The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly A Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 11, Number 45. November 17, 2011.
Special Digital-Learning Edition

New from Fordham: Two New Papers from Our “Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning” Series

Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series

The latest installments of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series address the implications of this education revolution for teachers and school finance. In one paper, Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel describe how digital learning could unbundle teacher roles in ways that would reshape the field to the benefit of both educators and students. They also show how existing policies could hinder that transformation. In the other, Paul T. Hill delves into why our present school-funding system presents a grave threat to digital learning’s promise, and proposes creative yet streamlined solutions to the problem. Explore both papers for a preview of American education’s future.

Gadfly will be knee-deep in mashed potatoes, hopped up on tryptophan, and screaming at the Cowboys next Thursday. He’ll return first thing in December. Enjoy your Thanksgiving!

The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly The Education Gadfly
Listen to the Podcast Subscribe to the Gadfly

Read Fordham's blog Flypaper

Follow us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter
Opinion and Analysis

Like peanut butter and chocolate: Digital learning and excellent teachers go well together
With you for me, and me for you…
Opinion | Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel

For next-generation learning, we need next-generation funding
Dear funding structure,
Stop crippling innovation.
Sincerely, Paul
Opinion | Paul T. Hill

A green thumb for online learning
Great reforms need to be cultivated
News Analysis

Short Reviews

Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice
Expanding digital learning the most inefficient way possible: One district at a time
Review | Laura Johnson

Online and Blended Learning: A Survey of Policy and Practice from K-12 Schools Around the World
Has anyone got this figured out yet?
Review | Daniela Fairchild

Online K-12 Schooling in the U.S.: Uncertain Private Venture in Need of Public Regulation
Surprisingly sound recommendations from the anti-capatalists
Review | Ty Eberhardt

From The Web

At least the Occupiers have good fashion sense
Mike and Rick reunite and deliver the goods on collective bargaining, parenting, and more
Education Gadfly Show Podcast | Hosts: Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess

Dealing with disingenuous teacher unions: There are no shortcuts
An imperfect democracy
Flypaper's Finest | November 14, 2011 | Mike Petrilli

Hey, big spender
What “living within their means” will mean
Flypaper's Finest | November 14, 2011 | Chris Tessone


To waive or not to waive
A good time to be a geek
Briefly Noted

Governance: The final education-reform frontier
Learn more at our December 1 conference

Choose Fordham. Choose choice.
We’re hiring a “school-choice czar”

Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Approaches
Two cups output measures, six measures market-based accountability, and input regulations to taste
Featured Fordham Publication

Opinion and News Analysis

Opinion: Like peanut butter and chocolate: Digital learning and excellent teachers go well together
By Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel

Click to read the papers from "Creating Sound Policy"We don’t doubt that the digital future will transform education—along with practically everything else. But rather than seeing it as a painful (and politically volatile) trade-off between technology and teachers, we propose that digital education needs excellent teachers and that a first-rate teaching profession needs digital education. Schools will not require as many conventional teachers as they did yesterday, but those they need will be crucial—and will be able to tap top-notch technology and instructional support teams to achieve excellence at scale. These teachers will get paid more, too, potentially a lot more. And all this can be done within tight budgets so long as education systems judiciously blend technology and people.

Digital learning has the potential to transform the teaching profession in three major ways:

  • Extending the reach of excellent teachers to more students.
  • Attracting and retaining more excellent teachers.
  • Boosting effectiveness and job options for average teachers.

Extending the reach of the best. In the digital future, teacher effectiveness will matter even more than today. As digital learning spreads, students worldwide will gain access to core knowledge and skills instruction. What will increasingly differentiate outcomes for schools, states, and nations is how well responsible adults carry out the more complex instructional tasks: motivating students to go the extra mile, teaching them time management, addressing social and emotional issues that affect their learning, and diagnosing problems and making the right changes when learning stalls.

The top 20 or 25 percent of teachers already meet these challenges. But in traditional classrooms, they only reach 20 to 25 percent of students. That’s where digital learning can help.

Digital technology, along with changes in teacher roles and schedules, should make it possible for top teachers to assume responsibility for all students, not just a fraction of them.

America’s education leaders will need courage to make bold changes in a profession that has remained static as other enterprises have advanced.


