Horn likes what he sees at Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School. Because students at the school can progress at their own pace, many are moving years ahead in the curriculum, he said, accumulating college credits while still in high school. And attending the school only four days a week frees up the students to work in career apprenticeship programs, he added.
Carpe Diem's math and reading scores outpace averages for Arizona schools, even though 46 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, a poverty indicator. However, achievement test data from the Arizona Department of Education shows that after good results in 2010, achievement slid downward in 2011 and 2012. Math percentile scores dropped from 89 to 70 over the three years, and writing percentiles plummeted from 84 to 53. The principal at Carpe Diem told the Arizona Republic in spring of 2011 that the dip resulted from the school switching to a different reading curriculum and taking in an unusually large influx of new students who were struggling.
Plans are underway to replicate the Carpe Diem model at six Indiana charter schools over the next several years, and that worries David Safier, a former teacher who writes about education politics for the blogforarizona.com news outlet. The lack of up-to-date research on blended learning's efficacy in K-12 settings is one of Safier's concerns. The idea of using computers to justify increasing the ratio of teachers to students is another.
At Carpe Diem, for instance, five teachers and four teachers' aides work with 226 students. Patrick says blended learning creates a fundamental shift in instruction practices that makes it workable.
"We've seen some models where they have bolstered class size, and the teachers say they can teach more students, and get paid more," Horn said. "That could work in many cases, but it's dangerous to universalize."
"The idea of using computers as a substitute, as opposed to a supplement, for teacher-led education is really immature at this point," Safier said. He believes online education is a good way to give students in isolated areas access to academic courses they would otherwise miss out on, but sees no benefit in large numbers of students learning from computers instead of teachers.
Michael Barbour, a professor at Detroit's Wayne State University, has raised concerns that Carpe Diem's curriculum is designed to get kids to do well on standardized tests, but doesn't foster critical thinking skills. School administrators responded that they are working on creating more projects that promote critical thinking as teachers adjust to their new roles.
Developing blended programs is expensive, and expecting positive student results without the necessary investment is unrealistic, said a report by Evergreen Education Group, an online education-consulting group based in Colorado. To achieve the benefits of blended learning, states must make large investments in computer hardware and software, including data systems and student tracking software. Those investments vary dramatically according to school circumstances, and so far it isn't clear whether they will save money in the future, said a report in thejournal.com, an online magazine about education technology.
"I don't think (blended learning) will cost more, but it's not clear that it will save more, either," Horn said. But, blended learning models offer districts the possibility of paying for students' mastery of material, instead paying upfront for learning that doesn't happen. Horn cites Utah's Electronic High School, which ties performance to paychecks. If students don't complete a computerized course successfully, the for-profit companies that provided the content gets a 50 percent deduction to its paycheck.
At this point, though, "the real reason to adopt blended learning isn't to save money, but because of the benefits for students," Horn said.
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