Overcoming the Governance Challenge in K-12 Online Learning

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Online learning and our current system of local education governance are at odds with one another, to say the least. In this paper, John Chubb examines how local school district control retards the widespread use of instructional technologies. He argues that the surest way to break down the system’s inherent resistance to technology is to shift control from the local district—and thus the school board—and put it in the hands of states. He then outlines ten steps to get us to this brave new governance system:

  • Set K-12 Online-Learning Policy at the State Level
  • Create a Public Market for K-12 Online Learning
  • Provide Students the Right to Choose Online Learning Full Time
  • Provide Students the Right to Choose Online Learning Part Time
  • Authorize Statewide Online Charter Schools, Overseen by Statewide Charter Authorizers
  • License Supplementary Online Providers
  • Fund All Learning Opportunities Equally Per Pupil
  • Exempt Online and Blended Teaching from Traditional Teacher Requirements Including Certification and Class Size
  • Establish Student Learning as the Foundation of Accountability for Online Schools and Providers
  • Address Market Imperfections by Providing Abundant Information to Students, Families, Schools, and Districts

Download the paper to learn more, and be sure to read Fordham’s other papers on this vital topic.

This is the fifth and final paper in a series examining sound digital-learning policy. Previous papers appearing in this series include “Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Approaches” by Frederick M. Hess; “Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction” by Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel; “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era” by Paul T. Hill; and “The Costs of Online Learning” by Tamara Butler Battaglino, Matt Haldeman, and Eleanor Laurans. This working paper series is generously supported by the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation.

In the Media

The State of State Science Standards 2012

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American science performance is lagging as the economy becomes increasingly high tech, but  our current science standards are doing little to solve the problem. Reviewers evaluated science standards for every state for this report and their findings were deeply troubling: The majority of states earned Ds or Fs for their standards in this crucial subject, with only six jurisdictions receiving As. Explore all the state report cards and see how your state performed.



Media release*

NAEP framework

Appendix A

Appendix B*

About the Authors

* The Florida profile and references to Florida's grade and score were updated on February 16, 2012.

In the Media

February 01, 2012
Scientific American
March 03, 2012
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The Louisiana Recovery School District: Lessons for the Buckeye State

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Is it time for Ohio to consider new forms of governance and management for its most troubled schools and districts, and, if so, what might alternatives look like? The question of what to do with long-suffering public
schools has driven many of the country’s most significant education reforms. Both the No Child Left Behind Act and Race to the Top competition addressed failing schools and sought to force dramatic changes within them. States have also taken up the challenge. According to the Education Commission of the States there are at least 29 states that permit state takeovers of school districts for academic bankruptcy, fiscal mismanagement, and other problems, while at least 23 states provide for takeovers of school buildings.

Despite all the talk, money, and policies aimed at school turnarounds over the last decade, there are still far too many schools that seem impervious to improvement efforts.

Does it have to stay this way? Not necessarily, but it is hard to revitalize gravely ill schools without tackling the governance arrangements that led them – or at least enabled them – to fail in the first place. Across the country, there are some bold efforts underway to turn around both persistently failing schools and even failing school districts. Among the boldest and most interesting of these is Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD), which is accomplishing both significant gains in student achievement and consequential impacts on district-level standards and governance. Its success has already drawn the attention of policymakers in other states and similar entities are now operating in Michigan and Tennessee. The RSD has been in business long enough (since 2003) to produce some important lessons.

We at the Fordham Institute wanted to find out how the RSD concept might be applied in Ohio; so we commissioned this report. We asked Nelson Smith, former president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, to lead the study because of his long experience in Louisiana, particularly in post-Katrina New Orleans, working with state education leaders, RSD leaders, and practicing
educators doing their utmost to start, re-start, or turnaround schools.

Smith shows how the RSD came about to tackle chronic dysfunction and corruption, especially within the New Orleans Public Schools where two-thirds of the state’s “academically unacceptable” schools were located. The RSD was set-up legislatively in 2003 “with extraordinary powers that could take control of individual chronically failing schools.”

Smith’s paper provides seven lessons from the RSD for Ohio, but he cautions readers that the lessons have to be taken with major differences in state contexts in mind.

The Costs of Online Learning

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The latest installment of the Fordham Institute’s Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning  series investigates one of the more controversial aspects of digital learning: How much does it cost? In this paper, the Parthenon Group uses interviews with more than fifty vendors and online-schooling experts to estimate today's average per-pupil cost for a variety of schooling models, traditional and online, and presents a nuanced analysis of the important variance in cost between different school designs. These ranges—from $5,100 to $7,700 for full-time virtual schools, and $7,600 to $10,200 for the blended version—highlight both the potential for low-cost online schooling and the need for better data on costs and outcomes in order for policymakers to reach confident conclusions related to the productivity and efficiency of these promising new models.   Download "The Costs of Online Learning" to learn more.

In the Media

January 10, 2012
The Huffington Post
April 05, 2012
THE Journal

Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Approaches

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In this first of six papers on digital learning commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Frederick M. Hess explores the challenges of quality control. As he notes, “one of the great advantages of online learning is that it makes ‘unbundling’ school provision possible—that is, it allows children to be served by providers from almost anywhere, in new and more customized ways.  But taking advantage of all the opportunities online learning offers means that there is no longer one conventional “school” to hold accountable. Instead, students in a given building or district may be taking courses (or just sections of courses) from a variety of providers, each with varying approaches to technology, instruction, mastery, and so forth….Finding ways to define, monitor, and police quality in this brave new world is one of the central challenges in realizing the potential of digital learning.”

