Digital Learning

The Supreme Court ruling that upheld the Affordable Care Act has many of us talking about checks and balances, so let’s use this teachable moment to examine how separate branches of North Carolina’s government have left its first virtual charter school in limbo.

The North Carolina Board of Education simply ignored a law it didn’t like.

A Wake County Superior Court judge ruled Friday that the North Carolina Virtual Academy can’t open this fall because the state’s Board of Education never said it could. The academy had won preliminary approval from the county school board where it would have been based, but Judge Abraham Penn said that ultimate approval lies with the state board.

The problem—one that even Judge Penn acknowledges—is that the state board refused to even consider the academy’s legitimate application. And this is where governance in the Tar Heel State breaks down.

When North Carolina’s 2011 legislative session ended in the summer of that year, lawmakers lifted the cap on the number of charter schools in the state and allowed for the creation of virtual charters. Months later, in October 2011, state Board of Education Chairman William Harrison told his colleagues, without asking for a vote, that the board would not consider virtual school applications for the academic year starting in fall 2012.

In other words, the Board of Education, whose members are chosen by North Carolina’s executive branch of government, never bothered to advise its Department of Public Instruction how to execute a law established...

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Famed business-school thinker Clayton Christensen was splendidly profiled in The New Yorker a few weeks back, which set me to reflecting on his influential meditation on K-12 education, Disrupting Class, the 2008 book (co-authored with Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson) that startled the edu-cracy with its bold prediction that half of all high school courses will be delivered online by 2019 and its explanation that technology will produce the “disruptive innovation” in education that previous reform efforts have failed to bring about. As I read the profile, though, I couldn’t help but wonder if the more disruptive force in education is lower-tech and already more widespread than Christensen himself realized.

Old steel mill
Disruptive innovation drove out of business organizations in the steel industry that didn't adapt.
Photo by hanjeanwat.

“Disruptive innovation” is his seminal insight, perhaps better summarized in Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile than in the education book itself. “How was it,” he started wondering, “that big, rich companies, admired and emulated by everyone, could one year be at the peak of their power and, just a few years later, be struggling in the middle of the pack or just plain gone?”

He figured it out by closely observing the steel industry. The huge American steel firms (U.S. Steel, Bethlehem, etc.) were challenged and gradually undone by small, nimble producers...

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As Bobby Jindal learned last week, upending teacher tenure and emancipating thousands of students with private school vouchers will get you sued by adult interests hostile to this kind of disruption. But what if you’re a fledgling virtual charter school that plays by the rules established by your legislature? Should you have to turn to the courts to get launched? And should you expect the fury of most of the school districts in your state? How much disruption can one school cause?

This one school has challenged our suppositions of school boundaries and governance.

A lot, according to sixty of North Carolina’s 115 school districts, which have joined a lawsuit that aims to stop the North Carolina Virtual Academy from opening this fall. One school board member in Wake County, which has signed on to the fight, said districts are incensed that the virtual charter could enroll students from any county in the Tar Heel State. What’s worse, say the plaintiffs, the school will be managed by the for-profit K12 Inc.

In other words, this one school, which would be North Carolina’s first online charter academy, has challenged our suppositions of school boundaries and governance. That’s the sort of disruption that’s arguably more threatening to the status quo than school vouchers, for it’s a disruption that leads to a re-definition of “local control” and school choice.

In this case, the school board in Cabarrus County gave permission to a nonprofit group called NC Learns Inc. to base the...

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Not so long ago, I doubted that computers, cell phones, and the internet would make any more difference in American education than television had. Ringing in my ears was a comment by the late Ralph Tyler that the sole technological advance in a century that had really affected classrooms was the overhead projector because, he wisecracked, it was “the only one that the teacher could use while still keeping an eye on her students.”

Loud Objects at iMAL
Education technology is finally moving past the overhead projector.
Photo by Marc Wathieu.

Computers, I figured, would continue to be useful to scientists and engineers and others with complex calculations to make. Cell phones would function like traditional telephones, only portable. The internet (whether or not Al Gore had anything to do with it) was for emailing and such. And “information technology” was sort of like engineering, a field for wonky college students wanting to write computer code. K-12 education might benefit marginally from bits of all this but mainly would sail on like a clipper ship of yore, powered by the same winds that had always propelled it.

