When you think of innovative ways to improve student achievement, the first thing that comes to mind is probably not a classroom with one teacher and 48 students. But that’s precisely the set-up at Alliance Tennenbaum Family Technology High School, a new Los Angeles charter that’s using blended learning to improve outcomes for at-risk kids.
Tennenbaum, a member of Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, uses a rotational model of blended learning in which students get instruction three different ways. They go to one of three stations for 40 minutes at a time within two-hour blocks: one group gathers for traditional direct instruction with a teacher, other students work independently online, and a third group gathers for collaboration with each other. The breakdown makes for an actual student ratio of just 16 to 1 – any teacher’s dream.
Here on this eastside campus are all the benefits and challenges of adopting radical change. On the plus side, students are working toward competency (no D’s allowed) at their own pace in their own way. Teachers are freed from chores like grading math problems to do what they do best. Daily assessments pinpoint problems and drive instruction. On the flip side, classroom management can require Olympian multi-tasking skill, and the software frustrates teachers when it is not as interactive or diagnostic as it could be. Meanwhile, students are coming from well behind: 65 percent arrived here deficient in the credits they would need to graduate.
Tennenbaum just opened in the fall of 2011, so it is too early to judge progress. The most recent quarterly benchmark assessments show largely successes but also some disappointments. In geometry, students jumped from 8 percent proficiency (or above) to 27 percent. In 12th grade English, proficiency levels increased from 30 percent to 57 percent, and in U.S. History, proficiency jumped from 9 percent to 35 percent. But in chemistry, proficiency levels plummeted: from 41 percent proficiency to just nine.
All this data is used to continually tweak the model. Last year, presented with disappointing results in an English benchmark test, the school shifted more emphasis to teacher-led instruction in that subject and cut back on the online component. It also supplemented existing software with a new writing program. Teachers regularly give feedback to software developers, and their suggestions are leading to improvements.
The Tennenbaum model, known as Blended Learning for Alliance School Transformation (BLAST) has shown promise at other Alliance schools. After just one year with the program, ninth graders at one school increased their proficiency by 35 percent in math and 10 percent in English.
This spring, Tennenbaum will graduate its first class of seniors. Out of a class of 74, says Principal Michelle Tubbs, only six are not likely to make it. Tubbs surely considers that six too many, but when she is asked how many of these same students would be graduating at a traditional Los Angeles high school, she doesn’t hesitate with an answer: No more than 50 percent.