Digital Learning

Today Fordham is releasing a new volume explaining how the U.S. education system must change in order to realize the potential of digital learning. Education Reform for the Digital Era argues that major overhauls of school finance, governance, and accountability are needed if on-line education is to live up to its potential.

Education Reform for the Digital Era

The policy blunders that hamstrung the charter-school movement as it grew can be avoided this time if policymakers and education leaders demonstrate foresight and boldness now. To do so, explain editors Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Daniela Fairchild, those leaders must overcome entrenched interests, public education’s resistance to change, and the system’s basic structures for financing and governing.

The new book provides estimates of the costs—and savings—for online learning models, as well as targeted chapters on how to overhaul a system that has been leapfrogged by advances in technology. These address:

  • “Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction,” by Bryan C. and Emily Ayscue Hassel;
  • "Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect)
  • ...

The full video from yesterday's panel discussion is now available online. Whether you attended in-person, joined the conversation online, or missed it altogether, you can watch the replay of the lively converstation on the future of digital learning (or read the recap from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

Be sure to mark your calendars for the release of Fordham's digital learning volume, "Education Reform for the Digital Era," available for download April 25, and continue the conversation by registering for "Digital Learning: The Future of Schooling?" That discussion, featuring an all-star lineup of policymakers, experts, and administrators, will be streamed live from Columbus, Ohio on Fordham's website from 1 to 4 p.m. EDT on May 17.



Will the digital-learning movement repeat the mistakes of the charter-school movement? How much more successful might today's charter universe look if yesterday's proponents had focused on the policies and practices needed to ensure its quality, freedom, and resources over the long term? What mistakes might have been avoided? Damaging scandals forestalled? Missed opportunities seized?

Can we be smarter about taking high-quality online and blended schools to scale—and to educational success? Yes, says this volume, as it addresses such thorny policy issues as quality control, staffing, funding, and governance for the digital sector. In these pages, the authors show how current arrangements need to change—often radically—if instructional technology is to realize its potential.

Table of Contents

Introduction, by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Daniela Fairchild

Chapter One: "Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction," by Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel

Chapter Two: "Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Solutions," by Frederick M. Hess

Chapter Three: "The Costs...

Education Reform for the Digital Era

Education Reform for the Digital Era

Is digital learning education's latest fad or its future? What fundamental changes to the ways we fund, staff, and govern American schools are necessary to fulfill the technology's potential? Will policy tweaks suffice or do we need a total system overhaul—and a big change in the reform priorities that can bring this about? Who will resist—and do their objections have merit? Fordham is bringing together experts on all aspects of education policy—from governance to finance to human capital—to examine how policymakers can make digital learning a transformative tool to improve American education...and weigh the dangers that lie ahead.

The panel featured the governance expertise of the Hoover Institution's John Chubb, insights into teaching's future from Bryan Hassel of Public Impact, analysis of the costs of online learning from the Parthenon Group's Eleanor Laurans, and the cautionary perspective of Emory University's Mark Bauerlein.

How School Districts Can Stretch the School Dollar

How School Districts Can Stretch the School Dollar

READ "How School Districts Can Stretch the School Dollar"

Despite some signs of economic recovery, school districts nationwide continue to struggle mightily. Nobody expects economic growth—or education spending—to rebound to 2008 levels over the next five years, and the long-term outlook isn't much brighter.

In short, the "new normal" of tougher budget times is here to stay for American K-12 education. So how can local officials cope?

In my new policy brief, I argue that the current crunch may actually present an opportunity to increase the efficiency and productivity of our education system if decision makers keep a few things in mind:

First and foremost, solving our budget crisis shouldn't come at the expense of children. Nor can if come from teachers' sacrifice alone. Depressing teachers' salaries forever isn't a recipe for recruiting bright young people into education—or retaining the excellent teachers we have. Finally, quick fixes aren't a good answer; we need fundamental changes that enhance productivity.

So how can school districts dramatically increase productivity and stretch the school dollar?

One, we should aim for a leaner, more productive, better paid workforce. Let's ask classroom teachers to take on additional responsibility in return for greater pay, eliminate some ancillary positions, and redesign our approach to special education.

Two, we should pay for productivity. A redesigned compensation system would include a more aggressive salary schedule, more pay for more work and better results, and prioritization of salaries over benefits.

Three, we must integrate technology thoughtfully. Online and "blended" school models are coming to K-12 education. They can be catalysts for greater pupil engagement, individualization, and achievement and, if organized right, they can also be opportunities for cost-cutting.

Many districts continue to face budget challenges of historic proportions. Rather than slashing budgets in ways that erode schooling, let's rethink who we hire, what they do, how we pay them, and how to incorporate technology—that's where the big payoff is.

What fundamental changes to the ways we fund, staff, and govern American schools are necessary to fulfill digital learning's potential? There’s still time to hear experts answer that question by registering for this Thursday’s panel discussion, “Education Reform for the Digital Era,” from 9 to 10:30 a.m. EDT. The conversation will feature the governance expertise of the Hoover Institution's (and, now, Education Sector’s) John Chubb, insights into teaching's future from Bryan Hassel of Public Impact, the Parthenon Group’s Eleanor Laurans on the costs of online learning, and the cautionary perspective of Emory University's Mark Bauerlein. Register now to attend in person or stream the discussion live Thursday morning, and mark your calendars as this conversation continues in Columbus, Ohio on May 17. Be sure to send along your questions for panelists to [email protected].


As Ed Week’s Katie Ash noted yesterday, opposition to virtual schooling (and the role of businesses in the field) remains very much in vogue. While NSBA Executive Director Anne L. Bryant’s Huffington Post critique of online learning—and of John Chubb’s recent Gadfly editorial on the subject—is the most vivid example, Adam Emerson observed on Choice Words that such criticisms are going mainstream.

To parse the debate swirling around digital learning’s potential and the policy challenges it poses, Fordham will host several leading lights on the subject at our D.C. office on April 19. Chubb will join the Parthenon Group’s Eleanor Laurans, co-author of “The Costs of Online Learning,” Public Impact’s Bryan Hassel, and digital learning skeptic Mark Bauerlein for “Education Reform for the Digital Era,” a Fordham LIVE! panel discussion from 9 to 10:30 a.m. EDT.

Register now to reserve your seat, and be sure to head on up to American University this Friday to see Fordham President Chester E. Finn, Jr. discuss best practices in education with Bellwether Education's Andy Rotherham and Brookings’ William Galston from 1:30 to 3:30 at the “Whither American Education?” conference.


The mainstream resistance to school choice has embraced the language of fear and unrest. National School Boards Association executive director Anne L. Bryant asked recently in the Huffington Post whether virtual schools are a sham and warned of “corruption and greed” among for-profit providers looking to cash in on students. It would be foolish to dismiss this as a more aggressive rhetorical attempt to retain dominance in the public school marketplace. Arguments such as Bryant’s are showing success in state legislatures and they’re degenerating legitimate debate over education reform.

The mainstream resistance to school choice has embraced the language of fear and unrest.

For instance, a proposed parent trigger law in Florida failed in the state Senate after opponents similarly warned that gullible parents would be swooned by corporate education raiders looking to profit by converting traditional schools to charters. Never mind that charters have been flourishing in the Sunshine State for more than fifteen years. Democrat Nan Rich, the Senate’s minority leader, said the trigger would lay “the groundwork for the hostile corporate takeover of public schools across Florida.” Eight Republicans joined Rich and eleven other Democrats to defeat the measure, and nearly all expressed the same...

On Fordham’s Boards Eye View blog today, Hoover scholar John Chubb made the case that states should relieve local school boards of the authority to govern student access to the burgeoning online learning market and expose school systems to more disruptive innovations. A new analysis of virtual education trends from the Evergreen Education Group gives us more evidence that districts may be unwilling to give up their authority easily.

This year’s “Keeping Pace” report from Evergreen gives us a snapshot of online and blending learning practices and tells us that the fastest-growing segment is coming from single-district programsthose run by one district for that district’s students. While it’s satisfying to see more districts embrace digital learning programssome with the purpose to compete with state-run virtual schoolsthese are school systems that are drawing boundaries around a practice that should be boundless.

These aren’t examples of disruptive innovations. These are not all fully online programs, but rather mostly blended models that combine face-to-face learning with virtual instruction that is mostly supplemental. This is not surprising, given that districts are serving only their own students, many of whom are at-risk and take advantage of online instruction mostly for credit...

John Chubb is CEO of Leeds Global Partners and a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution where he is a member of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. He is co-author with Terry Moe of Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education and author of "Overcoming the Governance Challenge in K-12 Online Learning."

If a public school student wants to take an Advanced Placement course from Apex Learning, a respected provider of online AP instruction, who should determine whether the student may do so? Today, the answer is almost uniformly, the local school board (or charter board) that governs the student’s school. Should it be so?

States have long delegated to local boards the authority to determine how students satisfy state standards such as graduation requirements. If a student wants to meet a state standard by some means other than what his or her school is offering, local board policies determine whether the student may. This makes a certain amount of sense. Students and families may want an option of dubious academic value.

But boards may decide these matters with more on...