When 11-year-old Rachelle Rosado opens up her laptop and puts on her headphones in her sixth-grade classroom, she hears an electronic voice: The prefix “sub” goes with “mit” and that makes the word “submit.”
Rachelle attends an unusual charter school in an office building across the street from Newark City Hall. The school, Merit Prep, opened up at the beginning of the 2012-13 academic year with the noble mission of raising the academic performance of low-income minority students. But it is also embroiled in a controversy over how much children should be taught by computers. New Jersey’s biggest teachers union is suing to shut the school down and is hoping a state appellate court will do so in early 2013.
Students at Merit Prep are part of an educational experiment known as blended learning that combines computer software, individual instruction and small-group learning. They spend a lot of the day in a cafeteria-sized room where there’s enough space for the entire school of 80 sixth-grade students— mostly black, poor and below grade level—to sit at shared lime green tables with their assigned laptops. The plan is to add one grade a year.
Rachelle says the animated characters in some of the software programs are funny. And she especially likes going at her own pace.
“In my previous school, when we start on one thing, we spent two weeks on it but in this school, if we get it complete, we just move on to the next thing,” says Rachelle.
When Rachelle struggled with an online worksheet, she liked doing it over and over again until she got it right.
Hundreds of schools around the country are experimenting with big doses of online instruction inside the classroom and changing the role of the teacher.
Ben Conant, a math teacher at Merit Prep, is half disc jockey who selects the mix of computer curriculum and half personal tutor who addresses each student’s weaknesses.
“I don’t want kids just sitting in front of a computer and becoming like pale computer zombies,” said Conant. “I was worried about that. That was my biggest fear.”
The online curriculum feeds each student’s answers into a data center operated by Touchstone Education, the non-profit school management group that runs Merit Prep. The data center then spits out reports that Conant can use to monitor his students’ progress, figure out what one-on-one coaching each student needs and adjust what he will teach when he pulls a few kids aside into glass-enclosed seminar rooms for small-group instruction.
Students don’t just work on their computers. Conant also has them do calculations on paper, which gives them handwriting practice.
“Four is messy,” Conant told one student. “I want to see it like one, two and three. But your math is good.”
Conant says his biggest problem in the classroom is that students are playing math games that they find on their own over the Internet. He disciplines the game players with demerits. “They want to learn; that’s great,” Conant says. “It’s much better than students drawing little ink flowers that they scribble over and over again, which is what people do when they have notebooks and they’re bored.”
Ben Rayer, founder of Merit Prep, believes he can get better results for low income inner-city children by combining technology with the best practices in classroom teaching. If he succeeds with this first Newark school, he plans to build 50 charter schools just like it around the country.
Rayer says the big benefit to using technology is that he can tailor the instruction for each student.
“No longer do we teach just one lesson in front of a class of 30 or 40 students; we teach many lessons during a day to students based on their individual needs,” says Rayer.
This year as Rayer develops his non-profit model at Merit Prep, his school is overstaffed with a 13-to-1 student-teacher ratio.
But he says technology should allow him to increase that. He won’t put a number on it but his description of becoming 25 to 30 percent more efficient than a typical school could mean as many as 40 students per teacher.
“That is not the point of what we’re doing,” said Rayer. “But if this worked and a teacher could serve more students at a highly effective level, we would do that.”
The New Jersey Education Association, which doesn’t even represent the teachers of Newark, is worried about the specter of computers replacing teachers. The union has gone to court to shut down Merit Prep and another charter school that is also using a blended learning approach. The union’s lawsuit argues that charter schools can’t emphasize online instruction until the New Jersey state legislature evaluates and approves it.
“Should we be experimenting with students during their academic experience?” asks Steve Wollmer, the union’s communications director. “They only get one trip through the public schools.”
Computer use in education will inevitably grow, but the question is: How much?
Even some technology advocates like Doug Levin of the State Educational Technology Directors Association doubt that this model will ever appeal to middle- and upper-income families whose children are not struggling below grade level.
Levin says that’s because those children don’t need as much extra drilling and can use more of the school day for analysis and inquiry.
“I think this approach works much better for elementary school aged children who are really struggling to build their vocabulary, to understand basic math facts and operations,” says Levin. “I think as kids get into middle and high school, what the computer can offer in that regard is less.”
Levin predicts the computer drilling will succeed in raising the test scores of the low-income sixth graders of Merit Prep.
But until those results are in, this school is still an experiment.