Digital Learning

What fundamental changes to the ways we fund, staff, and govern American schools are necessary to fulfill digital learning's potential? There’s still time to hear experts answer that question by registering for this Thursday’s panel discussion, “Education Reform for the Digital Era,” from 9 to 10:30 a.m. EDT. The conversation will feature the governance expertise of the Hoover Institution's (and, now, Education Sector’s) John Chubb, insights into teaching's future from Bryan Hassel of Public Impact, the Parthenon Group’s Eleanor Laurans on the costs of online learning, and the cautionary perspective of Emory University's Mark Bauerlein. Register now to attend in person or stream the discussion live Thursday morning, and mark your calendars as this conversation continues in Columbus, Ohio on May 17. Be sure to send along your questions for panelists to questions@edexcellence.net.

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As Ed Week’s Katie Ash noted yesterday, opposition to virtual schooling (and the role of businesses in the field) remains very much in vogue. While NSBA Executive Director Anne L. Bryant’s Huffington Post critique of online learning—and of John Chubb’s recent Gadfly editorial on the subject—is the most vivid example, Adam Emerson observed on Choice Words that such criticisms are going mainstream.

To parse the debate swirling around digital learning’s potential and the policy challenges it poses, Fordham will host several leading lights on the subject at our D.C. office on April 19. Chubb will join the Parthenon Group’s Eleanor Laurans, co-author of “The Costs of Online Learning,” Public Impact’s Bryan Hassel, and digital learning skeptic Mark Bauerlein for “Education Reform for the Digital Era,” a Fordham LIVE! panel discussion from 9 to 10:30 a.m. EDT.

Register now to reserve your seat, and be sure to head on up to American University this Friday to see Fordham President Chester E. Finn, Jr. discuss best practices in education with Bellwether Education's Andy Rotherham and Brookings’ William Galston from 1:30 to 3:30 at the “Whither American Education?” conference.

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The mainstream resistance to school choice has embraced the language of fear and unrest. National School Boards Association executive director Anne L. Bryant asked recently in the Huffington Post whether virtual schools are a sham and warned of “corruption and greed” among for-profit providers looking to cash in on students. It would be foolish to dismiss this as a more aggressive rhetorical attempt to retain dominance in the public school marketplace. Arguments such as Bryant’s are showing success in state legislatures and they’re degenerating legitimate debate over education reform.

The mainstream resistance to school choice has embraced the language of fear and unrest.

For instance, a proposed parent trigger law in Florida failed in the state Senate after opponents similarly warned that gullible parents would be swooned by corporate education raiders looking to profit by converting traditional schools to charters. Never mind that charters have been flourishing in the Sunshine State for more than fifteen years. Democrat Nan Rich, the Senate’s minority leader, said the trigger would lay “the groundwork for the hostile corporate takeover of public schools across Florida.” Eight Republicans joined Rich and eleven other Democrats to defeat the measure, and nearly all expressed the same contempt.

There is more than just semantics at stake. Rich and her colleagues arguably were trying to revise history and the parent trigger gave them the opportunity. Bryant, while representing more than 90,000 local school board members, used her polemic to frame how states should contain online learning—for those public...

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On Fordham’s Boards Eye View blog today, Hoover scholar John Chubb made the case that states should relieve local school boards of the authority to govern student access to the burgeoning online learning market and expose school systems to more disruptive innovations. A new analysis of virtual education trends from the Evergreen Education Group gives us more evidence that districts may be unwilling to give up their authority easily.

This year’s “Keeping Pace” report from Evergreen gives us a snapshot of online and blending learning practices and tells us that the fastest-growing segment is coming from single-district programsthose run by one district for that district’s students. While it’s satisfying to see more districts embrace digital learning programssome with the purpose to compete with state-run virtual schoolsthese are school systems that are drawing boundaries around a practice that should be boundless.

These aren’t examples of disruptive innovations. These are not all fully online programs, but rather mostly blended models that combine face-to-face learning with virtual instruction that is mostly supplemental. This is not surprising, given that districts are serving only their own students, many of whom are at-risk and take advantage of online instruction mostly for credit recovery. The self-paced, fully online multi-media instruction with one-on-one teacher support that bridges long distances is found primarily in state-run programs, not in school districts.

Even the most reform-friendly states can be unwelcoming to the disruptions to which Chubb refers.

Even the most reform-friendly states can be unwelcoming to the...

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John Chubb is CEO of Leeds Global Partners and a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution where he is a member of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. He is co-author with Terry Moe of Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education and author of "Overcoming the Governance Challenge in K-12 Online Learning."

If a public school student wants to take an Advanced Placement course from Apex Learning, a respected provider of online AP instruction, who should determine whether the student may do so? Today, the answer is almost uniformly, the local school board (or charter board) that governs the student’s school. Should it be so?

States have long delegated to local boards the authority to determine how students satisfy state standards such as graduation requirements. If a student wants to meet a state standard by some means other than what his or her school is offering, local board policies determine whether the student may. This makes a certain amount of sense. Students and families may want an option of dubious academic value.

But boards may decide these matters with more on their minds than quality control. Every time a student opts to receive a bit of education outside of a home school, the school or district faces a financial hit: it loses state revenue or gets stuck with a fee. Local boards consequently are not keen for students to try to...

