9 innovative schools looking to redefine public education in the U.S.

Public schools are often criticized for not keeping up with student needs — and that’s hard to refute.

In a world of constant change, the majority of public schools have remained rather unchangedfor decades. The structure is so standard that the public school you attended probably looked a lot like the schools your parents and grandparents attended — even if they did walk uphill both ways in the snow to get there.

But the needs of students are ever-shifting — and public schools are struggling to keep up.

Technology is now ingrained in our lives, but noticeably absent from poorly funded school districts. Racial justice movements are dominating modern activism, but history books remain whitewashed. Inequalities in public school access still exist, but we aren’t working to level the playing field. Standardized testing is the sole barometer for a public school’s success, but many argue these testsprove little about student or school success.

All of these issues play a role in what many say is a public school crisis.

Every 26 seconds, a student drops out of high school in the U.S.

Every 26 seconds, a student drops out of high school in the U.S. Approximately 25% of students who enter high school fail to graduate in four years.

If public schools received a grade by advocates for comprehensive education, it would undoubtedly be a “needs improvement.” And those advocates are taking up the challenge to raise the grade — and the bar — of public schooling. The first step? Reimagining what public school could look like.

From advocating for underserved students to completely redesigning how a curriculum is structured, innovative public schools are taking the glaring problems of the current model and working to solve them. Here are nine schools that are especially noteworthy in the quest to make public school actually work for youth today.

1. Carpe Diem Schools in Ohio and Indianacarpediem-ac59e


Breaking the traditional classroom mold, students at Carpe Diem Schools in Ohio and Indiana work in what looks like your typical office space — individual cubicles included. The school emphasizes a blended-learning model for students ages 6-12, shifting away from classrooms restricted by age and treating students as partners in each other’s success.

Students at Carpe Diem work on solo computer-based projects that cater to their individual interests, with collaboration and support from peers and teachers. These individual projects are enhanced by professional-level workshops, acting as classroom instruction. The model moves away from the lecture-based classrooms we all know toward a more collaborative learning experience. Students are admittedon a first come, first serve basis.

2. The Alliance School in Milwaukee, Wisconsinthealliance-928e8


Serving middle and high school students, The Alliance School is a much-needed second chance for youth who have previously experienced bullying and harassment in other public school districts. Many of the students at The Alliance School identify as part of the LGBTQ community, a population of students especially at-risk for in-school harassment and is regularly underserved.

About 9 in 10 LGBTQ-identified students nationwide report experiencing harassment at school. The Alliance School was created with the goal of reducing this all-too-common reality, often cited as a success story and an example of how to properly support LGBTQ youth in schools. Interested students are required to set up a meeting with staff to discuss their needs and future enrollment.

3. Clintondale High School in Clinton Township, Michiganclintondale-8a02d


While most high schoolers focus on keeping up with lectures during the day and completing homework at night, students at Clintondale are experiencing their school days in reverse. Students watch pre-recorded lectures after school, but complete their homework in school, allowing teachers to work one-on-one with students to apply lectures to practice.

The school, which mostly serves low-income students of color, reports that the flipping of the school day has reduced student course failure rates by 33% and school disciplinary actions by 66%. The school accepts students based on a standard public school admissions model.

4. STAR School in Flagstaff, Arizona

Public schools are notorious for whitewashed history books that celebrate the triumphs of white “pioneers” while ignoring the violence against indigenous populations that enabled their so-called success. The STAR School in Flagstaff, however, works to recognize the histories and celebrate the cultures of indigenous communities — specifically the Navajo Nation.

The school, which serves grades K-8, operates on the Navajo tradition of valuing relationships, which is ingrained in the curriculum and operations. The school exists completely off the grid, powered by more than 200 solar panels and two wind generators to foster a healthy relationship between the school and the environment, which is vital for the community the school serves. Admission to the school operates on a public school model.

5. Brightworks School in San Francisco



Brightworks founder Gever Tulley is known for valuing the lessons of danger. His book, Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do), is just the starting point of Brightworks School’s edgyphilosophy.

The school, which encourages exploration, expression and exposition, motivates children to play with fire (literally) and other things often labeled off-limits to children — in controlled, supervised environments, of course. The school operates on the philosophy that engaging responsibly with danger is actually an important part of learning, enhancing problem-solving and imagination while also teaching children to remain in control of their environment.

