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Aurora Institute

Teachers in Charge: USC Hybrid High’s Approach to Competency-Based Blended Learning

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Julia Freeland

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

Student at USC
From USC Hybrid High School web site

Originally posted June 3, 2014 at Christensen Institute.

Last week I had the privilege of visiting the USC Hybrid High School (HHS), a new charter school in Los Angeles and winner of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Next Generation Learning Challenges grant. HHS is pursuing a blended and competency-based model—that is, the school is leveraging technology to deliver some academic content online and building opportunities for students to advance upon mastery, rather than according to hours of instruction. HHS has seen numerous iterations over its past two years in existence (EdSurge’s Mary Jo Madda did a great write-up of these changes earlier this year).

For example, last year the school used Apex Learning almost exclusively to drive a flex blended-learning model (wherein online learning is the backbone, and teachers work with students one-on-one and in groups on projects and tutorials). Now, in its second year, the school has shifted away from a single-provider model to instead making teachers the primary designers of the blended-learning models in their individual classrooms by using a wider range of tools. The school is also putting its money where its mouth is in this design: each teacher receives a stipend to purchase his own software products according to his particular course(s) and tastes.

It’s difficult to summarize the school model I saw because HHS has so many different efforts afoot. In large part this is due to its overarching commitment to teacher autonomy: in this sense, each teacher is an architect of the school model. Each classroom (at least among the three I visited) represented a unique approach to teaching and learning—one English classroom looked like a Flex model, where some students were working alone and others had sorted themselves into small groups to move through online assignments, and still others were in small group instruction with the teacher. In another, a math classroom, students were working on worksheets with the option to watch math video tutorials online if they got stuck.

Teacher autonomy versus whole-school, top-down design is not a new dichotomy in education. But blended learning, competency-based education, and personalized learning tend to catalyze schools to reconsider the role of the teacher and to often wrestle with top-down versus bottom-up approaches. HHS’s current model highlights some of the key questions about how to simultaneously emphasize teacher autonomy while building next-gen learning systems.

Sharing best practices and tools?
Exclusively focusing on teacher autonomy could risk creating silos in classrooms, and, in turn, risk missing out on economies of scale—both in terms of practice and products. As my colleague Heather Staker has pointed out, focusing on teacher agency alone could also limit innovation to the four walls of the classroom, rather than innovation of whole school design, because teachers may still lack the budget and authority to redesign learning full stop. So far, the team at HHS appears small and collaborative enough to bridge some of these gaps. For example, the school’s current learning management system (LMS), Canvas by Instructure, bubbled up from one lead teacher’s successful pilot of the product last fall. In other words, successful products or practices may organically spread school-wide. Still, the school is likely wrestling with the question of whether dividing up the technology budget among discrete teachers will lead to the best purchasing decisions and designs or whether pooling demand across classrooms may eventually benefit children and teachers alike.

Building interdisciplinary projects and multiple learning pathways?
As I discussed in a recent paper, it may be more difficult to run a single, competency-based classroom than a competency-based school. Competency-based education is about more than just flexible pacing within a course; it’s also about ensuring that students have multiple pathways to demonstrate mastery and creating opportunities for children to show what they know across various disciplines. Although HHS’s teachers were doing a great job thinking through pace—students were working through different lessons and projects based on their strengths and needs and teachers appeared to be monitoring each student’s progress along the way—the school’s current focus on teacher autonomy in turn means a focus on courses. Course-focused efforts stand to limit opportunities for students to demonstrate competencies across disciplines, through projects that combine various competencies. According to its strategic plan, the school is hoping to build more dynamic learning opportunities in the coming years. How can a school effectively preserve teacher autonomy, however, while still making interdisciplinary work an option? I’m curious to watch as this piece develops.

Dividing and conquering?
A model that doubles down on teacher autonomy may perpetuate the jack-of-all-trades paradigm that makes teaching incredibly difficult. One of the potential benefits of blended learning is that by moving some academic content online, teachers may be able to specialize in various areas where they excel—such as mentoring, tutoring, or curricular design. HHS teachers are still wearing all of the hats that a traditional teacher must wear, in addition to taking on huge responsibilities in curricular and instructional design, procurement decisions, and competency-based pacing. Again, as the school and network scales, I’ll be curious to see whether blended learning facilitates some of this role differentiation or if HHS sticks with a model that keeps each teacher in charge of every element of each course.

For those interested in new roles for teachers in blended and competency-based environments, keep an eye on this one.

Julia researches innovative policies and practices in K-12 education, with a focus on competency based education policies, blended learning models, and initiatives to increase students’ social capital.