Addressing this challenge is the purpose of Hess’s groundbreaking contribution. Use the link to the right to download the paper.

In the Media

July 27, 2011
July 27, 2011
Education Week

Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction

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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 teachers and that the teaching profession needs digital education.”

They propose a smaller—but more talented and better paid—teaching force with its impact magnified through the expanded reach and efficiency allowed by digital technology. “Time-technology swaps” allow the unbundling of teacher roles and the more efficient use of their time, supported by new, lower-paid positions with appealing, shorter hours.  Realizing the potential of this new system requires, however, that policymakers revamp everything from certification to teacher preparation, from compensation to class size.

In the Media

November 16, 2011
Getting Smart
November 16, 2011
Education Next
January 09, 2012
The Clayton Christensen Institute

The Accountability Plateau

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After more than ten years under NCLB, that law’s legacy continues to be fiercely contested. This analysis of NAEP scores—focusing on Texas and on the entire nation—by former NCES commissioner Mark Schneider finds that solid gains in math achievement coincided with the advent of "consequential accountability," first in the trailblazing Lone Star State and a few other pioneer states, then across the land with the implementation of NCLB. But Schneider warns that the recent plateau in Texas math scores may foreshadow a coming stagnation in the country’s performance. Has the testing-and-accountability movement as we know it run out of steam? How else might we rekindle our nation’s education progress?

Download the analysis to find out, and be sure to watch the replay of Fordham's January 5 discussion of the paper and consequential accountability in general, "Has the Accountability Movement Run Its Course?"

Rethinking Education Governance for the Twenty-First Century

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School reforms abound today, yet even the boldest and most imaginative among them have produced—at best—marginal gains in student achievement. What America needs in the twenty-first century is a far more profound version of education reform. Instead of shoveling yet more policies, programs, and practices into our current system, we must deepen our understanding of the obstacles to reform that are posed by existing structures, governance arrangements, and power relationships. Yet few education reformers—or public officials—have been willing to delve into this touchy territory.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Center for American Progress have teamed up to tackle these tough issues and ask how our mostly nineteenth-century system of K-12 governance might be modernized and made more receptive to the innumerable changes that have occurred—and need to occur—in the education realm. We have commissioned fifteen first-rate analysts to probe the structural impediments to school reform and to offer provocative alternatives.


  • Paper Abstracts
  • Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli: "The Failures of U.S. Education Governance Today"
  • Cynthia Brown: "Fractured Governance of Resources and the Need for a Coherent and Fair System of Funding to Support High-Quality Public Schools"
  • Michelle Davis: "Governance Challenges to Innovators within the System"
  • Marguerite Roza: "The Machinery that Drives Education-Spending Decisions Inhibits Better Uses of Resources"
  • Steven F. Wilson: "Governance Challenges to Innovators outside the System"
  • Jeffrey Henig: "The End of Educational Exceptionalism: The Rise of the Education Executives in the White House, State House, and Mayor's Office"
  • Frederick M. Hess and Olivia M. Meeks: "More than the Mantra of 'Mayoral Control': Rethinking District Governance for the 21st Century"
  • Kathryn McDermott: "The Next Wave of Standards-Based Reform? Interstate Standards and Testing Consortia"
  • Kenneth K. Wong: "Toward a New Federal Role in Public Education: The Challenge of Governance in Performance-Based Federalism"
  • Sir Michael Barber: "Reimagining Education Governance: An International Perspetive"
  • Michael Mintrom and Richard Walley: "Education Governance in Comparative Perspective"
  • Barry G. Rabe: "Governance in Other Policy Sectors: Lessons from Health-Care and Environmental Policy"
  • Paul T. Hill: "Picturing a Different Governance Structure for Public Education"
  • Kenneth J. Meier: "Governance Reform: From Theory to Results"

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In the Media

December 13, 2011
The Heartland Institute

Better Choices: Charter Incubation as a Strategy for Improving the Charter School Sector

Charter Incubation as a Strategy for Improving the Charter School Sector

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The twenty years since Minnesota passed the nation’s first charter school law have seen a great expansion in school choice, with charters operating in all but ten states and enrolling nearly two million students nationwide. Yet while parents now enjoy more schooling options for their children, a disappointing number of charter schools fail to provide excellent educations. As an authorizer of charter schools in Ohio, we struggle daily with birthing and growing high-quality charter schools—which is why we find promising and underutilized approaches like charter incubation so appealing.

In this policy brief, Public Impact’s Joe Ableidinger and Julie Kowal examine the merits of the incubation model, outline specific strategies for supporting it, and profile organizations around the U.S. putting it into practice. The authors explain that through the strategic recruitment, selection, and training of talented leaders—and support of them as they launch or expand new charter schools—incubators offer charter school advocates an important tool in guaranteeing quality school choice.

In the Media

April 29, 2012
Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools

Fwd: How Are Dayton's Charter Schools Doing?

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This edition of Fwd summarizes Ohio state report card data for Dayton public schools district and charter. Two major conclusions leap from these data. First, despite some recent gains, the phrase academic emergency continues to characterize the majority of Dayton's public schools. Second, youngsters in Dayton's charter schools outperformed their district peers in all parts of the 4th and 6th grade proficiency tests. This important finding flies in the face of recent assertions that charter school students are learning less.