31 de janeiro de 2012

When charter schools fail, what happens to the kids

By Sarah Butrymowicz
Terri Griffin made herself a promise when her youngest daughter was ready for kindergarten: the little girl would never set foot in an Akron public school. Griffin, an Akron jewelry store clerk who is a graduate of the Ohio city’s school system, had sent eight children — two of her own and six others she raised as her own — to traditional public schools.
She felt they were pushed through to a diploma and didn’t learn enough. Teachers were eager to recommend special education, but Griffin couldn’t get them to provide other basic extra help.  Two years ago when her youngest daughter was entering kindergarten, she sought out a charter school, Lighthouse Academy, and hoped for a better outcome.

Griffin didn’t know about the Lighthouse Academy’s low test scores or that it had been identified as being in an academic emergency by the state on and off since opening in 2000. Instead, when she visited the West Akron school, Griffin saw caring teachers working with small classes in a school that was well established in the community. She hasn’t once regretted her decision.
Now, under Ohio’s charter school closure law, considered the toughest in the nation, Lighthouse Academy is slated to be closed at the end of the year. The 2006 law mandates that any charter school that has received the state’s Academic Emergency rating or been placed on academic watch for two out of three years will be shut down. (The ratings are based on state test scores.)
Most of Lighthouse’s 66 students will be thrust back into the same public schools their parents tried to flee. Nearby public schools only perform slightly better than Lighthouse on standardized tests, and some do just as poorly.
The closure is another blow for the children of this fading industrial city, where a third of all children live in poverty and about a quarter of high schoolers fail to graduate. It’s a scenario becoming familiar to thousands of families in the nation’s poorest neighborhoods as more and more districts start cracking down on low-performing charter schools, which get public funds but operate without the usual bureaucratic constraints.
The dismantling of so many charters has some experts worrying that when students are forced to leave educational environments where they have friends and feel comfortable, the disruption is destabilizing and upsetting to some of the system’s most vulnerable populations. Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, believes closure should be a last resort, after giving schools support and experimenting with solutions. Otherwise, well-meaning educational programs could wind up hurting the very kids they are trying to help.   “Letting alone or closing are not the only two options,” Slavin said. Closing “is very damaging to kids.”
Nonetheless, the crack down on ineffective charter schools has the backing of charter supporters as well as critics.  In an effort to save the charter movement, which has come under increasing scrutiny, advocates have asked for more accountability, supporting forced closures of low-performing schools. Florida has already adopted a law similar to Ohio’s. During the current legislative session, charter advocates in Missouri are pushing a bill that would require charter schools to set up specific benchmarks, giving sponsors an easy way to hold schools accountable. The California Charter Schools Association has said it will start urging school boards not to allow faltering schools to stay open.
Bill Sims, president of the Ohio Alliance of Public Charter Schools, says he regularly gets calls from his counterparts in other states asking for more information on Ohio’s law so they can use it as a model for their own legislation.
“The good news is Ohio doesn’t keep underperforming schools open. The bad news is it hit Lighthouse,” said Marianne Cooper, director of the Richland Academy of the Arts, the non-profit community arts center in Mansfield, Ohio that sponsors Lighthouse. The organization has closed the four other charters it operated, but saw potential in Lighthouse because of some of the very same things that attracted and have impressed Griffin.

