Special Report
Executive Skills & Strategy

Variety of Models Fuels Hybrid Charter Growth

By Ian Quillen — March 05, 2012 8 min read
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In innovation-friendly pockets across the country, the number of hybrid charter schools—those that blend online and face-to-face instruction—has been growing over the past five years.

But now, the educational model seems to have shifted into overdrive.

Major philanthropies—most notably, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—have launched funding initiatives directed specifically at hybrid school models, which because of their unorthodox ways of allocating resources often are able to operate best as charter schools. (The Gates Foundation also provides grant support for Education Week‘s coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation.)

Some observers of the field believe financial stresses have not only caused more charter school founders to embrace a hybrid model in hopes of saving money on teachers, facilities, and content, but have also led some already-existing charters to attempt the transformation from brick-and-mortar to hybrid schools.

And while full-time virtual learning has drawn increased scrutiny from the news media, policymakers, and the general public, hybrid models may be fairly insulated from such negative sentiment.

“My feeling is that full-time virtual schooling is taking far more heat than the blended [model] is,” said Michael Horn, the co-founder and executive director of the Mountain View, Calif.-based Innosight Institute’s education practice and the co-author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, perhaps the most influential work among K-12 online and blended-learning advocates.

Mr. Horn added that charter operators may be the most equipped to handle the pressure of being under the microscope.

“They’re sort of used to taking heat,” he said. “I don’t think that pressure is going to make them care too much if results really do follow.”

‘Hybrid’ Research Needed

While there is growing research to suggest that, in general, a blended educational approach can be at least as effective for some students as a traditional face-to-face strategy, very little of it specifically targets the effectiveness of hybrid charter schools. Often, these schools are lumped in with brick-and-mortar charter schools, as they were in a recent study by the National Education Policy Center, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, that finds lagging achievement in privately run, fully online charter schools.

Perhaps for that reason, much of the private investment in hybrid charters appears to be geared toward understanding more about the burgeoning field.

With a portion of the third wave of its Next Generation Learning Challenges, competitively awarded grants, the Gates Foundation is aiming to fund models that successfully combine aspects of brick-and-mortar and online instruction to help students in grades 6-12 move toward college readiness.

All winners must demonstrate to the foundation’s satisfaction “that their instructional models incorporate technology to personalize students’ learning experiences, and their business models can support sustainable expansion or adoption plans,” according to a Gates Foundation press release.

In February, the foundation awarded five $150,000 grants—each carrying the possibility of up to $300,000 more in additional matching funding—to hybrid charter school projects in East San Jose, Oakland, and Los Angeles, Calif.; Chicago; and Newark, N.J. The foundation expects to award additional grants to projects both at the secondary and postsecondary levels in May and September.

Other philanthropies are joining the hybrid charter cause, such as the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation of Austin, Texas, which has awarded hybrid charter schools five $200,000 grants geared toward creating case studies to explain each schools’ educational methods and results over a one-year period.

“It’s deliberately short,” explained Cheryl Niehaus, the manager of the Dell Foundation’s personalized-learning portfolio. She said district-run models were also eligible for the grants, but charter school models appeared a better fit for the project. “Because it is such a new field and is moving so quickly, we wanted to return information sooner rather than later,” she said.

Officials with the Dell Foundation declined to name which schools were receiving the grants, but will announce them later this spring as case studies are released. They also said all the recipients, while possessing substantial structural differences, would be classified as “rotation models” of blended learning, a term coined by a white paper from Mr. Horn’s Innosight Institute to describe an approach in which students spend significant time in online and face-to-face instruction in each of their courses.

Ms. Niehaus said the studies are meant to yield information, not judgment.

“We are not looking to compare effectiveness of one [of the five schools] to the next for a whole variety of reasons,” Ms. Niehaus said. “These five grants with research evaluation, as much as we hope and intend for them to be used publicly, we’re also looking to information generated to inform how decisions on blended learning might play in our portfolio later down the line.”

