Bill Tucker's take on Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning

Bill Tucker

Guest blogger Bill Tucker, managing director of Education Sector, examines the latest installments in Fordham’s Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series in this post, which originally appeared on The Quick and the Ed.

Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction and School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era,
two new working papers in the Fordham Institute’s series on digital
learning, are welcome additions to the often narrow debates around
online learning.

“Teachers,” written by Public Impact’s Bryan and Emily Hassel, opens
with an important and refreshing perspective: “that digital education
needs excellent teachers and that the teaching profession needs digital
education.” Rather than replacing teachers, the authors see digital
learning as transforming teaching — both by offering tools for
traditional classroom teachers and by enabling entirely new ways of
teaching. Often missing from conversations around technology, the paper
outlines the varied roles that teachers play, including helping with
motivation, social and emotional support, and stretching critical
thinking and analytical skills. It concludes that the future is a much
more differentiated field, with a smaller number of higher-paid, more
empowered teachers acting in teams with a variety of specialized and
lower-paid support personnel. (School of One offers one glimpse of this future.)

Some of the paper’s most interesting discussions touch on new
administrative structures and the role of unions. The authors see
today’s teacher evaluation battles as a relic of an old one-classroom,
one-teacher model. Instead, they envision a different form of
accountability, such as that in a small professional firm, where one
person takes on both leadership and administrative responsibility to
coordinate a variety of teaching personnel and supporting technology
tools. They reject the notion
that digital learning is necessarily a union-killer. Instead, they see a
role for a new type of union, modeled perhaps after the Screen Actors
Guild, which provides employment and pay security in increasingly
differentiated teacher roles, but does not constrain top performers. One
quibble though, is that when the paper discusses these new models, it
too often uses a static, more-effective/least-effective teacher frame. A
more helpful frame might place the same weight on effective teaching,
but explore the interdependency between a teachers’ role and
effectiveness.

Overall, the paper both rightly recognizes the fallacy of technology
replacing teachers and appropriately posits that digital tools will be
limited in potential if shoved into traditional teaching models.
Additional exploration should go even further, contemplating how digital
learning might also change and possibly more tightly align the roles
of informal and out-of-school educators, including those in museums,
cultural institutions, youth development programs, and of course, homes.

The second paper, written by Paul Hill, details how current school
funding systems conflict with new forms of digital learning that cross
school, district, and time boundaries:

The problem boils down to this: Our system doesn’t fund
schools, and certainly doesn’t fund students. It funds district-wide
programs, staff positions, and so forth. This makes it difficult, if not
impossible, to move money from concrete facilities, established
programs, and entrenched staff roles to new uses like equipment,
software, and remote instructional staff. Yet to encourage development
and improvement of technology-based methods, we must find ways for
public dollars to do just that—and to follow kids to online providers
chosen by their parents, teachers, or themselves.

Hill blames this funding rigidity — not the lack of ideas from
teachers, principals, or innovators — for the relative scarcity of
education innovation at scale. And, while states have developed
workaround solutions, few go far enough. His solution: a new
“follow-the-child” funding system. While many states already have what
is often called weighted-student funding, where funding follows students
to their educational institutions and is weighted to account for
greater needs, such as those of an English language learner, a new
system needs to go beyond “whole school” models. In other words, if
digital learning “unbundles” school so that students can choose courses
and learning experiences from multiple places, as in Florida and other
states, then funding needs to be just as nimble. And, it even needs to
accommodate parents who want to assemble their own learning
experiences. Hill says:

Funds available for a child’s education must include all
the taxpayer funds available to support students’ education. To make
this happen, some government entity would need to assemble all of the
funds available from all sources for K-12 education in a locality, keep
an account for every student, and faithfully allocate its con-tents to
whatever school or education program a student attends.

Hill goes on to discuss important implications of these ideas,
including dilemmas around accountability and choice. And, while many
might reflectively reject Hill’s ideas as a digital-age voucher, there’s
also the kernel of another more radical idea. If taken to its logical
extreme, localities might not just assemble K-12 funding, but also
those for all sorts of other services, such as juvenile justice, mental
health, out-of-school programs, etc., enabling an approach that just
might resemble a digital-era Harlem Children’s Zone.

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