Though the model is undoubtably controversial, Tulley says the pay-off is watching student confidence blossom. Potential students and families have to attend an information session andapply to the program.

6. Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Brooklyn, New York



Pathways, which opened in 2011, goes above and beyond when it comes to public schooling — and that isn’t just a figure of speech. The school goes up to grade 14, relatively unheard of in the public school model.

This model means that students graduate Pathways with an associate’s degree at no cost to them — and that makes a world of difference. Through the program, students are set up for lifelong career and financial success, as the average associate’s degree holder in the U.S. makes about $10,000 more in median earnings than the average high school graduate.

New York City-based students need to apply to the school due to space, with preference given to students who attend information sessions.

7. The Primary School in East Palo Alto, California



The Primary School, projected to open in August 2016, is an initiative started by Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, who is a pediatrician. The nonprofit K-12 initiative will bring together quality public education and comprehensive health care services for students and their families.

The school will especially focus on low-income families and families of color, which are regularly underserved by both health and educational systems.

8. Quest To Learn in New York


Children are taught that play is for recess, not for the classroom. Quest To Learn, a product of the Institute of Play, works to dispel this myth by proving that play and learning can — and should — mutually exist.

The public school, which serves grades 6-12, uses game-based learning to encourage captivation and critical thinking for its students. Game designers co-design curricula with Quest To Learn teachers, resulting in an innovative classroom redefining the rules of education. Toattend the school, students and families have to show a passion for the school’s “unique approach to curriculum” — no minimum test scores required.

9. Parley’s Park Elementary School in Park City, Utah



In public schools, students who speak English as a second language are often discouraged from speaking their first language in class. This devaluing of language diversity is a problem Parley’s Parklooks to solve.

Instead of requiring students to leave international languages at the classroom door, students spend half their day learning in Spanish and the other half learning in English. The school encourages this dual language instruction instead of making English dominate culturally, which leads to engaged students from both English and Spanish language backgrounds with the added bonus of constant language learning.

Other schools in the state offer a similar model, catering to students speaking Spanish, French and Chinese. All schools have a standard public school registration model.


One Child at a Time: Custom Learning in the Digital Age

Imagine you’re at a dinner party. Someone mentions Crazy Horse and you think, “Who was Crazy Horse again?”

So you whip out your Smartphone and you look it up. (Crazy Horse was the Lakota leader who took up arms against the United States government and won the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876.)

If you’re a student at an American public school, you probably don’t have the option of looking up the answer on a Smartphone or a computer. To answer the question you’d probably use a textbook, ask your teacher — or wait until you got home to use the computer there. While the Internet has profoundly changed the way most people get information and learn new things, most students in the United States do not have regular access to the Internet at school.

“There are [schools] that have one computer for 30 kids or a computer lab that they have access to three times a month,” says Sara Schapiro, director of the League of Innovative Schools, a national coalition of school districts that are making heavy use of technology in classrooms.

Read or listen to the entire article at American Radio Works.

Pensions vs. schools


Education funding for downstate and suburban pre-K-12 schools – i.e., all Illinois school districts outside of Chicago – is one of the state’s highest priorities. It’s also one of the only expenditures where increased funding is almost guaranteed year after year, even in times of fiscal crises.

Illinois is in such a crisis now. The 2016 budget is currently $4 billion out-of-balance, the state’s credit rating has fallen to within four notches of junk status, and the state’s pension shortfall has reached an all-time high of $111 billion.

Despite the above issues, 2016’s education spending has already been appropriated and passed into law – and has actually been increased over last year.

However, increasing the dollar amount spent on education does not guarantee that more money will be spent on teaching children.

That’s because state education spending is made up of much more than what is spent daily to run Illinois schools. It also includes the annual contributions to teachers’ retirements and retiree health care. And, while not part of the budget for education, Illinois must also pay down the portion of the state’s annual pension obligation bond payments (POBs) allotted to the Teachers’ Retirement System, or TRS, which covers all Illinois elementary- and secondary-school teachers outside of Chicago. In 2003, 2010 and 2011, Illinois issued POBs to pay for annual contributions into the pension system. Now the state has to pay back those bonds over a period of time, which adds additional costs to teacher-retirement spending.