Well, I was wrong. But this confession isn’t just another paean to the potential of online learning. That’s there, of course, and real. What has struck me more, however, is the...

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I’ve seen the future of blended learning and it is exciting. The Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust (CEE-Trust) organized visits to three cutting edge schools and Silicon Valley-based education entrepreneurs Junyo and Education Elements. The CEE-Trust contingent included 17 educators, new school developers and philanthropists from New Orleans, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Denver, Kansas City, Rochester, NY and Nashville.

The group visited the following charter schools:

  • Aspire Eres Academy in Oakland. Eres operator is Aspire Public Schools. Aspire is one of the nation’s top-performing charter school operators and serves about 12,000 K-12 students in 34 schools across California. Aspire Eres is Aspire’s first foray into blended learning. The Eres Academy serves about 220 students in grades K-8. The student population is 98 percent Hispanic, 97 percent free and reduced-price lunch and 60 percent English Language Learners.
  • Downtown College Prep (DCP) in San Jose. DCP opened its first building in 2000 and currently operates a high school and a middle school serving grades 6-7. The flagship high school serves about 400 students, while the DCP Alum Rock middle school is currently serving about 180 students. The middle school will serve grades 6-8 in 2012-13 and expects 300 students at full capacity. Students at DCP Alum Rock spend 90 minutes a day in a learning lab run by the school’s blended learning wizard Greg Klein. Klein and his team have developed a blended learning program that provides students with a variety of offerings including Khan Academy (math), Teen Biz/Achieve3000 (ELA), MangaHigh
  • ...
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I’ve seen the future of blended learning and it is exciting. The Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust (CEE-Trust) organized visits to three cutting edge schools and Silicon Valley-based education entrepreneurs Junyo and Education Elements. The CEE-Trust contingent included 17 educators, new school developers and philanthropists from New Orleans, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Denver, Kansas City, Rochester, NY and Nashville.

The group visited the following charter schools:

  • Aspire Eres Academy in Oakland. Eres operator is Aspire Public Schools. Aspire is one of the nation’s top-performing charter school operators and serves about 12,000 K-12 students in 34 schools across California. Aspire Eres is Aspire’s first foray into blended learning. The Eres Academy serves about 220 students in grades K-8. The student population is 98 percent Hispanic, 97 percent free and reduced-price lunch and 60 percent English Language Learners.
  • Downtown College Prep (DCP) in San Jose. DCP opened its first building in 2000 and currently operates a high school and a middle school serving grades 6-7. The flagship high school serves about 400 students, while the DCP Alum Rock middle school is currently serving about 180 students. The middle school will serve grades 6-8 in 2012-13 and expects 300 students at full capacity. Students at DCP Alum Rock spend 90 minutes a day in a learning lab run by the school’s blended learning wizard Greg Klein. Klein and his team have developed a blended learning program that provides students with a variety of offerings including Khan Academy (math), Teen Biz/Achieve3000 (ELA), MangaHigh
  • ...
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The era of the chalkboard is over. Laptops, SMART boards, Wikis, YouTube, and Gaming are in. Is this progress or just distraction? That was the topic of conversation among nearly 300 educators and policymakers at Fordham’s “Digital Learning: The Future of Schooling?” event last week. (Please check out the video replay here.)

Ohio State Superintendent Stan Heffner opened the event by laying out the problematic mix of technology, education, and kids: “Kids spend their nights in high-tech bedrooms and spend their days in low-tech classrooms.” The remainder of the conversation focused on how to harness kids’ aptitude in technology for effective educational practices.

Fordham – and our event partners, KnowledgeWorks and the Nord Family Foundation –assembled an elite group of digital learning experts and Ohio practitioners to explore best practices and policies. The event’s first panel consisted of four national experts (U.S. Department of Education’s Karen Cator, Public Impact’s Bryan Hassel, iNACOL’s Susan Patrick, and Getting Smart’s Tom Vander Ark), each of whom emphasized the promise and inevitability of digital learning in the classroom.

A few of their recommendations included:

  • Colleges of education should equip future teachers to leverage technology in their classrooms.
  • Schools should exploit technology to create a multi-faceted student assessment system rather than rely on a single-test assessment.
  • Schools should leverage technology to enable excellent teachers to reach more students through video-fed lessons.

The second panel included two Ohio lawmakers (State Senator Peggy Lehner and State Representative Timothy Derickson)...

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