“I love the way the classes are structured,” Griffin said, of her now-second-grader’s experience. “The teachers that she has had take those children in as their own.”
The personal attention has not translated into convincing data, however. Lighthouse has struggled on state tests since it opened, falling well below state and district averages. Over the past six years, an average of only 31 percent of its students annually reached proficiency across all grades and subjects. In some cases, only one student per class passed the exam.
Last year, every student demonstrated at least one year’s worth of growth, according to state standardized tests, although many remained below grade level in their performance.
Using this as a key argument, Principal Fannie Brown plans to appeal the closure decision. However, the Ohio Department of Education said the decision to close would not be overturned.
“While the school made some academic gains in the last report card period, it was simply not enough to surmount the consequences of the closure law,” said Ohio Education Department spokesman Patrick Gallaway.
If Lighthouse closes, as expected, it could represent the beginning of a major change in the way charter schools operate. Nationally, charter schools with low scores are only slightly more likely to close than traditional schools with low scores, according to a recent study by the Fordham Institute that examined charters in 10 different states. New data released by the Center for Education Reformindicates that 15 percent of charter schools have been shut down over the course of the charter movement, which began two decades ago.  But fewer than 200 of the 6,700 charters that have opened since 1992 were closed down for academic reasons; the majority were shuttered due to financial or mismanagement problems.
Jeanne Allen, president of the center, a pro-charter group, says that administrative problems indicate that a school isn’t working long before test scores come out; the center’s data, she says, show that failing schools do get shut down even without the new regulations. “The vast majority succeed [and] stay open,” she said. “Those that don’t are closed within a few short years before they can ever have any negative impact on students.”
Many others within the charter movement, though, are not so convinced that closures are always so timely.
In California, for instance, the charter school association is poised to start holding charters to task with or without a new law, and is urging school boards not to allow faltering schools to stay open. Doing so might encourage more school boards to take the politically unpopular step of closing down schools, the group says. Myrna Castrejón, a senior vice president of the California Charter Schools Association, said her group couldn’t keep making the case for charter schools if it was seen as soft on failing charters.
More than almost any other state, Ohio shows that change is possible. The state originally took the “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach, encouraging rapid expansion of charter schools with minimal oversight. Ohio educators expected that parents would stay away from bad charters, which would then be forced to close down, said Todd Ziebarth, vice president for state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Instead, the state became something of a national embarrassment in the charter movement, with headlines about gross mismanagement and financial scandals. When the automatic closure law was written in 2006, more than half of Ohio’s charter schools were rated a D or F under the state grading system.
The new regulation is a big step forward, but it hasn’t fixed everything. Only 17 charters have been shut down in the past five years as a result of the new law, in part because of a loophole that allows high schools with “dropout prevention programs” to stay open regardless of performance. And more charters have opened to replace those that have been shut down.
Ziebarth thinks closing schools like Lighthouse should be an easy decision. If a school fails to live up to expectations in five years, it should be shut down, he said: “What we can’t do is perpetuate mediocrity and failure.”
Nonetheless, Lighthouse Principal Fannie Brown and her faculty members think they should have more time to improve before putting their kids through the disruption of being sent back to regular public schools, some of which might be worse or only slightly better than Lighthouse. They admit that the school has had a rocky history but say they’ve completely replaced the staff in an ongoing effort to improve. “I only wish that Dr. Brown had taken this school on two or three years ago,” Cooper said.
For now, it’s business as usual for Lighthouse students. On a cold November afternoon, first- and second-graders practiced how to take out books and put them back with the spine facing the right way in the school’s brand new library, then danced to a YouTube video of “Five Little Reindeer Jumping in the Snow.”
But the adults in the building can’t escape the sadness of impending closure.
Over microwaved frozen pizza and reheated leftovers in the staff lounge, teachers say they’re just trying to get through the school year before thinking about looking for other jobs. They worry about what will happen to their children next year in “bigger, rougher” public schools. “The best schools in Akron,’’ said teacher Jessica Satterlee, “are not where our kids live.”
Terri Griffin is still hoping that the closing can be averted, but if not, she’s sticking to her vow. If Lighthouse shuts down, her daughter still won’t be going to the Akron Public Schools. Instead, she will be in private school, which Griffin’s extended family will help pay for. “It’s hard to explain — as a mother who really, really has a passion for their child’s education — I felt so bad. I didn’t know what to do,” Griffin said. “This school is the only thing she knows.”
With additional reporting by Emily Alpert in California

Does President Obama Know What Race to the Top Is?


Dear Deborah,

I don't know about you, but I am growing convinced that President Barack Obama doesn't know what Race to the Top is. I don't think he really understands what his own administration is doing to education. In his State of the Union address last week, he said that he wanted teachers to "stop teaching to the test." He also said that teachers should teach with "creativity and passion." And he said that schools should reward the best teachers and replace those who weren't doing a good job. To "reward the best" and "fire the worst," states and districts are relying on test scores. The Race to the Top says they must.

