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Growing role for computers in Massachusetts school systems

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1990 and has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Growing role for computers in Massachusetts school systems
Mayor Martin Walsh speaks with BPS Superintendent Tommy Chang at the annual Countdown to Kindergarten event at the Boston Children’s Museum.

When Boston students return to school this Thursday, most will sit in a circle or rows, in a room with a teacher and a blackboard. But across the country, a growing number of students are eschewing classrooms for computer screens as part of the growing field of personalized learning.

The move toward virtual or online schools is relatively small in Massachusetts, where two online schools — TEC Connections Academy Commonwealth Virtual School and Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School — last year enrolled 1,119 and 667 students, respectively.

Personalized learning is somewhat of an umbrella term that encompasses virtual schools as well as brick-and-mortar schools. The basic idea is that students are able to learn at their own pace, whether through individualized instruction from a teacher, through a software program or both. While the number of students enrolled in virtual schools in Massachusetts is small relative to other states, an increasing number of students in Boston and other districts are participating in hybrid personalized learning systems — working with teachers and on computers.

More than 100 Boston Public Schools teachers are working with Learn Launch, a Fort Point Channel-based firm that works with educational entrepreneurs to develop personalized learning software through an accelerator program. The program allows teachers to experiment with software as part of a personalized learning program, according to Eileen Rudden, a co-founder and board member of the Learn Launch Institute.

“If a teacher in early grades wants a student’s reading scores to improve, we much recommend Lexia,” she said.

The Learn Launch Institute would then train teachers in Lexia, which is a proprietary technology-based reading program.

In a typical elementary school classroom, a teacher may have three or four workstations where students would rotate in and out throughout the day.

“Some may work on Lexia,” Rudden said. “Some might be working in a small group with a teacher.”

Students typically work on computers for less than 50 minutes per 250 minutes of weekly instruction time on a subject.

“At the end of the project, two-thirds of MassNET teachers indicated that personalizing learning for their students had substantially and positively changed their instruction, because their ed-tech tools allowed them to see and utilize student data on a more frequent basis,” reads a blog entry about the program on the Learn Launch Institute website.

The BPS system’s partnership with Learn Launch is part of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Massachusetts Personal Learning EdTech (MAPLE) Consortium. (BPS officials did not respond to multiple requests for information on the city’s participation in the program.)

Currently, 31 school districts in Massachusetts are enrolled in the MAPLE Consortium, according to Kenneth Klau, who heads DESE’s Office of Digital Learning.

Despite the prominence of the word in the consortium’s name, Klau stresses that technology is just one component of personalized learning.

“Technology is not what comes first,” he said. “A district has to lay out its goals for personalized learning. At the end of the process [the question is asked], How do they achieve their goals? The reason why ‘ed tech’ is in the MAPLE acronym is that to do this, technology is a necessary component. Necessary, but not in itself sufficient.”

The rapid growth of online learning in Massachusetts has evoked concerns from the Massachusetts Teachers Association. In a letter to Jeff Wulfson, acting director of the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, MTA President Barbara Madeloni and Vice President Erik J. Champy questioned the partnership with Learn Launch.

“The MTA has long supported differentiated instruction and addressing students’ social, emotional and academic needs, the kind of personalized learning by which educators guide students as they ask questions, pursue projects, explore subjects they are passionate about, and work alone or in groups on self-designed initiatives,” the MTA leaders wrote in the Aug. 8 letter.

“Putting Learn Launch in the driver’s seat of this initiative would be akin to the Department of Public Health putting a consortium of pharmaceutical companies in charge of prescribing regulations. The fox is guarding the henhouse. This is wrong.”

Rudden said it’s difficult for teachers to provide the individualized instruction called for in personalized learning without the types of technological innovations Learn Launch is pioneering.

“Teachers have always been told they should be differentiating,” she said. “But they can’t go home and create 20 different lesson plans every night.”

Concerns about online schools

The blended learning strategies being implemented in the MAPLE Consortium stand in contrast to online schools, which have expanded across the nation in recent years, fueled by funding from tech firm donors including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation, as well as a $500 million investment from the U.S. Department of Education during the administration of former President Barack Obama.

While the term “personalized learning” is commonly used to describe individualized learning plans, it also is used loosely by proponents of online schools. According to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, up to 10 percent of all America’s public schools have adopted some form of personalized learning. At the extreme end of the spectrum, online charter schools provide instruction exclusively through computers, with limited support from teachers. Students are evaluated online, answering questions to demonstrate their proficiency in a subject.

In states like Ohio, where one online charter chain — The Electronic Classroom — had 17,000 students enrolled in 2016, the growth of automated learning has sparked concern among education advocates. The corporate-funded, Washington, D.C.-based America’s Promise Alliance pegged the graduation rate for online high schools at just 40 percent, less than half the national graduation rate of 83 percent, prompting The New York Times to label them “the new dropout factories.”

In Ohio and other states where online academies have grown unchecked, many employ few teachers, while at the same time collecting the same level of state and district funding that traditional schools collect. Electronic Classroom, which enrolls 17,000 Ohio students, netted $115 million, with $23 million of that going to firms with ties to founder William Lager, a software executive, as reported in The New York Times.

In Massachusetts, TEC Connections Academy has a 30-1 student-teacher ratio. The school posted a four-year graduation rate of 31.2 percent, with an additional 26.8 percent of high school students still enrolled beyond four years and 29.7 dropping out. Graduation information for Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School was not posted on the DESE website.

The state’s two online schools both are rated at Level 3, putting them in the bottom 20 percent of schools in Massachusetts. Each school receives $6,700 per pupil from the sending Massachusetts school district for every student enrolled.

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