Digital Learning

“Doing more for less” was a mantra for school reformers four or five years ago, when school funding across the country hit its nadir. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute frequently argued in favor of using the economic crisis to do things differently. (See here, here, and here.) Much pain has accompanied the recent tough times. But there are school districts and educators across the county that have managed to turn crisis into opportunity, many of whom I’ve met in my work (with Fordham until 2012, and more recently with Bluum and ROCI in Idaho).

Reynoldsburg, Ohio, offers a good example. The city is about ten miles east of Columbus and serves about seven thousand students. Its school district’s annual budget took a 10 percent hit from 2008 to 2011, while it simultaneously saw a 10 percent increase in economically disadvantaged students (who currently make up about half of all the district’s students). Reynoldsburg also eliminated about 20 percent of its staff between October 2008 and October 2009 (see here for details).

Fast forward to this month: The Wall Street Journal reports that Reynoldsburg is in the midst of an overhaul defined by “a...

A new National Bureau of Economic Research paper examines the impact of access to Sesame Street on various short- and long-term academic and labor market outcomes. Analysts focus on cohorts of children born from 1959 to 1968. These subjects would have entered first grade between 1965 and 1974, around the time of Sesame Street’s birth in 1969.

The researchers examine the progress of students who would have been at least six years old and already in elementary school at the time of the first airing, as well as those five years of age and below (who would have been exposed to the program during their preschool years). They make use of the natural variation in exposure to the program by calculating, by county, the share of television-owning households that were able to receive a signal over which Sesame Street was broadcast. Two-thirds of the population is estimated to have lived in areas where Sesame Street could be received on their televisions.

Using U.S. Census data as their primary measure, the analysts find that kids with access to the program were more likely to proceed through school in the grade appropriate for their age; in other words, they were not held...

Matthew Ladner

This is the third entry in Fordham’s education savings account Wonkathon. This year, Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to opine on ESAs. Click to read earlier entries from Michael Goldstein and Seth Rau.

The public education system as we knew it in the mid-twentieth century had academic transparency that fell somewhere on the non-existent-to-scant spectrum. Academics were aware of achievement gaps in national data, for instance, but state- and (especially) campus-level academic or financial data were in short supply. Realtors served as the de facto information brokers of the public education system I enrolled into, in the Texas of the early 1970s, and they based their expert opinions on gossip and perhaps the ethnicity of the kids they saw running around on the playground.

We’ve come a long way, baby, but our notions of accountability must continue to evolve with the times. The statewide ESA program in Nevada poses a number of unique challenges that can be tackled with fresh thinking and thoughtful balances.

Our friends at Fordham posed the question thusly: “As Nevada implements its groundbreaking education savings account...

  • We can safely say that the Great Recession caused significant pain for American schools, ravaging state budgets and foisting teacher layoffs on some states and municipalities. But in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, at least, necessity has been the mother of more than just pink slips. The Columbus suburb has responded to shrinking revenues by reimagining its public schools and responsibly deploying technology in the classroom. Thanks to a new model of personalized learning, students can now enroll in one of four concentrated academies (chiseled out of what had been the district high school) and earn credit through internships and online classes. Enrollment is up 25 percent from four years ago, performance on state assessments has risen, and costs have been contained.
  • Some positive national trends have kept marching right through financial meltdown and mass unemployment—most notably the four-year graduation number, which has climbed steadily in the thirteen years since the passage of No Child Left Behind. But a fantastic (and imaginatively compiled) investigation from NPR reveals that staunching the flow of dropouts isn’t the same as producing students ready for college and career. Peaking graduation rates, the authors report, have resulted from a combination of new approaches: earlier interventions
  • ...

When the Foundation for Excellence in Education released its first “Digital Learning Report Card” in 2011, the state-by-state outlook for ed-tech innovation was worrying. Twenty-one states received failing grades. Four years on, the picture looks very different. While there are still only two states—Florida and Utah—earning A grades, this year’s scorecard shows half of them with improved grades and just five (Connecticut, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Tennessee) with Fs. Barriers to digital learning are falling fast.

The report card grades states on ten “elements of high-quality digital learning,” including whether students can advance by demonstrating proficiency (not merely by warming classroom seats for enough months) and whether they have the ability to customize their education through digital providers. And of course, the funding and infrastructure must be in place to support digital learning. Broadly speaking, the report praises states for adopting policies that embrace new models and ways of thinking, and shames them if they don’t. States might get dinged, for example, if they restrict student eligibility for online courses (allowing kids only to take online versions of courses already offered in schools seems truly pointless). That said, some of the report’s criteria feel more like an ed-tech enthusiast’s...

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at U.S. News & World Report.

I wanted to hate this book.

I’m a bit of an education technology skeptic, but I come by it honestly. No field overpromises and underdelivers more than education. And nowhere within education is that more true than among education tech’s various cheerleaders. For years, we’ve heard innovators, disruptors, and paradigm shifters natter on about twenty-first-century skills, flipped classrooms, and the “school of one.” Meanwhile, the experience of school for most kids remains the same, with the same mediocre outcomes year after year. Read my lips: No new TED Talks.

So I confess that I opened Greg Toppo’s The Game Believes in You with an arched eyebrow. I’m not ready to abandon my skepticism entirely, but Toppo made a persuasive case that games do many of the things we expect schools and teachers to do—differentiate instruction, gather data, and assess performance—and very, very well.

He started to win me over by not making the standard, clichéd education tech enthusiast’s argument about student engagement and “meeting the children where they are.” I don’t think...

We recently looked at an analysis of New Orleans school leaders’ perceptions of competition and their responses to it. The top response was marketing—simply shouting louder to parents about a school’s existing programs, or adding bells and whistles. If schools are academically strong, this is probably fine. But if academically weak schools can pump up their enrollment (and their funding streams) by simply touting themselves to parents more effectively than competing schools, then the intended effect of competition—improved performance among all players in the market—will be blunted or absent all together.

In New Orleans, it appears that the more intense competition is perceived to be, the more likely schools are to improve academic quality as a means of differentiation. Is a similar thing happening in the Buckeye State? Here’s a look at some anecdotal evidence on quality-centered competition effects.

New school models

Large urban school districts in Ohio have long decried the students “stolen” from them by charter schools, and nothing rankles diehard traditionalists like online schools. So it was a little surprising to find that Akron City Schools’ proposed 2015–16 budget contains a huge technology component, including plans to start an in-house online charter school....

In his proposed budget , Governor John Kasich calls for the creation of a competency-based education pilot program. Competency-based education is premised on the idea that students only move on to more complex concepts and skills after they master simpler ones. While that sounds somewhat negative at first blush, it also means that mastering current content quickly leads to advancing sooner than the standard march from grade to grade. Kasich’s proposal would provide grants to ten districts or schools that were selected through an application process created by the Ohio Department of Education to pilot the program.

The competency-based model goes by different names in different places. In Ohio, there are schools that already utilize it but call it something different: mastery grading. (Be sure to check out how schools like Metro Early College School and MC²STEM high school, as well as districts like Pickerington, make it work.) Mastery grading assesses students based on whether or not they’ve mastered specific skills and concepts. Instead of an overall grade that takes homework completion, daily assignments, class participation, and test grades that cover multiple standards into account to formulate an average, mastery grading breaks down a student’s...

Discussion of charter schools is everywhere in the Ohio news. Everyone has an angle, including a few unexpected ones:

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...

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