And it’s a knowledge base that may be urgently needed in a hybrid charter school landscape that many believe is expanding for reasons beyond increasing education quality.

Mr. Horn, who has a firsthand glimpse at charter schools in California, where education budgets are bleaker than those of most other states, said every charter management organization in the state is making progress toward either starting a blended wing of its operation or transforming a brick-and-mortar model into a blended model. In many cases, he said, those schools are hoping to be able to cut back on costs, whether it’s by using smaller facilities in a model where students attend class every other day and work remotely on the other days, or by increasing pupil-teacher ratios.

That pressure may also be reflected in a flurry of similar developments in Arizona, Michigan, and other states with exceptionally tight education budgets, and could potentially hinder the movement’s long-term future if it leads to poorly performing schools.

“Some blended-learning models are great and some are pretty bad,” Mr. Horn said. “I think you needed a bunch of proof points in the marketplace to really get people excited about it.”

Policymakers’ increasing awareness of hybrid school models also appears to be contributing to growth of the model, especially in states where policy allows any district or charter school to offer its own online courses.

But policies that are overly prescriptive in terms of how districts and charter schools can choose to change their models and incorporate elements of virtual learning may actually be defeating the purpose, warned Alex Hernandez, a partner and vice president with the Broomfield, Colo.-based Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit venture-capital fund that invests in promising charter school models.

“Policy can create the conditions for innovation, but not lead the innovation,” said Mr. Hernandez, who also blogs regularly on the Innosight Institute’s website. “We need to be careful not to harm innovation by defining it and harnessing it.”

And as hybrid-charter proponents gain visibility, their early pioneers are at times worried about sending the wrong message to followers both at charter schools and district-run schools, even though publicity is needed to keep the movement going.

For example, John Glover is launching a new charter management organization called Alpha Public Schools in the 13,000-student Alum Rock school district in San Jose, Calif., partly in reaction to the positive response that Rocketship Education, a Palo Alto-based charter management organization, has gotten to the five K-5 hybrid charter schools it started in the area. (Mr. Glover is also doing so with assistance from one of the five grants bestowed so far in the third wave of the Gates Foundation’s Next Generation Learning Challenges program.)

With the first three of Rocketship Education’s schools ranking in the top 10 among schools serving low-income students in Santa Clara County, as measured by California’s Academic Performance Index, the county board of education in December approved a request to expand the model to 20 additional schools. And Mr. Glover,who for the past six years served as a teacher, executive director, and chief operating officer at the largely unplugged American Indian Model School in Oakland, Calif., is launching the Alpha Middle School next fall partly to be a destination for children and parents who want a middle school experience similar to Rocketship’s elementary offering.

But Mr. Glover sees more similarities between the yet-to-open Alpha Middle School and the American Indian Model School than between other efforts at copying Rocketship’s success with hybrid schooling. For example, he says, Alpha Middle School will follow the American Indian Model School’s convention of assigning the same teacher to a middle school student for all core academic subjects in an effort to encourage deeper student-teacher relationships. Both are also committed to an extended school year, an extended school day for struggling students, and an expectation that graduates will be prepared to succeed not only in high school, but also in college.

Having come from a school that he says accomplished that mission while purposefully keeping technology out of the classroom, Mr. Glover warns colleagues at other hybrid charter schools not to focus too heavily on technology and too lightly on school culture.

“It’s one of my big worries, and it’s a worry shared by a lot of people doing this well,” said Mr. Glover, who plans to receive 120 6th graders at Alpha Middle School next fall and eventually expand to 340 students in grades 6-8.

“If you go into any blended-learning program and you take every computer out of there, they might have to make some adjustments, but every single school that is successful as a blended model would be a success as a traditional model,” he continued. But, he said, “I think there’s a real concern folks are going to see success of certain organizations doing blended learning and say, ‘This is great, we need to get some computers and some iPads’ ” without thinking more deeply about their educational approach.

Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Variety of Models Fuel Hybrid Charter Growth


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