation, that many blended learning technologies tend to address lower level skills, and if these are not taught elsewhere , if the technology-based curriculum is the only content provided, it would result in an impoverished form of education. But, I believe these emerging online curricula will increasingly improve their use of integrative and rich pedagogical styles. This seems to be what Andrew is hoping for. I would like to hear more about what he thinks this might look like.

I’m grateful to Andrew for clarifying some definitions, raising some questions, and stirring the pot a bit.  I’d like to get to Andrew’s question around the pedagogy implicit in blended learning models, and his desire to dig into whether they liberate students through learning or shackle children to computer screens, merely drilling them with ostensibly rote learning.

But I’ll need to wait until the next post to get to this great question, because I’d first like to respond to a few particular points:

  1. Rocketship Schools: We should be careful about interpreting the quote from the PBS interview with too much liberty. Andrew suggests that “one high-profile charter school, Rocketship, for instance, does not receive such feedback from their much-discussed learning labs.”  I hear the Rocketship principal recognizing that there are challenges with gathering and optimizing this data as fully and efficiently as they would like, not that they are failing to receive it at all.  This post by Charlie Bufalino, a former Online Learning Specialist at Rocketship, addresses this point, suggesting that the problem involves integrating multiple sources of data from different online curriculum programs, and having them aligned and synchronized for efficient teacher use.  In other words, there are inefficiencies, as with any new technology, and opportunities for improvement.  But this does not mean that teachers are not getting the information at all, nor that a blended learning environment is not far more data rich than a traditional classroom environment.
  2. In defense of Batman: Despite Andrew’s deconstruction of the Batman metaphor, I will try to defend its relevance (though I need to admit I stole it from Jeff Kerscher, an ACE grad working with Seton Partners’ on their blended learning “Phaedrus Initiative” out in Seattle, and I thought it very clever!). I assume Andrew’s zeal was, in part, for the chance to evoke an image of Donald Trump driving the bat-mobile with his hair blowing in the wind.  I’m OK with the hero language in reference to teachers and the travails of education, though I can appreciate Andrew’s points.  Yes, it is Batman’s courage, character and karate skills that make him heroic, but the technology brings his game to the next level.  The makings of a hero are already there, but the technology optimizes and leverages his skills, virtue and commitment.  That’s the point.  Blended learning can take a strong teacher’s game to the next level.

Here’s an anecdote to make this point more concrete.  An exceptionally talented teacher in L.A. working with Alliance charter schools had been recognized on multiple occasions as teacher of the year for the city and had achieved heroic academic results for low-income children.  When Alliance switched to blended learning, she transitioned to the new approach to teaching.  When my friend Joe Womac talked to her about the transition, her eyes welled up with tears while saying: “If only I had blended learning earlier there are so many more children I could have reached.”  This woman is a hero.  She was before and regardless of any technology.  But why not give her a Bat-mobile and bulletproof body-armor and see what she can do with it!?  According to her own testimony, blended learning was a game changer for optimizing her skills and commitment.

It is my pleasure to introduce a new author and friend, Andrew Hoyt, to the Soul of a Nation Blog! Andrew is a former teacher and educational leader who helped start the Cristo Rey School in Houston, Texas. He and I have been talking about the implications of blended learning and what this emerging trend means and should mean, for education in general and for Catholic schools in particular. We decided, in accordance with the spirit of this blog, to “surface this conversation,” and conduct our dialogue in a virtual and public forum. I hope others will join in!

“Where do you hail from, Phaedrus, and where are you bound?” (Plato).
By way of context, we will try to introduce our perspective, the starting point from which we stand, then jump right in, and see where the dialogue takes us.

The first post is TJ’s:

Some are technology enthusiasts. I do not count myself among these ranks. I like my iPhone and wish I had an iPad, but technology doesn’t light my fire the way it does for some educators. The enthusiast covets the novelty of technology – at least in part – for the sake of novelty. Technology is seen as an end in itself. I am enamored with a different question: How to unlock human potential? To Educate: Latin root, “educare” – to ‘draw out from within’ or to ‘lead forth’. Education is liberation, freeing of the mind and human spirit, realizing the human capacity for the heights of reason, of wisdom, that which is divine in us – man in the image and likeness of God. But we are earthen vessels. We are constrained by our environments, our upbringing, by social conditions and structural evils like poverty, racism, violence, addiction, criminality, abuse, neglect and on and on. We have a problem: To liberate all young people through education in the face of desperate challenges for many. This raises many questions. Questions of quality and equality, of cost and efficiency, of politics and policy, of innovation and stagnation. How do we unlock the potential of all?

