First, We Need a Brand New K–12 System

Digital learning is more than the latest addition to education reformers’ to-do lists, filed along with teacher evaluations, charter schools, tenure reform, academic standards, and all the rest. It’s fundamentally different: for it to fulfill its enormous potential will require a wholesale reshaping of the reform agenda itself, particularly in the realms of school finance and governance.

American education has the potential to be modernized and accelerated by “digital learning.” Indeed, truly boosting student achievement—as well as individualizing instruction and creating quality options for children and families among, within, and beyond schools—will depend to a considerable extent on how deftly our K–12 system can exploit this potential, in both its pure form (“full-time online instruction”) and various “blended” combinations of digital and brick-and-mortar-based instruction.

Making the most of these remarkable opportunities, however, hinges on our willingness to alter a host of ingrained practices. We dare not settle for patching a bumpy, twisty country lane. We need to build a smooth new road—and bank the curves.

There are more such obstacles than one might think, and every one of them will prove hard to overcome, because they are deeply carved into our traditional K–12 system and regarded as valuable protections or benefits by education’s innumerable factions, bureaucracies, and interest groups.

Nothing on today’s familiar reform agenda can get this job done. That is to say, mounting serious efforts to overcome the obstacles means reshaping that agenda, even redefining what we mean by “education reform.”

The barriers take three forms.

First and most familiar are self-absorbed and self-serving groups that do their utmost either to capture the potential of technology to advance their own interests or to shackle it in ways that keep it from messing with those interests.

Second, also familiar but showing up here in new ways, are issues of organizational capacity within our public-education system, a system that has enormous difficulty accommodating and assimilating change, and the more wrenching the change the greater the difficulty.

Third—and newest, most perplexing, most fundamental, and thus hardest to tackle—are the core governance and financing structures of our K–12 system itself. Though we’ve begun to recognize these as major impediments to important reforms within today’s brick-and-mortar world, they turn out to be even more constraining—and damaging—to education in the online realm.

Let us take these up in turn.

Self-centered Interest Groups

The many adult interest groups that live off our public-education system are already doing their best to co-opt digital learning for their own ends, and to ensure that nobody uses it to threaten their power, membership, or revenue base. Two such groups are especially powerful players in the politics and policies of public education.

First are local districts and their school boards, vigorously represented by the National School Boards Association (NSBA). This crowd would stifle the openness and global reach of digital learning in the name of district empowerment and local monopoly. According to NSBA’s Ann Flynn (its director of education technology), online learning “should be something that school districts can control.”

Yet leaving districts and their boards in charge of digital instruction will retard innovation, entrepreneurship, collaboration, and smart competition. It will raise costs; undermine efficiency; block rich instructional options; restrict school choice and parental influence; and strengthen the hand of other interest groups, including but not limited to already too-powerful teachers unions.

For wherever one finds school districts and boards, one finds unions equally determined to prevent digital learning from shrinking their ranks or weakening their power bases. In many places, they have secured legislation limiting the scope of digital learning or have to counter its growth. In California, for example, the state teachers union’s model contract requires that,

No employee shall be displaced because of distance learning or other educational technology. The use of distance education technology shall not be used to reduce, eliminate, or consolidate faculty positions within the district.

Elsewhere, unions have ensured that class-size limits nonsensically apply to online schools. Their imperative to maintain membership and dues trumps any interest they may have in easing and strengthening the teacher’s job with technology’s help.

Organizational Capacity

Over the past 50 years, the student-teacher ratio in America’s K–12 schools has dropped from 27:1 to 15:1. When all the nonteaching pay stubs are added, we find more than 3 million teachers and umpteen more “support staff” working in what today is America’s second-largest industry. Yet education’s bulked-up employment has barely touched overall student achievement. Instead, it has contributed to the bureaucratization and routinization of the K–12 enterprise, buttressing its rigid procedures, internal fiefdoms, and culture of compliance rather than fostering innovation, much less transformation.

Our current system is laden with input regulations like textbook mandates, certification requirements, and notches on teachers’ professional-development belts. None of these has been proven to advance student achievement (and some have actually been shown to hinder it). In the digital-learning era, these become even more dangerous tokens of “quality,” as they work to hamper innovation.