Unfortunately, these mounting, nonoperating retirement costs are dramatically siphoning funds away from classrooms.

In fact, if you look at total education spending from 2009 to 2014, the state added $8.9 billion in new dollars over and above the base amount of $6.8 billion it spent in 2009. Of those new dollars spent, 89 percent went to pay for retirement costs. Just 11 percent made it to the classroom.

The money that politicians poured into education over the last several years has really been funding pensions instead.

Spending on retirement costs already rivals the total amount spent on classrooms. From 2015 to 2019, retirement spending will almost equal classroom spending. And by 2025, if spending continues along its current trajectory, the amount spent on retirement costs will surpass that spent on classrooms.

By the time a child born in 2015 enters the sixth grade, the state will be spending more on teacher retirements than on aid to pre-K-12 schools.

Even assuming that TRS’s unfunded liability doesn’t grow progressively worse as it has in years past, retirement costs will consistently make up more than 50 percent of all education spending through 2045.

However, if TRS’s unfunded liabilities do continue to increase, as recent pension-fund history would indicate, retirement costs will crowd out funds for downstate and suburban classroom spending even further.

This crowding out will drastically affect local school districts’ operational budgets – especially poorer districts that rely heavily on state funding.

The amount of property wealth in each school district determines the amount of taxes it can raise locally to finance its education needs. The less property wealth a district has, the more state funds it receives. The neediest districts, then, receive a majority of their funding from the state.

While the vast majority of Illinois school districts draw most of their funding from local sources, almost a third of the districts in Illinois receive at least 40 percent of their revenues from the state.

Without real pension reform, hundreds of schools across those districts may have to cut programs, increase class sizes or lay off teachers as more and more new state dollars are directed away from operations toward retirements.

And as districts with higher levels of state funding generally serve lower-income and minority communities, those groups will end up being the most negatively affected by the growth in retirement spending.


Contributing disproportionately to its general budget crisis is Illinois’ worsening government-pension funding crisis. The shortfall from the state’s pension funds reached an all-time high of $111 billion in 2014, $62 billion of which was attributable to TRS.

The crisis in TRS has been building for years. In 2000, TRS’s pension shortfall equaled just $15 billion.

However, an additional decade and a half of pension underfunding, faulty actuarial assumptions, and extra benefits for workers have driven the system’s unfunded liabilities sky-high.

TRS had only 40 cents of every dollar it needs to pay out future benefits as of August 2015. By any private-sector measure, the fund is already bankrupt.

As a result, the state has to contribute more and more taxpayer dollars to keep teacher pensions afloat. According to TRS actuaries, the state will need to contribute over $3.4 billion toward teacher pensions this year alone. By 2030, the state will have to pour $5.9 billion into teacher pensions. By 2045, that amount will rise to $8.5 billion.

Pension bonds and health care spending

Contributions to TRS are not the only teacher-retirement expense that the state of Illinois pays.

Each year, state government has to make payments on POBs that were approved in 2003, 2010 and 2011 to cover annual pension contributions. In addition, the state has to pay a portion of the costs of health insurance for retired teachers through the Teachers’ Retirement Insurance Program, as well as a portion of the State Employees’ Group Insurance Program.

In 2016, the state will pay $900 million in health care and POB costs combined. That amount will remain relatively steady until 2020, when the end of payments toward the state’s 2011 POB will reduce the combined POB and health care retirement costs.

But by 2025, the combined repayment of the 2003 POB, along with health care and pension contributions, will cause total retirement spending to equal spending on classrooms. Every year thereafter, total retirement spending will surpass classroom spending.


Unfortunately, the state cannot easily increase education funding to make up for ever-growing teacher-retirement expenditures.

With Illinois’ out-of-control pension crisis, the Illinois Supreme Court’s hostility to pension reforms that include any changes to the future benefits of current workers, and the increasing cost of borrowing due to the state’s lowered credit rating, significant funding increases for Illinois’ classrooms will be few and far between.

Pre-K-12 education won’t be the only budget area taking a hit. Higher-education appropriations will also be crowded out by pensions for educators in the state’s community colleges and state universities. And the federally mandated expansion of Medicaid through ObamaCare will cost Illinois an additional $10 billion between 2014 and 2019.


