Children should advance in school according to skill, not age

Customized lessons don’t have to be a luxury.
Customized lessons don’t have to be a luxury.
Image: Reuters/Ognen Teofilovski
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In 2010, a fifth-grade student named Jack started the year at the bottom of his class in math at Santa Rita Elementary School in the Los Altos School District in California. He struggled to keep up, and grew to consider himself one of those kids who would just never quite ‘‘get it.’’ In a typical school, he would have been tracked and placed in the bottom math group. That would have meant that he would not have taken algebra until high school, which would have negatively impacted his college and career choices.

But Jack’s story took a less familiar turn. His school transformed his class into a “blended-learning” environment. After 70 days of using Khan Academy’s online math tutorials and exercises for a portion of his math three to four days a week, rather than remaining tracked in the bottom math group, Jack rose to become one of the top four students in his class. He was working on material well above grade level.

Jack’s rapid progress sounds like the stuff of movies or magic, but it isn’t. It’s an example of the power of online learning to personalize learning for each student.

Earlier this month, a group of business and academic leaders released an “Open Letter on the Digital Economy” to shine a bright light on how digital innovations are remaking society and bringing the possibility of unparalleled growth—but also unprecedented challenges.

The group highlighted that we need significant changes in our education system to prepare the citizenry for this future. “It will not be enough simply to invest more in education. We need to redesign how we deliver education at all levels using the power of digital technologies,” the group wrote. “We need to shift away from rote learning and build instead on our uniquely human strengths in areas like creativity and interpersonal interactions.”

As Jack’s story shows, fortunately we don’t need to look hard for such a solution. It is already materializing in a growing number of K–12 schools across the country in the form of blended learning: brick-and-mortar schools providing online lessons for students. Blended learning allows for the personalization of learning at scale and at an affordable price, but still offers the benefits of the traditional schooling experience.

This is critical because all students have different learning needs at different times. Blended learning allows students to learn at their own path and pace, while also leaving teachers more time to mentor and coach each individual student.

As a result, learning online while still in school (instead of after hours) can provide each and every student the right educational opportunity at the right time so that all students can fulfill their fullest human potential. It can also free up teachers to focus far more on helping students work on meaningful projects, take part in Socratic discussions, engage in the community, and participate in other activities that allow students to discover their passions, create and innovate.

Schools using blended learning are increasingly posting impressive results. Serving a student population in which over 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and all students are Black or Hispanic or identify as more than one race, Los Angeles charter school KIPP Empower adopted blended learning in 2010. Until recently, California used an Academic Performance Index to rate the performance of its schools with 1000 being the highest score and 800 being the targeted score. KIPP Empower scored 991 in the 2012-13 school year.

Similarly, the District of Columbia Public Schools has redesigned 17 schools to incorporate blended learning and since then has recorded extensive and well-documented student gains in math and reading on district-wide assessments as well as on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

But for blended learning to deliver on its promise, we need to redesign the education system to shift from its current factory, time-based model to a competency-based model in which students move on to the next concept, unit or subject upon mastery, not based on time.

Sticking with our current time-based system would prevent students like Jack from moving on upon mastery to catch up and realize their potential. Reengineering our education system in this way would also allow us to shift from focusing on how many years of schooling a student has—faulty measures that focus on time but not learning—to measures that allow us to see what students have mastered in terms of their knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

When students only progress when they have truly mastered a concept, rather than counting progress in credit hours, the evidence shows that they are also more motivated to take ownership of their learning. It sounds unconventional, but some schools are already embracing competency-based education; New Hampshire even went so far as to mandate that high schools measure credit according to students’ mastery of material, rather than time spent in class.

Blended learning can support competency-based learning by providing the tools to bring it to scale. As online learning improves, schools will be able to rely on it to deliver consistently high-quality learning adapted to each student. That will free schools to focus on fulfilling other functions critical to students’ life success. Digital innovations are rapidly reshaping the world around us, but we can harness those same innovations to prepare our nation’s students to meet the opportunities and challenges ahead.