Deconstruct this. Teachers would love to "stop teaching to the test," but Race to the Top makes test scores the measure of every teacher. If teachers take the President's advice (and they would love to!), their students might not get higher test scores every year, and teachers might be fired, and their schools might be closed.

Why does President Obama think that teachers can "stop teaching to the test" when their livelihood, their reputation, and the survival of their school depends on the outcome of those all-important standardized tests?

Funnily enough, President Obama said something similar last year during a town hall meeting. He said that his daughters, who attend the elite Sidwell Friends school, took a standardized test, and they didn't have any preparation for it. He said:

"Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn't a high-stakes test. It wasn't a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn't even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn't study for it, they just went ahead and took it. And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize.
"Too often, what we've been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we've said is let's find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let's apply it in a less pressure-packed atmosphere; let's figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let's make sure that that's not the only way we're judging whether a school is doing well."
Teachers must have been excited when they heard what the President said then because he showed that he really understood the dangers of high-stakes testing. He said:
"So what I want to do is—one thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you're not learning about the world; you're not learning about different cultures, you're not learning about science, you're not learning about math. All you're learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and the little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test. And that's not going to make education interesting to you. And young people do well in stuff that they're interested in. They're not going to do as well if it's boring."
Teachers must have been jumping for joy when they heard this, because they know that states and districts have been reducing the time available for the arts, history, civics, physical education, everything other than the tests of reading and mathematics. That excellent teacher-blogger Anthony Cody pointed out in his review of his speech that the President was "blasting his own education policies."
Do you think that President Obama just doesn't understand that Race to the Top has encouraged states to double down on high-stakes testing? Maybe he doesn't realize that the strategies of his administration rely totally on test scores. Do you think no one from the U.S. Department of Education has explained that merit pay has been tried again and again and has never succeeded? Did anyone tell him about the Vanderbilt study of 2010, in which Nashville teachers were offered bonuses of $15,000? Did anyone tell him that those big bonuses didn't lead to higher test scores? Did anyone tell him about the New York City plan for school-wide bonuses, which cost the city $56 million, and produced no difference in test scores? Has anyone told him or First Lady Michelle Obama about the districts and states (like Florida) that may eliminate (or have eliminated) their requirement for physical education because more time is needed for test prep?
Do you think he understands that his Race to the Top program is demoralizing teachers across the nation? Does he know that teachers are not allowed to teach with creativity and passion because they might be fired for not following their district-mandated script?

He's a smart man. I can't believe that he really doesn't know that Race to the Top is no better, and in some ways is even worse, than No Child Left Behind. NCLB holds schools accountable; Race to the Top holds individual teachers accountable. Does he know that almost one of every three principals in the state of New York has signed a letter of protest against the test-based evaluations that Race to the Top imposes?
He wants the teacher-bashing to end, but I wonder if he knows that the worst teacher-bashing started because of his and Arne Duncan's rhetoric about firing teachers if their students got low test scores?
When I saw Linda Darling-Hammond last week in California, she gave me charts from the U.S. Department of Education's Schools and Staffing Survey which show that the modal years of teaching experience in 1987-88 was 15 (meaning that there were more teachers with 15 years of experience than any other group); in the latest published survey, 2007-08, the modal years of experience was one. That means that in 2008 there were more teachers in their first year of teaching than any other group. This is frightening. What sane nation would want to lose its experienced teachers and rely increasingly on newcomers?
Of course, teachers should be evaluated, but they should be evaluated by knowledgeable professionals—their supervisors and peers. Of course, incompetent teachers should be fired, but first they should have a chance to improve. If they can't improve, they don't belong in the classroom.
The irony of all this is that President Obama opposes high-stakes testing. He has now said so twice. Why does he endorse policies that require what he personally opposes?
The President also said that states could reduce the dropout rate by requiring students to stay in school until they are 18. Do you think students drop out because they aren't required by law to stay in school? I think the President should learn more about the reasons students leave before he proposes a law to force them to stay against their will. If he did, he might have better suggestions for lowering the dropout rate.
And one other thing. President Obama referred approvingly to the Chetty-Friedman-Rockoff study of value-added assessment and said that "good teachers" would produce lifetime gains of $250,000 per classroom. Did anyone tell him that if there are 25 students in a class and each of them works for 40 years, then each one will gain $250 a year? Now, I'm not putting down a gain of $250 a year (that's four or five times to fill your gas tank), and I certainly believe in the importance of good teachers. I don't think that doubling down even more on standardized tests in reading and math is the right way to identify good or great teachers. If we push more on that line of thinking, teaching to the test is a necessity, not a choice.
I just wish that the president would change course on Race to the Top. It's even more demoralizing for teachers and principals than NCLB. It emphasizes testing at every turn, and it will not allow anyone to "stop teaching to the test."
- Diane Ravitch

