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Promise of ‘flipped classroom’ may elude poorer school districts

When Portland, Ore., elementary school teacher Sacha Luria decided last fall to try a new education strategy called “flipping the classroom,” she faced a big obstacle.

Flipped classrooms use technology – online video instruction, laptops, DVDs of lessons – to reverse what students traditionally have done in class and at home to learn. Listening to lectures becomes the homework assignment, so teachers can provide more one-on-one attention in class and students can work at their own paces or with other students.

But Luria realized that none of her students had computers at home, and she had just one in the classroom. So she used her own money to buy a second computer and begged everyone she knew for donations, finally bringing the total to six computers for her 23 fourth-graders at Rigler School. Her students now alternate between working on the computers and working with her.

So far, the strategy is showing signs of success. She uses class time to tailor instruction to students who started the school year behind their classmates in reading and math, and she’s seen rapid improvement. By the end of the school year, she said, her students averaged two years’ worth of progress in math, for example.

“It’s powerful stuff,” she said, noting that this year was her most successful in a decade of teaching. “I’m really able to meet students where they are, as opposed to where the curriculum says they should be.”

Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that flipping classrooms is a more popular practice in wealthier suburban communities, where nearly all students have Internet access at home and classrooms are more likely to have computers. Some skeptics say flipped classrooms still rely heavily on lectures by teachers, which they argue aren’t as effective as hands-on learning. Still others worry that the new practice – so dependent on technology – could end up leaving low-income students behind and widening the achievement gap.

“It’s an obstacle,” said Karen Cator, the director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. “We do need to figure out ways that students, regardless of ZIP code, regardless of their parents’ income level, have access” to technology inside and outside of schools.

The flipped classroom can be traced to a 2008 experiment by Aaron Sams and Jonathan Bergmann, teachers in Woodland Park, Colo., who were quick to take advantage of the ability to post videos online. The concept is one simple way that technology can transform how students learn. Research on the effectiveness of flipped classrooms is in the early stages, and it’s not known how widespread the practice is.

At Westside High School in Macon, Ga., more than 85 percent of students are minorities and 78 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Chemistry teacher Jennifer Douglass estimated that about half are so transient they don’t have guaranteed places to sleep each night. Members of feuding gangs are placed into classes alongside pregnant teenagers, she said, and parent involvement is rare.

With the help of a federal grant that provided netbooks for all students, a handful of teachers in different disciplines at Westside flipped their classrooms and reported that doing so improved students’ grades and their level of engagement.

Douglass has seen modest increases in her regular chemistry class’s final exam scores since flipping. Social studies teacher Sydney Elkin said her students’ scores on the Georgia state end-of-course exams increased, particularly those of her special-education students. The semester before she flipped her classroom, about 30 percent of her students passed. In her first semester with a flipped class, she said, nearly three-quarters passed, including nine out of 10 special-education students.

Flipping doesn’t solve all problems, though, Elkin said. Some students still must be needled constantly to do their work. And despite second and third chances on tests that act as gateways to the next level, some students still fall behind.

“I would love to say this was a better fit for everyone. There’s no panacea,” Elkin said. Outside factors “have an impact on what these kids do just as much as the way content is delivered.”

Some students at Westside said they no longer were bored in class, where they could work with classmates, ask for help and enjoy more face time with their teachers.

“It’s like having a private tutor,” junior Marvin Wesley said.

“That you don’t have to pay for,” his classmate Sarah Walker chimed in.

Douglass’ chemistry class looked like an exercise in organized chaos on a day earlier this year, with some students working on a lab in the back of the classroom as others, wearing headphones, danced in their seats while filling out worksheets.

“I used to get tired because I had to stand up, and I felt like a circus performer,” she said, speaking of lecturing. “Now I’m running all around the room. I don’t sit down all day long.”

To Douglass, such uses of technology are nothing short of revolutionary. She said she still had the occasional student who’d put his head down or surf the Internet instead of working, but that giving students some control over the pace of their study improved their desire to learn.

Misbehavior all but disappeared after she flipped the classroom, Douglass said, and students who hadn’t passed anything in years began proudly displaying their grades.

“They were getting to choose to push the play button,” Douglass said. “They were very, very excited about accepting that responsibility. They actually like having the power to make decisions. That’s the biggest impact I’ve seen in my classroom: The ownership has gone from teacher to student.”