When I was younger and an idealistic liberal arts major at Notre Dame, I thought the answer was: “Socratic dialogue and classical texts for all! Liberation through Plato and rich discussion!” Then, I became a high school teacher in a real school. The fall was hard. There were tests to take and standards to master. There were challenges of motivation and comprehension, of bright and curious minds mixed in with detached and frustrated youth. It was messy and tough and wonderful. I still think there is a place for Socratic dialogue and Plato, but I hardly ever got there because I was drowning in worksheets and homework and accountability, and trying to ensure mastery for every student. My role was as much and perhaps more “enforcer of work” as it was “liberator of minds.”

So here is my fascination with blended learning. I believe it holds the potential to liberate the teacher from much of the menial labor of education, so the teacher might better liberate the student. The computer does the worksheets, the grading and helps teach the “basics” (i.e. Low-level bloom verbs). It personalizes learning by allowing children to work at their own pace. The factory model of education punishes the students who need more time, or those who master learning more quickly. It sometimes seems more about control and compliance with behavioral norms than it does about liberation. For those students that are frustrated and convinced that they are “dumb” because they’ve been left in the dust by the pace of the class, blended learning offers renewed hope. For those exceptional minds that are bored, stunted, and for whom school is a drag but life and learning are fascinating and full of wonder, this is freedom.

For teachers, blended learning stops the guessing and provides them with real-time data about how their students are learning, struggling, or failing, in the moment. Diagnosing learning gaps and challenges can now become a science, with real-time interventions, instead of a postmortem after the year-end test results come in. Blended learning also increases efficiency. It takes certain tasks off the teachers’ plate and enhances their role to that of guide, facilitator, and orchestrator. With good planning and effective remediation far more student mastery is possible. But perhaps most importantly, this efficiency frees up time for the truest and deepest forms of learning. Socratic dialogue can finally have its day! As can project based learning and inquiry based learning, rich meta-cognitive discussion and one-to-one tutoring and coaching. In a traditional model, to do these things, you needed to be Superman. Can blended learning make every teacher a super-hero? Has the long-awaited Superman finally arrived? Maybe not Superman, but perhaps Batman, a normal person of virtue and courage with tools that make a hero.

I have been reading some great books in the past few months that are shaping the way I think about education reform and renewal. I’d like to share the hit list and offer some brief comments for each.  Some of you may have already read many, but if you haven’t read all, I’d jump on it.  They are worth your time.

Topping the list is the much acclaimed Paul Tough book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. A wonderful read in the tradition of the Malcolm Gladwell books – integrating research in a lively nonfiction narrative – Tough weaves together stories and examples that depict the importance of non-cognitive skills on student outcomes. Drawing heavily upon work in psychology, neuroscience and innovative school leadership, Tough makes a compelling case for the importance of cultivating character strengths to allow students to flourish. I found the idea of the KIPP Character Report Card to be particularly fascinating. The concept involves providing students and parents with regular feedback on students’ character strengths and areas requiring improvement, focusing on observable indicators, to facilitate student improvement.

The next at the top of my list is Leverage Leadership by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, a leader of Uncommon Schools, a charter school network on the East Coast. This book is a treasure trove and detailed guidebook for what high-performing schools do and what school leaders must do to achieve superior results. The videos, sample documents, and planning tools make the book an outstanding resource for creating professional development and enacting school change. The chapter on data-driven instruction was awesome, peaking my interest in Bambrick’s other book, Driven by Data, which goes further into this area.

