Digital Learning

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
  • ...
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...

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