The Internet of things

JANUARY 31, 2012

We need to talk
Today’s post is written by Rudolf Van der Berg of the OECD’s Science, Technology and Industry Directorate
Look around you for a second and count the number of electronic devices, machines and gadgets. All of them – light bulbs, cars, TVs, digital cameras, refrigerators, stereos, cranes, beds – will be connected to the Internet over the next 15 years, if they aren’t already.
This is the potential of the “Internet of Things”: billions and billions of devices and their components connected to one another via the Internet. 50 billion devices by 2020, according to companies like Ericsson. The Internet of Things will radically alter our world through “smart” connectivity, save time and resources, and provide opportunities for innovation and economic growth.
The trends are already visible: Internet-connected TVs are now widespread; eBook readers must have a Wi-Fi or 3G connection; smart electricity meters have already become standard in many countries.
The Internet of Things is the subject of a new OECD report, Machine-to-Machine Communication: Connecting Billions of Devices that examines new technology (the drivers behind connecting devices to the Internet); new markets (user and business demands); new policies (what governments can do  to promote this new source of growth).
The basic building block of the Internet of Things is machine-to-machine communication (M2M), devices equipped to communicate without the intervention of humans. Different networking technologies can be used to connect M2M devices, depending on the amount of mobility needed and dispersion over an area. Mobile wireless is often an ideal technology for most applications. However, countries may run out of phone numbers in their current numbering plans as a result of M2M, because 2G and 3G equipped M2M devices require a telephone number to work, unlike 4G where M2M can work with just an IP-address.
M2M creates a new player in the mobile market: the “million device” user. These new large scale M2M users will potentially manage hundreds of thousands of smart meters, cars, and consumer electronics, possibly in higher numbers than some countries have citizens.
Large scale M2M users may offer their services dozens of countries, selling the same devices globally. Their customers may buy the devices abroad and travel with them. The telecommunication industry, however, is still largely organised and regulated on a per country basis. Large M2M users will thus place new demands on telecom companies, and regulation and business models will have to adapt.
Companies creating innovative M2M-based services are currently locked into 10-30 year mobile data contracts and high roaming fees; this dependency hinders the roll-out of new services and innovation.
Governments can set large-scale M2M users free by giving them access to wholesale markets. by changing the rules so that large M2M users can have access to numbers and SIM-cards, just like telecom companies. This will open up the market, break lock-ins, make large M2M users responsible for their own innovation and create a competitive market for roaming for M2M services.
Liberalisation will be a major paradigm shift, and might lead to billions in savings and new services.
Privacy and security need to be designed into products from the start. M2M could allow a detailed view of people’s lives, and parliaments have already curbed or changed some projects as a consequence. For example, cars are increasingly using onboard M2M services and the European Union is now mandating their own service (eCall) to be built into every car from 2014. Since EU legislation requires telephone companies to record a person’s location at the start of each mobile communication, and since turning a M2M car on will itself start a communication, these companies will be inadvertently tracking the start and end of any trip, so even if the automobile company does not register the location, the telecommunication company has to by law.
Governments have tried to make spectrum policy more flexible in recent years, allowing companies to change networking technologies when new technology becomes available. M2M may rigidify spectrum policy, however, because anytime M2M uses a particular networking technology, it expects the spectrum to be there for the lifetime of the device, which is 10 to 30 years. Consumer-oriented wireless technology works on a timescale of a maximum 10 years.
Combining data generated by M2M devices may offer insights to improve society. Cars could notify local governments of icy roads or bottlenecks in infrastructures. This may not always be seen as positive, however, as shown by a case in The Netherlands where anonymous and aggregated data from GPS-systems was used by the police to identify prime locations for speed cameras, which led to a public outcry.
What is certain from the report is that governments will have to change regulations in the telecommunications market, will have to be vigilant to apply privacy and security regulation and stay innovative to make use of the many possibilities it offers. Doing so promises to transform the economy, promote growth in the telecommunications sector, and produce growth and efficiency savings in government and society.

