Excellence and Efficiency

If schools can find a method to improve their efficiency, they can offer more and charge less.

by Sean Kennedy

Some Jewish day school leaders are skeptical of a new instructional model called “blended learning”. We believe the new model has the potential to improve academic outcomes and ease the growing affordability crisis in Jewish day schools.

Here’s why:

First, it is important to make clear what we mean by “blended learning” – what it is and what it is not. Blended learning is an instructional model – not a specific tool or technique – that seeks to customize or ‘differentiate’ student learning based on data. By utilizing online and digital tools, students learn content designed to meet their specific needs aimed at their own level, pace, and style. These online tools produce data that teachers use to further individualize lesson plans and content for students.

The best way to think about blended learning is as a feedback loop. Knowledge is conveyed to students who then demonstrate or practice their mastery of that knowledge. Their level of mastery is assessed and teachers are supported by real-time data helping them redirect the next lesson based on the student’s pace and skill level. The process is iterative, as each student is delivered the right lesson at the right time.

Blended learning is an instructional model that has delivered impressive academic results when executed well. Today, the model has been adopted in dozens of public district, public charter and even a few Catholic parochial schools.  At Mission Dolores Academy, a Catholic K-8 school in San Francisco, reading scores jumped 6% in one year and math 16% in the first year of implementation.  In Yuma, Arizona a blended learning charter school, Carpe Diem Middle and High School, experienced even more dramatic gains – as student scores improved from below 50% proficiency to 90% proficiency and advanced after fully implementing a blended model.

For blended learning practitioners, personalized interaction between teacher and student is fundamental. Most day school parents and teachers prize the small classes because smaller ratios often translate to more individualized and meaningful learning experiences.

Under the traditional classroom model, no matter if the class size is 30-to-1 or 10–to-1, students are passive learners. The teacher teaches to a level that reaches the most students most often. That approach short changes both the students who have already mastered the topic or those that need extra help to catch-up.

Blended learning instead ‘differentiates’ every student’s learning path based on the student’s mastery level. Conceivably, a student could be months ahead in math, a week behind the group in grammar, and on par in science and history. The individual lesson paths have even begun to erode the significance of grade levels.

Instead of a traditional classroom, Carpe Diem uses a ‘great room’ model where students work independently on assignments with frequent check-ins by instructional coaches and master teachers. Regular classes, seminars and ‘break-out’ sessions, designed around real-time data feedback, allow students to receive both remediation and enrichment on an as-needed basis. Another method, the rotation model, effectively increases the class size by splitting the students into multiple groups. Students rotate from computer stations where individual instruction occurs (while data is collected) to small group and tutoring sessions. Although the class size has increased, the challenge of ‘managing’ more students is reduced as students work in different groups at different times.

For a day school struggling to both balance its books and keep its intimate atmosphere as an academic and religious community, blended learning could be a valuable solution. Teachers use the data collected via online content tools to guide group lessons and one-on-one tutoring. The personal student-interaction is enhanced since the teacher spends their time efficiently coaching the student through higher-order skill processes. Teachers get to do what they love – teach. The computers assist them in the often time consuming task of managing student data in ways that make them more effective.

That data can also be used by parents and administrators to better direct resources and time to students. Some blended learning schools send daily report cards home directly to the parents’ email with suggested lesson supplements for the next day. Parents are empowered to engage their children’s curriculum and have greater understanding about how they spend their school days.

For Jewish day schools, blended learning offers another critical benefit besides personalization – sustainability.

For many Jewish day schools, affordability continues to be a large issue. In the past decade alone, tuition has risen by over 50%. At the same time, family income has been flat. This “tuition crisis” has driven the average day school tuition to $16,000 per child. For a family with three school aged children, a $50,000 annual tuition bill puts a major strain on the family budget. Some schools have risen to the challenge with generous financial aid packages to offset the tuition rises. But this raises serious questions about sustainability moving forward.

In addition to the skyrocketing tuition hikes, schools have to make tough decisions about the robustness of extracurricular offerings or enrichment classes. If the development cycle went poorly, a day school may eliminate a sports team or cut back on the Advanced Placement offerings.

If schools can find a method to improve their efficiency, they can offer more and charge less. Blended learning promises just that. Blended learning saves money by reducing per-pupil spending. The reduction in spending comes not from increasing class sizes alone (higher enrollment, fewer teachers) but through changing the way we teach and learn. Because the model prizes individualization and more efficiently uses staff time, students get more direct time to work directly with teachers. Since personnel costs comprise about 80% of most school budgets, a modest increase in enrollment or reduction in staff costs has a dramatic impact.

Carpe Diem’s per pupil costs are about 25% less than nearby schools and half the national average while its students average 90% proficiency in both math and reading. In Catholic schools that have adopted blended learning the per-pupil costs fall by 20% over two years.

Day schools need to remain mindful that parents are sacrificing to give their child a Jewish education and expect value for their dollars. Schools have an obligation to be both excellent and efficient. Blended learning is proving that education can be both.

Sean Kennedy is a fellow at the Lexington Institute, a non profit, non partisan think tank in Arlington VA specializing in education.

cross-posted at AviChai.org