Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
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Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Friday, August 12, 2011

How Do We Fix the Dropout Crisis?

Ninth grade is a critical transition year for students, and many students never receive the comprehensive support or assistance they require upon entering high school. This is a real shame, as much can certainly be done about it. Some educators and other experts suggest blended learning, which is an individualized education system that helps students academically, socially, and emotionally.

I personally believe blended learning has a lot of potential to be successful if used appropriately and consistently for students at risk. Read more below:

August 2011

Volume 53
Number 8

Getting to Graduation: Can Blended Learning Curtail the Dropout Crisis?

By Laura Varlas

"We would have lost him," Cynthia Wellner, an 11-year teacher, says of one of her students, who faced a personal crisis when he came out as gay. Once a top-performing student, the young man had stopped coming to class and almost dropped out, when he was provided the opportunity to take college-level courses online, putting him back on track for on-time graduation. Wellner has logged five semesters teaching and facilitating blended learning in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), in North Carolina, and says such programs are a crucial tool for helping struggling students complete their schooling.

As schools stand behind their mission of the success of each learner, stories like these may become less of an anomaly. Some educators say using blended learning strategies can greatly improve graduation outcomes for students who need increased flexibility or more course options to keep them engaged and focused academically. These students are capable of doing the work, but due to a wide range of personal and environmental factors, the time and place constraints of the traditional school setting prevent them from being successful.

"Educators are working very hard, but are at maximum capacity for the kind of results they can get within an antiquated system," former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise (and current president of the Alliance for Excellent Education) told attendees at an Alliance briefing on blended learning in May.

Wise sees three looming problems facing the education system in the United States—declining state budgets (that won't stabilize until 2013), mounting teacher shortages (over half of the nation's teachers will be eligible for retirement in the next 10 years), and increased global demand for skilled workers (60 percent of jobs require some postsecondary education). Therefore, educators are looking for new ways of doing more with less personnel and fewer resources than ever before.

Blended learning is a model in which a student learns, at least in part, at a supervised physical location away from home and through online delivery where the student has control over the time, place, path, or pace of the curriculum. As reported in the June issue of Education Update ("School Is Out for the Summer, But Online Learning Is In"), blended learning is gaining momentum as an alternative to summer school. On a larger scale, it's also becoming a tool to problem-solve around the dropout crisis, and overcome the obstacles Wise identifies.

When combined with a mix of learning options, strong practitioner leadership, resources extended beyond traditional school space and time, and tenacious data systems to track student learning, blended learning can help place students back on the right path before they get permanently left behind.

Heeding 9th Grade Warnings

Nationally, one student drops out every 11 seconds, and most dropouts cite failure to pass Algebra 1 as the primary catalyst. As a large, urban district, CMS understood these statistics all too well. Since students who pass Algebra 1 in the 9th grade have a 95 percent graduation rate, CMS decided to use blended learning to target students failing Algebra 1 and English 1 as a way to increase on-time graduation rates. In 2009, CMS created pilot online Algebra 1 and English 1 programs for struggling students. In the first year, all 77 enrolled students passed the courses, all students passed the Algebra 1 state gateway standard, and 96 percent of students passed the state English 1 standard.

Across the country, in Las Vegas, Nev., Principal Ron Montoya was also identifying 9th grade gaps. Montoya's Valley High is situated in the fifth largest school district in the United States. It's one of the poorest schools in that district, and has 85 percent minority students, who are mostly English language learners. Valley High had a huge problem. "We needed to teach our kids how to read," admits Montoya.

Of incoming 9th graders, at least 100 could not read at all, and about 300 were reading on a 1st to 3rd grade level. In high school, curriculum has long since pivoted from learning to read, to reading to learn. How could Valley High simultaneously achieve both?

Teacher leadership drove Valley's successful implementation of blended learning, using whole-class instruction and Scholastic's Read 180 and System 44 programs, says Montoya. With only two and a half years to get freshman to proficiency, teachers carried Valley High from a failing school rating to 91 percent English/Language Arts proficiency in 2009. Additionally, Valley's dropout rate shrunk from 13 percent in 2004 to 4 percent today. "Blended learning showed us that the achievement gap can be closed in any school," Montoya maintains.