Novidade na escola : uso de tablets em sala de aula


Can Salman Khan Move the Bell Curve to the Right?

Math instruction goes viral

By June Kronholz
SPRING 2012 / VOL. 12, NO. 2

It was goal-setting day in Rich Julian’s 5th-grade class at Covington Elementary School in Los Altos, California, when I visited last fall, and Julian was asking each of his 29 students to list three math goals for the week.

To become proficient at dividing a one-place number into a three-place number, a girl with blue-painted fingernails wrote in her math journal.

To become proficient in multiplying decimals, wrote a dark-haired boy. To become proficient at subtracting one four-place number from another. To become proficient in arithmetic word problems. To complete an exercise in the properties of numbers, like (4 + 9) + 5 = ? + (9 + 5).

No two youngsters seemed to have quite the same math goals because, of course, no two youngsters are quite alike when it comes to learning. That’s why Los Altos is betting the future on an online math program from Khan Academy, and why scores of other schools and districts are clamoring to include Khan Academy in their math curriculum.

For the next 45 minutes, Julian met individually with his 5th graders to refine their goals. (In November, Julian left Los Altos to become assistant principal in the Milpitas Unified School District.) Everyone else logged onto the free Khan Academy web site and called up the “module,” or math concept, that fit their goals. Some watched short video lectures embedded in the module; others worked their way through sets of practice problems. I noticed that one youngster had completed 23 modules five weeks into the school year, one had finished 30, and another was working on his 45th.

As youngsters completed one lesson, an online “knowledge map” helped them plot their next step: finish the module on adding decimals, for example, and the map suggests moving next to place values, or to rounding whole numbers, or to any of four other options.

Julian, meanwhile, tracked everyone’s progress on a computer dashboard that offers him mounds of data and alerts him when someone needs his attention. He showed me, for example, the data for a child who had been working that day on multiplying decimals. The child had watched the Khan video before answering the 1st practice problem correctly, needed a “hint” from the program on the 3rd question, got the 7th wrong after struggling with it for 350 seconds—the problem was 69.0 x 0.524—and got the 18th correct in under a minute.

But just as powerful are the data kids have on themselves. The Covington youngsters regularly pulled up an array of charts that showed them which math concepts they had mastered and which they were working on, needed to review, or were stumbling over.

The classroom buzzed with activity, and amazingly, all the buzz was about math.

Salman Khan (on left) and the team at the Khan Academy.

Khan’s Rise

By now, more than 1 million people have watched the online video in which Salman Khan—a charming MIT math whiz, Harvard Business School graduate, and former Boston hedge-fund analyst—explains how he began tutoring his New Orleans cousins in math by posting short lessons for them on YouTube. Other people began watching the lessons and sending Khan adulatory notes (“First time I smiled doing a derivative,” wrote one) or thanking him for explaining fractions to an autistic son.

