Market Insights

How Two Districts Are Using Technology to Improve Outcomes and Cut Costs: Models for Success From Project RED

Two districts involved in a Project RED study, a joint effort by the One-to-One Institute, The Greaves Group, and The Hayes Connection, exemplify the central tenet of the research—that improving academic outcomes can happen while cutting costs through creative technology solutions. Read on to see how two districts in different parts of the country chose to examine the way learning is delivered in their districts and how they have enjoyed both improved learning outcomes and positive economic impacts.

Walled Lake Consolidated School District – Online Coursework Enhancing Student Opportunity

For districts faced with significant cuts in operating expenditures, creative thinking is at a premium about how to both improve academic outcomes and save money at the same time. In Walled Lake Consolidated School District in suburban Detroit, Superintendent Bill Hamilton was faced with cuts of over $1,000 per student from drastically reduced state support—the primary funding source for Michigan schools. He had to look at every aspect of the budget and determine how to minimize teacher layoffs while maintaining the high academic quality of this award-winning district.

One area that seemed ready for re-engineering was course delivery in summer school programs. Summer school is a juggling act at best with the need to match the right number of students with teachers qualified in each subject. Walled Lake felt this was a good place to begin use of online coursework. With extensive review by teams of teachers and administrators, the district put the program in place for the summer of 2009. The economic model was clearly a winner; the coursework flexibility was something many students had asked for, as well. The teachers’ union was advised of the plan and worked closely with the district to make this happen.

Summer School Plan

Traditional Summer School

Online Summer School

Course Offerings 5 to 8 Course Offerings 50 Courses Offered: 22 Courses With Enrollment
Tuition Cost $165 to $265 Per Student $99 Per Student
Teacher Cost $2,331 Per Teacher $840 Per Teacher
Support 60 Hours of Face-to-Face 24 Hours of Face-to-Face
  District Lost Money District Made Money





The advantages of online coursework were clear:

  • Flexibility: Expanding the number of course offerings and only offering those courses for which kids signed up.
  • Reduced Cost for Parents: Good news came for parents with the reduction of tuition from as much as $265 per student to $99 per student.
  • Financial Situation of District: The change from a money-losing effort to one with a small profit helped stretch the budget.

The question mark area, which was fine-tuned over the next summer, concerned the amount of face-to-face support. In the first year of summer school online, only 16 hours of face-to-face support were provided. While 100% of students passed regular courses, only 60% of students in credit recovery programs passed. To address the credit recovery need for more personal attention, the face-to-face budget was increased to 24 hours per student, and the students in credit recovery were also required to attend all face-to-face meetings. These changes were justified by stronger results in the second year.

After the initial success with summer school, Walled Lake Consolidated School District began planning changes to the regular school year by adding online coursework. Rather than a drastic switch to total online coursework, they devised a program that looks like this:

Online and Traditional Coursework Plans
Traditional Coursework Blended Coursework
Students select 6 classes Students select 4 traditional classes and 2 online classes per semester
Students have a zero hour or seventh hour option Students can select online courses either first and second hour (or) fifth and sixth hour
  Math and English teachers provide support first and sixth hour
  2 Teachers monitor progress of up to 300 students
  Monitor face-to-face if student(s) not making progress

This program will be put in place in fall 2010. The district will track grades, GPA, and state test scores. They will randomly select students to take district benchmark assessments. Online teachers will monitor progress and provide intervention support.

The district feels they are on the right track to saving money and improving outcomes. Based on a 33:1 student-to-teacher ratio, the financial mode for 300 students is:

Cost Analysis: Walled Lake School District
Traditional Learning Environment Online Learning Environment
3.6 Teachers .8 Teachers
$900 Per Student $200 Per Student
  Software at $183 Per Student
  Total: $383 Per Student

Online learning saves $517 per student or $155,100 per 300 students.