If the current growth in retirement spending continues, Illinois will soon become a state that spends more on teacher-retirement costs than on classroom teaching.

The only way to avoid that outcome is to reduce retirement costs and find ways to spend existing classroom dollars more effectively.

Fortunately for Illinois, there are several innovative ways to do this.

The single most important step Illinois can take to reduce education-retirement costs is to create self-managed retirement plans, or SMPs. SMPs will give both taxpayers and the state more budget certainty and will provide teachers the retirement security they deserve.

The state won’t have to look far for a model SMP: One already exists right here in Illinois. Today, almost 20,000 active and inactive members of the State Universities Retirement System, participate in a 401(k)-style plan. These state-university workers control their own retirement accounts and aren’t part of Illinois’ increasingly insolvent pension system.

Enacting the university-worker plan for newly hired teachers will help stabilize education-retirement expenditures for the state by halting the growth of TRS unfunded liabilities for new teachers. And because only newly hired teachers would participate in any 401(k)-style plans, such a reform would pass constitutional muster. The reform would also make future retirement expenditures easier to estimate, as the cost of SMPs would equal a fixed percentage of TRS’s payroll.

With unfunded liabilities under control, the state would no longer be subject to runaway retirement costs, allowing both the state and local school districts to create more stable budgets.

But bringing education-retirement costs under control is only one-half of education-funding reform. Illinois also needs to embrace educational innovations that will spend classroom dollars more efficiently while fostering an environment that will encourage academic achievement by students.

Enacting a statewide school-choice program would both save the state money and improve educational outcomes for students.

With over half the states in the country, including Wisconsin and Indiana, now offering some form of school-choice program, Illinois can choose from several different successful models.

For example, just over the border in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, more than 25,000 low-income children receive Choice Scholarships of up to $7,800 to attend the schools their parents select for them – whether religious, private, traditional public or charter. That’s far less than the $13,000 Milwaukee public schools spent per student in 2012.

Children also perform better academically when they can attend schools chosen by their parents. A recent five-year study of Milwaukee’s program found that more kids are graduating from high school, enrolling in and graduating from four-year colleges, and achieving higher test scores since the start of the program.

Those same positive financial and academic results have been replicated in numerous states. Several gold-standard studies have found that school-choice programs result in students receiving at least the same, and often a better, education at a reduced cost to the state.

School-choice programs have been growing rapidly across the country. Nevada, the most recent state to initiate such a program, is offering education savings accounts to almost all of its 385,000 public-school students.

Illinois would be wise to follow Nevada’s and many other states’ leads.

Another innovation might take the form of new educational techniques such as blended learning, which mixes classroom and personalized digital learning. Not only do such programs often result in higher levels of student achievement, but they can also drive down education costs for the state.

Carpe Diem schools, for example, use individualized online courses of study coupled with live instruction to create a hybrid learning structure that has proved both academically enriching and financially cost-effective.

Innovations such as school choice and new educational techniques like blended learning could eventually save Illinois hundreds of millions in education costs – freeing up that money for other purposes.

What Is the Future of Higher Education?

A bachelor’s degree is more valuable than ever before, and yet college enrollment in the United States is on the decline. As the economy has improved and tuition has increased, more young adults have sought options outside of higher education. The plight of for-profit colleges—which tend to enroll low-income students—has accounted for much of drop in enrollment. State support for higher education has also weakened. Seven in 10 seniors who completed their degrees at public and private nonprofit colleges in 2014 graduated with student debt.

Colleges have resorted to an array of cost-saving measures, relying increasingly on adjunct faculty and student-tuition increases, among other strategies. Although MOOCs—massive open online courses—may be past their heyday, virtual education continues to gain traction. Vocational and career-and-technical education is having a comeback, while liberal-arts programs are under attack.

