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Will Classrooms be "Flipped" to Cut Costs?

Guest post by Rob Powers.

My name is Rob Powers and I am a social studies teacher in Massachusetts. Like all teachers, my effectiveness as an educator has improved dramatically in the first few years of my career. It has been a rigorous but rewarding process. Just as I ask my students to become life-long learners, I am constantly motivated to improve my practice and reach kids in new ways.

Two years ago, a Google search changed my entire teaching practice. I was searching for "social studies technology projects" and stumbled upon a robust online professional learning community of like-minded colleagues; teachers from across the country and beyond who network through Twitter, blogs, and more. I can't even begin to express my gratitude for my newfound PLC.

The tech integration method I am most excited about is the flipped classroom. By making brief videos of me explaining the lecture notes I typically give in class, I can spend a third of class time reviewing the concepts students learned at home and, more importantly, spend a majority of our time together on application. This technique has allowed me to spend more time with students on literacy, higher-order skills application, and project-based learning without compromising the objective material that constitutes the building blocks of our course. Most importantly, I have found that flipped instruction provides access to the curriculum to my most diverse learners and those with special needs. Students with auditory processing disorders can pause, rewind, and replay concepts that they missed. Students who face chronic absenteeism due to illness or difficult home situations can catch up on lectures during intervention periods, and I can spend our time together on application. Additionally, students who struggle to study before an exam have a multi-sensory tool available anytime, anywhere. This is what the flipped classroom model offers our teachers and more importantly, our students.

Of course, like any new technology or pedagogical concept, it carries limitations and dangers. I am most concerned about some recent developments in our small regional school district of just over 2,000 students. We are like many suburban districts this day in age that struggle to adequately fund our system within the political limitations of Massachusetts' proposition 2 ½ cap on tax increases. It seems budget season starts earlier and earlier each year. Discussions have already begun about the next fiscal year, and with local officials in both communities on the record against an override vote, the school committee and district administration have been asked (read: forced) to think way outside the box for solutions. While it stands to be good practice to not get particularly worried about any one scenario so early in the budgeting process, one proposal has particularly stood out to me as more radical and disturbing than any I've heard of for any district.

The plan being proposed
is an option that has been authored by the chairman of our regional finance sub-committee. It calls for a restructuring of our school district to better use technology in an effort to make due with limited financial resources. As a teacher who has embraced the "flipped classroom" model and blended learning environments, I was elated to hear that such a vision is being put forth. That is, until I read the proposal. This plan calls for:

  • Elementary classrooms of 66 students taught by teams of two teachers and a paraprofessional aide
  • Middle school classrooms of 50 students taught by one teacher and one aide
  • High school core classes of 100 students taught "lecture style" by a teacher and aide

The premise of such class size proposals is that students can use flipped classroom videos in groups while the teacher conducts small group lessons simultaneously, thus increasing "productivity" of teachers. The bottom line of the proposal saves $2 million by reducing instructional and support staff. You could offer a course typically taught by five teachers with only one. Sure, there's some serious cost-savings with this reduction in force, but I can't think of a more perverse interpretation of differentiated instruction and flipped learning.

At first, I was convinced that this was an outlier proposal that was created by a well-intentioned but misinformed elected official of his own device. One cannot fault an elected official who has limited options and a desire to see our schools provide a high-quality education. However, upon further examination, I discovered that the proposal is based on a book called Smarter Budgets, Smarter Schools by Nathan Levenson. Levenson is the former Superintendent of Schools in Arlington, MA, but his background is in business (MBA, Harvard Business School). I connected all the dots and also found that he is a Broad Superintendents Academy graduate (2004), and has contributed to studies for the conservative American Enterprise Institute on cutting costs in school budgets. It seems that this proposal, and the "academic" work it draws from, is possibly part of a larger effort by fiscally conservative interests to use the flipped classroom and virtual learning environments to replace teachers in the classroom for a considerable financial savings. Whereas urban schools can be chopped up under the premise that they are "failing," suburban and rural schools can be dismantled under the banner of austerity.

Through all my reading about this most concerning corporate-driven education reform movement, I never really imagined that it would reach our small corner of the world here in suburban Massachusetts. After all, we are a high-performing district in a hallmark education state. I suppose I had a false sense of security that this was a mostly urban battle. I wish that I could dismiss this proposal and the connections to privatization as unlikely to go anywhere, but with resources as scarce as they are, I just can't be so sure.

The flipped classroom model is beautiful because it frees up the teacher to create meaningful lessons and project-based learning experiences where lectures and direct transfer of knowledge previously had to happen. Moreover, it offers teachers the space needed to provide targeted and effective extra help for struggling learners. Flipped learning is not a substitute for these interactions and should never be considered a cost-cutting method, lest it negate the very educational benefits it promises.

In sum, it seems the corporate reform movement is now starting to rock the suburbs as well. I fear that many small town elected officials do not have the understanding of the larger battle that is necessary to resist the temptations offered by those interests that seek smaller education budgets with little regard for the value of education as a common good. I hope that as we continue to pioneer new innovative instructional methods, educators and policy makers also stand as defenders of the high-quality personalized public education that has made our district, and many districts across the country, so successful.

What do you think? Will classrooms be flipped to save money? Will this take away from its value as an innovation?


Rob Powers is a social studies teacher and student council co-advisor at Apponequet Regional High School in Lakeville, Massachusetts. His teaching responsibilities include World History II, American Government & Civics, and AP European History. He is particularly interested in tech integration, project based learning, and providing authentic service learning experiences. Rob has presented professional development workshops on technology integration to K-12 teachers. He is a graduate of Plymouth State University and received his Masters of Arts in Teaching History at Bridgewater State University. He can be reached at his website.
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