Digital Learning

Gary Kaplan

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education wisely decided this week to tack between the Scylla of MCAS and the Charybdis of PARCC. Following Commissioner Mitchell Chester’s recommendation, they chose to adopt MCAS 2.0, a yet-to-be-developed hybrid of the two options. Their adroit navigation calms the troubled waters for the time being. But choosing a test is only the beginning of the voyage. Strong and sustained tailwinds will be needed to swell the sails of student achievement.

A test is a measuring instrument. It shows where a student needs to improve, but it doesn’t provide instructional strategies and tools to achieve that improvement. Even without a new test, current state, local, and national assessments already generate more data than anyone can digest.   

Assessment data should directly drive instruction, and the instruction should be individualized to the student. This is the intent. But data-driven, individualized instruction can only take place online. Teachers can’t cut and paste textbooks—but software can be customized with a keystroke. Still, very few schools have the computers and software to support individualized online instruction.

MCAS 2.0 can be an effective driver of instruction if the state invests in a computer for every student (along with the...

The Center for Research on Educational Options (CREDO) at Stanford University released findings last week from a first-of-its-kind study assessing the impact of online charter schools in seventeen states (including Ohio) and Washington, D.C. The news is dismal—for “virtual” charters nationally; for advocates like Fordham, who argue for e-schools’ rightful place in the school choice landscape but are weary of their quality problems; and most of all, for the students losing dozens (in some cases hundreds) of days of learning by opting into a virtual environment.

CREDO found that virtual charter school students nationally (those enrolled in a public, full-time online school) learned the equivalent of seventy-two fewer days in reading and 180 days in math compared with the traditional public school students to whom they were matched. That’s essentially an entire school year gone to waste in math and almost half a year gone in reading.

It is also striking that—unlike CREDO’s national charter studies, which discovered that many states’ charter school sectors handily outperform traditional public schools—in no state did online charter students outperform their traditional peers in both subjects. Two states’ online charters outpaced traditional public schools in reading; none did in math.

Why are...

Education reformers talk a lot about providing disadvantaged kids access to great schools, and for good reason. Countless institutional barriers exist to thwart students from choosing the best nearby schools, and solutions like open enrollment and private school scholarships are justly lauded as escape routes for families caged by circumstances of class.

But there are also much more literal obstructions to educational choice, and they aren’t arrayed solely against low-income learners trapped in huge, failing urban districts. To choose just one example, children enrolled in rural and remote schools—separated by hundreds of miles from the auxiliary services available in many cities, and usually passed over by the most sought-after teaching talent—are simply subjected to geographic dislocation instead of (or often in addition to) economic deprivation.

This new report by the Foundation for Excellence in Education (which has already released one worthy analysis of the issue) looks at the successful implementation of state-level course access policies by ten districts and charter management organizations across the country. The programs bring outstanding options to students who would otherwise have trouble finding them—typically through online tools that offer academic relief to district budgets, but also by incorporating embedded resources like...

Earlier this year, Forbes released a celebration of edu-wunderkinds, its “30 under 30” in education. Reading the descriptions of their innovative, tech-focused work made me feel totally old and out of touch. Though we’re separated by only 10–15 years, the gap in worldview felt enormous.

But I refuse to be put out to pasture before my fortieth birthday, so I tracked down some of this year’s selectees (and a previous winner) and asked if they’d be willing to chat. I just wanted to learn from them. The conversations were eye-opening, and I’ve been mulling over the lessons for the last few months.

But AEI recently hosted a terrific confab on K–12 entrepreneurship (short summary podcast here). The papers and panels touched on some of the issues that surfaced during my time with the “30-under-30” crew.

Since so many of us are either involved in K–12 innovations or simply trying to understand what’s going on, I thought I’d share the six biggest takeaways from my discussions with these young overachievers.

(Note: If you’re looking for gossip, a competitive advantage, or investment opportunities, this list will disappoint. I don’t name any organization or individual for three reasons. First, those I talked to were forthcoming, and I’m...

When thinking about innovation in America, our thoughts typically turn to tech-driven creative capitals like New York City and San Francisco. Yet this report from the Rural Opportunities Consortium, which argues that rural education is primed for innovation, demonstrates that change can also be bred outside of cities.

Author Terry Ryan, president of the Idaho Charter School Network and a former member of the Thomas B. Fordham team, focuses on three main advancements that rural schools have adopted: expanding school choice through charter schools, introducing new online technologies, and increasing collaboration between charter schools and local districts. All three give rural schools and districts greater autonomy and freedom to experiment with new programs and concepts.

To prove that rural areas can successfully implement these changes, Ryan profiles districts that have instituted them. For example, the Dublin City School District in southeast Georgia has followed in the footsteps of big cities like New Orleans and Washington, D.C. by embracing charter-driven school choice. Dublin’s increased administrative flexibility has allowed them to pilot new ideas, develop more direct lines of accountability, and ultimately raise high school graduation rates. Another example, the Vail School District in Arizona, created Beyond Textbooks, an online tool that...

“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...