Khan quit the hedge fund, moved to Silicon Valley, and in 2009, with funding from a constellation of technology stars (Bill Gates’s children were using the videos), launched the nonprofit Khan Academy. A year later, Mark Goines, a member of the Los Altos school board and a legendary Silicon Valley investor, introduced Khan to the district’s new superintendent. Los Altos already ranked among the best-performing districts in the state, but it had set itself a goal of improving individual achievement, and “capturing data at a granular level” on each student was proving difficult, Goines told me.

A few weeks later, in November 2010, Los Altos agreed to pilot Khan Academy with two classes of 5th graders and two classes of 7th graders and provide Khan with feedback to refine the web site and tools. By summer 2011, some 250 school districts, charter schools, and independent schools were asking to be part of the pilot—Khan chose only a dozen—and have Khan staff work with them to integrate the videos, data dashboard, and other tools into their curriculum.

Salman Khan’s short videos remain the centerpiece of Khan Academy (there already are 2,576 of them and counting). In each one, Khan’s voice describes a discrete math concept, such as solving a quadratic by factoring or interpreting inequalities, while only his hand-scribbled formulas appear on-screen. Khan’s idea was that youngsters would watch the videos at home and work on problems in class, essentially “flipping” the classroom (see “The Flipped Classroom,” What Next, Winter 2012). But teachers told me that youngsters also are using the videos as a just-in-time solution when they’re stumped on a problem in class, or to move ahead when they feel ready.

The data that the web site churns out and the site’s gaming features seem to be the real learning motivators. Youngsters become “proficient” in a concept by answering a “streak” of 10 consecutive computer-generated questions: miss one and the computer sends you back to the start. Youngsters earn “energy points” for correct answers, and badges for accomplishments as diverse as working speedily (that’s a meteorite badge) or becoming proficient in the Pythagorean theorem (that’s a moon badge).

Ted Mitchell, president of the NewSchools Venture Fund and a Khan Academy board member, told me that Khan developers “were blown away by how important” the games and badges seem to be in giving kids a sense of accomplishment and progress. Even older kids, for whom badges are ho-hum, “are instantly motivated” when they complete a streak, and the program acknowledges their accomplishment, says Brian Greenberg, who until recently was chief academic officer of Envision Schools. “What’s brilliant about Khan Academy is the instant feedback,” Greenberg told me.

Envision runs four charters in Northern California, including one that piloted Khan Academy with a small program for remedial-algebra students last summer.

Los Altos has extended the Khan Academy program to all of its 5th and 6th grade classes, and to its 7th graders who were achieving at grade level and below.

The Teaching Curve

From Covington Elementary, I dropped in on Courtney Cadwell’s 7th-grade pre-algebra class at Egan Junior High. She, like Julian, piloted Khan Academy last year. Based on that first-year success, Los Altos extended the program to all of its 5th- and 6th-grade classes, and to its 7th graders who were achieving at grade level and below.

Cadwell, a 17-year teacher who was wearing University of Texas orange for her alma mater, calls Khan just “one resource we use.” The previous night, she had assigned worksheet homework; she began the class with a textbook lesson. Math projects ringed the classroom, a reminder that Khan Academy doesn’t include project-based lessons. That night’s homework included a reading on the origin of zero: Cadwell, among others I spoke with, said Khan’s weakness is that it “is not great at helping kids conceptualize math.”

Khan’s strength became clear a few minutes later when the students opened their laptops. Cadwell strolled the room with an iPad in hand, tracking the youngsters as they moved through problems and modules, and intervening with a quick one-on-one when the data identified a student who was stumped. “I’m getting data in real time about each student instead of assuming the entire class needs intervention,” she explained afterward. Khan “lets me use my class time more wisely.”

It also means that teachers have to figure out new ways to work. “Teachers have to be willing to escape from the role of standing in front of the class” and flexible enough to group kids based on need, said Julian, who was a math coach in New York for 20 years and retains his big-city bustle.

As I watched Julian, Cadwell, and later Ruth Negash at Oakland’s Envision Academy of Arts and Technology, they seemed to be always on the move—meeting individually with children, tutoring small groups, and occasionally addressing the whole class. “I actually work harder” with Khan Academy, Julian said. “I’m up and around more, meeting with kids more.” That gives time back to students and, as Cadwell said, makes them “take ownership of their learning” by setting their own goals.

