If today’s students are to thrive in the modern, technology-based global economy, public schools will have to provide individual learning in a way that is nearly impossible under the current 19th-century educational system.
By tapping the power of the internet, however, educational officials can transform today’s factory-style school model into a more affordable, mastery-based system centered on students. As pointed out by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson in Education Week (June 2008): “There is far more standardization than customization in schools. Schools teach using a monolithic batch system. When a class is ready to move on to a new concept, all students move on, regardless of how many have mastered the previous concept. ...Both the bored and the bewildered see their motivation for achievement shredded by the system.”
One solution is online learning. In 2010, more than 12,000 K–12 students in Washington took full-time online courses. Yet this number represents less than 2 percent of the state’s 980,000 public school students. Clearly, online learning has the potential to reach more, especially those who do not thrive in a traditional classroom setting.
The state Legislature has authorized all 295 school districts to create their own online programs. The problem is that while school officials are required to write online learning policies, they do not have to offer students access to actual courses or give students school credit for taking them. This attitude stands in sharp contrast to charter public schools in other states that use cutting-edge technology to reach students. For example, low-income students at Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary School in San Jose, Calif., spend 90 minutes a day online, where they learn basic skills with adaptive technology such as innovative DreamBox software. Rocketship students receive one-quarter of their instruction this way, allowing teachers to give extra help to struggling students. This approach frees up $500,000 in staffing costs devoted to teacher salaries and training. And it works. Rocketship schools rank among the 15 top-performing high-poverty schools in California.
Other examples of teachers using technology in new ways to achieve great results for students are New York City’s School of One, Denver’s School of Science and Technology, and San Diego’s High Tech High. The latter two are charter school endeavors, but charter schools are banned in Washington, making it harder for similar creative teaching methods to take root here. Part of the reason is that labor unions such as the Washington Education Association strongly oppose charter public schools because most charter school teachers aren’t forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Unions also have argued against giving students access to online programs because these programs threaten the status quo.
Still, Washington law does allow school districts to contract with private education companies to provide online services. This means students can benefit from the capital investment and instructional expertise these companies provide. Some companies offer the top-rated K12 Inc. curriculum, a nationally recognized learning program that uses research in cognitive science to develop student mastery in math, science, reading and other core subjects.
Online programs increase parents’ involvement in their children’s education by redirecting part of the funding designated for a student in a traditional public school to the online program of the parents’ choice. This way, the funding can be clearly tracked and is directly linked to student achievement. Budget data show that full-time online programs educate students for thousands of dollars less than the yearly average of $10,200 per student taxpayers give to traditional schools.
Washington has the potential to extend online learning opportunities dramatically. The Digital Learning Department in the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction offers a catalog of more than 600 online courses from private education companies that cost $155 to $350 per course. (Typical classroom instruction costs $800 to $1,000 per course.) At a time when students carry more computing power in their pockets than the Apollo spacecraft carried to the moon, Washington school officials should be open to new ways of educating. Wider adoption of the online programs offered by the state would let students learn in a tech-friendly system that fits the 21st century, instead of one that dates from the steam age.
Liv Finne is director of the Center for Education at the Washington Policy Center.