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This year’s Technology Counts (the fifteenth of its kind from Education Week) is a handy guide to the latest issues surrounding digital learning and will serve both novice and wonk. The collection of ten articles (plus a nifty infographic detailing student, parent, and teacher views on digital ed) covers the major policy issues faced by this nascent movement. (These are mirrored by our own work in this arena.) One article addresses the need for a new funding model for online learning: Most state-run schools, for example, are paid for via a line item on the legislative budget—leaving year-to-year financing subject to politics (and meaning that funding is based on estimated rather than actual enrollments). Others probe issues of governance in online learning. Single-district digital education is on the rise, Ed Week reports—a worrying trend, especially if it hinders students from accessing the best content from other state, national, or international providers. Still others take on the need for more robust data systems and stronger accountability for digital learning. On that front, the authors offer four recommendations: require students to test in person; frequently assess course efficacy, intervening when necessary; collect more data; and use the same accountability measures for both traditional and virtual students in order to allow for side-by-side comparisons. Sensible (if obvious) solutions—but none that aren’t already being implemented by some of digital education’s strongest providers.

Education Week, Technology Counts 2012: Virtual Shift...

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Those familiar with our own working-paper series on digital learning may feel a slight sense of déjà vu when
reading this piece by freelance writer and Pioneer Institute contributor Bill
Donovan (who, in fact, references one of our own papers). But for those just dipping their toes into
the digital-learning pool—or looking to stay in the shallow end—this short
paper is helpful. Donovan explains how current funding, enrollment,
credentialing, and accountability policies hinder the growth of online
education, using state-specific examples to illuminate these issues. For instance,
Colorado and
D.C. fund schools based on attendance rates. But what about a child who learns
at odd hours, or off the school calendar, but still chalks 180 days of learning
during the year? Some states fund based on seat time. But what does that mean
for the high-flying pupil who covers two years’ worth of material in a single
annum? Does her school then only receive one year’s worth of funding? In the
end, Donovan offers a number of sane recommendations for policymakers looking
to expand the reach of digital ed: Require that schools generate more reporting
data and devise new tools to analyze these data; create performance-based
“smart caps” for online-ed programs; explore student savings accounts; and
learn from the policymaking experience of charter schools. Concrete and sage
advice, all—but not altogether novel. Donovan and others...

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The conventional wisdom among reformers today is that “we know what to do, but we don’t have
the political will to do it.” I’d frame it differently: We increasingly have good policies in
place, but we don’t know how to turn them into reality. And because most policies
aren’t self-implementing, we have to solve the problem of “delivery” if reform is going to add up to more than a hill of beans.

Those of us at the Fordham Institute (and our partners at the
Center for American Progress) have been making the case that the governance structures of U.S. public education impede our
ability to do implementation right. Local school districts—with their elected school boards, susceptibility to interest group
capture, and lack of scale—aren’t always inclined or well suited to turn legislative reforms into
real change on the ground. I’ve wondered out
lou
d whether we should
abolish school districts and run the whole kit and caboodle out of state
departments of education.

Think of it as a
private-sector department of education.

That’s still a tantalizing idea, but probably too radical for anyone to
take seriously in the immediate future. So here’s an
alternative: How about creating a “virtual" education ministry that school districts would choose to associate with voluntarily?
(Creating more than one of these entities would even better.) Think of it as a
private-sector department...

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The conventional wisdom among
reformers today is that “we know what to do, but we don’t have the political
will to do it.” I’d frame it differently: We increasingly have good policies in
place, but we don’t know how to turn them into reality. And because most
policies aren’t “self-implementing,” we have to solve the problem of “delivery” if reform is going to
add up to a hill of beans.

Those of us at the Fordham
Institute (and our partners at the Center for American Progress) have been making
the case
that our governance structures impede our ability to do
implementation right. Local school districts—with their elected school boards,
susceptibility to interest group capture, and lack of scale—aren’t always
inclined or well suited to turn legislative reforms into real change on the
ground. I’ve wondered
out loud
whether we should abolish school districts and run the whole kit
and caboodle out of state departments of education.

How about creating a “virtual education ministry”
that school districts would choose to associate with voluntarily?

That’s still a tantalizing idea,
but probably too radical for anyone to take seriously in the immediate future.
So here’s an alternative: How about creating a “virtual education ministry”
that school districts would choose to associate with voluntarily? (Creating
more than one of these entities would even better.) Think of it as a
private-sector department...

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Online Learning
The potential of K-12 online learning can't be realized unless we change how we govern education.
.

If policymakers want to see more rapid technological innovation in K-12 education—innovation that works to the clear benefit of students—they will need to take a hard look at how the public education system has managed to forestall innovation for so many years. They will need to consider how that system is structured, governed, and controlled.

It seems inevitable that technology and online learning will play a sizable role in public schools. But without the driving force of competition, this could be a long time coming. At present, online education plays a tiny role in K-12 education. In 2010-11, roughly 250,000 public school students were involved in full-time online education, nearly all through virtual charter schools, not through the regular public school systems.[1] That is 0.45 percent of public school enrollments. Millions more have “computers in their classrooms,” of course, but true “blended” schnoools can be counted on one’s fingers.

Why so slow? Resistance to technological innovation is abetted by one feature of the current public education system, above all others. That is the almost exclusive authority (charter schools being a crucial exception) granted to local school districts to determine how students are educated. School districts...

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