Digital Learning

Michael B. Horn

Last week, I offered thoughts on the Fordham Institute’s research paper on e-schools in Ohio, “Enrollment and Achievement in Ohio’s Virtual Charter Schools.”

It is a strong study. As I wrote, however, it suffers from four significant data limitations—none the fault of the analysts, but instead arising from inadequacies intrinsic to the data that are currently available to measure the outcomes of e-school students—that should give us pause.

It’s worth discussing one of those limitations in more depth, as well as exploring the policy implications of Fordham’s study.

Understanding students’ jobs to be done

The study controls for both the demographic and prior achievement variables of e-school students that are measured at the state level. This is useful for giving us a window into the quality of a school on average, but it misses the full circumstances in which a student enrolls in a full-time virtual school. In our research on innovation, we refer to this underlying causal reason as the student’s “job to be done.” It therefore does not allow researchers—and this report in particular—to actually compare like situations and results.

Demographic data often misleads researchers. In business, for example, most companies simply look at...

Michael B. Horn

In Enrollment and Achievement in Ohio’s Virtual Charter Schools, the Fordham Institute takes a robust, nuanced look at Ohio’s substantial number of e-schools (more commonly known as full-time virtual charter schools). The report paints a troubling picture of these schools’ performance and offers valuable policy recommendations for driving K–12 online learning toward a better future. But readers should note that it also suffers from four significant limitations that are shared by most other studies of virtual charters. This is not the analysts’ fault; it’s intrinsic to the data that are currently available to measure the outcomes of e-school students.

First, the study does not control for course-taking patterns. It usefully reports that students in Ohio’s full-time virtual schools are “more likely to enroll in basic and remedial math courses” than students in brick-and-mortar schools. It would seem plausible—though the authors don’t mention it—that this might have an adverse impact on pupil achievement as gauged by state tests. Determining why so many more students take lower-level math courses in the virtual environment is an important next step to build on this research.

Second, the state tests given in and before 2013—those whose results were used in the Fordham report—exhibit a serious...

June Ahn, Ph.D.

I had the great pleasure of working with Dara Zeehandelaar and the staff at the Fordham Institute on our recent report, Enrollment and Achievement in Ohio's Virtual Charter Schools. The findings add to the emerging and disconcerting evidence that online charter schools are not serving students well. We found that students who enroll in Ohio’s e-schools tend to be the ones who need the most support and investment—having failed or struggled academically in brick-and-mortar schools—yet they’re faring even worse in these virtual classrooms than similar students in neighborhood schools.

Because of this, we ought to substantially limit the expansion of online charter schools and hold them accountable until they can show that they serve students effectively.

The question, then, is how to improve online learning through experimentation, iteration, and innovation while avoiding the major pitfalls that often plague new implementations of educational technology.

Here are two possible ways forward:

1. Understand that today’s implementation of online learning falls far short of what it takes to offer rich learning environments for children.

I lay out some similar arguments in an upcoming book chapter, but the short version is that new technological developments often allow us to do new things faster and...

A major development of recent years has been the explosive growth of online learning in K–12 education. Sometimes it takes the form of “blended learning,” with students receiving a mix of online and face-to-face instruction. Students may also learn via web-based resources like the Khan Academy, or by enrolling in distance-learning “independent study” courses. In addition, an increasing number of pupils are taking the plunge into fully online schools: In 2015, an estimated 275,000 students enrolled in full-time virtual charter schools across twenty-five states.

The Internet has obviously opened a new frontier of instructional possibilities. Much less certain is whether such opportunities are actually improving achievement, especially for the types of students who enroll in virtual schools. In Enrollment and Achievement in Ohio's Virtual Charter Schools, we at Fordham examined this issue using data from our home state of Ohio, where online charter schools (“e-schools”) are a rapidly growing segment of K–12 education. Today they enroll more than thirty-five thousand students, one of the country’s largest populations of full-time online students. Ohio e-school enrollment has grown 60 percent over the last four years, a rate greater than any other type of public school. But even since they launched, e-schools...

You, like me, may find something tiresome about the sudden recrudescence of the Japanese pocket monster after its deserved interval in pixelated purgatory. The arrival of the Pokémon Go app has sent an army of dead-eyed phone worshipers traipsing through Arlington National Cemetery and D.C.’s Holocaust Memorial Museum in search of imaginary cuddle beasts, and it’s hard for us grumps to find an upside. That’s why we should leave it to USA Today’s inimitable gaming correspondent, Greg Toppo, who has gone to bat for the social and educational benefits of the app. In interviews with tech-savvy educators, he detects great admiration for the way it disperses its users into public spaces—churches, parks, museums, and historic buildings—and pushes them to rediscover their communities. A whole array of “augmented reality” games could harness this level of engagement for educational ends, even if their participants just think they’re stalking the elusive Jigglypuff.

Veterans of the reform movement probably don’t need any reminders about the sorry state of K–12 education in Newark. From the thousands of pupils served in abominable schools to decades of state intervention and the squandered $100 million gift from Facebook tycoon Mark Zuckerberg, the city’s troubles...