Building Support

What kind of supports exist for schools pursuing blended learning?

From 2003–08, high schools in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) consistently failed to meet AYP. In 2009, MNPS introduced blended learning, and that year all the district's high schools not only met AYP, but also went from a 58 percent to a 72 percent graduation rate, explains Kecia Ray, MNPS Executive Director of Learning Technologies. But the transition wasn't exactly seamless. "A lot of things had to fall into place before we could get there," says Ray.

Without a doubt, Tennessee winning $500 million in round one of Race to the Top, the federal program that rewards states for innovative reform plans and adoption of certain policy approaches (including adoption of the Common Core standards), made blended learning a feasible option in Nashville's public schools. MNPS also used a 2006 Smaller Learning Communities grant ($6.5 million) to create small career academies within each of their 12 comprehensive high schools, and shape several other innovative learning communities. MNPS established a Learning Technology Department and initiated a data warehouse project as a way to track and target interventions to struggling students. In addition, MNPS also increased student access to technology by extending school open hours and partnering with local libraries. "We've rethought the school day and what schooling looks like," says Ray. In 2012, they're introducing blended learning in preK.

Professional development (PD) for blended learning is evolving, and a potential area for huge growth, in the next decade. "Universities have been doing blended learning for more than 12 years, but in K–12, this is relatively new," notes Hope Johnston, Distance Learning Coordinator at CMS. She adds that the first Department of Education report on blended learning only came out two years ago, and while it contains tentative definitions of effectiveness, there was also no universal definition of blended learning for the initiatives discussed.

As more schools and districts pursue blended learning, "We have the opportunity to learn from each other," says Johnston. Digital Learning Now!, a framework developed by Governors Wise and Jeb Bush, outlines the 10 qualities of effective digital learning, and was an important first step for CMS in identifying best practices, Johnston says.

PD should help teachers integrate technology into the basic skills in Bloom's Taxonomy, says Principal Rick Ogston of Carpe Diem Collegiate High School in Yuma, Ariz. "It's not about new skills, it's about new methods for practicing and rehearsing skills." A lot of teachers don't come out of training prepared to do that, he adds. Tennessee has redefined teacher evaluation to include digital literacy and teaching with technology. Still, says Ray, colleges of education tend to assume that young teachers will automatically use technology. "They need more than [familiarity] to truly teach and create engaging learning," she says.

Extending the Teacher's Reach

With blended learning, the role of teachers will evolve, says Ogston, to be more like "specialists looking at data, diagnosing, and targeting interventions." The relationship between schools and their students will also adjust; some say to what schools can most directly affect, and what students need most from schools.

"Many students have life circumstances that are beyond the scope of what the school can realistically solve," says Wellner. Instead of doing nothing, and waiting for failure, with blended learning, she says, "we at least have the alternative to allow them to continue with their education while they solve those problems."


Click through these links in the online version of this article at

If you don't have a smartphone to use the QR code, watch the video, "A Conversation with Cynthia Wellner," at

"School is Out for the Summer, But Online Learning is In" (Education Update,June 2011),-but-Online-Learning-Is-In.aspx

The Rise of K–12 Blended Learning: Profiles of Emerging Models(Innosight Institute, May 2011)

Digital Learning Now!(Foundation for Excellence in Education, December 2010)

Technology Counts 2011: K–12 School Seeks Customized Fit (Education Week,March 2011)

"5 Surprising Perspectives About Online Schools" (MindShift blog at KQED, May 25, 2011)

Also check out these examples of schools using blended learning.

Carpe Diem Academy (Arizona):

Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (North Carolina):

Independent School Cooperative (Vermont):

Metropolitan Nashville Schools (Tennessee):

School of One (New York):

Valley High School (Las Vegas):

Virtual High School Global Consortium:
Full article available at:

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