Digital Learning

Will the move toward virtual and “blended learning” schools in American education repeat the mistakes of the charter-school movement, or will it learn from them?

Try this thought experiment: How much more successful might U.S. charter schools look today if, at the beginning of the charter movement two decades ago, proponents had spent the time and effort to consider what policies and supports would be needed to ensure its quality, freedom, rules and resources over the long term? What mistakes might have been avoided? Damaging scandals forestalled? Missed opportunities seized?

We can’t go back in time for charters but we can be smarter about the next major phase of education reform and innovation: taking high-quality virtual and blended schools to scale—and to educational success. To this end, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, with the support of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, has commissioned five deep-thought papers that, together, address the thorniest policy issues surrounding digital learning. The goal is to boost the prospects for successful online learning (both substantively and politically) over the long run.

In a new paper, “Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction,” Public Impact’s Bryan and Emily Hassel “propose that digital education needs excellent...

Everyone’s a winner!

The podcast kicks off the new year in style, with special guest commentary from Diane Ravitch on what 2012 will bring. Amber sees charter-school closures as a glass half empty and Chris loves up some celebrations.

Amber's Research Minute Poll

Help us name Amber's weekly poll, pop quiz, whatever you want to call it. Leave a comment with your idea. Extra points given for using Amber's name!

Chris Irvine's What's Up With That?

The controversial Cathedral High School touchdown Chris talks about in this week's episode.

The controversy over the recent New York Times front-page slam of K12 Inc. was ostensibly about the company’s inability to deliver online education (see CEO Ron Packard’s reply here), but one of the more interesting parts of the ensuing debate was not about computers and education but about delivering education for profit – which is what Packard’s company does. (Full disclosure: I have done some editing work for K12.)

This morning Walt Gardner, who writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week, penned a letter to the Times editor that seems to sum up the anti-profit school of thought pretty well:

Agora Cyber Charter School [the K12 school that was the Times’ whipping post] serves as an instructive case study of what happens when schools are run like businesses. The profit motive always assures that the education of students takes a back seat to the enrichment of investors.

Nevertheless, free market advocates have managed to exploit the frustration and anger felt by taxpayers over the glacial progress of traditional public schools to advance their agenda. In the end, it will become clear that it’s impossible to provide a quality education and show a profit at

Paul Teske
Dean and University of Colorado Distinguished Professor at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver

Guest blogger Paul Teske is dean and University of Colorado
Distinguished Professor at the School of Public Affairs at the
University of Colorado Denver.  In this post, originally published at EdNews Colorado, he reflects on the future of digital learning and Paul T. Hill’s recent paper in Fordham’s
Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series, “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era.”

For decades, some education pundits have predicted that technology
would radically alter and improve the delivery of educational services.
Radio, Ed TV, and computers in classrooms were all examples that were
highly touted in their time. And, while none of these has really had
much impact on student learning, a cottage industry has also developed
within academia to explain why – no changes to teaching approaches, use
of a mass media, poor content, lack of training, etc.

(I should note that I’m old enough to remember film-strips as a major
technology. In the exurban NYC town in which I grew up, teachers
sometimes engaged in strikes, despite a state law against it, and we
students would come to school anyway, to get enough days in...

The central problem besetting K-12 education in the United
States today is still—as for almost thirty years now—that far too few of our
kids are learning nearly enough for their own or the nation’s good. And the
gains we’ve made, though well worth making, have been meager (and largely
confined to math), are trumped by gains in other countries, and evaporate by
the end of high school.

From where I sit, the basic strategies
aren’t ill-conceived. Rather, they’ve been stumped, stymied, and
constrained by formidable barriers that are more or less built into the
K-12 system as we know it.

This much everybody knows. But unless we want to live out
the classic definition of insanity (“doing the same thing over again with the
expectation that it will produce a different result”), we need to focus
laser-like on the barriers that keep us from making major-league gains. If we
don’t break through (or circumnavigate) these barriers, academic achievement
will remain stagnant.

The barriers I’m talking about are not cultural issues,
parenting issues, demographic issues, or other macro-influences on educational
achievement. Those are all plenty...

