Review of New Fordham Digital Learning Papers

Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction and School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era, two new working papers in the Fordham Institute’s series on digital learning, are welcome additions to the often narrow debates around online learning.

“Teachers,” written by Public Impact’s Bryan and Emily Hassel, opens with an important and refreshing perspective: “that digital education needs excellent teachers and that the teaching profession needs digital education.” Rather than replacing teachers, the authors see digital learning as transforming teaching — both by offering tools for traditional classroom teachers and by enabling entirely new ways of teaching. Often missing from conversations around technology, the paper outlines the varied roles that teachers play, including helping with motivation, social and emotional support, and stretching critical thinking and analytical skills. It concludes that the future is a much more differentiated field, with a smaller number of higher-paid, more empowered teachers acting in teams with a variety of specialized and lower-paid support personnel. (School of One offers one glimpse of this future.)

Some of the paper’s most interesting discussions touch on new administrative structures and the role of unions. The authors see today’s teacher evaluation battles as a relic of an old one-classroom, one-teacher model. Instead, they envision a different form of accountability, such as that in a small professional firm, where one person takes on both leadership and administrative responsibility to coordinate a variety of teaching personnel and supporting technology tools. They reject the notion that digital learning is necessarily a union-killer. Instead, they see a role for a new type of union, modeled perhaps after the Screen Actors Guild, which provides employment and pay security in increasingly differentiated teacher roles, but does not constrain top performers. One quibble though, is that when the paper discusses these new models, it too often uses a static, more-effective/least-effective teacher frame. A more helpful frame might place the same weight on effective teaching, but explore the interdependency between a teachers’ role and effectiveness.

Overall, the paper both rightly recognizes the fallacy of technology replacing teachers and appropriately posits that digital tools will be limited in potential if shoved into traditional teaching models. Additional exploration should go even further, contemplating how digital learning might also change and possibly more tightly align the roles of informal and out-of-school educators, including those in museums, cultural institutions, youth development programs, and of course, homes.

The second paper, written by Paul Hill, details how current school funding systems conflict with new forms of digital learning that cross school, district, and time boundaries:

The problem boils down to this: Our system doesn’t fund schools, and certainly doesn’t fund students. It funds district-wide programs, staff positions, and so forth. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to move money from concrete facilities, established programs, and entrenched staff roles to new uses like equipment, software, and remote instructional staff. Yet to encourage development and improvement of technology-based methods, we must find ways for public dollars to do just that—and to follow kids to online providers chosen by their parents, teachers, or themselves.

Hill blames this funding rigidity — not the lack of ideas from teachers, principals, or innovators — for the relative scarcity of education innovation at scale. And, while states have developed workaround solutions, few go far enough. His solution: a new “follow-the-child” funding system. While many states already have what is often called weighted-student funding, where funding follows students to their educational institutions and is weighted to account for greater needs, such as those of an English language learner, a new system needs to go beyond “whole school” models. In other words, if digital learning “unbundles” school so that students can choose courses and learning experiences from multiple places, as in Florida and other states, then funding needs to be just as nimble. And, it even needs to accommodate parents who want to assemble their own learning experiences. Hill says:

Funds available for a child’s education must include all the taxpayer funds available to support students’ education. To make this happen, some government entity would need to assemble all of the funds available from all sources for K-12 education in a locality, keep an account for every student, and faithfully allocate its con-tents to whatever school or education program a student attends.

Hill goes on to discuss important implications of these ideas, including dilemmas around accountability and choice. And, while many might reflectively reject Hill’s ideas as a digital-age voucher, there’s also the kernel of another more radical idea. If taken to its logical extreme, localities might not just assemble K-12 funding, but also those for all sorts of other services, such as juvenile justice, mental health, out-of-school programs, etc., enabling an approach that just might resemble a digital-era Harlem Children’s Zone.

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