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Blended Learning: Not to Blame for Bad Writing--Nor Should We Shame Students

Earlier this month, Murray Bergtraum High School for Business Careers came under fire for allowing too many students to gain course credit through a "blended learning" program. The New York Post revealed that though the program was supposed to contain both online coursework and a component in which students had "substantive interaction" with a teacher, in fact hundreds of kids were gaining credits from simplistic work completed primarily on home computers. When students wrote the Post in defense of the program, the Sunday Post's Susan Edelman mocked their "error-filled letters," further deriding both blended-learning programs and the kids' "fail factory" school.

To me, a ten-year NYCDOE veteran who has taught in schools not unlike Murray Bergtraum—which has a high proportion of over-age, under-credited students, and only a 51 percent graduation rate—Edelman's article was shooting fish in a barrel. To be fair, the students' letters were abysmal. As an English teacher, I cringed at the disjointed, incomprehensible run-on sentences ("...it helped a lot you're a reported your support to get truth information rather than starting rumors..."--what?) chosen by Edelman to exemplify the students' poor writing ability. However, as someone who sees kids like these every day, I'd argue that this was neither surprising nor evidence of the failures of blended learning as a system.

The students enrolled in credit-recovery programs are, by definition, missing credits (shocker!), and often dragging a string of failures behind them. These students' writing skills were already poor before they took blended-learning courses; it's naïve to suggest that by forcing them into traditional classroom setting, one could ameliorate overnight the consequences of years of truancy, family instability, undeveloped English skills, or infrequent outside reading. These are the very factors that led the students to attempt credit recovery through blended learning to begin with; without targeting the root causes of the kids' academic failures (and on a larger scale, Murray Bergtraum's "F" rating), there is little hope for these students to make the academic gains that yield "college readiness."

What can even be done for kids who are this far behind? Blended-learning programs, when implemented correctly, can be a valuable educational tool for students who--due to reasons ranging from illness, to home-life instability, to children of their own--haven't thrived in traditional classroom settings. Better computerized content within these courses, such as more complicated readings, and questions whose answers could not be found through quick Google searches, would lend more rigor to blended learning; more vigilant oversight on the part of schools (to make sure that students connect regularly with live human educators) would add an interactive component to the courses, and enable the students to approximate the styles of work they'll encounter when doing "blackboard" assignments in college.

So perhaps the armchair critics in the Post and elsewhere could shift the focus away from shaming students who, understandably, defended a program they believe helped them get closer to graduation; instead, let's focus on bettering the menu of educational alternatives that we offer to our neediest students in order to help them obtain mastery in their core subjects. That would be a far more useful pursuit, and altogether less mean-spirited.

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