For example, by replacing a quarter to a half of initial instruction and practice in some subjects, digital instruction can free excellent teachers’ time, enabling them to take responsibility for more students—while keeping similar class sizes and gaining planning time. These “time-technology swaps” are already used in top-performing schools that combine digital learning with excellent teachers to boost results.

Digital tools can also connect excellent teachers working live with students across the hall, state, or nation—using web cameras and email. Shy instructional masters can help design smart software to personalize learning. Star-performing content masters can go viral on digital video, and someday holograms, to millions of students anywhere, who, with excellent teachers, can convert that access into stellar learning.

Attracting and retaining the best. Digital learning will also transform career opportunities for excellent teachers. As they reach more students, they should earn more out of the per-pupil funds generated by the expanded number of students. Greater opportunities for advancement and  pay will, in turn, make the profession a more attractive long-term career for top performers, wooing unfulfilled engineers and lawyers into a better life.

Boosting effectiveness and job options for average teachers. Digital tools will also help average teachers by freeing their time, providing frequent data about their students, serving up tailored professional development, and letting them play focused roles tapping their strengths. They’ll be able to join teams that support fully accountable excellent teachers, with the chance to develop and become excellent instructors themselves.

Of course, not all of today’s teachers will benefit from these transformations. As we require fewer lead teachers per pupil, schools will be able to shed their least effective teachers. Some of today’s full teaching jobs will be replaced by new roles, such as digital lab monitors, tutors, and positions performing non-instructional duties. Such positions will likely have shorter hours but lower pay. The net effect will be a smaller but much stronger and better paid teacher workforce supported by an array of support staff and digital tools, just as we see in most other professions.

Employing technology to transform the teaching profession in ways that benefit students holds enormous promise. That promise will go unrealized, however, without significant changes in policies and management systems, in the allocation of funds, in technology infrastructure, and, perhaps most importantly, in the demand for better outcomes.

America’s education leaders will need courage to make bold changes in a profession that has remained static as other enterprises have advanced. Without that, our children—and our teachers—will forfeit the enormous opportunities made possible by digital technology while other nations seize them and soar beyond us.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on teachers and financing in the digital-education future from the Education Gadfly Show Podcast.


Opinion: For next-generation learning, we need next-generation funding 
By Paul T. Hill

Futurists have long regaled us with predictions about technology dramatically improving education by giving millions more students access to the very best teachers and deploying computer-based systems that allow them to learn at their own pace at whatever time and place works best for them. This vision is now becoming a reality, partly because tight budgets are forcing K-12 schools to employ fewer teachers and boost the productivity of those who remain.

Saving money is only part of technology’s educational potential, however. More important is individualization and rapid adaptation to what a student is learning, leading to the possibility of greater and more consistent growth. Managing equipment, web links, and vendor contracts is also far nimbler than reorganizing people.

Our current education finance system doesn’t actually fund schools and certainly doesn’t fund students.


All this potential notwithstanding, however, plenty of policy and structural barriers stand in the way of widespread adoption of technology in K-12 education. Perhaps the toughest of these is our traditional approach to school funding.

Simply put: Our current education finance system doesn’t actually fund schools and certainly doesn’t fund students. Rather, it pays for district-wide programs and staff positions. Much of it is locked into personnel contracts and salary schedules—and most of the rest is locked into bureaucratic routine. It’s next to impossible to shift resources from established programs and flesh-and-blood workers into new uses like equipment, software, and remote instructional staff. Yet to foster and maximize technology-based learning opportunities, we must find ways for public dollars to do just that—and to accompany kids to online providers chosen by their parents, teachers, or themselves.

Today’s school funding arrangement developed haphazardly, a product of politics and advocacy, not design. Some of the money comes from the state, some from Washington, and some is generated locally. This translates into a labyrinth of rules and regulations connected to a maze of separate funding paths, each with its own “allowable uses” and reporting requirements. Education innovators get trapped in this maze—which is even harder to escape when budget totals are flat.

coins standing on side photo

An innovative way to handle school monies.
Photo by Michael Ocampo

This is a particular problem for digital learning, because today’s funding arrangements assume that a student will attend a specific school, where salaries and other costs are paid by the district. Little money actually flows through the school itself. Most of the budget is accounted for by staff positions that are centrally allocated according to school size.

