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Commentary: Colorado can take the learning lead

Two proponents of mixing online and in-person instruction say the time is ripe to ramp up such efforts in Colorado.

Public schools in Denver today look an awful lot like they did generations ago. Teachers lecture in front of classes, forcing students to work at the same pace, despite individual needs and interests.

But an emerging group of innovators is designing new school models that use technology to personalize learning, accelerate student achievement and free teachers from old instructional approaches.

These schools are dubbed “blended learning” models because they incorporate a blend of technology and teacher-driven instruction. At some schools, students rotate between online learning labs for basic skill work in math and English, and project-based classroom work with their teachers. At other schools, small groups of students cycle between mini-lessons at computers, tutoring with mentors and teacher-led instruction all within the same classroom.

Denver doesn’t yet have many of these blended models, but Next Generation Learning Challenges, a competition funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides us a chance to become one of the nation’s leading adopters of these high-impact schools.

The initiative, which is housed at EDUCAUSE, has launched a $12 million contest for education innovators who develop promising blended-learning school models for 6th to 12th grade students. Winners can access up to $450,000 to help launch new schools that increase college readiness, use technology to personalize learning experiences for students and can be easily replicated.

Denver has an excellent climate for these types of schools to grow. Local funders such as the Donnell-Kay Foundation have taken the lead and paved the way for blended learning over the past three years by hosting the Blended Learning Summit (concluding next week) bringing experts from around the country together to learn from and develop relationships with. Furthermore, we have a deep pool of top teaching and school leadership talent through programs like Teach For America. And Get Smart Schools is making our state one of the best places in the country to launch outstanding new, autonomous schools.

Some have raised questions about whether computer-based instruction provides students with a rich education, but well-crafted blended learning schools are proving that great teaching and sensible use of technology can lead to outstanding results for kids. For example, at Rocketship schools in California, students get 75 percent of their instruction in traditional, teacher-led classrooms but also have two-hour daily sessions to build reading and math skills with online programs. Because these learning labs reinforce basic skills, teachers can focus more time teaching higher-order thinking and providing personalized instruction. Eighty-seven percent of Rocketship students receive free or reduced-price lunch, and 94 percent are African American or Hispanic. The school’s results are outstanding: 93 percent of students are proficient in math and 75 percent are proficient in English language arts, beating the state averages by 25 percent and 14 percent, respectively.

Next Generation Learning Challenges recently announced the winners of the first of three rounds of the competition. And dozens more have applied for round two. If we want to leverage these national resources to benefit our students, we need to inspire local school leaders and education entrepreneurs to put in their applications for round three early this summer.

The school models that come through this competition will be some of the most innovative, high-potential schools in the country. Let’s work together to ensure that students in Denver benefit from this cutting-edge work.

For more information on the Donnell-Kay Blended Learning Summit and to join the webinar next week, please click here.

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