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Blended Learning Gets Tentative Boost in Philadelphia

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The cash-strapped School District of Philadelphia earlier this month authorized up to $10 million in spending on blended-learning software, thus adding its name to the growing list of big-city districts to embrace one of the hottest trends in education technology.

Unlike some of its counterparts, however, the Philadelphia district is not attempting to strategically roll out a comprehensive plan for integrating software-based instruction into its classrooms.

Instead, the 129,000-student system, beset by an ongoing funding crisis and still uncertain about its revenue for the coming school year, has adopted a more modest goal: bring some clarity and order to a scattered set of technology-driven classroom practices that have already taken root and spread haphazardly on their own. 

"We want to provide efficiencies for principals and give them information and knowledge about best practices," said Fran Newberg, the district's deputy chief of educational technology, in an interview.

"Rather than having a limitless landscape [of blended-learning software programs] to select from, we're trying to help them focus on the best that's out there," Newberg said.

To do that, Philadelphia school officials used a Request for Proposals process to winnow a list of 25 applicants down to 15 approved vendors that met the district's threshold for "high-quality" blended-learning software.

Moving forward, their intent is to let school leaders select from a central list of approved software programs and take part in the district's vendor contracts and licensing agreements with those providers, rather than have to find programs and negotiate terms on their own. 

From a procurement standpoint, that approach of balancing central-office guidance with school-level autonomy makes sense, said Steven Ross, a professor of educational psychology and senior research scientist at Johns Hopkins University. 

But if a district's goal is to transform teaching and learning via blended learning, he said, it must emphasize two priorities that Philadelphia appears to be lacking:

A clear vision for what the district expects to see in classrooms once all this software is purchased.

And a clear strategy for supporting teachers in realizing that vision.

"Philadelphia should be applauded for realizing it's the 21st century and kids need to be exposed to technology," Ross said. "But there's a risk in just casting your line out into a particular area of the ocean, without knowing exactly what you want to bring on board."

A variety of approaches

Other districts have taken a variety of approaches to adopting blended-learning software programs, as Education Week chronicled extensively in a recent special report on the subject.

The 1.1 million-student New York City district's iZone initiative, for example, is seen by many as a leader in the field for its work to bring educators and ed-tech vendors together to do field-testing of new products before they are adopted more widely.

The 46,000-student District of Columbia schools, on the other hand, takes a fairly centralized approach. After finding that principals and teachers were overloaded by having multiple software options to choose from, the district's central office began strongly encouraging the city's 70 elementary schools to teach math using a single blended-learning program (ST Math, also approved in Philadelphia) that had started to show positive results at some schools.

And Maryland's 110,000-student Baltimore County school system recently embarked on a comprehensive, five-year plan to introduce blended learning districtwide. That district's detailed plan calls for a corresponding effort to give every student a digital device, a staged rollout that begins in the early years and expands to middle grades and high schools in subsequent years, and a range of complementary efforts to restructure the district's staffing patterns, professional development, and information-technology infrastructure.

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, district officials sought mostly to provide a streamlined set of options for schools seeking two very different types of software:

  • Programs that can be used in the classroom in a "rotation" model (in which students cycle between face-to-face instruction with a teacher and computer-based instruction using software.)

  • And complete online courses for "credit recovery" (used by students who have fallen off-track to graduation), test preparation and remediation, and Advanced Placement (16 of the city's 54 district-run high schools currently do not offer AP courses.)

District officials reviewed potential products based on a long list of criteria, including whether they met baseline technical standards, the rigor and flexibility of their content, whether they provided accommodations for special-needs students, and their alignment to national and state academic standards.

Fifteen companies were approved. They range in size and experience from global publishing giant Pearson to relatively new startups such as Chicago-based Think Cerca, an online platform that aims to help teachers deepen their literacy instruction.

Among the big names who didn't make the cut: New York City-based Amplify, a division of global media giant News Corp.; big-three publisher Houghton Mifflin; and Edison Learning, which offers school-management and virtual-school services.

The district's Newberg said Philadelphia officials are hoping the centralized procurement process will yield benefits including bulk discounts, flexible licensing arrangements, and prices that remain locked in for three years.

Barriers to success

Ultimately, though, vetting software programs and winning approval for up to $10 million in related spending from the district's governing School Reform Commission is just the beginning.

One big reason: money.

The Philadelphia system, which does not have the authority to raise its own revenue, is facing an $84 million shortfall for next year. As a result, district leaders are currently in the midst of their annual hat-in-hand shuttle tour between Harrisburg and Philly's City Hall, where they hope to wring more funds from the state legislature and city council. 

If those efforts don't pan out, the whole blended-learning effort might fall through.

Even if new money is found, principals will almost certainly still be faced with limited school budgets, and thus tough choices: Better to use scarce operating dollars to pay for new software or a counselor?

Further clouding the district's prospects for success, some city teachers are less than thrilled with its proposed investment in classroom technology, especially given their union's ongoing, nearly-two-year-old stalemate with the district over a new contract.

"Our sense of 'blended learning' is that it is a scheme to justify even larger class sizes with fewer teachers," reads a statement provided to Education Week by the Caucus of Working Educators, a social-justice faction within the city's teacher union.

And the most daunting barrier to the Philadelphia district's blended-learning agenda, said Ross of Johns Hopkins, is that officials don't yet appear to have a solid plan to ensure that school leaders are prepared to make smart decisions about what software programs to choose, how to use them effectively, and how to get staff, students, and parents on board.

Given both the circumstances in Philadelphia and the approach to implementation being taken by the district, Ross said, "It's easy to imagine some principals taking the path of least resistance and pulling something off the shelf that they can retrofit to their existing practices."

Even those who take a more ambitious approach, he said, may quickly find themselves "in over their heads because there simply aren't the resources or the professional development to prepare teachers for doing this very difficult task."

A hopeful pilot

Newberg responded to such concerns by saying that a rollout plan and "briefing sheets" for principals are currently being developed. Vendors were also evaluated on their plans to provide training and support to school teams.

The district has also commissioned a local research consortium to undertake a citywide survey of schools' technical and instructional readiness to support blended learning. Officials didn't deem it necessary to wait for the results of that survey before authorizing spending on new programs.

Despite the challenges, some Philadelphia educators are enthusiastic about their district's embrace of blended learning.

Take Brian Johnson, the second-year principal of Tilden Middle School in the southwest section of the city.

After inheriting a school plagued by leadership churn, draconian budget cuts, a state test cheating scandal, and the absorption of hundreds of students from nearby schools that were recently shuttered, Johnson has sought to infuse Tilden with new energy.

Late last year, the school was one of four citywide chosen to participate in a "redesign" process intended to encourage innovative new approaches.

Johnson, a former high school math teacher, seized on the opportunity to bring blended learning to his staff and students.

As part of a small pilot initiative, Tilden has been working with district officials this school year to test-drive a "station-rotation" model of blended classroom instruction. Even some of his most challenging students have responded well to the approach because it "allows them to focus on growth and see results," the principal said.

His hope is to eventually use technology in "more of a project-based way."

But for now, Johnson said, the district's approach is "a good first step."

Photo: Caleb Hughes kicks back while he does his work during math class at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on June 3, 2014. --Jessica Kourkounis for Education Week

An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the number of Philadelphia high schools that do not offer Advanced Placement courses.  Sixteen of the city's 54 district-managed high schools do not offer AP.

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