Future of Learning

A Silicon Valley-based Teach For America program dives into blended learning

Summit Public Schools personalizes instruction with technology so teachers can work with students individually and in small groups.

Summit Public Schools personalizes instruction with technology so teachers can work with students individually and in small groups.

Teach For America, the national program that recruits graduates from elite colleges to teach in public schools, will for the first time train some candidates in blended learning methods this summer, rather than send them to its own traditional training sessions.

The San Francisco Bay area region of Teach For America will place its 120 new recruits in a training program run by the Summit Public Schools, a charter school network with a national reputation for its pioneering use of blended learning, which combines teacher-led instruction and self-paced student learning online.

In the fall, the teachers will be assigned to schools – charters and traditional public schools – in and around the Bay Area. Some say they will help seed new methods of teaching in those schools.

“We believe that technology has a unique role to play to help kids learn in their own way, and their own pace, and in helping teachers rethink how they use their time in the classroom,” said Eric Scroggins, executive director of Teach For America in the Bay Area.

Related: Prove it: How does blended learning look in a classroom?

Because it recruits young college graduates without formal training in teaching, Teach For America has always had its own intensive summer training program. The national organization provides a training model that local groups can use, but a few local organizations, including the Bay Area branch, have developed their own teacher training models.

Scroggins said, and the national TFA confirmed, that the Bay Area branch is the first to make blended learning a focus of the teachers’ preparation for the classroom.

The teachers in training there will get a six-week immersion into blended learning at Summit Public Schools. The program, developed jointly by Summit teachers and Teach For America staff, will provide training inside and outside the classroom. The trainees will work with children alongside staff from the school and from TFA, and will meet outside the classroom for training in strategies such as effective lesson planning.

In the fall, most of these teachers will be assigned to schools that are not part of the Summit Public Schools network. This is intentional. It is part of a broader effort to extend the reach of the Summit program beyond its walls.

“I think what will emerge is a corps of teachers who are better equipped to try to do things differently,” said Brian Greenberg, CEO of the Silicon Schools Fund, a philanthropy that supports and funds schools in the region.

As more schools across the United States turn to digital tools to enhance lessons, demand has increased for more professional development for teachers. Teachers colleges are developing new courses about blended learning. Educators are writing books about new teaching methods. And videos and sample lesson plans are available for free online through national groups that want to accelerate the adoption of new teaching methods.

The Teach For America training program in California is an additional pathway to preparing fledgling teachers to work in new high-tech classrooms.

“Teachers will get training from one of the organizations doing the best work in the field,” said Michael B. Horn, co-founder and executive director of education at the Clayton Christensen Institute and co-author of a book about blended learning, referring to the Summit network.

Summit Public Schools originated in 2000, when some parents in the Silicon Valley wanted to find a more innovative approach to high school. The first school opened in 2003; the network now has seven campuses in California and two in Washington state. It frequently opens its doors to teachers from other schools. For instance, a two-week “Summer of Summit” brings together hundreds of educators from across the country to learn from each other.

“We are open,” said Diane Tavenner, the CEO and founder of Summit Public Schools. “We share our curriculum, we share our professional development.”

For this first summer training program, the blended learning training will be provided for secondary school teachers. In coming years, TFA hopes to find a partner to develop an elementary school version of the program.

“This is a big shift we are making,” Scroggins said. “I think it’s an important role we will play, that we live up to our ideal so we reach all of our kids.”

Related: What mistakes did they make? Lessons from blended learning’s early adopters

The Teach For America program has received criticism for a high rate of turnover, and this year, for the second year in a row, the number of applicants to the program dropped. But some say the program offers benefits to schools, even if some teachers opt to leave the profession after their two-year TFA commitment.

In the Silicon Valley, for instance, they might go on to create new technology to help solve problems they encountered in the classroom. At least one well-known technology startup, Clever, was co-founded by a former Teach For America member who says he drew inspiration from his time as a teacher.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter to get a weekly update on blended learning.

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