Third on the list is Sal Khan’s book, The One World Schoolhouse. Sal Khan is the founder of the now ubiquitous Khan Academy, an online library of 10 minute instructional YouTube videos and practice programs, especially strong in Math and Science. A thoughtful and quick read, One World Schoolhouse is a clear and thoughtful articulation of a lot of new thinking at the front lines of re-envisioning k-12 education.  Though neither the first nor only person to express these ideas, Schoolhouse is a good and fun read that captures  a lot of the thinking within this explosive area in k-12 and higher education.  With a particular focus on the role of technology in allowing mastery learning, anytime learning, self-paced learning, and adaptive instruction, Schoolhouse also explores basic assumptions around the role of homework, summer vacation, and the role of internships.  I am convinced that certain approaches to technology, particularly blended learning, will become predominant within the next 5 to 10 years. This book is a pleasant way to enter into that dialogue, and begin thinking about how education will be transformed with the emergence of new technologies. Read this book and visit The Khan Academy website, it will be worth your while.

Next on the list is a wonderful book about change management called Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard, by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. Also in the Malcolm Gladwell style, Switch offers a simple, clear and compelling formula – with numerous examples and interweaving research – on how to effect change.  The book uses memorable metaphors and stories to explain certain principles and rules of effective change management, such as “scripting the critical moves,” a less is more mentality to change that recognizes that simple and clear direction is of paramount importance, complexity is the enemy of effective change, and confusion and being overwhelmed or exhausted by change is often the source of people’s resistance.   For any leader attempting to facilitate the change process or implement a new vision, this is a must read. Catholic schools in the U.S. are woefully in need of change. Therefore, this should be on all of our reading lists.  I’ll be bringing it as a gift to some leaders in the Haitian Ministry of Education on my next trip down there.  They’ve got a massive change agenda and could use some tricks from this play-book.

Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov, is next on my list.

If anyone else has recommendations, please share!

We’ve written about this topic before on this blog (namely here and here), but I don’t think we are talking about it nearly enough!  Everywhere I turn now, from articles I’m reading (see Harvard Business Review article below), to lectures I attend, to the national strategy emerging in Haitian education, people are talking about the transformative power of technology in schooling.

The main point of the technology enthusiasts is this: computer based instruction that uses complex software and increasingly sophisticated algorithms is becoming more and more responsive to students’ unique learning needs.  This has the power to individualize learning and dramatically increase its effectiveness.  The prediction of the ed-tech prophets: this will cause a revolution in the way education happens in this country and throughout the world.

Here is a long but worthwhile excerpt from one of the more valuable articles I have read on this topic from the Harvard Business Review called Rethinking School by Stacey Childress.

DreamBox Learning delivers math lessons for kindergarten through grade three in this way, allowing students to work alone at their own pace while providing their teacher with a dashboard of granular diagnostic information about what they’re mastering, what they’re missing, and why. Armed with this knowledge and freed from the demands of large-group instruction, a single teacher can tailor his or her efforts to the individual needs of dozens of students. Students who work with DreamBox and Reasoning Mind, a similar program for grades three through seven, are outperforming their peers on both state and independent assessment tests. And teachers report that they have more time for individualized and small-group instruction and for critical-thinking projects.

What’s more, a growing number of free resources are becoming available online, the most prominent of which are the 2,700 short video lessons produced by Khan Academy, which the MIT graduate Sal Khan began to record in 2004 in response to requests for math tutoring from his family. Three million unique users access Khan Academy every month, and teachers in 10 school districts are piloting Khan Academy content in classrooms this year, assigning the video lessons for homework and thereby freeing students to focus on deeper learning in the classroom.

Rocketship Education, which runs five charter schools serving 2,500 students in San Jose, California, takes this approach much further in comprehensive programs that blend such software with teacher-facilitated instruction in both math and reading. Its students, 90% of whom come from low-income backgrounds and start out two or three grades behind their more affluent classmates, are now outperforming those in every elementary school in the area and performing at the same level as students in affluent Palo Alto.

I think this impending change is utterly important for Catholic Education for a few reasons:

  1. Catholic schools need a game changer:  Catholic schools in the U.S. are beset with challenges.  5 decades of closures have shrunk the system by well over half and there is little sign that this trend is abating.  It is a struggle to maintain quality when Catholic schools cannot afford to pay teachers competitive salaries.  Technology can represent a game-changing variable to increase efficiency (i.e. doing more with less), increase effectiveness (improve academic quality through increasingly sophisticated programs and software), and provide just the sort of change and edge that Catholic schools need to reinvent themselves.
  2. Catholic schools are well-positioned for change:  The vast majority of teachers in U.S. public schools are represented by unions.  Unions do not like the impending technology revolution because it may threaten the number of teaching jobs.  As a result, unions will fight to keep these models out of traditional public schools as long as possible.  Charter schools and private schools are unencumbered by this challenge.  As a result, they can become early adopters and benefit from being first on the scene.
  3. Catholic schools possess a unique vision: Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Catholic schools will and must have a unique response to this technological revolution – which increasingly appears to be a sure bet in the years ahead.  Catholic education has a particular and important vision for the goal and philosophy of Catholic education.  A leading critique of the role of technology in the classroom and the increasing influence of business ideas like “efficiency,” “effectiveness,” and “accountability,” is that it will dehumanize education.  The argument of some is that education is a craft and an art, it cannot be distilled into input and output measures and made into an economic formula.  People fear the loss of the human touch, of socialization, and  mentorship that is provided in schools.  This is a real concern, but one where Catholic schools have a decisive leg up.  The goals of Catholic education cannot be reduced to economics.  Because the goal of a Catholic education is to form the whole child towards completeness, and ultimately towards a spiritual end, Catholic education can never be reduced to mere economic outputs or the learning of so many factoids.  If Catholic educators can embrace this change with courage and imagination, it could actually be a huge advantage to more effectively realizing the deeper goals of a Catholic education.  With less time spent drilling math and other exercises more easily and more effectively managed with e-learning, teachers can be freed to cultivate the child’s capacity for reason and higher level thinking, can organize group work to promote a sense of community and social learning, can engage in the study of literature and the richness of the Catholic intellectual tradition.  In other words, this innovation can and should make Catholic schools free to be more fully themselves, more fully Catholic in their cultivation of the mind and spirit according to a Catholic vision.  Technology is simply a tool.  It cannot and should not replace the Catholic educational community and our profound need for a relational existence for a meaningful life.  It cannot and should not threaten the role of parents as the primary educators of their children.  It cannot and should not displace the importance of the Sacraments, of service, of reflection and prayer.  It cannot change the fundamental orientation of Catholic education, which is the fullest development of the child towards wisdom and fullness of life, ultimately found in and through Christ.

If Catholic schools are to take advantage of this opportunity they must act quickly and decisively.  It will require major changes in the way teachers teach and schools organize themselves.  It will require adequate support structures to help schools and dioceses manage this transformation.  It will require the emergence of new models of Catholic schools created by entrepreneurial leaders, unencumbered by past forms and ways of schooling.  Ultimately, this represents a tremendous opportunity – not a threat – for Catholic schools to be more effective academically, more efficient organizationally, and more fully Catholic in their mission.  Moreover, the voice and vision of Catholic education will be uniquely important in the dialogue that lies ahead for the country, to make certain that education does not lose sight of its deepest purpose, of that which makes us human, namely, our capacity for reason, for love, and for relationship with the Divine.  As we embark upon this journey, we would be wise to remember these incisive and visionary words of the poet T.S. Eliot:

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

(T.S. Eliot, The Rock, 1934)

When I started grad school at the University of Arkansas, the first course I had to take was entitled “Math for Economic Analysis”.  Perusing the syllabus the first day I saw that the course was designed to be a “review” of the major topics of linear algebra and uni- and multi-variate calculus.  The problem?  I had never taken linear Algebra nor multivariate calculus.

As I sat in that classroom the voice of GOB from Arrested Development came into my head:  “I have made a huge mistake”.

Then an enterprising classmate of mine, who was in a similar boat, alerted me to Khan Academy, a free collection of videos explaining math concepts in a simple and straightforward way. I went to their website and saw video after video of the exact topics that we were covering in class.  Inverting matrices?   A video for that.   Eigenvalues and eigenvectors?  A video for thatLimits, derivatives, integrals?  Videos for all. Taylor Polynomials?  You already know!

When its founder, Salman Khan, showed up as the featured TED talk in my Facebook news feed, I was excited to see what new crazy things he was up to.  If you are involved in any way in education, it will be 20 minutes that you will not soon forget.  As it turns out, Khan (a former hedge fund manager) started the website as a series of YouTube videos to tutor his cousins in another city.  It has since grown into over 2000 instructional videos and a burgeoning interactive curriculum of math instruction.  And it’s all free.

