Michael Horn: On digital learning, feds can support conditions for transformation


by Michael B. Horn

With the rapid growth of online learning – both in full-time virtual learning environments and even more often in blended learning in schools – there is an opportunity to transform the nation’s education system from its factory-model roots to a student-centric one that can customize affordably for different learning needs and thereby bolster every student’s learning and America’s competitiveness.

One of the main reasons the country’s education system fails so many students is because it was never built to help each child realize her fullest potential. Because students have different learning needs at different times – students learn at different paces, have different aptitudes, and have different levels of knowledge when they enter a classroom – harnessing the power of technology to do the positive things it has done in so many other sectors of society is vital.redefinED-at-RNC-logo-snipped-300x148

Although this is an important national opportunity, it does not mean the best way to drive this innovation is from the federal government. That is one reason Digital Learning Now!, an effort led by former Governors Jeb Bush and Bob Wise to seize this transformational opportunity, focuses on the things states should do to create a student-centric education system.

That said, it is important that the federal government support the conditions for transformation – and eliminate onerous requirements for educators on the ground. To further this end, there are several steps it can and should take.

Implement backpack funding: Title I and Title II dollars should follow students down to the educational, not just school, experience of their choice. With the growth in online learning courses, it is important to allow students to access great teachers and the right learning experience for their needs regardless of their zip code.

Promote individual student growth as the measure of performance: Move away from No Child Left Behind’s AYP school site accountability model. Create transparency by having states focus on the growth in learning for each individual student. Given that a student-centric system will recognize that each student has different learning needs at different times, it only makes sense to move to a system that leverages technology and captures how each child is doing in near real time, not just on an annual basis, and can give credit to educators that help a student make meaningful progress regardless of where she started. To the end of creating transparency in the education system around student learning, as well as creating a bigger market to spur private investment in digital learning, supporting the Common Core state standards is also an appropriate role for the federal government – whereas acting as the nation’s education venture capitalist is not.

Support competency-based learning: Today’s education system holds time as a constant with the result that each student’s learning is highly variable. A competency-based learning system reverses the equation and holds learning constant – students only move on once they have mastered a concept or skill – so that time becomes the variable. In a system powered by digital learning to customize for each student’s needs, operating in a competency-based system is critical. The federal government should support – and even incentivize – states moving toward competency-based learning systems, and it should eliminate all policies that anchor the current system in time, such as the AYP accountability measure that focuses on students clearing a minimal bar on an annual test on an arbitrary day.

Focus on student outcomes, not regulating inputs: Today’s system is regulated with an obsessive focus on inputs – things like teacher certification laws that dictate the population from which schools can hire teachers, to categorical funding that locks in place the things on which schools can and cannot spend. The challenge with managing through inputs is that it blocks innovation. The federal government contributes to this with often well-meaning rules and regulations that have sown the seeds of a compliance mentality in school districts, as opposed to one that focuses on how best to serve students. Although it isn’t glamorous, eliminating things like the “supplement not supplant” rule in Title I and other such requirements is necessary to unleash the power of digital learning.

Help modernize the schooling infrastructure: Internet access is paltry in many schools today and won’t support a move to a student-centric education system powered by digital learning. The federal government’s eRate policy should be revisited to support modernizing schools’ and low-income students’ access to the Internet.

Finally, one of the most important things the federal government can do is use its bully pulpit to celebrate and encourage innovation in the country’s education system – and to reward success for bolstering student-learning outcomes, almost regardless of how those gains might be achieved. There is no one-size-fits-all way to educate every child, so the federal government should not be in the business of dictating how states and localities educate children. Highlighting examples of success and rewarding breakthroughs in learning, however, can provide a critical boost to those on the ground who are busy transforming our education system into a student-centric one, powered by digital learning that is ready to allow each child to realize her highest hopes and most daring dreams.

Michael Horn is executive director of education at the Innosight Institute.

Coming up later today: Eva S. Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools.