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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.

stpaulstudents

“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.”

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.

Venture-Capital

I’ve become increasingly fascinated with the idea of venture philanthropy, applying the strategies of venture capitalism to charitable giving, and convinced that this can play a greater role in Catholic education. Venture philanthropy seeks promising start-ups and innovative models and helps provide funding to bring them to scale. This implies a shift in thinking, from giving as charity to giving as investment, where the expected return is transformative social impact.

I like this idea for a few reasons. First, it looks for leverage. It bets on winners with the potential to scale.  This is a smart strategy for effecting change.  Secondly, by treating giving as an investment – with an expectation for specific outcomes – it helps bring greater accountability to the social sector.  In sum, it is a more strategic use of funds that seeks the greatest possible impact or return on investment for charitable giving.  It combines charity with strategy with powerful effects.

A specific example of venture philanthropy in the education sector is the Charter School Growth Fund.

The Charter School Growth Fund is a non-profit that invests philanthropic capital in the nation’s highest performing charter school operators to dramatically expand their impact on underserved students.

So here is the big idea.  Why not a Catholic School Growth Fund?  It would do the following:

  1. Invest in and scale what’s working in Catholic education
  2. Replicate successful Catholic school models
  3. Drive and spread innovation in Catholic schools

A quick note on each point.

First, Catholic schools need to do more to invest in what’s working.  We’ve spent too much time focusing on the problems in Catholic schools and not enough time focusing on the bright spots.  A Catholic School Venture Fund would begin to change this.

Secondly, there is a need for new school models and effective turnaround models. This is already the norm for public school reform in the U.S., and Catholic schools are behind the curve.  We need a diversification of approaches to Catholic schooling in America.  The vanilla Catholic school is quickly becoming an endangered species. The explosion of new school options, from charter schools to virtual schools and everything in between, is creating an increasingly diverse educational market. This is good for parents and children, with more options and more innovation, but a threat to Catholic schools if they don’t adapt.

Though on the whole Catholic schools still provide a high quality education and a distinct advantage to under-resourced children – see here for more stats on this – there are relatively few new Catholic school models that have proven exceptionally effective at educating low-income children and even fewer avenues for bringing such models to scale.  A list of new Catholic school models might include the following:

By creating a Catholic School Growth Fund, we would open up opportunity for more new Catholic school models.  It would allow Catholic educational entrepreneurs to see an easier path for scaling good ideas. New Catholic schools must be created more rapidly in areas with favorable conditions for growth, namely, a growing Catholic population, areas with insufficient supply of Catholic schools per capita, and states or cities with robust parental choice programs.

We also need to support effective school turnaround strategies. The Archdiocese of Seattle, with support from the Fulcrum Foundation, has been experimenting with an interesting turnaround approach. This approach recognizes that an ailing Catholic school – and some have fallen on hard times (low enrollment, mediocre or struggling academics, etc.) cannot be helped with a single intervention or just pouring money on the problem.  Their model prescribes, instead, an intensive regimen. It includes the following:

  • Changing the academic program to fill a niche in the market (i.e. dual language immersion, blended learning, a STEM focus, etc.),
  • Providing intensive support and professional development to improve school quality in key areas known to drive performance,
  • Conducting a rebranding, marketing and recruitment campaign, and
  • Providing significant short-term financial support with a gradual withdrawal.

The intended outcome is shocking a sluggish Catholic school out of poor performance and setting it on the road to success in terms of academics, enrollment and financial health.  All of this is done, of course, without sacrificing or changing the core of what makes Catholic schools special: faith and character formation rooted in community.  We know that turnarounds are hard, but possible.  The alternative will be round upon round of closures, in city after city, year after year.

Finally, a Catholic School Venture Fund would serve as both a catalyst of and repository for promising strategies.  Funding shouldn’t necessarily be limited to replicating school models, it could also drive good and innovative ideas, like a particular approach to finding, training and retaining talent in Catholic schools or expanding data-driven instructional practices in Catholic schools.

I’ve heard that the idea of a Catholic School Venture Fund has been kicked around in different forums in the past couple of years, but to my knowledge there has not been much action yet.  Well, it’s time to get started.