Politics & Policy

States vs. the Digital-Learning Revolution

Governments and teachers’ unions are short-circuiting an education breakthrough.

Earlier this fall, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced that five international high-tech companies had entered into investment agreements, totaling $4.4 billion, with the state. The governor boasted that the agreements would make New York “the epicenter for the new generation of computer-chip technology.” However, when it comes to using computer technology to teach its new generation of young people, New York is a straggler to the digital-learning revolution.

In a national report card issued in October, the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education analyzed the performance of states across 72 different categories related to digital learning. These categories focused on government barriers affecting student access, teacher certification, and other issues. The report card gave grades of “achieved,” “partially achieved,” and “not yet achieved” to state actions in each category. In only 15 of the 72 categories did New York score an “achieved” rating. Meanwhile, out of the 72 categories, Florida scored an “achieved” rating in 41 of them, while Pennsylvania scored an “achieved” rating in 40.

#ad#New York does not require that students complete a course online in order to earn a high-school diploma, nor does its funding system ensure access to digital learning for all K–12 students. (Online courses are valuable because they customize curricula to students’ individual learning needs, allow students to access teachers at virtually any time of the day or night, and produce immediate and transparent progress reports on students’ performance.) In contrast, the International Association for K–12 Online Learning says that Singapore’s long-term digital-learning plan “is to train every teacher to teach online, to provide online learning in 100% of secondary schools, which means that all instructional materials are provided digitally and online, and every teacher and secondary school uses a learning management system to deliver course materials and track student progress.”

New York is not the only laggard state, however. California, home of Silicon Valley, is also struggling to implement the digital-learning revolution:

On the report card, California scored an “achieved” rating in only 14 of the 72 categories. One category in which it failed is whether it “restrict[s] access to high quality digital content, online courses and virtual schools based on geography, such as school district, county or state.” California does allow “virtual charter schools,” which are publicly funded schools through which students learn at home on their computers using interactive and adaptive online programs. Virtual charter schools allow students to learn at their own pace and access teachers at most times of the day and night. Because these students learn at home using the Internet, they could potentially live anywhere in the state and enroll in any virtual school regardless of where it is chartered and based.

#page#Yet California has set up a roadblock. Under California law, students can enroll in a virtual charter school only if they live in a county that is contiguous to the county in which the school is chartered. Policymakers are essentially saying that the Internet somehow changes at the county line and therefore instruction is diminished when it’s delivered to students residing in a non-contiguous county.

California’s “contiguous counties” rule is a prime example of how the law has not kept up with technology. Originally, the rule was aimed at non-digital, homeschool-based charter schools, and stemmed from concerns about the physical distance between homeschooled students and teachers and administrators at the charter-school headquarters. Yet, as Stanford professor Terry Moe has pointed out, such rules “go a long way toward eliminating the very features that are distinctive and advantageous about cyberschools, and force them to operate under geographic and staffing constraints that make them more like traditional schools.”

#ad#In addition, the teachers’ unions realize that digital-learning technology will enable districts to employ fewer teachers. The high-performing Rocketship charter school in inner-city San Jose, Calif., requires only three teachers for every four a similarly sized public school would need, because it uses a “blended learning” model in which students spend one-quarter of the school day in a computer lab that can be overseen by non-teachers. No wonder, then, that the California Federation of Teachers’ model contract says that no union member “shall be displaced because of distance learning or other educational technology.”

Government regulations and union blocking tactics reduce the availability of digital-learning opportunities to the students who want and need them. This is a tragedy, because such opportunities help students excel. Mark McLean, a middle-school student in Northern California, has autism and was performing poorly when he attended his neighborhood public school, which failed to meet his special needs. When his parents enrolled him in a virtual charter school, however, his scores on the state tests skyrocketed to the “proficient” and “advanced” levels because the online curriculum adapted to his individual needs.

Digital learning is not just the wave of the future; it is the tidal wave of the future. Government and special interests need to get out of the way and let this future in so that parents can exercise their fundamental right to choose the type of education that best meets the individual needs of their children.

— Lance T. Izumi is the Koret Senior Fellow and Senior Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute. He is the co-author of the book Short-Circuited: The Challenges Facing the Online Learning Revolution in California.

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