One of the most remarkable phenomena to reach colleges this year have been the student protests, their participants vying to improve race relations on their campuses. The unrest has prompted schools to rethink their institutional missions and services and commit to properly serving new types of students; several staffers and university leaders have been fired or resigned amid these administrative shifts.
We reached out to some of the leading scholars of, experts on, and advocates for higher education, and asked them what, as the year comes to an end, is giving them cause for hope and despair. Below are their answers, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Reason for despair: I am in the field of higher education, and I am continually reminded of how challenging it is to transform this world through technology. While we’ve seen technology revolutionizing so much of the world around us, and providing so much access to everything from entertainment to communication, the same cannot be said of quality education. Education is a basic human right, but has remained relatively resistant to technology, and continues to be either of poor quality, or simply out of reach for so very many people around the world.

Reason for hope: The progress we’ve begun to see in technology-enabled learning gives me reason to hope. Online learning has the potential to revolutionize education in both quality and scale, enabling anyone with an Internet connection and a will to learn access to an education. Experiments with MOOCs have demonstrated that quality education can be offered to millions of students worldwide at near-zero marginal cost. Recently, barriers to university credit for MOOCs have also begun to come down, giving me tremendous hope that soon people will be able to get an education and also a meaningful credential to showcase their work.

Education has also been recognized as one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of the United Nations, so I’m hopeful that nations will now see a reason to invest more heavily in education.

Blended Learning Is the Future of K-12 Educational Technology

In our blog post of Oct. 6, 2014 we panned blended learning, and now, in what follows, we are about to say blended learning is the greatest thing since sliced bread. If we were politicians we would be labeled as flip-floppers, a derogatory term in the political argot. But, thank goodness we are not politicians, but an educator (C) and a technologist (E) coming to a new understanding of what the future holds, amongst higher-minded colleagues who eschew fallacious ad hominem arguments.

Here’s the reasoning behind the evolution of our thinking:

  • We had identified personalized learning – what we are calling personalized learning 1.0 – as the same thing as blended learning.
  • And the canonical example of personal learning 1.0, from our perspective, is the Carpe Diem schools, where children sit in cubicles half to three-quarters of the school day, being drilled by some company’s “adaptive learning” system.
  • Since we do not feel that the Carpe Diem school model is an appropriate education model, wepooh-poohed blended learning.

Simply put: we painted blended learning with the same brush as personalized learning 1.0. Our bad!

But now … we have seen the light! <Smilely face goes here>

In an excellent 2011 article by Heather Staker of the “Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation” (formerly the Innosight Institute), she defined blended learning as follows:

“Blended learning is any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.”

We can easily live with the above definition of blended learning because of the phrase “at least in partthrough online delivery.”  Personalized learning 1.0, e.g. the pedagogy used in Carpe Diem schools, takes online delivery to the extreme, it seems to us. But, as we argue below, what we see coming to K-12 classrooms is absolutely consistent with the definition of blended learning. Please read on!

Here’s the deal: 1-to-1 is the new normal: Between BYOD (bring your own device) and school-provided devices, it is clear that over the next two to three years every student in every classroom in every school in the United States will be using a computing device for learning. Many, many schools in the United States are already at 1-to-1. But the two- to three-year time period is there to acknowledge the sad and disturbing fact that the digital divide still exists, though it’s not talked about very much anymore.

Edgenuity: Top School and District Implementers of Blended Learning Programs

One of the popular providers of online education solutions, Edgenuity, has released its official list of outstanding schools and district implementers of the blended learning programs based on the 16,000 schools that the company partnered.


These educational institutions are perceived to have taken the extra miles in implementing different education strategies and innovative techniques to increase the learning outcomes of their students. They have delivered new learning experience to their students through original and student-centeredinstructional models.


Edgenuity’s Chief Executive Officer, Sari Factor, said that he is glad in recognizing the efforts of the schools in coming up with contemporary approaches for their academic instructions.


“There is no doubt that blended learning is a proven solution for transforming the educational experience for students,” said Factor. “We’re glad to recognize these schools and districts for effectively executing on a vision of using technology to empower students and teachers, and we look forward to sharing what these schools have learned to help more and more students across the country.”


“Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has a commitment to ensuring success for every student,” said CMS Director of Virtual Learning and Media Services, Hope Kohl. “Edgenuity has been an important partner, enabling us to provide rigorous, aligned content in online and blended formats. It is exciting that Edgenuity recognized CMS as a top district for innovative approaches and commitment to students.”

