Educratic Inertia

Published August 7, 2011

Everyone is talking about fancy new education apps, possibilities for “flipping” classrooms using innovative, video-based operators such as Khan Academy, and individualized “school of one” models popping up from New York City to California, but these are mere sprouts of innovation, easily strangled by the powerful government bureaucracy.

At least three major obstacles are preventing the information technology revolution from really making an impact on education: state teacher certification requirements, the lack of adaptability in many schools and districts, and a resistance to change in the nation’s overwhelmingly one-provider system.

Thirty states offer virtual schools, with a range from one-class-only supplements to full-time enrollment. Virtual schooling offers flexibility, with students working at their own pace rather than that of the class, and allows excellent teachers to reach many more students than in a traditional classroom setting. Since teaching is the most important component in a child’s academic success, this opens up phenomenal potential for academic improvement.

Unfortunately, every one of these states also requires teaching certification for its virtual-school teachers. This dramatically limits or even precludes the best teachers from sharing their expertise through these systems, since years of research have proven that teaching certification does not increase teaching quality.

A second obstacle is the tangled delta of competing authorities that technological advancements must cross before reaching a single student. Approximately 90 percent of the nation’s students attend public schools, each of which must conform to requirements and policies set by a principal, school board, district, state and nation. As a result, many public school systems aren’t ready for this new technology. Every teacher or aide must accurately enter grade, attendance, behavior and other data each day, and establishing such rules is obviously complicated in such a system.

In addition, each school may use different software for these data — a Colorado systems administrator told me some districts still use index cards. These impediments make data-sharing unnecessarily complicated and expensive. Some principals and school boards reject education technology or data collection altogether.

Although some larger and wealthier districts have the money and IT staff to develop such software and keep it rolling, smaller, poorer ones do not. In their case, the math teacher may fix tech problems in his spare time. More than half the nation’s 14,000 school districts are rural, enrolling nearly a quarter of American schoolchildren.

The worries of parents must be considered, too. Three Wisconsin superintendents told me recently that when implementing a new, software-based math curriculum that lets them employ fewer teachers, spike kids’ interest and test scores, and tailor exact pace and subject matter to each individual, they have used it only in test classes after carefully explaining the reasons and touting the outcomes to district parents.

Implementation of the high-tech schools that are routine in Singapore and Japan will take an earthquake-level attitude adjustment across the entire network of U.S. education.

That brings us to the third big obstacle to these sparkly new ideas: The nation’s schools are still overwhelmingly a one-provider, government-sponsored system. Facing that monopoly power, it’s exceedingly difficult for education consumers to force teachers and administrators to embrace change, especially change that frees people from the bondage of the current government-heavy system.

As Greg Forster of the Foundation for Educational Choice points out, “Reform requires people and institutions to do uncomfortable new things. Thus it won’t happen unless people are even more uncomfortable with the status quo than they are with change. … An institution with captive clients can — or at least it will always feel like it can — continue to function, more or less as it always has, indefinitely.”

It’s difficult to estimate current online enrollment, but it’s probably at about the same level as home-schooling, between 1 million and 2 million students, or 3 percent of the nation’s schoolkids. It’s a relatively minuscule population, and most of them aren’t full-time online students.

The only thing that can fertilize the growth of this opportunity and overcome the looming, choking weeds of the current system is increased school choice — laws breaking the education establishment’s monopoly over certification, standards and funding.

Joy Pullmann is a research fellow in education and managing editor of School Reform News at The Heartland Institute (