But it’s not just bloated personnel ranks and ineffective quality-control metrics that have held the system back. Reformers share in the blame, thanks to their habit of layering new policies upon old and shoving program after program into the current educational frame rather than replacing outmoded initiatives. With that layering, of course, has come the education system’s addiction to cash and its assumption that nothing can be done differently without additional resources.

In fact, it should cost taxpayers fewer dollars to educate each pupil in the online world. According to a recent analysis by the Parthenon Group, full-time virtual schooling currently costs, on average, about $3,600 less per pupil than its traditional counterpart. The potential savings associated with “blended learning” are smaller but far from negligible.

Fundamental Structural Flaws

Two nearly universal and largely taken-for-granted structural arrangements in American public education pose huge impediments to the success of digital learning. Yet this education revolution cannot occur under the customary arrangements for financing schools nor within our current governance system.

Consider, first, how we fund education: financing programs and bureaucratic structures via rigid and formulaic distribution, not paying for students or schools, much less for learning. This antiquated system stymies innovation and makes precious little sense in an era when students should be able to direct resources to the education providers of their choice.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As Paul Hill, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, has pointed out, we can leapfrog our system of school finance to truly fund education, not institutions; move money as students move; and pay for unconventional forms of instruction. This model would offer parents a choice of whole-school providers while also affording them a limited amount of “pocket money” with which to purchase variegated tutoring or enrichment programs, from advanced math classes to piano lessons. Hill writes that “this would allow some public funds to flow to new and innovative programs…. Yet parents could not be led into making choices that compromised their children’s core instruction.”

Now consider our agricultural-era devotion to “local control” of public education and ask how can this possibly work well—indeed, what does it even mean?—when the delivery system itself is unbound by district, municipal, or even state borders? Who is really “in charge” when students assemble their education from multiple providers based in many locations, some likely on the other side of the planet? Digital learning, like digital communications, lives on the Internet—often “in the cloud”—and knows no natural geographic or political boundaries. Sure, it can be inhibited by totalitarian regimes that fear web sites and communications that may loosen their grip. When left to flourish in the marketplace, however, digital learning will yield innovation, competition (affecting content, quality, delivery mechanisms, and price), and eventually economic efficiencies. And those benefits will—and ought to—spread without regard to municipal boundaries.

To be sure, public officials have an obligation to exert curricular quality control, for which they in turn are accountable to voters and taxpayers, and they must safeguard minors from “virtual menaces.” But that is not the same as putting traditional districts in charge of digital learning, as our current governance arrangement presupposes. A good case could be made for national governance of online learning, but, at the very least, this is something states should take charge of. They can provide the scale necessary to support research and development, to allow for flexible programming, and to extend the reach of top-notch teachers.

Whew! Reshape the financing and governance of public education? On top of reimagining human-resource arrangements for teachers and improving quality control? Yes, it’s a tall order and a major reformulation of America’s education-reform agenda. It doesn’t erase the need for rigorous standards, tough accountability, vastly improved data systems, better teacher evaluations (and training, etc.), stronger school leaders, the right of families to choose schools, and much else that reformers have been struggling to bring about. But it says, in effect, that far more needs to be done to bring U.S. public education into the modern era.

A Cautionary Tale

Unconvinced? The charter school saga is a precedent worth recalling. In the early days, anticharter forces mangled the legislation, even as advocates agreed to compromises that they later came to regret. Thus nearly half the states cap their charter programs. Others force charters to operate under extant union contracts. Some restrict charter-authorizing powers to districts, a classic case of empowering foxes to look after chickens. Almost nowhere are charters properly funded. In many places, they also remain shackled by myriad regulations.

We’ve seen how these co-optations and compromises have weakened the realization of chartering’s potential. If this happens to digital learning, too, the loss will be still greater. For while charters (perhaps due to the constraints they’ve faced!) remain a smallish subset of “different” schools that operate alongside the traditional system, digital learning has the potential to alter the system fundamentally and irreversibly. It’s no sideshow. It isn’t even the center ring. It’s the circus tent itself.

Chester E. Finn, Jr. is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

This article is part of a forum on whether digital learning can transform education. For another take, please see “As Digital Learning Draws New Users, Transformation Will Occur,” by Michael Horn

This article appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Finn, C.E., and Horn, M.B. (2013). Can Digital Learning Transform Education? Education Next, 13(1), 54-60.

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