Dispatch August 2009

Revolution in the Classroom

States looking to win education stimulus funds and offer truly student-centric, customizable learning experiences, need to get their classrooms online

President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s flagship idea for reforming education—a competition among states over a total pot of $4.35 billion known as the “Race to the Top Fund”—is a bold move to use scarce resources to coerce states into adopting big, potentially controversial strategies for education reform. It aims to achieve four stated goals:

- Develop common, internationally-benchmarked standards and assessments

- Improve the effectiveness of teachers and principals

- Use data to inform decisions

- Turn around the lowest-performing schools.

As details of the competition emerge, states vying for funds could simply opt to check off the boxes, suggest some novel-sounding strategies, and implement a few tweaks to the way things are already being done. But doing so would miss a genuine opportunity. In order to transform our factory-era schools into a truly student-centric system fit for the 21st-century, the funds should be used to innovate disruptively. And the best way to do that is by implementing online learning – an approach that’s constantly improving in its ability to deliver personalized, high-quality learning experiences to students from all walks of life, regardless of geography, special needs, or socioeconomic background.

As states craft their strategies in the four designated areas, they should therefore do so with a forward-thinking question in mind: how might online learning fit in?

Standards & Assessments—
Growing the Online Market and Customizing Learning

Currently, start-up online learning providers struggle unnecessarily to expand across multiple districts and states because of the existence of more than 50 different standards in every subject, ranging from Algebra to critical reading. But if we were to implement common academic standards nationwide, a more robust online learning market could develop. With easier access to more markets, online learning would be a more attractive opportunity, which would in turn bolster competition and quality.

What’s more, having curriculum standards that are specifiable, measurable, and predictable would, counterintuitively, make possible a more student-centric world of educational customization.

How does this work? Consider the architecture of an electric light. The existence of a standard interface between the lightbulb stem and the light bulb socket gives engineers plenty of freedom to improve the design inside of the light bulb—as long as they build the stem so that it can fit the established light bulb socket specifications. That’s why the new compact fluorescent bulbs fit so easily into our old lamps. Establishing a basic set of descriptive rather than prescriptive educational standards would do the same thing for students—enabling them to follow whatever learning approach best suits their needs, motivations, and ways of learning, so long as the end result is mastery of the required material.

Teacher Effectiveness—
Getting More for Less Online

Studies show that having access to a highly effective teacher is perhaps the most important factor in a student’s learning. But our current efforts to bring effective teachers to every student in every class have fallen short. Even if we were to open up alternative certification routes, limiting the search for talent to local areas wouldn’t work. Georgia, for example, has more than 440 high schools, but only 88 highly qualified physics teachers.

What states can do to address this problem is increase student access to the very best teachers through online offerings that transcend the limitations of geography—amplifying the most effective teachers’ reach to the benefit of greater numbers of students.

Data Collection—
Enabling Improvements to the System

Creating effective methods for measuring student progress is crucial to ensuring that material is actually being learned. And implementing such assessments using an online system could be incredibly potent: rather than simply testing students all at once at the end of an instructional module, this would allow continuous verification of subject mastery as instruction was still underway. Teachers would be able to receive constant feedback about progress or the lack thereof and then make informed decisions about the best learning path for each student. Thus, individual students could spend more or less time, as needed, on certain modules. And as long as the end result – mastery – was the same for all, the process and time allotted for achieving it need not be uniform.

Struggling Students and Schools—
Online Options to Meet All Needs

As states develop strategies to turn around the lowest-performing schools, they must look to online learning to provide opportunities for students who have failed a course to retake it and recover the credit, as well as to serve as the backbone of alternative schools for dropouts. The traditional school model has not worked for these students, but online learning could provide an opportunity for them to learn at their own pace, in a way that works for them. As for those students who are falling behind but not yet failing, online tools can offer creative tutoring methods to get them up to speed.

Fine-Tuning the Race to the Top

In selecting which states get Race to the Top funding, the Obama administration has already developed a few hard-and-fast criteria. One rule they’ve settled on is that any state that bars the use of student achievement data in the evaluation of teachers and principals will not be eligible for the funds.

Presented by

Michael B. Horn

Michael Horn is Executive Director of Innosight Institute, a nonprofit think tank focused on education and innovation, and the author of Disrupting Class. Read his white paper on the future of education policy here.

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