Because funds cannot easily be channeled into new uses, promising innovations cannot be fully developed or persuasively demonstrated in K-12 education. Which is good reason for visionaries and innovators to take their best technological applications into realms other than education.

What would it take for education funding to be transformed into a system that promotes digital learning and technological innovation? Public dollars would have to go to the best possible instruction for students, utilizing any means that can work. That means our system fur funding public education would need to:

  • Fund education, not institutions;
  • Move money as students move;
  • Pay for unconventional forms of instruction as readily as for conventional schools;
  • Withhold funding from ineffective programs; and
  • Encourage innovation by ensuring people who have new ideas about instruction can, if families want to use them, access public funding.  

If states and localities (and Uncle Sam) would combine all the money they now spend on K-12 education and divide it up by enrollment, with the same or a weighted fraction of the total assigned to each child, and then distribute these dollars to schools in the same way, they would sweep away the major obstacles to innovation and improvement in today’s funding system. They would also compel a dramatic reduction in overhead. Money would not be held centrally to preserve particular schools, job slots or programs, but would go wherever children are educated. This would allow new uses of funds, an essential precondition to innovation and widespread use of digital learning.

A technology-friendly funding system would apply to all students no matter where they receive their education and no matter how many instructional providers serve them. To make this happen, some government entity—probably the state—would need to assemble all of the funds available from all sources, keep an account for every student, and faithfully allocate its contents to whatever school or education program a student attends. Each student’s account would, in a sense, constitute a “backpack” of funding that the student would carry with her to any eligible school or program in which she enrolls—wherever it may be located.

If her family decided to rely on one school or instructional provider for all of that child’s education, all of the money would go to that school or provider. Some youngsters, however, would enroll in courses provided by different organizations, in which case the funds would be divided. Students and families would be free to shop for the best combination of courses and experiences their backpack of funds could cover. Providers would compete, both on the quality and effectiveness of their services and on cost. States could create a list of ineffective providers that were ineligible to receive public funds.

Every school or independent instructional provider would have to post its prices. No school or online provider could charge more than the full amount in a student’s backpack.

This portable, flexible, student-based funding system would instantly impact the budgets of existing schools and create powerful incentives for them to improve their offerings so as not to lose pupils to other institutions or course providers. At the same time, innovators (educators and social-service professionals with new ideas) would be encouraged by knowing that they could get full funding for every student enrolled in their school or program.

To be sure, funding systems can’t cause innovation—they can only interfere with or foster it. Whether innovation occurs, at what pace, and to what ultimate benefit, depends on other factors. But a finance system such as that described here would make promising breakthroughs much more likely—and much more likely to scale rapidly. School finance would be placed into the service of improved learning rather than left as a major impediment to it.


News Analysis: A green thumb for online learning

bonsai tree photo

Get your scissors, we'll show you how it's done.
Photo by Antonio Gonzalez Tajuelo

Like a bonsai, digital education must be cultivated—with policies that foster its growth and trim its unruly branches. Yet, too few are ready or willing to tend—and bend—this growing plant. Instead, divided camps have emerged. As the Wall Street Journal reports this week, “the drive to reinvent school has…set off an explosive clash with teachers unions and backers of more traditional education.” This group—balking at the potential loss of rigor, loss of teachers, loss of interpersonal connections associated with online schooling—stands ready to uproot the fledgling digital-learning initiative. In the other camp are those blind proponents of online ed, who extol its rigor, instructional prowess, and its intrinsic quality-control mechanisms. Responding to the Journal’s piece, Tom Vander Ark personified this movement. Like charter-school advocates of the mid-1990s, Vander Ark and co. sit contented to overwater and under shape digital ed, allowing it to grow unfettered, creating a free-form—and potentially ugly—product. Yet both extremes are wrong. Digital education can and should become a valuable alternative to traditional education. But this cannot happen without a smart sharpening of our policy scissors, and the application of a deft hand to its sculpting. Bonsai!

My Teacher Is an App,” by Stephanie Banchero and Stephanie Simon, The Wall Street Journal, November 12, 2011.

WSJ Picks Problems, Misses the Promise of Learning Online,” by Tom Vander Ark, Getting Smart, November 12, 2011.


