Education Reform for the Digital Era

By Eric Wearne

Eric Wearne, Senior Fellow, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

While many books, websites, and events exist to catalog new concepts in online education, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Education Reform for the Digital Era offers both a discussion and some practical solutions.  First, the editors, Checker Finn and Daniela Fairchild, describe three barriers to change which currently hinder online learning:

  • Interest groups that try to either “capture the potential of technology to advance their own interests or to shackle it in ways that keep it from harming those interests”;
  • The governance and financing structure of the current public school system; and,
  • Issues of organizational capacity within the current public school system.

The authors of the various chapters outline ways to address all three issues.

First, regarding vested interest groups, Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel of Public Impact ask what online learning could mean for the teaching profession.  They argue that online learning could be a potentially disruptive innovation to the teaching profession in three ways: enabling excellent teachers to reach more students, attracting and retaining more of these excellent teachers, and boosting effectiveness and job options for average teachers.

The authors provide practical policy advice on how this could be accomplished.  Ultimately, they argue, “the net effect is likely to be a smaller, but much stronger and more highly paid, teaching force coupled with new, lower-paid roles – many, with appealing, shorter hours – that support the fully accountable teachers.  This differentiated structure is similar to that which has emerged with changing roles and technology in other professions like law and medicine.”

Rick Hess, Education Analyst, American Enterprise Institute

Regarding governance, Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute offers three approaches to quality control of online education ventures, all of which have political implications, and all of which will sound familiar to supporters of school choice, or to anyone who has considered the ways in which we might address accountability for any public service.  The three methods that Hess discusses are:

  • Input and process regulation, or “prescribing what entities must do to qualify as legitimate online providers;”
  • Outcome-based accountability, or “setting performance targets that providers must meet;” and
  • Market-based quality control, or “permit[ting] the universe of users to choose their preferred providers – and the trust[ing] that market pressures will reward good providers and eventually shutter lousy ones.”

Each of these methods has drawbacks, and the first two at least have been tried in education and found wanting.  A successful market-based approach will need to take into account the potential risks of market failures, and address the need to provide the most abundant and transparent information possible to enable parents to make wise decisions.

Regarding financing structures, two chapters, attempt to identify, respectively, the actual cost of online learning, and how we might be more efficient in our allocation of the funds we spend on education.

Tamara Butler Battaglino, Matt Haldeman, and Eleanor Laurans of The Parthenon Group take a careful, detailed approach to discuss the true cost of online learning.  The authors compare costs in traditional schools, blended models, and full virtual models, examining labor, content acquisition, technology/infrastructure, school operations, and student support services in detail as cost drivers.   While they caution that more performance data are needed, and that policymakers should not seek “one simple ‘price tag’ for online learning,” their review shows that online schools could cost up to one third less than traditional schools.

Paul Hill, Center on Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington Bothell

On financing online education, Paul Hill from the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell recommends a “backpack” approach: giving parents much more control over student funding, incorporating online learning into students’ schedules as much (or as little) as necessary.  According to Hill, a “technology-friendly funding system” system would:

  • Fund education, not institutions;
  • Move money as students move;
  • Pay for unconventional forms of instruction; and
  • Withhold funding for ineffective programs without chilling innovation.

Hill’s “backpack” of funding would be something “the student would carry along to any eligible school or instructional program in which he or she enrolls…Students and families would then be free to shop for the best combination of courses and experiences their backpack funds could cover.”

John Chubb, Hoover Institution at Stanford University

Finally, regarding organizational capacity, John Chubb from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University argues that K-12 school systems are built to resist innovation, and to illustrate his point, Chubb compares the use of online courses in higher education to their use in K-12:

“In 2007-08, the most recent year for which federal data are available, 4.3 million undergraduates took at least one online course.  That represents over 20 percent of all undergraduates at the time.  In that same year, 1.03 million K-12 students took a course online.  That represents just 2 percent of all students.”

Chubb goes on to state that though “the proliferation of technology-based instruction was not dictated by government policy,”  his main solution is for the states to take on the leadership role in promoting online learning (as opposed to local schools districts).  Current events tell us that while local entities are often not eager to promote competition with themselves (see Drew Charter School, or Cherokee Charter Academy), though states are beginning to have a somewhat better track record (for example the Florida Virtual School, or the Utah’s Electronic High School).

While government dictates have proven unnecessary to promote increased experimentation and popularity of online learning, the reality is that governments will continue to regulate markets in education.  Chubb argues that state governments are better-situated than local school systems to set up workable markets in which online learning can flourish at the K-12 level, if only for the simple fact that “entrepreneurs will not invest district by district in full-time online schools, each governed by different district standards and with enrollments of only a few hundred [or even a few thousand] students.”  Governor Nathan Deal’s recently-announced task force on digital learning has the potential to set the parameters of the Georgia market and let entrepreneurs (including school systems) work toward the best solutions, competing to serve students.

“Education Reform for the Digital Era” is a helpful work that offers practical policy advice in a variety of areas related to the future of online learning.  Georgia’s digital learning task force should take note.

Eric Wearne is a Public Policy Foundation Senior Fellow and Assistant Professor at the Georgia Gwinnett College School of Education.  Previously he was Deputy Director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.