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Aurora Institute

Boosting Access to the Benefits of Blended Learning

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Susan Patrick

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education

Organizations like iNACOL and the many partners we are honored to serve and support have long recognized the role of policy in either encouraging or blocking progress toward universal access to high-quality, personalized learning options. We spend a lot of time working as advocates for the creation of policies to enable education innovation or the removal of policies that stifle it.

One active example that has our attention, and deserves yours too, is playing out in Pennsylvania.

Policy Barrier in Pennsylvania

A vague Pennsylvania law is being interpreted to restrict blended learning for cyber schools. This is leaving cyber charter schools with little flexibility to create blended learning environments that combine the advantages of face-to-face instruction with the best of online learning.

Recently the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Pennsylvania’s Education Department is requiring cyber charter schools offering blended learning to significantly curtail their use of physical facilities for in-person instruction. What was not part of the story is how Pennsylvania’s charter school policies contribute significantly to this difficult situation.

Pennsylvania law essentially requires charter schools to choose between offering almost entirely face-to-face or entirely online instruction–cutting them off from the full potential of blended learning. Cyber charter schools do not have clear legislative authority to blend instructional approaches. This creates tensions and challenges for schools, teachers, parents, and students. Most importantly, this holds back educators from shifting to new models of learning backed by a growing body of evidence, such as the RAND report that found “students are making significantly greater gains in math and reading over the last two years than a virtual control group made up of similar students at comparable schools.”

Throughout Pennsylvania and nationwide, there are promising examples, both within school districts and charter schools, of blended learning that enhances and personalizes students’ learning experiences. In some schools, students rotate between individualized, collaborative, and direct instruction learning stations. Teachers personalize instruction and support learners who have much more control over their pacing with online curriculum.

Cyber charter schools can effectively use drop-in learning centers to support the online instruction of at-risk students. These learning centers provide engaging, hands-on learning opportunities to help students become independent, lifelong learners. These efforts are starting to show results across all grades and subjects, often with the highest gains going to at-risk and special education students.

Solutions exist to allow cyber charter schools operating blended programs to stay open and to use blended learning to meet students’ unique needs.

A Simple Solution. Pennsylvania’s Education Department is limiting the use of cyber charter schools’ physical facilities to only testing, tutoring, and special education services. School district-based charter schools do not face the same limitations. The Department can support blended learning in cyber charter schools simply by removing this unnecessary restriction. The policy fix really is this simple.

Pennsylvania’s charter school laws must be updated. It has been 13 years since the state’s cyber charter school law passed and many of today’s blended learning models did not exist at the time.

Pennsylvania lawmakers should think long and hard about how to best update the state’s laws to allow school districts, brick-and-mortar charter schools, and cyber charter schools, to use the best of blended learning to improve student success.

There are legitimate questions and concerns surrounding funding policies, quality assurance, and school districts’ local control. Nevertheless, lawmakers from other states—from across the political spectrum—have overcome similar obstacles to support blended, personalized learning in all schools. Pennsylvania state leaders should do the same.

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