Los Angeles 1st grader Lena Barrett clicks through a series of icons and logs on to a laptop under the fluorescent lights of her classroom. Before long, a cartoon version of a game-show announcer appears.
“It’s time to show what you know by finding words,” the announcer says. “In this game, you will click on words that mean the same thing as the word the narrator says. Click on the word that means the same thing as ‘marvelous.’ ”
Lena, dressed in her school’s burgundy-plaid uniform, clicks on “wonderful,” and the announcer doesn’t waste time with praise. “Pay attention. Go as fast as you can and do your best,” he says. A few words later, she hesitates over “fragile,” before finally clicking on “breakable.”
Six-year-old Lena was among 116 kindergartners last year who participated in an experiment at her school with a teaching method called blended learning, in which students learn from computers as well as teachers.
The kindergarten experiment at KIPP Empower comes as some schools and districts in California, Arizona, Virginia and elsewhere are experimenting with computer-based learning in the elementary grades.
Advocates of blended learning say it holds the promise of offering engaging, individualized computer instruction that allows children to move at their own pace. And, at a time when school budgets are being slashed nationwide, the new model at KIPP could help educators manage larger classes. But for the early grades, the practice can be controversial as well.
Computer instruction in kindergarten classrooms is occasionally used by some teachers as a supplement, but it’s rarely used every day to substitute for traditional teacher instruction of the littlest learners. KIPP Empower is among a growing number of schools that are embracing technology-infused approaches to teaching and learning.
Lena attends the 233-student, KIPP Empower Academy, which opened last year and now serves kindergartners and 1st graders in a tough South Los Angeles neighborhood. Results from the trial year were so promising that school administrators are continuing the use of computers in kindergarten classrooms this year, and they expect computer use to expand throughout the Knowledge Is Power Program charter school network of 109 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
“The early indications are that this is replicable in future kindergarten classrooms and, as we grow, into higher grades,” said Richard Barth, the chief executive officer of the KIPP Foundation, which supports the KIPP model of extended school days, a longer school year, and frequent standardized tests to measure progress.
At KIPP Empower, Principal Mike Kerr devised a complicated schoolwide rotation in which children are using laptops inside their classrooms twice a day for roughly half an hour each time. He said the computers allow him to preserve the small-group instruction that he considers critical to student success. As a result, students who started the year behind their peers graduated from kindergarten on track.
Mr. Kerr said the blended approach led 95 percent of his kindergartners to score at or above the national average in math after the first year, while 96 percent scored at or above it in reading. The test, Measures of Academic Progress, was developed by the Portland, Ore.-based Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit organization that works with school districts to create a culture that values and uses data to improve instruction. More than half of Mr. Kerr’s students scored in the nation’s top quartile in both subjects.
Mr. Kerr said the first-year test results were especially heartening because his students—94 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch based on their family incomes—did not start out the year in a strong position. Only 9 percent arrived kindergarten- ready, according to the STEP, or Strategic Teaching and Evaluation of Progress, prereading test, developed by the University of Chicago for children deemed at high risk academically.
By the end of the year, 96 percent of kindergartners reached or exceeded the “proficient” mark on the same STEP test, Mr. Kerr said.
Some Experts Wary
With just one year of data, however, it remains to be seen whether those results are evidence that the use of computers in the classroom can improve long-term student outcomes, especially at the early-elementary-school level.
In addition, some education experts are wary of putting kindergartners in front of computers.
“Parents, teachers, and educators are right to be concerned about time at the computer if it replaces essential learning experiences and activities,” said Chip Donohue, the director of distance learning at the Erikson Institute, in Chicago, a graduate school of education that specializes in early-childhood development.
Five-year-olds need “active, hands-on, engaging, and empowering” activities, “not electronic worksheets and drill and practice,” Mr. Donohue said.
On a recent visit to KIPP Empower, it was not clear that computers—or the educational games that the children play on them—were doing much teaching. Instead, Mr. Kerr said the computers provide a way to reduce his class size of 28 students. By having half work on laptops in the classroom, a teacher is able to work intensely with the other 14 students.