Included in the top 10 are Carpe Diem Schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Clark County School District, Derby Public Schools, Henry County Schools, Jefferson Chamber Foundation Academy, Rio Rancho Public Schools, East Pennsboro Area School District, Tift County Schools, and Village Green Virtual Charter School.


Currently, Edgenuity works with 9 among the 15 school districts in the United States. Some their partner schools are planning and developing effective blended learning programs for their students through different kind of innovative approaches.

Half of the World’s Most Innovative Schools are in the U.S.

The discussion about educational choice is usually accompanied by innovative education techniques and learning that differs from the norm of the typical classroom. Tech Insider, a digital publication, recently featured 13 of the world’s most innovative schools. The United States is ranked 17th behind other developed countries in education; however, six of the 13 schools are located in America.

America has been attached to the same public school system for many years, but it is finally being recognized that the system does not serve all students in the same way. Children’s learning styles are as unique as they are, requiring some students to need more specialized curriculum and others more hands-on learning.

These innovative schools featured in the article all have their own special characteristics, but the one thing they do share in common is putting the students first. The schools have designed curriculum around the students’ learning needs, allowing students to work in specialized fields of study and at their own pace. Teachers serve as mentors and guides but don’t offer the same full classroom instruction that most readers are familiar with from public school settings. Students learn to question and harness their enthusiastic curiosity in order to learn and digest information.

Contrary to what many believe, students are thriving and excelling by using these innovative learning models. A school launched by IBM in New York called P-Tech gives high school students a new lease on the idea of college, focusing heavily on STEM fields and allowing students the opportunity to complete real-world internships and gain an associates degree over a five to six year learning period. However, the first graduating class completed its course of study two years prior to its estimated finish date. “P-TECH is transforming high school,” IBM’s Stanley Litow, key architect of the P-TECH model, tells Tech Insider. This offers students “a clear pathway from school to career, giving young people options that they could not imagine, and directly advancing the nation’s economy.

At first glance, Carpe Diem School may look like an office building, but students each have their own cubicles where they assist in designing their learning structure and complete online course work. “Carpe Diem-Yuma, in Arizona, outperformed every public school in the county on the Arizona Instrument for Measuring Standards (AIMS) test four years in a row. Average proficiency was 65%. Meanwhile, Carpe Diem’s was 92%.

Every student is different and while these models work for some children, more traditional models of education are a fit for other groups of students. The point is, “in the land of the free” we need more innovative education models. Parents need to be empowered with the freedom to find the right learning environment for their children. Only then will we see true success and children reaching their full potential.

Blended Learning (Pt. 1): Changing the Face of Education

A new way of teaching and learning is making its way into some public schools that, if it gains enough traction, could turn the traditional education system on its head. “Blended learning” is not about credits or grades; it’s about mastery through personalized learning. Students typically have no preset grade level. Nor are there predetermined course completion dates.

Blended learning combines face-to-face and digital lessons in an adult-supervised environment. The way it’s done varies from school to school, but a common denominator is that the location, tools and pace of instruction are carved out for each student’s learning needs.

“They get through at a pace based on their individual goals — not because they are in seventh grade. And they don’t accept a ‘C’ or ‘D’ because it is passing. They stay with [the class] until they master it. Conversely, if [advanced students] finish in nine weeks rather than 15, they move on to the next course,” said Bob Sommers, CEO of Carpe Diem Learning Systems, describing that Ohio-based company’s blended curricula, which is similar to other programs.

Ninth-grader David Unthank had a whole curricula tailored for him, at least with his chosen elective in interior design, which he plans to study in college.

“It’s a software program where you design 3D room models. You can drag and drop furniture from an aerial view,” said David.

He also uses tools enabling him to research average income and what a day would be like as an interior designer. And he can check out college programs online.

David usually starts his day in the learning center at his charter school, which is part of Cincinnati Public Schools. He logs on to his computer, and up comes a blue screen with color-coded charts, telling him the percentage of each course he has completed. Throughout the day, the chart turns from red to blue to green, depending on whether he is on track, falling behind or ahead.

“It’s intimidating if you get behind, but you can always get help,” he said. Students shoot a virtual ticket to the instructor, roaming the room with his electronic notepad, who walks them through their challenge.