It also means a new level of classroom collaboration: youngsters can look at each other’s data and identify “coaches” among their classmates. Julian urged his 5th graders to ask the Khan program for a hint, watch a video, or ask a coach for help before coming to him. “Show him how to do it, don’t walk around the class giving answers,” he admonished would-be coaches. Pretty soon, a girl in a pink T-shirt turned to a girl in purple for coaching, and the two worked meticulously at solving 1.94 x 5.52.

Los Altos is an affluent, tech-savvy community; I next wanted to see how Khan Academy could work in an inner-city classroom. So two days later, I visited Envision Academy, a downtown Oakland charter school, and Ruth Negash, an intense 4th-year teacher with wild, curly hair and two education degrees from San Francisco State University.

In 2011, Negash taught two summer-school classes of 9th, 10th, and 11th graders who had failed Algebra I. One randomly assigned class used Khan Academy; the other was a traditional math class. The results were promising enough that Negash now is using Khan in all of her 9th-grade algebra classes.

On the day I visited, Negash started both of her classes with a minilecture on linear equations, and then had her students solve for x in 7x + 4 = 18. The classes quickly became fidgety, first as Negash explained the problem, and then as youngsters finished at different speeds. Negash had to urge them to “respect the community of learning.”

But that changed a few minutes later when the youngsters opened their computers—I had noticed the same change in Cadwell’s class—and worked on Khan Academy for the next 75 minutes. I heard an occasional groan of exasperation. “They threw a trick question at me and sent me back to the beginning,” one boy moaned when his streak was broken. But the energy now was directed toward everyone’s screen.

Although everyone in Negash’s classes had taken, and presumably passed, algebra in 8th grade, their math competence ranged from marginal to impressive. In both periods, three or four youngsters claimed a table in the hallway, where they worked silently at lessons on quadrilaterals and complementary and supplementary angles, typical geometry exercises. But other students struggled with addition and subtraction, and one quarter don’t know their multiplication tables, Negash told me. (To keep those youngsters from falling even further behind, she gives them a reference sheet with the multiplication tables on it.) Negash told both classes to work on the Khan module on solving for a variable—a continuation of her minilecture—but Khan’s online prompts were urging most youngsters to first review lessons on lower-level skills.

Some of these youngsters simply “feel safer” doing arithmetic and will move on when they’ve experienced some math “success,” Negash predicted. Other educators had similar takes: Khan “takes away a lot of the fear about math” by letting kids backfill their gaps and then move ahead at their own pace, said Sandra McGonagle, the principal of Santa Rita Elementary in Los Altos, which also is using Khan Academy in its 5th and 6th grades.

“You don’t have to worry about getting something wrong in front of the whole class,” one of Julian’s 5th graders, the girl with blue nail polish, told me.

But in Negash’s classes, the wide range of math abilities is clearly a challenge. Negash sat with one low-performing student for much of the first-period class and with three others in the second period, hoping to encourage some of that “success.” Meanwhile, other students were calling for her help. Two boys were stumped by “adjacent” in a word problem; language issues crop up “every day,” Negash said.

When Negash finally had a moment to consult her Khan dashboard at the end of second-period class, she saw that one youngster had spent 62 minutes solidly working on math, but another had spent only 14 minutes. “It’s hard to figure out a different plan for 25 kids every day,” she sighed.

Gia Truong, superintendent of Envision Schools, said Khan Academy developers had urged her to let Negash’s students “start where they were” in math and move forward. But that’s creating a conflict when some kids are so far behind, she told me: “If you do that, you might never get to the algebra standards” that California students must pass in order to graduate.

“You’re in the new paradigm, but the grading standards are in the old paradigm,” she added.

Getting to Results

Test results at both Los Altos and Envision—the only two pilots to have any results so far—suggest that Khan Academy is working. Los Altos says that among the 7th graders who used the program in 2010–11—all remedial students—41 percent scored “proficient” or “advanced” on the California Standards Test compared to 23 percent the year before. Among 5th graders, 96 percent using Khan were proficient or advanced compared to 91 percent in the rest of the district.

