The Corner

For Mother’s Day, a Feminist Education Agenda

There has never been a better-educated population of women than the one that exists today. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that among women aged 25 to 29, a full 35 percent hold bachelor’s degrees, compared with just 27 percent of men. Within the same age cohort, 58 percent of the people with an advanced degree are women. Many of these highly educated women are mothers.

Not only are they well educated, but some of today’s mothers are at the forefront of the education-reform world — notably, Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, and Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia’s public schools. They make up a sizeable portion of the teacher workforce. But for decades, many well-educated mothers have been limited to roles like “room mother” and left with little in the way of school involvement beyond baking cupcakes or participating in the PTA.

These smart, involved mothers should have more say in their children’s education than a successful bake sale. Mothers should instead demand the opportunity to oversee their children’s schooling, from the coursework to the classroom — to be empowered as educational managers who oversee a diverse portfolio of school options for their children. And with virtual learning, mothers — and fathers — are already gaining the ability to be their children’s educational CEO.

Online learning has taken root in many states across the country. The Florida Virtual School enrolled more than 70,000 students during the 2009-10 school year, making it the fastest-growing K-12 virtual school in the country. Schools like the FLVS are thriving because online learning serves a wide range of students, from those needing remedial coursework to advanced learners who are bored in the traditional classroom. Virtual learning meets the needs of student athletes, dropouts, advanced-placement students, and those who, for whatever reason, are underserved by the traditional “four walls” model of schooling.

So far, online learning appears to be highly effective. A recent meta-analysis by the U.S. Department of Education of online-learning studies found that “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” Virtual education rejects the one-size-fits-all model of learning in favor of what has been dubbed “mass customization” of education, which may be the key to its success.

Online instruction democratizes learning. With virtual education, mothers can gain access to the best physics teacher, a native-born French teacher, or a dynamic history teacher for their child. It’s uniquely student-centered. One of the most popular courses at the Florida Virtual School is “Wellville” — the school’s physical-education class. Students who enroll in the virtual town of “Wellville” design their own workout plan and track their diet and stress levels. A teacher serves as their personal trainer.

And online learning doesn’t just serve the unique needs of individual students. It liberates teachers as well, by letting them teach anywhere — or it would, that is, if policymakers removed onerous restrictions such as state-specific certification. Then the education market would work for teachers, instead of teachers working for the state monopoly. Like their students, teachers would not be trapped in the traditional 7:30-4:00 school day. They could set their own hours, but more important, they could offer their talents across the country. The flexible schedule that online instruction permits would also provide an entirely new option for teachers with families.

As families across the country learn about their options in the Internet age, and as the appetite for access to virtual education grows, these barriers will become as archaic as the traditional public-school model that spawned them. Imagine a day when families can design a portfolio for their child that includes a little of everything on the educational menu: Some home schooling coupled with online courses, perhaps, or public or private school coupled with a virtual tutor, available 24 hours per day. The possibilities are wide-ranging, and they make obsolete the traditional “four walls” model of schooling in which every student in a class must learn the same content, at the same pace, from a teacher who has a finite amount of knowledge to offer.

Let’s free the delivery of content, and free teachers to be master guides. But above all, let’s empower mothers — and fathers — to be educational managers, to choose from a menu of options that includes virtual education, charters, private schools, private tutors, and home schooling. Mothers could still take charge of building the class gingerbread house around the holidays, but they should have a far greater hand in their children’s education. And with virtual learning, they soon may.

– Lindsey Burke is a policy analyst in domestic-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation,

Lindsey Burke is the director of education policy and the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at the Heritage Foundation.

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