The district feels there are other advantages as well:

  • They were able to align the software they purchased with their district benchmarks.
  • This program is a response to intervention strategy (as detailed in Project RED) to personalize instruction and allow students to advance at their own pace.
  • Students receive a greater variety of courses during regular school year and summer programming.
  • Course offerings are not dependent on enrollment.
  • This approach provides flexibility for students and families.
  • Students can take multiple courses in summer school/school year.
  • Online coursework offers flexible seat time.
And these changes are occurring in a high-performing district: Walled Lake’s three comprehensive high schools were ranked in Newsweek’s list of most desirable schools; an increased number of high school students took Advanced Placement classes and tests, and their Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) and high school Michigan Merit Exam (MME) scores exceeded state and county averages.

Vail School District, Vail, Arizona – How Teachers Became Producers of Content and Personalized Teaching and Learning

About 2,028 miles from Walled Lake, Michigan, Vail School District, near Tucson, Arizona, had a unique opportunity, when building a brand-new high school that opened in 2005, to truly revolutionize education as Project RED has advocated. They chose to throw away paper textbooks and create or buy all digital content. The major creators of content for the curriculum were and are the teachers themselves. This approach to learning has been likened by Superintendent Calvin Baker to having the teachers make their own music—much like creating their own tracks on an iPod. Calvin points out that the content is out there in myriad formats and the instructional staffs’ job is to:
  1. Locate it
  2. Aggregate it
  3. Sort it
  4. Serve it
Vail School District calls this initiative “Beyond Textbooks.” It is the product of five years of research and development by the Vail School District’s teachers, curriculum department, and technology department. Teachers have worked hard to create the first courses, and they are not finished yet. The district has purchased subscriptions to content in areas where they did not feel they had the time to develop their own content, but teachers continue to develop more materials. To ensure quality content, they have developed a strong rubric with three components:

Fundamentals for Instructional Materials: Vail School District
Category Requirements
Essential Standards With a “safety net” of standards, each teacher ensures that every student learns the core prior to leaving the current grade
Unwrapped Documents Requires the teacher to summarize the rigor, big ideas, essential questions, and evidence of mastery for a given learning objective
Curriculum Calendar An instrument to keep teachers and students on track for academic success

Vail believes strongly in the curriculum calendar as the organizing principle for its program. In fact, the process works like this:
  1. Teachers look at their curriculum calendars to determine what should be taught at any given time.
  2. Curriculum calendars are linked to standard specific web pages with lesson plans, instructional resources, and more.
  3. Teachers can pick the instructional materials that are best suited to their style of teaching and have access to formative assessments.
  4. Teachers can take their most successful lessons and add them to the web page to help other teachers across the state.
One of the key principals to the “Beyond Textbooks” program is the notion that teachers now have access to far more than just the filing cabinet of their teaching team; they can use the web-based materials from all the teachers in the district and, increasingly, those of all teachers in the program.

Cost Per Student

 "Beyond Textbooks" has been so successful that 16 other districts in the state have joined them and are licensing the content for their own students. In addition, teachers in these districts become part of the community sharing “stuff” with each other.

Vail’s website announces that every one of the regular schools in the district was rated as “excelling” by the state for the fourth year in a row,  and Vail has more schools rated as "excelling" than any other district in Southern Arizona.

If you would like to learn more about Project RED, Walled Lake Consolidated School District, and the Vail School District, please visit these websites: http://wlcsd.org and

You may also listen to the recording of the MDR Webinar, Improving Outcomes and Cutting Costs With Technology: Models for Success From Project RED. You will hear the two superintendents talk about their districts’ creative technology initiatives and give a “sneak peek” into findings from the soon-to-be-released Project RED report. This first-of-its-kind study is based on a survey of nearly 1,000 school principals and technology coordinators and investigates technology’s role in improving student achievement and its impact on cost savings.

Jeanne Hayes is Co-Author, Project RED and President, The Hayes Connection, Inc. She has 25 years of experience in tracking the ed tech market—first, in her role as Founder and CEO of Quality Education Data and second, in her current role as a consultant to publishers and producers of ed tech products and services.