Spend any time at all writing education commentary and you’ll inevitably find yourself coming back to certain ideas and themes. Here’s one that I can’t stop probing and poking at like a sore tooth: Why do we insist on making teaching too hard for ordinary people to do well? It seems obvious that we’ll never make a serious dent in raising outcomes for kids at scale until or unless we make the job doable by mere mortals—because that’s who fills our classrooms. So go nuts: Beat the bushes for 3.7 million saints and superheroes. Raise standards. Invest billions in professional development (with nearly nothing to show for it). Or just give teachers better tools, focus their efforts, and ask them to be really good at fewer things.

The latest data point to illustrate this idea—that maybe we should make teaching an achievable job for average people—comes from C. Kirabo Jackson and Alexey Makarin, a pair of researchers at Northwestern University. Their intriguing new study suggests that teacher efficacy can be enhanced—affordably, easily, and at scale—by giving teachers “off-the-shelf’ lessons designed to develop students’ deep understanding of math concepts.

The pair randomly assigned teachers in three Virginia school districts to one of three...

Gary Johnson, the former two-term governor of New Mexico, is the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee. He’ll face off (with running mate William Weld) in November against the Republican Party's Donald Trump and Mike Pence and the Democratic Party's Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine. Here are some of his views on education:

  1. School choice: “I think I was more outspoken than any governor in the country regarding school choice—believing that the only way to really reform education was to bring competition to public education. So for six straight years as governor of New Mexico, I proposed a full-blown voucher system that would’ve brought about that competition.” August 2012.
  2. Federal role in education: “I think that the number-one thing that the federal government could do when it comes to the delivery of education would be to abolish itself from the education business….It’s also important to point out that the federal Department of Education was established in 1979. And there is nothing to suggest that, since 1979, that the federal Department of Education has been value-added regarding anything. So just get the federal government out of education.” August 2012.
  3. Common Core: “[Gary Johnson] opposes Common Core and any other attempts to impose national standards and requirements
  4. ...

As regular readers know, I’m in the middle of a series of posts exploring how education reformers can work to improve learning besides pushing for policy changes. One way is to spur “disruptive innovations” that target students, parents, and/or teachers directly.

Clay Christensen and his acolytes would surely disagree with my use of that term. His definition goes as follows: “A process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.”

I’m ambitious, but not quite that ambitious. Sure, I’d love to disrupt the traditional education bureaucracy and replace it with a system of high-performing charter schools. That might be doable one day—at least in our major cities and inner-ring suburbs, where student need is greatest, the population is dense, and existing district schools are the least defensible. But in America’s affluent suburbs, exurbs, small towns, and rural areas, I think the “system” is here to stay for the foreseeable future. There’s just not enough appetite in those places for something very different.

What I’m interested in today is how to work around that system and cut out its middle men (and women), such...

Credit recovery is education’s Faustian pact. We remain not very good at raising most students to respectable standards. But neither can we refuse to graduate boxcar numbers of kids who don’t measure up. Enter credit recovery, an opaque, impressionistic, and deeply unsatisfying method of merely declaring proficient getting at-risk kids back on track for graduation.

This pair of studies from the American Institutes for Research and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research looks at more than 1,200 ninth graders in seventeen Chicago public schools who were enrolled in a credit recovery course the summer after failing algebra I a few years ago. Half took the class online, half in face-to-face classes. Providing credit recovery is now one of the most common purposes of online courses; but “evidence of the efficacy of online credit recovery is lacking,” the authors note with considerable understatement.

The first report analyzes the role of in-class mentors in online classrooms, examining whether students benefited from their additional instructional support. They did—kind of. The authors suggest that “instructionally supportive mentors” (those with subject matter expertise, not just a warm body providing “support”) lead to students navigating the course with greater depth and less breadth. They seem not...

  • On the day when America’s schooling woes have finally ceased—when all of its children are guaranteed equal access to qualified teachers, enriching curricula, secure facilities, and reliable pathways to higher education and the workforce—Bill de Blasio and Eva Moskowitz will have to find something new to fight about. Maybe their respective choices for the finest Ninja Turtle, or whether Led Zeppelin II rocks harder than Houses of the Holy. Until that distant time, they can keep up their reassuringly constant tit-for-tat over Success Academy’s place in the New York City education system. This week, de Blasio has found himself disinvited from Eva’s prom afterparty for insisting that the charter network sign a contract (and therefore accept some form of municipal oversight) to receive payment for its participation in the city’s universal pre-K initiative. Seeking over $700,000 in reimbursement monies, and evidently concerned with being micromanaged by its archenemy, Success Academy appealed to the state education commissioner. The commish swiftly ruled against them, surprising few. This beef perfectly illustrates the challenges of extending pre-K funds to charters, which Fordham chronicled extensively in our report last year. Normally, the barriers to participation include low funding levels or district monopolies
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