As a result, school districts are heavily restricted in terms of how they can spend taxpayer dollars and how they cannot. There are district -- or even statewide -- textbook adoption processes that determine what content can and cannot enter a classroom. Principals often have limited authority to manage the school calendar or hirings in ways that would be advantageous for their school's populations.
Representative John Kline (R-MN) recently introduced an act that would change a piece of that. The State and Local Funding Flexibility Act would give states and districts much more flexibility in how they spend federal education dollars -- in effect, trusting local educators to make the best decisions for their students. But Kline's measure created a firestorm when he introduced it shortly after July 4. Opponents fired back that it would unravel much of what the Department of Education has accomplished over the last half century and undermine students' civil rights.
As always with proposals of this nature, the devil is in the details, but there is a strong logic to Kline's basic premise. Over the past couple of decades policymakers have begun focusing on student outcomes -- and taken to demanding accountability for them. But they haven't loosened their controlling grip on the inputs -- the resources and processes schools can use to deliver those outcomes.
No sane business would operate in this manner. What we do today in education is the equivalent of telling a manager that we are going to hold her accountable for a profit-and-loss statement, but that she has no power to change the current operations.
As it happens, there are a number of exciting new tools educators could be exploring if policymakers would grant them that flexibility. The Internet has brought about customization in all parts of our society, and its potential to customize learning in our schools is breathtaking.
We can already see this potential materializing. Students at Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School in Yuma, Arizona, use online learning to chart individual paths through their curriculum. Once they master a concept, they are allowed to progress and move on to the next level. This is good news not only for students but also for teachers, who no longer have to deliver one-size-fits-all lessons to students who learn at different paces and in different ways. Instead, teachers act as learning coaches by supplementing their students' learning and providing one-on-one help when a child is struggling.
But for online learning to succeed, we need to give the leaders on the ground the ability to make smart decisions. We need to let them match their local circumstances with the resources available to them to achieve great outcomes for each child.
Recently my colleagues and I finished a series of case studies examining the impact of online learning in schools to date. In a white paper that summarized our findings, " Moving from inputs to outputs to outcomes: The future of education policy," we concluded that we must do better. It seems that policies that create access to online learning -- as evidenced by its rapid growth in our public schools -- are outpacing policies that transform the system and focus on the learning outcomes. In one school district we profiled in the state of Washington, for example, policies dictated that teachers spent a significant amount of time simply documenting how many hours students spent learning. And that time that came at the expense of focusing on each student's actual learning.