How California Superintendents Can Bust Through Policies to Implement Blended Learning

By 09/19/2014

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Over the past several years, I have presented at several meetings of California’s Santa Clara County superintendents about blended learning and its potential to create schools that can personalize learning for each student to help each succeed.

During the question and answer period that followed each of my presentations, there was a recurring theme. Many of the superintendents were excited about the topic and the potential of blended learning, but then started expressing consternation about how they couldn’t implement blended learning because they had to deal with far more policy and regulatory restrictions than those with which California’s charter schools had to contend. The list of barriers would begin.

Also in the room, however, were a handful of superintendents who had helped their schools implement blended learning. Their districts were seeing some exciting results.

While frustration mounted among many of the superintendents at their inability to implement blended learning given California’s restrictive regulatory environment, frustration also mounted among those who had worked around those barriers—some were real barriers while others were perceived—and yet couldn’t get the air time to help their peers.

A few months later, we convened several of these superintendents from both sides to come to our California office in San Mateo and spend a full day working through the issues. In the morning, the superintendents together brainstormed all the barriers that they saw or had seen in front of them. In the afternoon, we talked through each barrier and asked folks around the room how they had solved it. For virtually every barrier one superintendent had identified, another in the room had solved it.

Our just released policy brief, “Knocking down barriers: How California superintendents are implementing blended learning,” which I coauthored with Anna Gu and Meg Evans, summarizes our findings of the barriers and workarounds that stemmed from that day.

One of the biggest findings confirms what Rick Hess of AEI has been writing for some time: enterprising education leaders can find workarounds for most barriers, real or perceived. Leaders don’t have to accept the status quo or the popular explanations—or myths—for why they can’t do something.

The superintendents we talked to identified many barriers in regulation around staffing—particularly given the opportunity to use blended learning to redesign teachers’ roles. But the superintendents came up with solutions to these barriers to overcome teacher-credentialing limitations at the elementary and secondary levels, line-of-sight rules, class-size limits, and restrictive provisions in union contracts that specify the instructional and non-instructional time for each teacher in a given day.

There were also several barriers—and subsequent workarounds—identified around technology and infrastructure: grappling with a slow and unwieldy public contract code for technology and even furniture procurement; allowing for Bring Your Own Device programs given the state’s free public education clause; and struggling to provide sufficient technology access at school and home for all students if the district wanted to adopt digital materials. One barrier that superintendents worried about was how much freedom they had over adoption of digital instructional materials, which proved not to be a barrier any longer thanks to a policy change.

The University of California and California State University’s cumbersome approval process for online learning courses also proved to be a barrier that superintendents struggled to circumvent.

Finally, in the process of identifying so many workarounds to a variety of barriers, the superintendents also brainstormed several tips for their fellow superintendents, which we compiled into a bullet-point list.

My takeaway ultimately is that we need more practical guides like this with education leaders helping their fellow peers with their various solutions to the variety of problems and barriers they confront as they move toward blended learning. And policymakers could stand to read these briefs as well to simplify archaic, input-based regulations that don’t further educational outcomes for students given today’s world—but create a lot of headaches for the educators serving them.

-Michael Horn

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