Rick Hess defines the challenge those of us in the field have been stumbling around for years

Fordham's new paper authored by Rick Hess on ???Creating Healthy Policy for Digital Learning??? is critically important for those of us on the ground working as school administrators, school leaders, charter school authorizers and education policy makers. Rick has articulated the challenges, opportunities, and parameters for good public policy and practices that those of us in the field have been fumbling around for the last few years to come up with through common sense, intuition, trial and error, and luck.

As a charter authorizer, Fordham's experience with digital learning has been humbling and frustrating, in part because we have struggled ??? along with many others ??? to define success for the digital learning programs and policies we have supported. Rick acknowledges how hard all this is in his paper and our on-the-ground experience confirms his analysis.

We have had two direct experiences with trying to help birth quality digital learning opportunities for children in the Buckeye State through ???hybrid??? charter schools. The first was in 2007 when the two schools we authorize in Dayton piloted EdisonLearning's E2 education program. At the time Edison described the effort as a ???multi-million dollar R&D project to engineer whole school design.??? Key to the E2 design was ???a new realm of curricula that is as effective as it is efficient in meeting the individual learning needs of the next generation. Diverse software and web-based applications, like ALEKS, Achieve3000, and Rosetta Stone, expand access to information and offer effective one-on-one instruction to ensure that every child is optimally challenged.??? E2 relied heavily on the use of technology and digital learning to customize instruction for K-8 students. Students spent a significant portion (two to three hours a day) of their time using technology guided instruction.

Edison committed serious resources, talent, and energy to the effort and as authorizer of the two schools we did our best to understand what Edison was doing and to gauge whether or not the blended learning effort was working for kids. Frankly, this was hard for us to do because the only data we had to validate the effectiveness of the program were state test scores and data shared with us by Edison. The state test scores showed mixed results while the Edison data showed student achievement trending upwards in both schools. After two years of serious commitment, Edison largely moved on from the E2 effort in Dayton. We came away disenchanted from the experience because we couldn't find solid evidence of student learning gains. We also came away appreciative of just how hard and expensive it is to integrate digital learning experiences and opportunities into the academic program of high-need urban schools, and how difficult it is to create viable accountability models for such programs.

Our second effort working with a school to launch a blended learning model that integrated digital learning opportunities with traditional class-room based instruction was this past school year. Our partner in this venture was a well-regarded and successful on-line charter school that had been established by one of the state's larger consortia of school districts. As authorizer, we offered the school a one-year pilot contract; both we and the partner understood we were moving into unchartered territory and that the model could fail.

In seeking to hold the school accountable for its student performance we came up with three questions for gauging the school's academic success. The three questions got at what Rick referred to in his paper as ???input-oriented, outcome-driven and market-based approaches to promoting quality.??? The questions in our contract language were:

  1. Are the students enrolled in the community school making substantial gains from autumn 2010 to spring 2011, as measured using a nationally norm-referenced test? ????
  2. Has the school implemented sound learning opportunities and curricula for students?
  3. Is the school attractive to its student market? Does it have at least 25 kids enrolled?

Over the course of the year we also made regular visits to the school and spoke with students and teachers to get their comments and feedback on what was going on and if they felt learning was taking place. All of this, of course, was done in the traditional compliance framework facing all charter schools in Ohio, so we and the school still had to worry about things like total number of hours of instruction offered, special-education requirements, etc. After a rocky pilot year both we and the school operator decided to non-renew the charter contract.

Neither we nor the operator have given up on the belief that digital learning has the potential to change schools and schooling in a revolutionary way, but it is clear that creating working models and designing ways to hold them accountable is, as Rick says, ???a formidable task.??? It is a task many frontline educators in Ohio and across the country are willing to embrace and having top-notch thinkers like Rick Hess offer guidance on how to proceed is badly needed and truly appreciated. Our experience would also urge humility as there will surely be a number of missteps and set-backs along??the way.

-Terry Ryan

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