Digital Learning

Just in time for Christmas, my Fordham colleague Mike Petrilli has left a present under the tree for inquisitive children and busy parents who don’t think the sky will fall if the kids get a little screen time now and again (it won’t).

Over the course of a year’s blog posts, and with the help of several able Fordham interns, Mike curated some of the best streaming web videos on Netflix, Amazon, and elsewhere. He then aligned them with the Core Knowledge Sequence, a robust list of subjects from pre-K to eighth grade that undergirds the curriculum at some of the nation’s most successful schools. These have now been repackaged into a neat little website he’s calling “Netflix Academy.” Homeschoolers for whom Core Knowledge is a subject of near-religious devotion will also be grateful for this resource. 

You’ll find videos on science, literature, and U.S. and world history. Click on “Science,” for example, and you’ll see a drop-down menu organized by knowledge domains (aquatic life, mammals, insects, outer space, etc.). Within each domain are direct links to streaming videos from Netflix, National Geographic, PBS, YouTube, and others sources. You’ll also find movie versions of classic children’s book and lots more. It’s entertainment with high caloric content.

“As E.D. Hirsch Jr. has argued for a quarter-century, the early elementary years are the ideal time to introduce children to the wonders of history (natural and otherwise), geography, literature, art, music, and more,” Mike writes.

I heartily agree....

With belts tightening in communities across the land, education leaders are exploring novel ways to stretch the school dollar. One such approach is “personalized learning,” i.e., using technology to tailor coursework to individual students while making better use of teachers’ time. To determine whether personalized learning is helping schools get more bang for the buck, the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) is conducting a cost study of twenty schools that received grants from the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) initiative. In this brief, CRPE—halfway through its two-year study—presents its early findings from eight new charter schools, each of which was awarded $150,000 in their planning year and a matching grant of up to $300,000 during their first year of implementation. Unfortunately, CRPE found that these early implementers significantly missed their revenue projections: the median shortfall in private revenue (donations from philanthropies) was $120,600 per school (or 30 percent of expected donations), and the median shortfall in public revenue (due to lower than expected enrollment) was $135,000 per school (the median was off the mark by eighteen students, or 14 percent of forecasted enrollment). These missed projections forced the schools to cut budgets, and six out of the eight schools reverted to a more traditional budget model, investing more in labor and less in technology. (Some cuts were quite savvy, though: one principal, for instance, cut more than $100,000 from the school’s tech budget by switching from Macbook Air computers to cheaper Chromebooks.) In light of these experiences,...

For families seeking more than what their child’s assigned school offers, “school choice” has long been a cherished solution. And it’s made strong headway on the U.S. education-policy front. Millions of girls and boys now enjoy access to a range of educational options thanks to innovative school-choice policies.

Sometimes, however, changing schools isn’t the optimal solution—perhaps because no better options are available within a reasonable commute, because the state doesn’t have a viable choice policy, or because the student’s present school is satisfactory in all but a couple of areas. Enter “course choice,” a strategy for widening the education options available to youngsters. As a new white paper from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute argues, it has the potential to dramatically expand access to high-quality courses for many more children from many more backgrounds and locales than we have thus far managed.

Rather than asking kids in need of a better shake to change homes, forsake their friends, or take long bus rides, course choice enables them to learn from the best teachers in the state or nation while staying in their neighborhood schools. It grants them access to an array of course offerings that no one school can realistically gather under its roof, while offering a new revenue opportunity for schools and additional income for public-school teachers. How many Sal Khans are in our schools today just waiting for an opportunity to expand their...

After twenty years of expanding school-choice options, state leaders, educators, and families have a new tool: course choice, a strategy for students to learn from unconventional providers that might range from top-tier universities or innovative community colleges to local employers, labs, or hospitals.

In Expanding the Education Universe: A Fifty-State Strategy for Course Choice, Fordham’s Michael Brickman outlines policy questions and options to weigh when designing course-choice programs, including issues of student eligibility, course providers, funding, quality control, and accountability.

Spotlight: Course Choice in Louisiana

Louisiana is not the only state with a course-choice program (others include Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin), but it is the farthest along in making such options widely accessible—and the way it has handled any challenges posed by these programs make it an ideal exemplar. Read about barriers that State Superintendent John White and other leaders have had to overcome in designing and implementing course choice.

Download the report: Expanding the Education Universe: A Fifty-State Strategy for Course Choice

The digital revolution is sweeping across Ohio. This year, twenty-six e-schools, twelve of which serve students throughout the state, will educate 40,000 or so youngsters. Countless more students will learn in a “blended” classroom or take an online course at their brick-and-mortar school.

One emerging use of technology is to help secondary students recover credit.  At first glance, the flexibility of online learning seems to be tailor-made for students who, for whatever reason, are in dire need of credit recovery. But in her recent Education Next article, journalist Sarah Carr documents a few of the flies in the ointment when it comes to this nascent, computer-based approach to credit recovery.

First, the data and research about online credit-recovery are simply far “too incomplete.” According to an AIR analyst with whom Carr spoke, “Even basic questions are unanswered, like the size of the business [i.e., online learning providers] and the size of the need.” Second, she finds that there is practically no way to determine the quality of an online course provider. In fact, Carr described a New Orleans school where the principal ditched one provider because its courses failed to engage her students and the quizzes were mostly recycled until the student passed them. Lacking an external quality-control authority, the vetting of online courses remains the duty of local educators. Third, Carr provides a few examples of how credit-recovery can be misused and abused. She cites a New York City incident in which administrators pushed failing...

The goal is innovation and excellence in education, the preferred avenues are digital-learning approaches in any of various forms, and the work is geared toward removing barriers to these approaches: that is the background of Digital Learning Now’s 2013 report card, released last week. The report card measures and grades K–12 education policies in each of the nation’s fifty states against the ten elements that they determined were important to ensure high-quality digital learning (among them embracing new education models, utilizing technology to expand personalized learning, and eliminating barriers to blended learning). The top states this year were Utah and Florida, the only two to get as high as an A–. Ten states were in the B range, and the rest were C+ and below. So, how’d Ohio do? Overall, we scrounged up a D, as did Hawaii and Alaska. We were higher than Pennsylvania and Kentucky but far below Indiana and Michigan. Ohio’s bright spot was in the area of “quality instruction,” for which we received a B+, but that still left us in the middle of the pack, our overall grade pulled down by lack of appropriate funding and less-than-open access to bring that quality instruction equitably across the state. However, Ohio was singled out for a “high note” to end the year: the first round of Straight-A Fund awards in December.

Source: Digital Learning Now, 2013 Digital Learning Report Card (Excellence in Education, March, 2014)...

Like any relic of the industrial revolution, it’s time we took a wrench to the American education system. Or a bulldozer, argues Glenn Reynolds, distinguished professor of law at the University of Tennessee and InstaPundit blogger. In this book, he contends that the system will soon break down and reform will be unavoidable. In the first half of the book, he focuses on higher education, while in the second he touches on the K–12 bubble. Reynolds points out that the cost of education rapidly ballooned over the past few decades, while the substance diminished in value. College tuition has increased 7.45 percent per year since 1978, even outstripping the cost of housing (4.3 percent per year). Meanwhile, the real cost of K–12 education nearly tripled in that time. For all that expense, K–12 test scores have flat lined since 1970, and a study featured in the book Academically Adrift found that 36 percent of students demonstrated no academic improvement after four years in college. Meanwhile, society teaches teenagers to be infantile consumers of an inherently valuable education and blinds them to their potential value as skillful producers. Reynolds concludes that advances in technology and innovations in choice will bring reform and that public schools can either embrace that change or become obsolete. Parents and students will begin to reassess the skewed cost/value ratio and demand fundamental restructuring. While the book offers few substantive suggestions and no timeline, it does serve as a reminder that like any defective product, it...

In the last hundred years, the base of the United States economy has shifted from industry to knowledge—but the average American classroom operates in much the same way it always has: one teacher, up to thirty same-age students, four walls. This report from StudentsFirst argues that this one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t cut it in the modern world, in which mastery of higher-order knowledge and skills ought to matter more than time spent in front of a teacher—and that what we need is competency-based education. This approach, also known as the “personalized model,” is characterized by advancing students through school based on what they know and can do, using assessments to give them timely, differentiated support, made easier by the introduction of learning technology. The authors highlight the Chugach School District in Alaska as a leader in personalized learning: it replaced grade levels with ten performance levels, requiring all students to demonstrate a minimum proficiency of 80 percent of the material before moving to the next level. With these innovations in place, Chugach surged from the twentieth percentile in reading to the eightieth on the nationally normed California Achievement Test. Its system inspired the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC) model, which is used now in 173 schools serving 80,500 students nationwide. But in order for personalized learning to work, schools must be flexible and focus on competency—a real hurdle.

SOURCE: StudentsFirst, A Personalized Future for Education: Moving into the Twenty-First Century and Beyond (Sacramento, CA: StudentsFirst, 2013)....

Class size is an incessant policy issue—something like a leaky faucet. The din of the class-size debate drips in the background while the thunderclaps roar (Common Core! Charters!). Many parents and teachers drone on about class-size reductions; fiscal hawks want class-size increases. Meanwhile, wonks have observed America’s shrinking teacher to pupil ratio, with trivial achievement gains to boot.

Education reformers—including Fordham (see our excellent, brand-new Right-sizing the Classroom study)—have urged commonsense policies that put a school’s best teachers in front of more students. Doing this may boost student achievement—perhaps, as we found in our study, more so in upper-grade levels than elementary. But oftentimes this means the scrapping maximum class size mandates etched into teacher contracts or state law, a difficult task. Bryan Hassel, co-director of Public Impact, articulates this position well, saying, “Ideally, schools would focus on increasing the number of students their best teachers have responsibility for.”

But it is MOOCs (“Massive Open Online Courses”) that have the potential to stretch the class-size debate the furthest. MOOCs could put the nation’s best teachers—not just a school’s best teachers—in front of more students. Presently, these online courses run the gamut, from an advanced high-school/freshman college course to advanced college-level courses. Professors from the nation’s top rated colleges and universities teach the courses. One can select from a smorgasbord of topics: Coursera and edX—the major players in the MOOC market—publicize, for instance, courses in Data Analysis (Johns Hopkins), Jazz Appreciation (University of Texas), and...

Dear Deborah,

A healthy debate we've started indeed! I'm not sure we've bridged many differences, though; maybe we should change the blog's name to Bigging Differences.

In that spirit, let me float another provocative but commonsensical idea: We need to do everything we can—in our schools and in our larger social policies—to empower individuals who are working hard to climb the ladder to success. In other words, we need to spur on the strivers.

Let me explain some of...

As waves of reforms and would-be reforms have washed over American public education these past three decades, high schools have mostly stayed dry. Although test scores have risen slightly in the early grades, especially in math, National Assessment results for twelfth-graders have been flat or down a bit. SAT scores are also flat, and ACT averages much the same.

ACT, the organization that administers the college-entrance test of the same name, judges only one-quarter of its test-takers to be...

The introduction of the Common Core standards is shaking up the $7 billion textbook industry, according to this great piece by Sarah Garland. Traditionally monopolized by a few very large publishing Goliaths, such as Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the standards shift now favors small start-ups, which are nimbler and more eager to embrace change. Gadfly cheers the possibility that the Common Core could break up the behemoths’ oligopoly and pave the way for the little-but-fierce Davids, like Core Knowledge.

For the last few months, Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett has steadfastly refused to release $45 million...

It’s well known that graduating from high school is generally insufficient preparation to be competitive in today’s economy. Reformers hope, however, that higher standards through the Common Core might, in time, improve the value of the diploma. But what about those who don’t even graduate? As a new radio documentary, Yesterday’s Dropouts, from D.C.’s WAMU radio station shows, a GED is far from sufficient to get America’s thirty million high school dropouts back on track. In fact, the piece cites research by James Heckman and Tim Kautz that found that only 1 percent of GED earners went on...

Across the pond, education wonks plug away at solving problems and enacting reforms that will sound both familiar and not to our U.S. readers. Not least among these English reformers is Andrew Adonis: former Minister of Schools, advisor in the No. 10 Policy Unit under Tony Blair, and the well-known architect of the country’s burgeoning “academy” sector (what we would call “conversion charters”), built in reaction to high failure rates among non-selective public schools (over 50 percent were deemed to be failing in the 1990s). By the time Adonis left office in 2008, 133 academies were open and...

Mirroring their favored baseball teams, Mike and Dara duke it out over Philly school reform,  “private placement” in special education, and the pros and cons of tracking. Amber makes old news fresh.

What (ed-reformer) parents want. Read What Parents Want: Education Preferences and Trade-offs and take the quiz to see if you fall into one of our parent categories.

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