Parents, Technology Can Trigger Education Transformation

Published December 6, 2010

It’s possible the real “race to the top” in the next few years won’t come from bureaucrats in Washington, DC but from an energized education transformation movement. The driver of this transformation won’t be elected officials, but empowered parents, and the innovative content will be delivered through the Internet “cloud.”

The past year brought two of the most important breakthroughs in education reform in recent years, neither of which originated in Washington, DC.

The first is California’s parent empowerment law, which allows parents to petition for a change in their child’s failing school. The “parent trigger” model promises to spread to other states. It could drive dramatic reforms by transforming government-owned infrastructure into true neighborhood schools.

The second blockbuster breakthrough is digital learning. The exponential growth in this field offers the opportunity to use “the cloud” as an inexpensive force multiplier for talented content providers.

Combined, these two reforms could be truly revolutionary.

A 10-Point Plan
Such a transformation of public education will require a sound policy foundation. The Digital Learning Council, a coalition of education reformers assembled by former governors Jeb Bush (R-FL) and Bob Wise (D-WV), on December 1 unveiled a 10-point roadmap to spur lawmakers into bringing classrooms into the digital frontier.
As one of the council’s members, I came away feeling we accomplished something rare for committees: An excellent document mapping out a path that promises to implement digital learning opportunities rapidly for America’s children.

The document highlights “10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning” (see sidebar). It starts with the first element, which simply states: “all students are digital learners.” This bedrock element makes the case that all children should have access to digital content, and that eligibility rules unfairly limit this access to educational opportunities.

The roadmap also offers specific actions for lawmakers and policymakers. These action items range from the general (“state ensures access to high quality digital content”) to more specific (“state is replacing text books with digital content”). From the reformer’s point of view, each action item is a good piece of policy. Read together in this roadmap, an entirely different school code starts to develop.

Much More With Less
That is why this roadmap is such an important piece of public policy. Readers should see in it a way to break free from the intractable problems created by the old “district-based” model the nation desperately needs to replace. As they confront these problems, they will start asking more of the right questions.

Why, for example, do we need massive districts encompassing cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago? In fact, why do we need school districts at all? Salman Khan, proprietor of the nonprofit, online Khan Academy, has produced thousands of high-quality, short instructional videos at no cost to the taxpayer, and others can do the same. That content can be delivered to any number of children at minimal cost.

Why, then, do we need a textbook industry, not to mention the massive brick and mortar infrastructure that is so expensive to build and maintain?

The scalability of technology allows us to question the need for the army of administrators and managers that do little more than sign contracts and manage the flow of funds that have little to do with education. We may be able to educate our children far more effectively with much less spending, not more.

Enter the ‘Parent Trigger’
Implementing such a bold vision will not be easy. There are powerful interests heavily invested in maintaining the present system.

Defenders of the status quo will fight money-saving digitalization and decentralization every step of the way, attempting to force the dynamics of digital learning into the current, static district model.

This is where the parent trigger can help. As it empowers parents to convert legacy infrastructure into charters or vouchers, it will naturally follow that one option many families will choose is greater access to the best digital options available.

Charter schools, vouchers, tuition tax credits, and now digital learning are not silver bullets. They are merely a quiver of reforms that offer improvements over the existing sclerotic system.

Empowering parents to convert education infrastructure to charters or vouchers, however, will open the door to a much more rapid acceptance of the dynamic potential of digital learning.

Bruno Behrend ([email protected]) is director of The Heartland Institute’s Center for School Reform and a member of the Digital Learning Council.

Sidebar: Ten Elements of High Quality Digital Learning
•    Student Eligibility: All students are digital learners
•    Student Access: All students have access to high quality digital content and online courses
•    Personalized Learning: All students can customize their education using digital content through an approved provider
•    Providers: All students have access to multiple high quality providers.
•    Content: Digital Content, instructional materials, and online and blended courses are high quality.
•    Instruction: Digital Instruction and teachers are high quality.
•    Assessment and Accountability: Student learning is the metric for evaluating the content as instruction.
•    Advancement: Students progress based on demonstrated competency.
•    Funding: Funding creates incentives for performance, options, and innovation.
•    Delivery: Infrastructure supports digital learning.

Source: Digital Learning Now, by Jeb Bush and Bob Wise/The Digital Learning Council