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Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning

A Working Paper Series from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute

November 16, 2011

Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction
By Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel
Co-Directors of Public Impact

School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era
By Paul T. Hill
Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and a Research Professor at the University of Washington Bothell

Will the move toward virtual and “blended learning” schools in American education repeat the mistakes of the charter-school movement, or will it learn from them?

Try this thought experiment: How much more successful might U.S. charter schools look today if, at the beginning of the charter movement two decades ago, proponents had spent the time and effort to consider what policies and supports would be needed to ensure its quality, freedom, rules and resources over the long term? What mistakes might have been avoided? Damaging scandals forestalled? Missed opportunities seized?

We can’t go back in time for charters but we can be smarter about the next major phase of education reform and innovation: taking high-quality virtual and blended schools to scale—and to educational success. To this end, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, with the support of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, has commissioned five deep-thought papers that, together, address the thorniest policy issues surrounding digital learning. The goal is to boost the prospects for successful online learning (both substantively and politically) over the long run.

The first paper in the series, “Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Approaches” by Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, tackled accountability for digital schools.

In a new paper, “Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction,” Public Impact’s Bryan and Emily Hassel “propose that digital education needs excellent teachers and that the teaching profession needs digital education.”

They propose a smaller—but more talented and better paid—teaching force with its impact magnified through the expanded reach and efficiency allowed by digital technology. “Time-technology swaps” allow the unbundling of teacher roles and the more efficient use of their time, supported by new, lower-paid positions with appealing, shorter hours.  Realizing the potential of this new system requires, however, that policymakers revamp everything from certification to teacher preparation, from compensation to class size.

In the second new paper, Paul T. Hill zeroes in on the policy area most in need of reform if digital learning is to succeed: funding. “Our system doesn’t fund schools, and certainly doesn’t fund students,” he writes in “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era.” “Yet to encourage development and improvement of technology-based methods, we must find ways for public dollars to do just that—and to follow kids to online providers chosen by their parents, teachers, or themselves.”

Hill explains why our current school funding system could cripple the promise of digital learning—and then proposes innovative solutions.  By consolidating education funding from different sources into a “backpack” model that follows students and creating debit cards that parents can use for online enrichment courses, the system Hill outlines would ensure that families can choose from a diverse range of robust schooling options.

Upcoming papers in the series will examine local control in the digital era and the costs of online learning. These next installments are scheduled for release in January 2012.

Also available from the Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning working paper series:

Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Approaches
by Frederick M. Hess 
Director of Education Policy Studies and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute

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