Quality control in K-12 digital learning: three (imperfect) approaches

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Article Highlights

  • Goal is to raise the likelihood that online learning will succeed over the long run

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  • Can't go back in time for charter movement but can be smarter about next major phase of education reform & innovation

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  • Finding ways to define, monitor, & police quality is the challenge in realizing the potential of digital learning

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Will the move toward virtual and "hybrid" 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 the universe of U.S. charter schools look today if, at the beginning, 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?

"Hess makes a groundbreaking contribution by exploring the pros and cons of input regulation, outcome-based accountability, and market signals as solutions to the quality challenge." -- Frederick Hess

We can't go back in time for the charter movement but we can be smarter about the next major phase of education reform and innovation: taking high-quality virtual and hybrid 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 six deep-thought papers that, together, address the thorniest policy issues surrounding digital learning. The goal is to raise the likelihood that online learning will succeed (both substantively and politically) over the long run.

This first paper in the series is "Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Approaches," by Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. As he writes,

Digital learning poses an immense dilemma when it comes to ensuring quality. One of the great advantages of online learning is that it makes "unbundling" school provision possible--that is, it allows children to be served by providers from almost anywhere, in new and more customized ways. But taking advantage of all the opportunities online learning offers means that there is no longer one conventional "school" to hold accountable. Instead, students in a given building or district may be taking courses (or just sections of courses) from a variety of providers, each with varying approaches to technology, instruction, mastery, and so forth.….To further complicate this picture (and add to its political volatility), many providers are likely to be profit-seeking ventures. Finding ways to define, monitor, and police quality in this brave new world is one of the central challenges in realizing the potential of digital learning.

Hess makes a groundbreaking contribution by exploring the pros and cons of input regulation, outcome-based accountability, and market signals as solutions to the quality challenge. In the end, he recommends using all three approaches in careful combination so as to leverage their strengths and offset their weaknesses. In practice, that means demanding transparent financial information from providers, holding them to account for student achievement gains whenever possible, and developing "crowd-sourcing" reporting systems to help educators, parents, and students identify the most effective purveyors of online learning.

Future papers in the series will tackle questions surrounding funding, governance, and the educator's role in the digital realm. The papers are set to be released on a rolling basis later in 2011.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and Director of Education Policy Studies at AEI.

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