Lots of buzz around blended learning — the idea that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to a forced choice between teachers and technology, but can strive to find the right combination of high tech and high touch teaching. If you want to understand what this looks like in practice, I recommend “Future Schools,” a new article from Education Next.
As we think about these new models, there’s one really important distinction that we need to make — especially in this current fiscal climate. There’s a big difference between conversations about how to make education more productive and those that are focused entirely on cost-reduction.
If we’re not satisfied with current student outcomes, then cheaper with the same outcomes should not be the ultimate goal. A mediocre shirt on sale might be a better bargain, but in the end, it’s still mediocre. Ideally, what we want is much better student outcomes — at reasonable costs. And in our country’s current fiscal condition, reasonable means slightly lower — and surely not much more expensive.
Rocketship Education, one of the promising school models detailed in the article, is known for an innovative staffing model. Students spend part of the day learning via online, adaptive instruction. This model allows the school to hire fewer teachers, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars.
So, here’s the difference. Because the online instruction and school model are well thought out, it’s likely that Rocketship could stop right there. The school would be a proof point that it’s possible to end up with the same middling results as nearby schools with similar student demographics — and save hundreds of thousands of dollars. Policymakers across the country could replicate that model and use that money to cut taxes, build prisons, whatever.
But thankfully, that’s not Rocketship’s model. The school takes those cost savings and plows them back into the school, paying teachers more and extending academic time for students. And, the results have been outstanding for the primarily low-income students that attend.
We have strong examples of innovative models that produce better student outcomes at the same or lower costs. It can be done. And efforts to introduce new instructional, staffing, and other models should not be reflexively resisted because they re-distribute expenditures — sometimes spending much less on one particular component. But, if there’s a bottom line goal, it should always be better student outcomes.*
* I recognize that many new and disruptive ideas start out performing poorly and then improve over time. I’m not arguing against these efforts, just noting that we should not be satisfied with crappy but cheap as the end state.