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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The intention behind this decision is solid: to get a better understanding of which teachers are or are not effective (and for whom) and thereby facilitate appropriate hiring and firing decisions. But the administration’s proposal to tie student achievement data to merit pay for teachers is problematic. Our own research on organizations and businesses has shown that in circumstances where there’s not much agreement on goals or how to achieve them, financial incentives don’t work well as a means of effecting change. And since many educators are skeptical of the validity of achievement data in the first place, they aren’t convinced that improving test scores will necessarily be helpful to students. Thus, before trying to tie financial incentives to this data, it makes more sense to develop consensus about what the educational goals should be and about what actually works in the classroom.
Currently, student achievement data is represented by test scores—a limited prism through which to evaluate teachers. But online learning, coupled with robust data systems, could change this, as it would allow states to gain insight into the interactions between students, teachers, and the curriculum. It would also provide a robust and diverse array of measures by which to understand what is and is not working at a much deeper level—and in what circumstances.
Another criterion that the administration has fixed on is that states should remove caps on and barriers to charter schools. Although the thinking behind this is solid—free up schools from limiting regulations so they can be more innovative and effective—selling it as an evidence-based reform is misleading, as the data in fact suggests that whether a school is good or not has nothing to do with whether it’s chartered.
If the administration does hold to this provision, however, it presents an opportunity for states. To comply, they should go the extra innovative mile and also remove the caps on enrollments in virtual charter schools. They must then hold these virtual charter schools to a higher standard by funding them on a performance basis—i.e., based on whether students successfully pass their courses, rather than on data like average daily attendance and seat time. Metrics unrelated to knowledge and mastery are irrelevant: what matters – and what can, in the world of online education, be significantly improved—is how much students actually learn.