“We wanted to preserve small-group instruction, and the computers are allowing us to do that,” said Mr. Kerr. “If a teacher can work with eight or nine kids at a time instead of 25, they’re going to get better results.”
The computers are more than just high-tech babysitters. Students are engaged in animated cartoon games that, for example, drill phonics and arithmetic. More importantly, the programs flag topics when a student is getting the answers wrong.
Each day, KIPP’s technology instructional assistant, Elisabeth Flottman, collects data from the educational software on each student and gives the information to teachers.
The software can report, for example, if a student has been struggling with beginning sounds, ending sounds, or blending sounds. That can help the teacher zero in on individual student needs. It also reports if a student sat idly at the computer for an extended period of time.
“If I know that, I can pay a little more attention,” said Ms. Flottman, who circulates among the four kindergarten classrooms and helps students with computer crashes, headphone snags, and logon issues.
Principal Kerr said he’s “underwhelmed” by software offerings for 5- and 6-year-olds. “One of the biggest challenges was finding computer programs,” he said.
Mr. Kerr pieced together an online curriculum from a variety of vendors. That required him to build an expensive interface from scratch so that students and teachers wouldn’t have to waste time logging on to each program. And they had to create pictorial logons so children who can’t spell their names can click on photographs of themselves and participate.
Still, there were problems. The students exhausted one math program in March that was supposed to last the full year.
New Class-Size Approach
Mr. Kerr, 34, is a self-professed technophobe who turned to computers to cope with California’s fiscal crisis, which led to teacher layoffs, increased class sizes, and slashed school budgets.
He first began to appreciate the power of small classes at the start of his teaching career with Teach For America in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. Later, he helped found a charter school in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where his students posted some of the highest test scores in the city.
He had planned to replicate his small-class-size approach in Los Angeles and expected to have no more than 20 children per classroom. But just a year before KIPP Empower was slated to open in fall 2010, Mr. Kerr learned that California would be cutting $200,000 from his budget. He said he wasn’t sure he should even open the school because he was not convinced it would be “educationally sound.”
A private foundation that was lobbying schools to use technology happened to call Mr. Kerr and ultimately gave him a $200,000 grant. (The foundation, which wishes to remain anonymous, is also among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)
The donation allowed Mr. Kerr to rethink the school’s design; instead of five classrooms of 20 students, he would now have four classrooms of 28. He decided to hire one fewer lead teacher and take in more students.
Mr. Kerr opted against a computer lab because he wanted kindergartners to feel as if they were in a warm environment, not sitting among rows of computers.
“I do worry about students one day sitting in front of computer screens all day,” he said. “That’s not what we’re about.”
Despite the encouraging early results, it’s hard to assess the success, in part due to considerable controversy over the validity of standardized tests at the kindergarten level. The state of California doesn’t even test its public-school children until the 2nd grade, so there are no data for comparison.
And because Mr. Kerr’s test results reflect only one year with this particular group of students, it’s unclear whether he can replicate the success.
It’s also impossible to tell how students would have fared without any computers. Mr. Kerr had the luxury of handpicking and training his cadre of teachers, after all.
Even Mr. Barth of the KIPP Foundation remains cautious. “This technology in the hands of an entirely different group of adults may not produce near the results that Mike and his team produced,” he said. “There is a good chance it wouldn’t.”
He added that it would be “naive” to think “that 5-year-olds are just going to walk in a computer lab and make these great gains.”
Still, one other KIPP school in the Los Angeles area has already adopted parts of Mr. Kerr’s digital-learning model for the current academic year. And two KIPP schools that are scheduled to open in the fall of 2012 are planning to do so.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has also taken notice. It is using Mr. Kerr’s model to design a new computer dashboard that will enable any school in the nation to choose software programs from a variety of vendors. Students and teachers will then be able to go to a single computer screen to log on or access data reports. (The Seattle-based Gates Foundation is also among the funders of The Hechinger Report, as well as of Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.)
In the meantime, KIPP students say they like computer time. After dismissal in the schoolyard on a recent afternoon, 5-year-old Joselynn Meza offered her own assessment of the experiment: “It was fun,” she said. “My favorite computer program was the games.”
This article was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.
A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as ‘Blended Learning’ for the Little Ones