So here comes my crazy idea (Building on something TJ has said before):

Schooling has become more expensive because schools suffer from something economists call Baumol’s Disease.  The one sentence summary of Baumol’s Disease: if there is no increase in labor productivity (though technology or more advanced training) salaries for labor intensive occupations (like teaching) will rise in relation to less labor intensive occupations.  Because teaching is such a labor intensive operation, cost will continue to go up unless something is done to make that labor more efficient.

Catholic schools have seen a rapid rise in cost not only due to a decline in vowed religious working in schools but also due to Baumol’s disease.   Want to decrease the cost of Catholic schools? Make the work of teachers more efficient.

This is where Khan Academy comes in.  Khan, in his Ted talk, referred to schools that use his videos as “reverse homework”.   Students watch the videos for homework, at their own pace, and come to class to do the practice normally assigned for homework.  In class, the teacher moves across the class individually interacting with students while they practice.  This changes not the student/teacher ratio, but the “student to valuable time with teacher ratio”, making the effort of the teacher more efficient.

Catholic schools all across the country could start using these free lessons for enrichment, remediation, or instruction today, increasing the class size that teachers could effectively teach and driving down the cost of a Catholic education.

What if swaths of the day were devoted to students working independently, at their own pace, receiving this instruction (which have I mentioned enough is free?) and had teachers simply for help when they got stuck?

Khan makes the argument that this more efficient mode of instruction frees up time for robotics and other enriching activities.  In the Catholic context, this instruction could free up time for more service learning, religious instruction, or class discussions whose time is eaten up by inefficient delivery of more fundamental content knowledge and skills.

If we are committed to making Catholic schools accessible to more students, we need to explore methods to decrease costs without decreasing quality.  In this rare case, we can actually decrease costs while increasing quality.

This is an important opportunity that we would be foolish to pass up.  I believe in this so much that if there are any Catholic school teachers or principals out there that want to give this a shot, I will help you do it.  Comment, email me, call me, and we will make this a reality.

Did you know that there was a flying Saint?  Saint Joseph of Cupertino was said to have levitated and even fly (on as many as 70 occasions) apparently creating quite the spectacle for the 17th century Franciscans.  So here is a silly question: Could St. Joseph of Cupertino be the Superman our nation’s urban students have been waiting for?  I think he might be.  Here’s why.

St. Joseph of Cupertino is the patron saint of astronauts, which is the closest I could find to Rocketships.  Rocketship is the name of a charter school network that is doing some really interesting things with technology, and could offer a great model for urban Catholic schools.  This is the idea of a thoughtful new group of Catholic education supporters called Seton Education Partners, and may be a solution for some of the urgent problems facing urban Catholic schools.

Rocketship is a California based model of charter schools with an innovative use of technology that both saves  operating costs and improves educational quality.  Here is a description from the Rocketship website explaining their “unique hybrid education model.”

Rocketship Education is reinventing the elementary school education model. Each student attends one block of Math/Science, one block of Learning Lab, and two blocks of Literacy/Social Studies each day. In Learning Lab, students work on computers to focus on individual learning needs. Learning Lab does not require certified teachers and allows Rocketship to reduce staffing by five teachers and five classrooms per school, saving $500,000 per year.

Rocketship reinvests these savings into building better schools.

This reinvestment goes to a variety of strategic areas from leadership formation to higher teacher salaries.

The basic idea of our friends at Seton Partners is this, maybe the Rocketship approach can be used to open or sustain urban Catholic schools and cut down on operating costs while still providing a high quality Catholic education for urban youth.  Who knows, some day soon we might see a flock of St. Joseph of Cupertino Catholic Schools in our urban neighborhoods?  Or maybe they will be Saint Isidore of Seville Catholic Schools, after the patron saint of technology, computers and the internet?  Either way, this is a strategy worth exploring.

It is worth adding that a lot of attention has recently been drawn to the emerging role of technology in education.  From Clayton Christensen’s book Disrupting Class, which predicts something of a revolution in the education industry due to computer based learning, to the considerable growth of virtual schools in states throughout the country, it is increasingly clear that technology will play a prominent role in the future of education. How will Catholic education respond to this disruptive innovation?  With a more adaptable education model, the lack of pressure from teacher’s unions to maintain the status quo, and maybe a little intercession from St. Joseph of Cupertino, urban Catholic schools could catch the wave of technological innovation and be better suited to continue their educational mission into the future.