“When I am ahead, I am free to go to other classes. I don’t end up bored, working on what I can already do,” said David. While the student next to him studies Biology, David listens to a “virtual teacher” elaborate on the Civil War PowerPoint presentation that fills his screen. Later he regroups with a few peers who heard the same presentation, and they sink into an in-depth conversation about what it will mean for freed slaves to enlist in the Union Army.

Schools around the nation are reporting improved performance outcomes -especially in low-income districts where kids have struggled, such as two California schools. The top score on that state’s academic performance index (API) is 1,000; 800 is the target score. Two years after implementing blended learning, a Los Angeles school got a 991 on the API and, shortly after, a neighboring school’s score jumped to 978.

A US Department of Education meta-analysis found that students in fully online courses outperformed those in “live” classes. And blended learning students outperformed those in fully online courses.

Riverside School District in California offers blended learning in kindergarten through 12th grade. Requested test scores were not disclosed to Huffington Post. But Rick Miller, the superintendent of schools who brought the model to Riverside, shared anecdotal testimony.

“Students are increasingly better learners and more inquisitive,” he said, recalling what happened after each child received a device with Internet access.

“We got a bill from the phone company with roaming charges. These kids were off on vacation, still working on their Algebra. We hear from parents they’re in the car on the way to Grandma’s doing their assignments. They are reading chapters two or three times when they may not have read them through once in a text book,” said Miller. He believes the motivation is driven by two factors: students’ ability to immediately access information and their attraction to technology.

Miller is bringing blended learning to Santa Ana Public Schools, the sixth largest school district in California. The project is a work in progress as he addresses issues like limited bandwidth, and obtaining a computer for each student.

“We should have a bandwidth of 2 gigabytes by the end of this year. In another year we should be at 5 gigabytes, which is when everyone can get on line.

“And today, I have 30,000 devices and 60,000 students. So we are half way there.”

Blended learning demands a radical change in teachers’ roles.

“Teachers are transitioning to facilitators who must use multiple resources [such as computer programs tracking student’s progress]. They have to decipher from a lot of data that shows how students are doing.

“And they must be able to adjust their [lesson] plans, based on that information to reinforce concepts,” said Kelli Campbell, senior vice president at Discovery Education. Discovery develops digital curricula that schools around the world use to supplement live classroom work. The organization also sends coaches into classrooms to teach faculty an entirely new way of doing their jobs.

Their “Flipped Classroom” model exemplifies some new demands on teachers. Lessons that are traditionally done in class become homework. And what is traditionally homework is done in class.

“Students may listen to a recorded lecture at home. Then come to school and engage in interactive lessons based on concepts they gleaned from the lecture,” said Campbell.

“The teacher may have to adjust instruction based on what needs to be revisited, and be prepared to give feedback immediately.”

Often, parents can log into a secure portal to track their children’s progress and attendance.
David’s mother, Kim Unthank, likes this — and she likes that she can talk face to face with her son’s teachers and the school board. She home schooled her son for years.

“In time, I felt he had surpassed me academically and that I wasn’t challenging him enough. But I didn’t want to send him to a traditional public school. He would have been in three classes of 30 kids each; I didn’t want to throw him in that huge mix.

“I feel like he’s in better hands education wise. But I can still be involved.”

Currently, there are more than 7 million online learners in kindergarten through 12th grade, according to Michael Horn, co-founder of Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit engaged in education policy conversations. As the trend continues, he said, “I think we will see more innovation in mainstream public schools. But we are in early stages of making change.”

Changing the Game With School Design

By Ben Jackson

This post was originally published on the TNTP Blog.

If you ask 100 people to picture a baseball diamond and imagine where each player stands, they’ll all probably describe the same thing. But according to the New York Times, the traditional baseball set up started changing around 2010, based on new evidence about where batters tend to hit the ball.

If you ask 100 people to picture a school, they’ll probably all describe the same thing, too: a building with walled off classrooms, each filled with one teacher and twenty to thirty students of the same age. The difference is that unlike baseball, schools and teachers are still organized in largely the same way they were decades ago. If the third baseman doesn’t have to stand right off third base, why does a teacher still need to stand in front of 25 students?

