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
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:
the reach of excellent teachers to more students.
and retaining more excellent teachers.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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 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
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
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.
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
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
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
News Analysis: A green thumb for online learning
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!
Review: Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice
This 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 listen to commentary on Keeping Pace from the Education Gadfly Show Podcast.
Review: Online and Blended Learning: A Survey of Policy and Practice from K-12 Schools Around the World
This 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
Online K-12 Schooling in the U.S.: Uncertain Private Venture in Need of Public Regulation
“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.
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.
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
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
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.…
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Flypaper's Finest: Hey, big spender
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.…
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
- 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 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
- 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
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
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.