Short Reviews

Review: Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice
By Laura Johnson

Keeping Pace coverThis eighth edition of Keeping Pace—digital education’s yearbook cum encyclopedia—offers promising statistics for online-learning proponents: All fifty states and D.C. now offer at least some sort of online or blended learning opportunity, with digital course enrollment jumping 19 percent in the last year alone. Good news. But there’s more. At an average per pupil expense of about $7,000, full-time online learning can cost thousands less than the average brick-and-mortar experience. Other trends are interesting. Notably, single-district programs have grown the fastest in 2011—with consortia programs greatly expanding as well. (Implementation of the Common Core standards will likely spur states to adopt this consortium model as well, say the authors.) Yet other trends serve as reminders that we have yet to unlock the full potential of online learning: Digital programs are serving a disproportionately low percentage of minorities, free and reduced price lunch students, English language learners, and students with disabilities. For those looking to winkle out digital-learning statistics, get a lay of the digital-learning landscape, or see how their own state fares in this realm, Keeping Pace won’t disappoint.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on Keeping Pace from the Education Gadfly Show Podcast.

John Watson, Amy Murin, Lauren Vashaw, et al., Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice (Durango, CO: Evergreen Education Group, 2011).


Review: Online and Blended Learning: A Survey of Policy and Practice from K-12 Schools Around the World
By Daniela Fairchild

Online and Blended Learning report coverThis iNACOL (International Association for K-12 Online Learning) report, a follow-up to its 2006 survey, profiles the digital-learning status of fifty countries from Albania to Thailand. It documents global trends, issues, and challenges relating to digital learning—and shows that the questions and concerns surrounding digital education in the U.S. permeate national borders, much like the internet itself. Atop the list of challenges: Survey respondents cited a lack of knowledge of (and thus an interest in) digital learning. Lack of funding was also a key barrier to online-ed proliferation, survey respondents said. Unfortunately (though understandably, given the scope), the report’s broad brush strokes offer little by way of detail and even fewer international lessons for the States—even in the nine country case studies. For more specifics, we’ll have to look elsewhere.

Michael Barbour, et al., Online and Blended Learning: A Survey of Policy and Practice from K-12 Schools Around the World (Vienna, VA: International Association for K-12 Online Learning, November 2011).


Online K-12 Schooling in the U.S.: Uncertain Private Venture in Need of Public Regulation
By Tyson Eberhardt

“Most changes in the ways schools operate can be thought of as tools,” write Gene Glass, Kevin Welner, and Justin Bathon in their recent policy brief. “Used well, such tools can be beneficial; used poorly, they can be harmful.” Agreed. The problem is that these authors seem convinced of online learning’s malevolence. Their evidence is the presence of for-profits in the digital-ed sector. Behind the proliferation of online schools—usually charters—the authors see corporate interests determined to squeeze dollars out of a poorly regulated yet potentially vast market with few consumer protections. Private companies, they charge, will reap fortunes by offering an inferior product at inflated prices, enabled by cozy relationships with lawmakers. Further, they assert, research on the effects of digital learning is minimal, arguing that this “evidentiary void” is reason enough to slow expansion of online-ed programs. (As if any innovation came with an issued-in-advance “proof of quality” guarantee!) The conclusion is thus drawn: In all but the most limited and tightly regulated forms, digital schooling will only wreak havoc on the American education system. For those with even a modicum of faith in school choice and the free market, theirs is an exasperating argument—which is why the general reasonableness of Glass’s, Welner’s, and Bathon’s policy proposals is so surprising. They recommend that states: Authenticate student work, accredit online schools, audit their finances, and regulate aspects of instruction and function: OK! Of course digital learning could go off the tracks without thoughtful oversight and planning; advocates would be wise to lead the charge for rational (yet minimal) regulation before the fear mongering of digital learning’s critics gains traction.

Gene V. Glass, Kevin Welner, and Justin Bathon, Online K-12 Schooling in the U.S.: Uncertain Private Venture in Need of Public Regulation (Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center, October 2011).


From The Web

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: At least the Occupiers have good fashion sense

With the closing of Zuccotti Park, Rick is back with the podcast in full force—shorts, Birkenstocks, and all. He talks with Mike about Fordham’s new digital-learning papers, union-school board incest, and our parenting problem. Amber reads from the digital-learning encyclopedia and Chris gives corporate sponsorship an A-plus.

The Education Gadfly
Click to listen to the podcast on our website. You can also download the podcast here or subscribe on iTunes here.


