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Professional Opinion

Five keys to closing achievement gaps with blended learning

Success is a team effort that requires more than just technology
John Albert is the principal of California Elementary School in the Orange Unified School District.
John Albert is the principal of California Elementary School in the Orange Unified School District.

Blended learning can support a more personalized approach to education.

You’ve no doubt heard of the teaching approach in which students spend part of the day learning online at their own pace and part of the day receiving instruction from a classroom teacher. But there are still a number of misconceptions about what blended learning entails and how it works.

For instance, some people worry technology will make teachers less central to the teaching and learning process—yet nothing could be further from the truth.

In our experience at California Elementary School in Orange USD, blended learning is helping to personalize instruction under the guidance of dedicated, well-trained educators—and the role of classroom teachers has been critical in this process. After all, it’s teachers who build relationships with students, not software.

With 95 percent of our student population qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, and 90 percent learning English as a second language, we face significant challenges in helping our students learn to read.

But since we moved to a blended learning model last year, we’ve seen a 53 percent increase in the number of students who are reading at grade level. These gains have led to better student attitudes toward learning overall.

Keys to success

How have we achieved so much in such a short period of time? Here are five keys to our success with blended learning.

Choose the right tools. Ideally, you should choose online curriculum programs that can quickly home in on students’ abilities and deliver highly targeted instruction that addresses each child’s unique skill gaps.

There are a number of commercial products available that can be customized to fit specific needs. The one you choose should enable teachers to track student progress toward standards-based skills, so they can see at a glance how their students are progressing and what additional instruction they need.

Train your staff. Before introducing blended learning tools into the classroom, provide staff with training that will make the transition smooth. Make sure teachers understand how to use the software’s data dashboards to identify students who are struggling in specific areas, so they can group students appropriately for small-group instruction and provide one-on-one support as needed.

Create a data team. Our teachers are looking at their students’ data every day, but we also convened a “Mind the Gap” progress monitoring team to make sure no students fall through the cracks—and this team has been vital to our success. It consists of our instructional specialist, our reading specialist, our resource specialist program teacher, and me. We meet every Wednesday at 9 a.m., a schedule we adhere to religiously. We review data reports to identify which students are struggling and how we can intervene to help them succeed. Although our school is fairly large, we are able to get to know each student individually.

Engage parents. Parent engagement is also critical to student success, and blended learning provides an easy way to involve parents in their children’s education. Because parents have access to the online software from home, they can keep track of their children’s progress and ensure students spend the required amount of time on the program. We hold monthly parent technology trainings so they know how to access the resources from home—and we’ve seen stronger parent engagement as a result.

Highlight success. Teachers are more likely to accept and support a new learning initiative when they see results. For that reason, we’ve been diligent about sharing our successes with our staff and our community. This effort has led to adoption with fidelity in every classroom.

Blended learning is helping to personalize reading instruction for all of our students, but our success would not be possible without the efforts of our entire school community—including parents, data team members, and especially our teachers.

Philip A. Streifer has served as superintendent of three Connecticut school districts.

John Albert is the principal of California Elementary School in the Orange Unified School District.