Ron Packard
CEO of K12 Inc.

Guest blogger Ron Packard is CEO of K12 Inc.,
the country’s largest online learning company. In this post, he
responds to criticisms of the effectiveness and cost of K12′s schools
raised in a
New York Times report last week.

In September of 2011, I was invited by the New York Times to speak at the paper’s Schools for Tomorrow
conference. It brought together educators, philanthropists, and leaders
in the public and private sectors to discuss how America’s education
system can better educate students and prepare them to compete in a
global economy. To sponsor the event, the Times reached out to
leading education and technology companies including Intel Corporation,
McGraw Hill, and the company I founded and lead, K12 Inc. The goal of
the conference was clear and unequivocal: “To harness the power of
technology to improve the learning experience. Democratize access to
quality education. And elevate the American student to a higher level.”
At the conference there was universal agreement about the urgency to
innovate in the public education system; the need for a shift from
one-size-fits-all education...

Whether you consider today’s New York Times article on a “hit piece” (Tom Vander Ark) or a “blockbuster” (Dana Goldstein), there’s little doubt that it will have a long-term impact on the debate around digital learning. Polls show
that the public and parents are leery of cyber schools, and this kind
of media attention (sure to be mimicked in local papers) will only make
them more so.

But just as these criticisms aren’t going away, neither is online
learning itself. The genie is out of the bottle. So how can we go about
drafting policies that will push digital learning in the direction of

This is something we at Fordham are thinking a lot about, and we’ve published three papers (so far) in our series, Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning: Rick Hess on quality control; Paul Hill on funding; and Bryan and Emily Hassel on teachers. And in January, we’ll publish an analysis by the Parthenon Group of what high-quality fulltime online learning really costs.

I’ll leave it to others to rebut the Times’ extremely
selective use of data, expert opinion, and...

Be sure to check out the latest edition of Education Week, featuring a commentary by Paul T. Hill
on the need for school funding reform in order to unlock digital
learning’s full potential. The Center on Reinventing Public Education
director sums up many of his ideas from last month’s “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era” paper, part of Fordham’s Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning
series, which outlined the need for a streamlined funding model where
money follows students and encourages edtech innovation. If the EdWeek essay piques your interest, download the full paper and read more by Hill from last week’s Rethinking Education Governance conference....

“Selling Schools Out: the Scam of Virtual Education Reform.” The headline gracing the cover of the Nation’s December 5 edition does a pretty good job conveying the nuance and objectivity to be found in its expose of the digital learning landscape,
a sprawling indictment of online schooling in general. Author Lee Fang
describes a corrupt alliance of think tanks, politicians, lobbyists, and
private companies intent on recklessly promoting an unproven education
model for corporate gain. Their coordinated efforts, to hear Fang tell
it, have resulted in a “legislative juggernaut” that loosened
restrictions on virtual schooling in thirteen states in 2011 alone,
triggering a “gold rush of investors clamoring to get a piece of the
K-12 education market.”

It’s certainly an entertaining read, complete with union busting,
multiple “infamous” operatives, online smear sites, and an
arch-villain—the “Man Behind the Virtual Curtain”—Jeb Bush. Yet for all
its supposedly incriminating audio files and closed-door meetings, the Nation piece is more about ideology than scandal. Education Sector’s Bill Tucker took Fang to task
for omitting and mischaracterizing public sector innovation in online
schooling to...

Education technology is a hot sector for innovative entrepreneurs and ambitious investors. While interest and investment in digital education skyrocket, though, the inflexibility of the existing school funding system may stifle its potential—at least according to Paul T. Hill in “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era,” the latest installment in Fordham’s  Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series. As Hill writes,

Our system doesn’t fund schools, and certainly doesn’t fund students. Yet to encourage development and improvement of technology-based methods, we must find ways for public dollars to do just that—and to follow kids to online providers chosen by their parents, teachers, or themselves.

The paper, released Wednesday, argues that unlocking the vast potential of digital learning requires streamlining funding into a “backpack” model where dollars follow individual students, allowing families to select from a robust and diverse range of digital and traditional educational options. Download the paper to find out more, and explore expertsreactions on Flypaper....