Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Tech-Based Learning: The New Frontier for Charters?

by Michael Horn

When charter schools were created in the 1990s, they were intended to spur innovation in America’s K–12 school system. Charters, it was thought, would look radically different from what we knew: schools divided into conventional classrooms in conventional grades.

Some charter schools fulfilled that hope. All too often, however, charter schools looked, well, pretty conventional.

Even the subset of charters that stands out as significant—because of the outstanding results of their low-income students, the schools’ efforts to replicate, and the schools’ adherence to a “no excuses” mantra—looks very traditional, perhaps even old-fashioned.

Reed Hastings, the chief executive officer of Netflix and a board member for the California Charter Schools Association, has summarized the approach of these schools to education as “we can solve anything by simply working harder.” That hard work is evident, in the schools’ longer hours, stricter discipline procedures and codes of conduct, contracts with families, and high expectations for students and staff. Are these practices admirable? Sure. Are they necessary? Perhaps. But are they innovative because they represent either breakthroughs or disrupt the status quo? Not really. Charter leaders did not fundamentally redefine schooling or improve productivity, and they have not widely scaled success.

In many of these schools, technology was largely missing. On the one hand, there was some logic to this. For years, educational technology had failed to deliver the student results necessary to justify its expense. On the other hand, something did not add up. In the last two decades, technology has revolutionized much of our society and has enabled dramatic innovation in many sectors. Charters were supposed to drive innovation. So why were they not at least experimenting—or even tinkering—in this realm?

Slightly more than a decade ago, some full-time virtual charter schools were created. States also opened online schools that offered supplemental courses, and districts began using online learning to fill in their gaps. Yet, by and large, the brick-and-mortar charters did not budge.

In the last few years, however, that has begun to change. New entrants in the charter school scene are pioneering blended-learning solutions, producing great student results, and looking to scale. Consequently, many of the established charter management organizations (CMOs) are finally paying attention to educational technology.

Rocketship Education—a CMO with its first elementary schools based in San Jose, California—was arguably the catalyst for this shift. Like many high-achieving CMO networks, Rocketship’s schools get great results. They have consistently been the highest-performing low-income schools in Santa Clara County. Yet the network stands apart from some of its charter brethren in a couple of key ways.

Rocketship students rely heavily on technology; they rotate between more traditional schooling and online instruction, the latter of which is monitored by instructional aides rather than delivered by classroom teachers. This blended-learning model saves each school $500,000 a year in traditional school expenditures, which it funnels into professional development and higher teacher salaries. Unlike many top charter schools, which have costs greater than what the public funds provide and therefore rely on a significant dose of philanthropic funding, Rocketship schools do not require philanthropy for their day-to-day operations.

When the Charter School Growth Fund made an investment to scale Rocketship’s operations, people began to take notice, and the dialogue around technology in the charter school world began to change. Still, CMO leaders held back and seemed reticent to innovate. Many wondered privately why they should experiment when they were getting great results and were not experiencing financial challenges.

When Carpe Diem Collegiate High School, a charter school in Yuma, Arizona, began to get noticed for impressive results with even lower operational costs than those of Rocketship’s, the dialogue moved further. And then the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) jumped into the blended-learning mix.

Faced with unexpected budget cuts, KIPP Empower Academy in Los Angeles moved from traditional classrooms to a model where students rotate between teacher-led instruction and online learning, which allowed the school to maintain an individualized, small-group approach to instruction.The results have been amazing: In 2011–12, at least 96 percent of the students in both grade levels that the school serves scored at or above the national average on the SAT-10 test.

Several more charter schools in California, a state whose significant budget shortages have impacted charter funding in particular, have rapidly begun adopting blended learning to cope with continued budget cuts and improve student outcomes. Those wading or diving headfirst into the pool include Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, Aspire Public Schools, Envision Schools, and Summit Public Schools.

These innovations are beginning to spread. Rocketship and Carpe Diem are scaling outside their original states. Some charter school experiments with technology, including those in Illinois, Arizona, and Texas, are taking place in states where public financing for education is low and declining—places where innovation is borne from fiscal necessity. That is not always the case, however: Some established charters in better-funded Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York are beginning to experiment as well.

So are we starting to see charters embracing their promise and innovate? Is competition from newer charters—which some might say is disruptive relative to older ones—forcing the sector to adapt? What role does the declining fiscal picture in the United States play? Are the established players merely mimicking what has been proven—and, if so, does that matter? Are the vast majority of schools still sitting on the sidelines?

In the coming months, we will aim to learn more about whether the charter school sector can become a beacon for innovation in not only how it improves on conventional schooling but also how it harnesses the promise of technology to fundamentally change schooling itself.


Michael B. Horn is the cofounder and executive director of the education practice of the Christensen Institute (formerly Innosight Institute), a nonprofit think tank that advances solutions to society's most pressing problems by leveraging the transformational power of the theories of disruptive innovation. In 2008, Horn coauthored the book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (McGraw-Hill) with Clayton M. Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor and the father of disruptive innovation theory, and Curtis W. Johnson, president of the Citistates Group. BusinessWeek named the book one of the 10 Best Innovation & Design Books of 2008and Newsweek named it as the 14th book on its list of Fifty Books for Our Times. Tech&Learning magazine named Horn to its list of the 100 most important peoplein the creation and the advancement of the use of technology in education.