This morning, Digital Learning Now, a new advocacy effort led by former Governors Jeb Bush (R-FL) and Bob Wise (D-WV), published 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning, a set of state policy recommendations to spur further growth for not only virtual learning, but also the use of digital and multimedia content (see report). Taken together, the ten recommendations, which advocate for states to eliminate restrictions on student access to virtual education, allow students to choose among multiple learning providers, call for removal of seat-time requirements, and judge schools on results rather than inputs such as class size, would enable all students to access virtual education and end many of the regulatory restraints that stifle the development of innovative options.
But, while the recommendations accurately identify the barriers that constrain virtual education, they are light on details for ensuring that innovation actually leads to more high-quality educational options. They suggest, for example, that states evaluate “the quality of content and courses predominately based on student learning data,” yet provide few details on how to accomplish this difficult task. Likewise, recommendations for “Quality Providers” focus heavily on the removal of barriers to competition, but offer little discussion of how to enact the recommendation for “a strong system of oversight and quality control.” Too often, the recommendations assume that quality will naturally result from regulatory relief.
Virtual education is in a time of rapid growth as school districts, for-profit providers, and nonprofit start-ups all move into the online learning world. But without rigorous oversight, a thousand flowers blooming will also yield a lot of weeds. In many ways, the K-12 virtual learning market called for by the 10 Elements resembles the one that exists in higher education, with many providers and funding that follows students. There, we have seen innovative ideas to make college more accessible and affordable. And, we’ve also seen a lot of abuse, poor performance, and deep-pocketed lobbying to resist oversight — all from institutions that are fully-accredited.
States must not overlook one important sentence in the recommendations : “Providers and programs that are poor performing should have their contracts terminated.” Recent experiences with school districts, charter authorizers, and even higher education demonstrate that shutting down poor programs is extremely difficult. Markets alone will not drive quality and independent entities, with the data, authority, political insulation, and willpower to close schools/programs, are essential.
Overall, as guiding principles, the recommendations make sense. But, as the nation’s charter schooling experience demonstrates, policymakers must fully confront the difficult issue of quality at the same time as they seek new and innovative approaches to schooling. It’s better to think of the 10 Elements as important pre-conditions, but not nearly the complete set of policies needed to ensure high quality learning.