Digital learning is more than the latest addition to education reformers’ to-do lists, filed along with teacher evaluations, charter schools, tenure reform, academic standards, and the like. It’s fundamentally different: For digital learning to fulfill its enormous potential, a wholesale reshaping of the reform agenda itself is required, particularly in the realms of school finance and governance. But just as online education needs those reforms if it is to flourish, so does major education reform need digital learning, which can provide valuable solutions to some of the greatest challenges in this territory—beginning with the basic obsolescence of public education’s familiar delivery system.

Today, American education has the potential to be rebooted and accelerated by digital learning. Indeed, truly boosting student achievement—as well as individualizing instruction and creating high-quality options for children and families among, within, and beyond schools—will depend to a considerable extent on how deftly we exploit this potential, both in its pure form (full-time online instruction) and in various “blended” combinations of digital and flesh-and-blood instruction.

Road closed
Serious obstacles block the road to realizing digital learning's potential.
Photo by Brad Folkens

Making the most of these remarkable opportunities, however, hinges on our willingness—and capacity—to alter a host of ingrained practices. Fordham’s new volume, Education Reform for the Digital Era, offers a guide to that alteration, beginning with clarity about three major obstacles that today block the path.

Self-centered Interest Groups

The many adult interests that live off U.S. public education are already doing their best to co-opt digital learning for their own ends—and to ensure that nobody uses it to threaten their power, membership, or revenue base. Two such groups are especially powerful.

First are local districts and their school boards, vigorously represented by the National School Boards Association (NSBA). This crowd would stifle the openness and global reach of digital learning in the name of district empowerment and local monopoly. According to Ann Flynn, NSBA’s director of education technology, online learning “should be something that school districts can control.”

Yet leaving local districts and boards in charge of digital instruction will retard innovation, entrepreneurship, collaboration, and smart competition, simultaneously stifling students’ ability to find—and be taught by—the very best educators around the globe. It will raise costs, undermine efficiency, block rich instructional options, restrict school choice and parental influence, and strengthen the hand of other interest groups—including but not limited to already-too-powerful teacher unions.

For wherever one finds school districts and boards, one almost always finds unions equally determined to prevent digital learning from shrinking their ranks or weakening their power bases. In many places, they have secured legislation limiting the scope of digital learning or have written clauses into their contracts to counter its growth. More surreptitiously, they’ve ensured that class-size mandates (costly and dysfunctional as they are in the brick-and-mortar world) still apply to online schools.

Yet staffing arrangements—how many and what sorts of people, with what skills and training and compensation—will be dramatically different for online learning than for traditional schools, as Bryan and Emily Hassel explain in their chapter. With the proliferation of high-quality online content, solid instruction in the “basics” will eventually become “flat”—available anywhere globally (and likely at no charge). Meaning that, yes, fewer teachers will be needed. But also that their effectiveness will matter even more than it does today, as the quality of a teacher will affect learning outcomes for many more students.

Organizational Capacity 

When all the pay stubs are tallied, we find over 3 million teachers and umpteen more “support staff” working in what is today the nation’s second-largest industry. Yet education’s bulked-up employment has had essentially no effect on overall student achievement. Instead, the added HR heft has contributed to the bureaucratization, lethargy, and routinization of the K–12 enterprise, buttressing its rigid procedures, internal fiefdoms, and tendency toward compliance rather than innovation.

In order to see real jumps in student achievement, results-linked quality control of curricula, educators, and programs needs to look dramatically different.

In order to see real jumps in student achievement, results-linked quality control of curricula, educators, and programs needs to look dramatically different. Our current system is laden with input regulations like textbook mandates, certification requirements, and notches on teachers’ professional-development belts. None of these has been shown to improve student achievement (and some have actually been shown to hinder it). In the digital-learning era, these become even more dangerous tokens of “quality,” as they work to hamper innovation.

In fact, as an analysis in the volume finds, it should cost taxpayers fewer dollars to educate each pupil in the online world. As digital learning evolves, its costs are apt to drop further. Which is not to say that the choices, priority adjustments, and trade-offs associated with it are obvious or easy, only that we face a rare opportunity and—considering our fiscal circumstances—likely need to wean K-12 education from its cash habit.

Fundamental Structural Flaws

This education revolution cannot truly succeed under the customary arrangements for financing schools nor within our current governance system.

Education Reform for the Digital Era
To learn more, download Education Reform for the Digital Era (available in pdf and e-book format).

Today we fund education via rigid and formulaic distribution, not paying for students or schools, much less for learning. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In his chapter, Paul T. Hill shows how we can leapfrog our customary system of school finance to fund education, not institutions; move money as students move; and pay for unconventional forms of instruction. This new model would offer parents a choice of whole-school providers while also affording them resources with which to purchase tutoring or enrichment programs, from advanced math classes to piano lessons.

Now consider our agricultural-era devotion to “local control” of public education and ask how this arrangement can possibly work well when the delivery system itself is unbounded by district, municipal, or even state borders.

To be sure, as Rick Hess points out in the book, public officials have an obligation to exert curricular quality control—for which they in turn are accountable to voters and taxpayers—and must safeguard minors from “virtual menaces.” But that is not the same as retaining local districts in control of digital learning.  Instead, a state-based model, like the one described by John E. Chubb in the volume, could provide the scale necessary to support research and development, to allow for flexible programming, and to extend the reach of top-rate teachers.

Whew! Reshape the financing and governance of public education? On top of new HR arrangements for teachers and improved quality control of content? Yes, it’s a tall order and a major reformulation of America’s education-reform agenda. It doesn’t erase the need for rigorous standards, tough accountability, vastly improved data systems, better teacher evaluations (and training, etc.), stronger school leaders, and much else that reformers have been struggling to bring about. But it says, in effect, that far more than those reforms are needed in order to bring U.S. public education into the modern era.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., scholar, educator and public servant, has devoted his career to improving education in the United States. At Fordham, he is now Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus. He’s also a Senior Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

Finn served as Fordham’s President from 1997 to 2014, after many earlier roles in education, academe and government. From 1999 until 2002, he was John M.…

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Daniela was the development manager and policy analyst for the Fordham Institute. Donning many hats at Fordham prior to this role, Daniela had worked as a research intern, research assistant, and interim new-media manager. She started her career as a teacher of students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, and as a high school rowing coach. Prior to joining forces with TBFI, Daniela was a Global Development…

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