Blended Learning Model Shows Promise, Nonprofit Says


In a bright, cheery classroom at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, a third-grade class is working on math. At a table near the windows, a teacher sits with a handful of girls explaining and correcting. The scene at a table in the center of the room is similar, but at that table the students are working at a different level. Along the side wall, headphone-wearing students are answering illustrated math questions on computers. The room has an intense, focused vibe. Then, a timer dings. The girls at the tables close their books, line up and take their places at the computers while the girls using the computers file over to the tables. In under a minute, everyone is back to work.

This is what a 2 Sigma classroom looks like, and Jeff Kiderman, executive director of the nonprofit Affordable Jewish Education Project (AJE), hopes to see many more classrooms look like this in the future.

HALB is one of three area schools piloting AJE’s 2 Sigma classroom model. While the other two — Westchester Torah Academy (WTA) in New Rochelle and Yeshivat He’Atid in Teaneck — are new schools founded on the model, HALB, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva founded 63 years ago, spent 60 of those years as a traditional elementary institution, with rows of children facing a teacher who lectured from the front of the room. But since the 1,700-student yeshiva switched from the old-school “frontal teaching” to new-school “blended learning” it has both increased the amount of one-on-one instruction and decreased the tuition the school’s annual budget.

Named for “The 2 Sigma Problem” — the title of a 1984 paper in which a University of Chicago professor, Benjamin Bloom, challenged his colleagues to find a method of group instruction that is as effective as one-on-one tutoring — AJE’s 2 Sigma blended-learning model replaces whole-group lessons with a mix of small-group and one-on-one teaching combined with computer-aided instruction.

While the teachers each work with five or six students divided into groups based on level, the other half of the class works with educational software that uses games and exercises to give the students practice and also identify each child’s individual areas of weakness. This latter point is key, because it allows 2 Sigma to provide teachers with daily reports that allow the teachers to work with students with a micro-focused precision on exactly what the student is having trouble with.

This continuing assessment is one of several fundaments of effective teaching incorporated into 2 Sigma’s model. The second is personalized instruction, an ability to teach each student at the level they’re at, rather than teaching to the middle of the class.

“The advantage of computer-assisted instruction is that the presentation of the material is at the level of the child,” said Principal Richard Altabe, head of the first-through-forth-grade school. “Most of these programs … allow you to move up or down levels. … You can really differentiate what the kids are doing in real time.”

That doesn’t mean computers will be replacing classroom teachers, he said.

“A computer alone can’t do the instruction — you need a teacher to help kids over the rough spots,” he said. “But imagine if the teacher had data about the level of the children they’re teaching that would allow them to differentiate to the level of the portion of the class they’re teaching?”

Imagine if you knew that Asher, Boaz and Caleb all had trouble with multiplying fractions and could group those three together at the next small group session.

According to a press release from AJE, the 2 Sigma model is showing results. In the 2015-16 school year, HALB’s elementary school students showed more progress in math than 99 percent of U.S. students and more progress in reading than 95 percent. HALB was also able save $450,000 in one year, representing more than 10 percent of its elementary school budget, the release said

That same year, WTA’s students made more progress in math than 98 percent of U.S. students and more progress in reading than 89 percent. WTA’s parents saved $9,500 per student in tuition, and the total annual savings hit $1 million, according to the AJE.

Rabbi Rami Strosberg, WTA’s head of school, explains that much of the savings comes from an increase in class size. While an average day school class might have two instructors and 18 or 20 kids, at WTA, classes are larger.

“We can take 25 kids [per class] and we’re still teaching in smaller groups than them … because if 12 are on laptops online, the remaining 12 are divided into two groups of six.”

And, he said, “When you leverage online tools, you can have first graders doing second- and third-grade math in the classroom every day. So you have enrichment and remediation in the same classroom.”

Reduction in the use of paper, workbooks and other classroom materials could also save money over time, said Rachel Mohl Abrahams, senior program officer at the Avi Chai Foundation, a major funder of blended learning initiatives at day schools, including those by AJE. The foundation began pioneering the concept when most day schools were opting to wait and see if it produced results. (Waiting was not really an option for Avi Chai, which is slated to spend the entirety of its assets on programs and close its doors in 2020.)

“We made a decision when we went into this field five or six years ago that we didn’t want to wait,” Abrahams said. The thinking was: “This seems intuitively like a good methodology, and we want Jewish day schools to be in the mix.”

And they are. Day schools are implementing blended and online learning at the same pace as public schools, and more quickly than non-Jewish private/independent schools, Abrahams said.