At Envision’s summer-school program, the youngsters in the Khan Academy class spent only half their time on algebra—the rest of their time was on lower-level math skills—and yet still slightly outscored the traditional class, which spent all of its time on algebra.

Both districts are quick to say that it’s far too early to claim success: there were only 115 youngsters in the Los Altos pilot and just 20 at Envision. “It’s enough to say this is promising; it’s not enough to say this is the future,” former Envision Schools officer Brian Greenberg said.

Most observers of the Khan experiment agree that the measure of success must be student achievement. Otherwise, “I’m not very sympathetic,” said Michael Horn of Innosight Institute. As teaching is increasingly differentiated, however, schools may need a different kind of assessment. California’s year-end test can tell which 5th graders meet the state’s math standards; it can’t tell if some of those 5th graders have progressed to trigonometry or pre-calculus, as two Los Altos kids did last year.

But several experts also suggested measuring Khan’s impact by also looking at changes in the distribution of test scores. Khan Academy isn’t likely to close the learning gap because some kids, freed from the teach-to-the-middle plod of the usual classroom, gallop ahead. But Khan would be a success if low-performing kids move ahead too and “shift the bell curve to the right,” said the NewSchool Venture Fund’s Ted Mitchell.

Some other Khan watchers gave a surprisingly strong endorsement to such measures as student engagement and self-confidence, and to soft skills like goal setting and teamwork. “I don’t look at it as just based on the data,” said Mark Goines, the Los Altos school board member whose high-tech background (he helped develop and run TurboTax for Intuit, Inc.) suggests a fine reading of the data. “The kids seem to be happy about learning. That makes me excited,” he said.

What about increasing class size, I asked: Should Khan’s success be measured in part on its ability to increase teacher productivity? In elementary schools, where students generally spend the day with one teacher, increasing class size because of Khan would mean bigger classes in every other subject, too. And Goines, who said he has viewed “hundreds” of online programs, cautioned that there aren’t any comparable products in other subjects, especially in writing.

A fear among advocates of online learning is that slow learners will be abandoned in front of a computer, and a large classroom increases those chances. “It would then become a babysitting tool,” said McGonagle, Santa Rita’s principal.

Blending Khan

Finally, I asked for “takeaways” from the Khan Academy experience. Greenberg told me that it’s more important that teachers be “nimble” and “entrepreneurial” than that they be tech wizards. All three teachers said they felt comfortable with technology, but that, more importantly, they were risk-takers. Even before she began piloting Khan Academy, Cadwell asked her PTA to buy classroom laptops for the youngsters in her remedial math class. “I figured if I could get them onto some practice sites, I’d figure things out from there,” she said.

Santa Rita’s McGonagle said it was “crucial” to have pilot teachers like Cadwell who can act as avatars for the rest of the district as it expands its blended learning. Cadwell is mentoring other Los Altos teachers this year. They “don’t need training as much as they need time” with the program, she told me (the data are fairly easy to use, but she and Julian asked Khan’s engineers for so much of it that both say they don’t always use it all).

The schools, meanwhile, are holding rollout meetings for parents and are urging parents to join the web site, where they can see the same data as the teachers, including whether little Bobby is really working on math up in his bedroom as he says he is. “It’s not just training the teachers; it’s training the community,” Goines said.

That training shouldn’t end with just learning to manipulate the data, though. It also means learning how teachers can use their time differently, how to work with youngsters who have different abilities, and how to blend Khan into the curriculum, not substitute for it, everyone told me. Cadwell and Negash said that they find gaps in the Khan curriculum, and that it isn’t completely aligned with either California or core-curriculum standards, although Khan is adding lessons to fill the holes.

“You can’t just put a kid down in front of a computer,” Goines said, although the kids I saw in Julian’s, Cadwell’s, and Negash’s classes sure seemed to enjoy it.

June Kronholz is an Education Next contributing editor.