In no other profession are its constituents held as painfully, publically, personally accountable as in teaching. Certainly, we demand perfection of our doctors, but we compensate them well for such skill, and we only ask them to cure one patient at a time. We haven't given them a room full of patients -- each with highly variable symptoms -- and asked them to prescribe individually-customized treatment and monitor progress daily for months at a time. If a surgeon stumbles, if his patient dies, there's usually a logical explanation, and seldom does it ever call into question that surgeon's ability. No single event -- no one surgery -- dictates his competence and brands his career accordingly.
Another election year has come, and we're still living in the shadow of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Each candidate demands, in his way, greater accountability from our schools. Each man seems to agree that educational reform is a categorical imperative. We hear you, Mr. President: teachers can make a difference. We hear you, Governor Romney: we do all love teachers. But how can we comfortably demand even more of our teaching corps if we refuse to systematically provide them with the tools necessary to succeed?
We would never suggest that a surgeon produce his own supplies -- the hospitals provide best-in-class accouterments, and support the surgeon with a team of dedicated field experts. Teachers, if they're lucky, get a single classroom set of materials, perhaps a teacher's aide. Many reach repeatedly into their own wallets to provide students with little extras to help lessons run more smoothly. Parents and administrators constantly clamor for greater differentiation, and decry teachers who are unable to address widely disparate needs within a single classroom. A teacher, we pout, should be able to balance the needs of a 504b dyslexic student, an ADHD student with a complex IEP and a mathematically gifted student without blinking. Why is this so hard? Why shouldn't a teacher prepare three different versions of a single lesson in order to both accommodate and modify instruction?
Differentiated instruction, to be sure, is the gold standard. Done properly, it is discreet and seamless, allowing each student to discover the curriculum at an appropriate level and pace. It doesn't condescend; it challenges. However, creating these lesson plans is grueling at best, and our teachers are already overburdened with administrative responsibilities, left with little time to innovate and limited affordable resources to explore.
Fortunately, more tools exist now than ever before to mitigate strain and allow teachers to fully differentiate: blended learning has birthed a truly turnkey way for faculty to easily customize their teaching to accommodate divergent ability levels in the same classroom. When the process is implemented flawlessly, the teacher still provides the extrinsic instruction before guiding students to any of a number of online resources designed specifically to reinforce learning. Diagnostic software finally exists that allows teachers to monitor student progress against standards, and to meaningfully intervene with timely support. Best-in-class offerings allow for tracking and customization at an impressively granular level.
Despite these advancements, the same problem exists as ever -- funding. Right now, our schools fight for every available resource; many schools find themselves leaning on professional grant writers to navigate through the labyrinths of Title I and other funding regulations. Rather than continuing to advocate for partisan educational platforms, both candidates should see the wisdom of investing in the future of blending learning - a future both technologically relevant and educationally advantageous. We know already that NCLB reauthorized the ESEA standards -- why not adjust the criteria for improving teacher quality once again to include clearly-delineated stipulations for teacher tools?
Giving teachers wide access to the best blended learning methodologies available could rapidly improve student retention and performance on required assessments, thereby showing us that the fault lies not with the perceived lack of instructional quality, but with the widespread lack of appropriate instructional tools.
Claudette Gagnon is the National Director of Strategy and Learning at Revolution Prep, an educational software and services provider.