Flypaper's Finest: Dealing with disingeneous teacher unions: There are no shortcuts
By Mike Petrilli

After its big referendum victory last week, Ohio teachers union vice president Bill Leibensperger said “There has always been room to talk. That’s what collective bargaining is about. You bring adults around a table to talk about serious issues.”… 

And to be sure, you can find examples of unions—of police, firefighters, even teachers—who have agreed to freeze wages or reduce benefits in order to protect the quality of services or keep colleagues from being laid off. But they are the exceptions that prove the rule.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.


Flypaper's Finest: Hey, big spender
By Chris Tessone

We are going to see increasing in-fighting among big government types as big-spending school districts compete for resources with the rest of the agenda supported by the public fisc. Schools are increasingly going to lose those battles, which they’re not used to. Today’s example comes from Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live.…

The Education Gadfly
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.




Briefly Noted: To waive or not to waive

  • Are Duncan’s waivers necessary or illegal? Are they both? Martha Derthick and Andy Rotherham offer their takes on the issue in the latest Education Next. And given that eleven states have just filed their early-round waiver applications, these are important questions.
  • Nerds in the ranks, breathe a sigh of relief for your younger compatriots—those still walking the halls of America’s secondary schools. The influx of blended learning and tech-enabled education has made the need for lockers a thing of the past in some schools. Maybe, soon, no more pencil-pushers will need to spend third period crammed inside one.
  • You’ve got to give it to Californians for thinking outside the legislative box. Last week, a group in Los Angeles conjured up a forty-year-old law to sue the district for not implementing rigorous teacher evaluations. This week, a statewide group frustrated with the legislature’s failure to loosen restrictions to online learning is grabbing up signatories to a new Student Bill of Rights that would greatly expand access to digital education.
  • Education is evolving—digital education is blossoming and the power of the teacher unions is weakening. It’s simply the natural order of things, argues Larry Sand in the latest City Journal (drawing off Terry Moe’s arguments in Special Interest).
  • Looks like ESEA reauthorization is now stalled until 2012. Too bad Mike’s 7 for ’11 won’t all come to pass…
  • Here’s a great use for Race to the Top funds: Florida has partnered with the Charter School Growth Fund to offer scale-up grants to its proven charters and CMOs. Not a bad idea, indeed.


Announcement: Governance: The final education-reform frontier

Twenty years from now, which of the education reforms enacted over the past two decades will remain? How many will have crumbled under their own weight—unsupported by the system around them? Our guess is that many will fall victim to the latter fate. For these smart policy reforms to take hold, they need to be buttressed by a revamped structure and revitalized governance system.  To hash out what this brave new world might look like, Fordham and the Center for American Progress have teamed up—and assembled some of the best-and-brightest from the policy and academic worlds. Join us for the all-day conference on December 1 . For a full schedule and list of panelists, and to register, click here.


Announcement: Choose Fordham. Choose choice.

Part blogger, part spokesperson, part wonk—Fordham is on the hunt for a director of our parental-choice program. If you’re a fantastic writer and savvy researcher with a passion for school choice in its many flavors, go ahead, live the dream. Come work for Fordham. Read the full job description here.


Fordham's featured publication: Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Approaches

Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series

In this first of six papers on digital learning commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Frederick M. Hess addresses the challenges of quality control in the brave new world of digital education. Read on to learn more.


The Education Gadfly is published weekly (ordinarily on Thursdays), with occasional breaks, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Regular contributors include Tyson Eberhardt, Daniela Fairchild, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Chris Irvine, Michael Ishimoto, Laura Johnson, Matthew C. Kyle, Jamie Davies O’Leary, Emmy Partin, Michael J. Petrilli, Terry Ryan, Janie Scull, Bianca Speranza, Chris Tessone, and Amber Winkler. Have something to say? Email us at Find archived issues or other reviews of reports and books here.

Follow the commentary online:  Twitter Facebook YouTube

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is a nonprofit organization that conducts research, issues publications, and directs action projects in elementary and secondary education reform at the national level and in Ohio, with a special emphasis on our hometown of Dayton. (For Ohio news, check out our Ohio Education Gadfly, published bi-weekly, ordinarily on Wednesdays.) The Institute is neither connected with nor sponsored by Fordham University.

Unsubscribe here.

powered by CONVIO
nonprofit software