“Magic doesn’t happen between a child and a computer. Magic happens with a teacher that loves their students and has the help that they need to meet with them one-on-one.”
Recently, Amy Dodson, Blended Learning Director in the 940-student Cisco ISD, and Dr. Karen Hickman, Deputy Superintendent of the 55,000-student Pasadena ISD, shared with the Texas Commission on Public School Finance their districts’ experiences piloting blended learning. Cisco and Pasadena are two of five blended learning demonstration sites supported through Raising Blended Learners, a Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation initiative developed to showcase strategies for using blended learning to improve student achievement across diverse regions and demographics.
The commission, created by the 2017 Texas Legislature to study and make recommendations related to the state’s school finance system, focused its March 7 meeting on efficient and innovative public school programs.
Some members, including Texas Senator Larry Taylor, already were familiar with blended learning and its potential. “I walked into three different classes and when they say 100 percent engagement they aren’t exaggerating,” Senator Taylor said of an experience visiting a middle school in Pasadena ISD. “I think this is one of the most exciting opportunities to transform education and bring it to the 21st century.”
A Model for Student and Teacher Transformation
Hickman shared a story with commission members about Hancock Elementary, located in an area of Pasadena where 98 percent of students come from economically disadvantaged families.
She said before introducing blended learning, student test scores and student behavior were “abysmal.” After one year of blended approaches, the Hancock environment was transformed. Students were engaged, sharing what they were learning, why they were learning it, and how it would be applied to projects they would be pursing later that day, Hickman said. “Each student glowed with pride and spoke like young student scholars,” she said. “It’s like, where did we get these kids? And they were the same kids from the year before.”
Dodson said teachers also found renewed inspiration in blended strategies. She told the commission members about a fifth-year math teacher who was ready to leave the profession because she felt stifled in the traditional classroom, and how the shift to blended learning helped her become the teacher she wanted to be and make the impact she knew she could make. “She now sees a room where she can walk in and meet every student.” Dodson said. “She can help them set goals. She can engage them in ways she never could before.”
In explaining what makes blended learning instruction different, Dodson made one point very clear: technology can be very helpful in personalizing education for students and increasing student agency, but high-quality teachers and rigorous instruction are still the key to student learning.
Since the commission is focused on school funding, several commission members asked Dodson and Hickman about costs involved in scaling blended learning.
“When I saw this, I’m mean, I’m sold,” Taylor said. “We just need to bring this to scale. The challenge is getting our teachers trained up to do this.”
Both Dodson and Hickman said technology and training costs were greatest in the first year but that as the program grew, the districts developed more robust local support systems. Through the Raising Blended Learners initiative, the five demonstration site districts received $500,000 in grant funding and intensive technical assistance to support blended implementation and are committed to showcasing the long-term sustainability of their programs at the end of the initiative.
“Just as we’ve asked teachers to reimagine their classrooms we’ve got to reimagine our budget,” Dodson said.
Beyond start-up resources, Dodson said teachers need understanding, because blended learning is a very different way of teaching and the transition can be challenging. “What I would ask of you is to give us permission to try new things,” she said. “Give us permission to struggle and have ups and downs and learn from this.”
Asked by commission members when and how fast to scale, Hickman said they’ve actually had to hold back the reins in Pasadena. She said blended learning, while transformational in most cases, also must be implemented carefully with willing participants who have adequate training, resources, and support. She said in some cases, where they’ve had challenges a change in leadership, schools have struggled.
“It’s not a silver bullet,” she cautioned.
At the same time, both Dodson and Hickman agreed the enthusiasm is hard to contain.
Dodson recalled one community member’s reaction after visiting a blended classroom. “This business owner said, I want to hire them in a few years. I want to have these kids that are thinking on their own and being pushed to think and make decisions and work together.”
Hickman said: “Is it going to eventually be the whole district? I don’t think we’ll have a choice. If the kids are as successful as what we’re seeing right now, I can’t imagine holding it back.”