Lessons Learned from the Raising Blended Learners Initiative in Texas
By Scott Milam, Afton Partners
This is a follow up to last year’s blog series, “Lessons Learned from the Raising Blended Learners Initiative in Texas,” where we shared our experiences, findings, and thought evolution over the course of the RBL initiative.
The first three posts of this series are available here:
- RBL Part 1 – Finance and Innovation: the role of finance in the early stages of academic innovation
- RBL Part 2 – Working Together: supporting grant applicant teams through the application process
- RBL Part 3 – Year 1 Cohort-Level Financial Analysis
In 2015, the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation launched Raising Blended Learners (“RBL”) as a statewide initiative demonstrating the ability to use blended learning strategies to improve student achievement across diverse student demographics and geographic regions in Texas. Four school districts and one charter network received up to $500,000 in grant funding (over three years) and comprehensive implementation supports after a competitive consideration process. Fifteen additional districts/networks were selected as pilot sites and received comprehensive implementation supports but no incremental funding. The 18 districts and 2 charter networks range from large urban to small rural, representing the diverse portfolio of public schools across the state of Texas. After one year of selection and design (2015), and three years of implementation (2016-2019), this diverse portfolio of school districts and charters scaled blended learning to directly impact over 50 schools, 600 teachers and 35,000 students. Afton Partners supports the RBL initiative as financial and sustainability planning experts within the comprehensive implementation supports available to the districts and networks.
Afton worked with the RBL districts to promote financial best practices, identify financial risks and ensure sites were planning for resources to be available to sustain their unique Blended Learning models for years to come, beyond the lifespan of incremental philanthropic funding and technical assistance. For the eleven (11) districts that were evaluated in detail for sustainability in 2018, most are on-track to sustain innovation beyond the grant – though risks exist for each. In our view, one of the greatest benefits of the approach RBL has taken to support sites is that sites have been planning for the FY20 budget since their blended learning plans have been contemplated during the 2015-2016 school year.
- Challenges to long-term sustainability include proactively managing tradeoff decisions, adoption of financial tools and leadership turnover. All of these challenges were experienced to some extent in 2018.
- Sites that continue to be engaged have all developed and iterated financial plans to sustain (and some to scale) their blended learning initiatives after the grant period ends.
One of the most crucial elements of the initiative was the intensive academic and operational supports provided by ecosystem of technical assistance providers, which provided (among other things) teacher coaching, guidance on technology investments, school design, communications and engagement supports and cross network collaboration. The sites for RYHT were primarily Districts (18 of the 20 awardees), ranging from large urban to small rural sites. The initiative’s long-term supports proved to be a crucial element for success – not only for support, but to allow for initial results to be measured and iterations to occur.
One of the requirements to participate in the initiative was to provide a five-year financial plan reflecting sustainability on recurring public funds within five years. After many iterations of the plans from the 11 districts evaluated in detail for sustainability in 2018, and numerous iterations of blended learning models during implementation, we have been able to identify cohort-wide trends in sources and uses of funds planned for these initiatives.
What sort of resources are sites planning to invest in to implement and sustain new blended learning models?
- There is a wide variation in the type and amount of projected spending by each network of schools and, on average, professional development and personnel costs made up 50% of the proportion of total expenditures. (Table 1)
- However, on average, each site spent $211 per pupil per year to implement their blended learning models, with decreasing incremental costs as the programs scaled. (Table 2)
- Sites spent the majority of one-time expenditures on professional development, infrastructure and additional positions, while prioritizing recurring spend on information technology and personnel. (Table 3)
- Recurring information technology spending focused on device refresh, math and other instructional software, LMS and proficiency based growth assessment software
How do sites intend to fund these long-term requirements to support tech-enabled blended learning models?
Aside from one-time grant funds, sites used the long-term plans developed as part of the initiative to identify opportunities to reallocate general purpose and federal funds. Sites specifically identified “Instructional Materials Allotment” funds, as well as positions changes over time, as significant opportunities to fund incremental costs in the long-term. Sites ultimately rely upon trade-offs made within their existing budgets to fund Blended Learning in the long-term. In FY20-21, the years after the grant period, sites are planning to use general funds, IMA funds, and position reallocation to fund their RBL programs.
Ultimately, these sites identified about $112 of per pupil ongoing, recurring investments which was funded by a combination of trade-offs in instructional materials, repurposed positions and other tradeoffs, including federal fund spending priorities.
To continue to support this work in Texas, Afton recommends:
- Continue building “muscle memory” for long term planning (include refresh of sustainability plans)
- Engage ESCs to train and support sites in developing plans along with best practices to leverage plans in the budgeting process
- Support peer to peer training – leaders from exemplar sites can meaningfully help other districts in sharing best practices
- Track plan vs. actual financial results; capture and share data. Particular questions that the industry continues to pose are – what options exist to fund recurring investments? What does effective professional development look like, and how much does it cost? What technologies are most effective, particularly software, content and testing?
- Finance has been an integral part of the RBL process, and Afton recommends that the partnership with Academic leadership is crucial for the long-term success in scaling Blended Learning.
- Follow legislation to understand long-term impact of this initiative
Raising Blended Learners (“RBL”) is a statewide initiative demonstrating the ability to use blended learning strategies to improve student achievement across diverse student demographics and geographic regions in Texas. Four school districts and one charter network received up to $500,000 in grant funding (over three years) and comprehensive implementation supports after a competitive consideration process; these organizations, called demonstration sites, will serve as proof points for the effective implementation of blended learning. Fifteen additional districts/networks were selected as pilot sites and are receiving comprehensive implementation supports but no incremental funding; these sites will further promote the expansion of blended learning statewide and contribute toward learning. Afton Partners is supporting this initiative as financial and sustainability planning experts within the comprehensive implementation supports available to the districts and networks.