Blended Learning

Blended learning pilot means a new role for teachers in 16 Memphis schools

Brad Osbourn presents a unit involving Frankenstein

At the Shelby County district building on Wednesday, school board members were digging deep into 10th grade English language arts—and the questions at the core of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—as they were stepped through a model lesson of a new blended learning program, in which much of students’ work and learning takes place on a tablet computer.

Brad Osborn, the vice president of business development for education publishing company Pearson, pulled up a reading lesson and showed the sorts of screens and questions students would encounter after reading Frankenstein.

“We keep hearing how robots are getting smarter and they’re going to rule the world,” said Osborn. “So we want to ask our kids, what does it mean to be human?”

“Well, what do you think?” Osborne said to Shelby County Schools board chair Kevin Woods. “What does it mean?”

Shelby County Schools is looking to blended learning to help schools reach an ambitious set of goals that includes having 80 percent of students graduating from high school college- and career-ready by 2025. Next year, a new blended learning program will be piloted in 16 schools, including some of the district’s neediest and most promising: Those receiving students from schools that are closing, and schools in the district’s turnaround-focused “Innovation Zone.” District officials say the program represents a major shift in how teachers will teach and how students will learn.

On Tuesday, the Memphis board of education voted to approve a $5.5 million, three-year contract to purchase the devices. Each student and teacher in the participating schools will receive a device that they can take home.     

On Wednesday, board members got a preview of what the curriculum in those 16 schools will look like. Representatives of Pearson Publishing, which has a one-year contract with the district to provide curriculum and support, presented slides and answered questions about how the program will work in Memphis.

Cleon Franklin, the head of virtual education for Shelby County Schools, said that while people often focus on the devices in conversations about digital learning, the real change is in the curriculum and how students will be learning.

Unlike previous versions of digital textbooks or school-based curricula, the Pearson program means students will receive most of their English and math instruction from videos and guided questions on the digital tablet itself. Teachers shift from being the “sage on the stage,” solely responsible for explaining content laid out in a textbook, to facilitators of what Pearson described as a workshop model for learning.

larry singer from Pearson at Memphis board
Larry Singer from Pearson at Memphis board

Competitive Application

Thirty-nine schools applied for the program, which might eventually be used in classrooms around the city, said Franklin. Interested principals had to guarantee, among other things, that all staff were on board with the program and would participate in professional development. Schools pledged to be open to sporadic visits from the virtual education department, to host parent trainings, and to create common spaces where students can use devices.

Seven of the pilot schools are receiving students from schools that will be shuttered next year as part of an effort to consolidate resources and improve academics. During a series of heated meetings protesting the closings, superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said the blended learning pilot was an example of the district improving academic offerings for students affected by the closings.

Schools and teachers are touting their participation: An image of a laptop and announcement about the program is featured on the homepage of Lowrance Elementary School, one participating school. Karsaunder Carson, a teacher at Caldwell-Guthrie, another participating school, said, “We are excited about that.”

Shelby County’s Franklin said that the district intentionally chose a mix of schools that had “high capacity” to implement the program—their teachers are already using technology, for instance—and those that had less experience. Since the district eventually hopes to have blended learning in more of its schools, “we wanted to learn the tough lessons now,” he said.

Preparing for change

The program board members saw Wednesday includes lessons aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Schools will use the program mainly for math and English language arts, though readings include history and science features, Franklin said.

Shelby County board members examine devices at Tuesday meeting.
Shelby County board members examine devices at Tuesday meeting.


In a sample elementary school math lesson, students would watch a video laying out a problem involving students opening and shutting doors in a specific pattern. Students were asked what strategy they would use to determine how many doors were open before actually answering. Students had constant access to a glossary feature, but could also use non-digital tools like “counters” as part of their strategy. 

Lessons like that one might be done at home, with students then coming to school with questions about the content—an approach known as the “flipped classroom.”

At school, students might rotate between a computer station, a group-work station, and a teacher-led station.

The curriculum is differentiated: For instance, in a lesson on Huckleberry Finn, advanced readers might probe into symbolism on their devices while struggling readers focused on comprehension.

In upper grades, district officials said, students might move through courses at their own pace. In lower grades, students can choose between different lessons or readings focusing on the same skills.

All the while, teachers have access to students’ screens and information. Teachers can notice where each student is struggling, or even turn students’ devices off if they are off-track.

“It’s a new instructional model: Instead of the teacher in front and kids absorbing, the teacher manages a set of activities,” Singer said.

Franklin said that Shelby County Schools had examined a blended learning program in Huntsville, Ala., and had had concerns that, in some instances, when students got things wrong, the digital curriculum did not provide sufficient feedback for students to get the correct answer without the teacher being present.

He said the new program addresses that concern. Assessments are embedded throughout the program. But while teachers will have immediate access to how students did, students receive coaching from the program to help explain what they missed.

Pearson also helped design questions for the PARCC exam, which Tennessee students are likely to take in 2015-16. Singer said that means students using the blended learning program will be prepared for assessments they’ll face down the line. “People say that good test takers have an advantage. In Memphis, they won’t,” Singer said.

Potential issues

Franklin said that the devices, and Pearson’s virtual learning program, were unanimously selected by a working group of teachers and principals.

In the Wednesday meeting with Pearson, board members Chris Caldwell and Kevin Woods asked what issues might come up as the program is implemented.

Singer said the district should be prepared to address schools struggling with technological issues; for teachers who are less-than-enthused about the new program; and for parents who are uncertain about the new technology. “It’s a change management issue,” he said, pointing out that any new initiative is often met with resistance.

Franklin said that the district had already ensured pilot schools would have enough bandwidth. District officials said teachers would be taught by other teachers, so they could “speak the same language.”

As for theft and hacking issues that have plagued other one-to-one device programs, Franklin and Singer both downplayed concerns. “The devices have a market value of zero,” as they are only operable by students, Franklin told the board.

Still, Franklin said that the district had decided not to give students backpacks or carrying cases for the devices so they would not be easily identified as having devices.

Board members were enthusiastic, especially about the idea of students guiding each other through group work. Caldwell said that the initiative might preview a move away from textbooks for the district as a whole.

“With this, everyone’s a learner and everyone’s a teacher,” Caldwell said. “It’s an environment that trains you for jobs you’re doing.”

As for what makes a human, board chair Woods cracked a joke before saying that at least part of it is humor.

At least in this presentation, the devices cracked no jokes.

The following schools will pilot the blended learning program:  

Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary

Cherokee Elementary

Douglas K-8

Fairley Elementary

Ford Road Elementary

Hamilton Middle

Highland Oaks Middle

Levi Elementary

Lowrance K-8

Lucy Elementary

Maxine Smith STEAM Academy

Melrose High

Raineshaven Elementary

Riverview K-8

Riverwood Elementary

Sherwood Middle


Contact Jackie Zubrzycki at [email protected]

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a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.