The answer is rooted in tradition. Schools look the same largely because they’ve historically been designed the same way: built and staffed from the district central office outward. But these models are often out of sync with what we know about how students learn and the expectations for today’s workplace. Not all students learn best by listening to a single teacher lecture at the front of the room, and many careers now require people to access information independently and generate ideas and solve problems virtually and collaboratively. Yet, most American schools have made only minor adjustments to their design.

Just as some baseball teams have pushed the envelope by using data to place their defenses more strategically, across the country, there are districts and charter networks responding to these changes and beginning to do things differently. At TNTP, we’re starting to think about how to support innovative school design, so we’re chewing on three key questions that need to be answered to build schools that start from students, rather than central offices:

1. What do students need? Who’s at bat?

Teams play defense differently against a powerhouse hitter than a pitcher who is likely to bunt. The stats dictate where the defense plays on the field. Similarly, designing a school, whether it’s brand new or a turnaround, requires figuring out what the students there really need. For some students, the traditional school model with some updates and adjustments still works well. But what about students who, for example, learn better in a project-based setting or who may struggle with writing, but understand advanced concepts in science and need more challenging work? While many needs are common to most students (like effective teachers), there may be some that are more critical than others for a given group of kids.

2. What’s the plan to get students what they need? What’s the right defensive strategy?

Teams use other information—who’s on base, the score and how many outs there are—to determine the best defensive strategy for that situation. In a school setting, once students’ needs are determined, an instructional model should be determined to make sure those needs will be met. Would a blended learning model work? Or an expanded school year?

At Carpe Diem Meridian in Indianapolis, no two students are taking the exact same course load. As teacher Josh Woodward explains in Education Week, students’ course loads are determined by their instructional needs in each subject, as well as their areas of interest. Students and teachers have one-on-one and small group time to work on collaborative projects that bring their digital curriculum to life.

At Generation Schools, students have up to 30 percent more hours in the school year, compared to most traditional school models, and teachers have a notably reduced course load and a minimum of ninety minutes per day for collaborative planning. Match charter schools incorporate a high dose of one-on-one tutoring into every student’s school day. A Colorado district abandoned grade levels to move toward a competency-based model that’s more closely aligned to their immediate learning needs. All of these models are examples of districts and charter networks getting creative with school structure to put students’ unique needs first.

3. Who can get students what they need? Who’s on first? And second?

Some personnel are more effective in different situations—that’s why baseball teams have closers. A typical school district spends a majority of its budget on personnel. But different instructional models require different personnel, and if districts can allocate budgets based on the instructional model rather than the number of students in the building, there’s more room for innovation. A blended learning model might mean fewer teachers are required to reach students, because students divide their time between digital and in-person learning. The Match approach requires additional tutors. At the Academies of Nashville, Metro-Nashville Public Schools’ Career and Technical Education program, students spend time learning from professionals in various practical and technical fields.

In addition to staff, there are considerations around how much time should be allocated for different activities (and for the entire day), what materials are needed to deliver on the instructional model, and what the school space should look like, to name a few. There’s no reason for these to be uniform from school to school.


Baseball has been slow to change over time. And in some ways, this is a good thing. We love the game because of its traditions. In the same vein, the traditional school design model still has some advantages: Centralized district bureaucracy tends to be fairly stable, for example. But its biggest advantage is near-universal social and cultural acceptance—that very fact that everyone thinks of the same thing when they hear the word “school.” The real challenge is that most of us literally cannot imagine the alternatives. Like baseball, American public schools are treasured institutions that, for most of us, go back to our childhoods, so we shouldn’t expect that changing them will be easy: The anxiety that comes with upending a set of deeply ingrained expectations and values is genuine. But for school design to take significant leaps, we have to confront that.

Now is the time to do so. Data have done a lot for the game of baseball. Likewise, the past century has taught us a lot about how students learn and teachers teach, and about the best use of technology in aiding that process. As we move forward, districts will need to adapt to support a variety of schools. And they’ll have to grapple with big questions, like how to get parents, teachers and students to embrace changes in what the school experience looks like, how to remain flexible so schools and classrooms can continuously adapt over time, and how to address the urgent instructional needs of students while helping future and current teachers transition to new ways of teaching.

If America’s pastime can evolve, though, surely our schools can too.

Ben Jackson is Partner, Emerging Services at TNTP.