A 2014 Avi Chai survey of 334 day schools in the U.S. and Canada found that 79 percent have adopted some kind of online/blended learning. However, most (54.8 percent) use the technology as a supplement to traditional classroom instruction. Only 1 in 5 (18.6 percent) are using a rotational model like AJE’s 2 Sigma. Slightly more, 20.7 percent, are using the “flipped classroom” model, where students learn the material online at home, and get teacher help with practice problems in school. (The rest of the schools follow models in which some classes are taught by computer and some by live teachers.)

But with the impending loss of two major funding streams, Avi Chai and Hedge Fund Founder Mark “Meir” Nordlicht, who was arrested on fraud charges late last month, will AJE and its pilot schools survive? Kiderman wouldn’t say anything beyond asserting, via email, that “AJE and its partner schools are fully committed to continuing and expanding the critical work that we do to improve the quality and affordability of Jewish education.”

Rabbi Strosberg gave a more concrete answer.

“The goal was always for the Nordlichts to make the school sustainable on its own, and this year we already had other partnerships in the community and in the parent body allowing us to be on our own,” he said. “So, the deficit [caused by the below-market tuition] shrunk from about $600,000 to just over $300,000. As enrollment grows, the deficit shrinks, so by design they were making themselves irrelevant, and we had already this summer begun soliciting and creating partnerships to spread the roots of the organization farther. We were prepared and that [self-sufficiency] was the goal from the beginning.”

To be sure, blended learning has plenty of critics who say that the model relies too much on large class sizes (some models have classes as large as 100 students) and doesn’t provide enough supervision during computer instruction. The University of Colorado think tank National Education Policy Center released a report last April that found students at blended learning schools had lower on-time graduation rates and often performed worse than students at traditional schools on state tests.

But blended learning proponents call the report’s methodology “deeply flawed” because it, among other things, leaves out many high performing blended learning schools and doesn’t make distinctions between different types of blended learning programs. Asking the broad question of whether blended learning works, wrote Julia Freeland Fisher, director of education research at the pro-blended learning Clayton Christensen Institute, “is tantamount to asking: Do textbooks work? Do lectures work? … Of course these delivery methods … vary widely in their effectiveness depending on how they are implemented.”

Whether or not blended learning raises student performance levels is not the only reason many schools haven’t jumped on the blended learning bandwagon. There’s also inertia and start-up costs. No-frills laptops, such as Chromebooks, or tablets cost around $250 a piece, and the annual licensing fee for the software is about $100 per student, Abrahams said. Staff training and continuing support could, depending on the amount of foundation funding, add a hefty, but, proponents say, indispensible expense.

Gary Hartstein, director of the Jewish Education Project’s DigitalJLearning Network, who was visiting HALB the same day as The Jewish Week’s visit, said one of the strengths of AJE’s program is that it includes “ongoing and sustained professional development” as well as technical support and educational consulting services.

Another key element is its proprietary data-analytics tools. While most software offers student performance data, usually teachers have to seek it out. Through a combination of computer programming innovation and staff analysis, the 2 Sigma model provides a daily email for teachers that pinpoints exactly where students are having trouble and human-generated recommendations for the best way to address the issues.

Like many rotational blended learning programs, 2 Sigma incorporates a very specific classroom routine aimed at making the most of a day school’s most limited resource: time.

While secular schools spend around four-and-a-half hours a day just on reading, writing and math, the dual curriculum at day schools allows for just two-and-a-half hours a day for all secular studies, Kiderman said.

“Two-and-a-half hours a day is nothing, and so what we want to do is make sure we’re getting in as many minutes [of instruction] as possible and that those minutes are being used to their fullest potential,” he said. “We manage time like it’s gold.”

Which explains the front-and-center position of the timer in a 2 Sigma classroom.

“When you work in a rotational model and you have 20 to 30 minutes per group, you really have to have each lesson very carefully planned,” said Gail Rusgo, HALB’s general studies director. “You really have to know your students and take notes and keep very accurate records, so that each time you meet with the group, you know exactly where you left off and who needs what.”

So far, the rotational model is used only for English and math; during the rest of the day, the teachers go old school, allowing for a direct comparison, which, third-grade teacher Melissa Tudda said, is stark. “Social studies, science and current events time is whole group, and you can see those students that are bored,” she said. During English and math, she added, “I have more time to spend with students. I can give them individualized attention. They’re one of four or five students instead of 1 of 23.

“I had, one year, a group of 25 students,” she added. “How do you get to 25 students?”