The Disaggregation Era of K-12

February 10, 2014

Pay attention 007, and do try to keep up!

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Mike McShane hosted an event last week at the American Enterprise Institute, and I had the opportunity to serve on a panel with Mike, Andy Smarick and Kara Kerwin.  During the discussion, Andy confessed that what he found the “disaggregation” of K-12 unsettling. This came up in the context of a discussion of Arizona’s ESA program and students like Jordan Visser:

“How do you assign a teacher of record?” I recall Andy asking.  For Jordan, such a question is already antiquated. Should his tutor be classified as the teacher of record? Or the physical therapists? Mr. or Mrs. Visser?  What if Jordan is taking a MOOC from Stanford is a few years? Should the state of Arizona attempt to hold Stanford “accountable” for what Jordan learns?

Personally I choose “none of the above.”

The trend towards disaggregation in K-12 predates Arizona’s still tiny ESA program.  The ESA program can in fact simply be viewed as the best vehicle for managing a customization trend as a quasi-market mechanism that gets us as close as possible to realizing the benefits of markets while preserving the public funding of K-12. The disaggregation trend however has been moving out into the bloodstream for decades. Consider the following program data from Florida:

Florida disagregation

This is a snapshot of traditional “school choice as you knew it at the end of the 20th Century.”  Most but not all of these choices are mutually exclusive such that they are something any one student does to the exclusion of others. You don’t expect to find many students for instance enrolled in a private school full-time and doing full-time virtual instruction, for instance. Most of these options are either/or propositions you are either sitting in this type of seat, or that type of seat. Major avenues of part-time education, such as dual college enrollment and virtual education, are not included, so we are just getting warmed up.

Let’s take virtual education on next:

FLVS Credits

The Florida Virtual School is not the only supplier of accredited virtual courses in Florida, so the 148,000 or so courses they provided in 2011-12 underestimates the strength of the trend. Nevertheless FLVS long ago begged the question: if a child takes an online Mandarin course from an approved online provider, just what, if anything, does this have to do with the results on the host schools’ accountability scores?

“I’ll take ‘Absolutely Nothing at All’ for a Thousand, Trebek!

Needless to say, FLVS found it necessary to develop alternative methods for measuring student achievement related directly to course content.  High-school students have been taking classes at community colleges for decades with what appears to be an entirely understandable disinterest in sorting through just how much responsibility, if any, the Community College holds for what happens on the high-school students minimal skills accountability exam.

So what happens when we mix dual enrollment with virtual education?


Since we live in an age of wonders, we have over a thousand Massive Open Online Courses provided by some of the finest universities in the world available for free. Oh and the number of courses keeps growing. Did I mention that it has already been worked out for MOOC students to take third-party proctored final exams and receive college credit for them? Yes, right, that too.  Has anyone thought through the fact that the $89 cost for a third-party end of course exam may prove incredibly attractive for both families but also to schools who don’t enjoy having a portion of their budget sent off to an online provider?

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves Trebek! I’ll take ‘Months that begin with Oct’ for five hundred…

So, let us imagine a 15-year-old taking a Calculus class from, say, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He or she successfully completes a third-party end of course exam, he or she either is or in the near future will be eligible for college credit from a large number of universities around the world. Obviously provision for this student to receive high-school calculus credit will need to be made as well if we are to maintain any semblance of sanity.  Should authorities in Arizona disallow this because MIT’s Calculus course doesn’t precisely fit the state of Arizona’s state standards?

I’ll take “Seriously, you have got to be kidding me!” for a thousand Alex.

In short, the disaggregation genie is out of the bottle, and the trend looks set to accelerate in the coming years. As our system of education evolves it will be necessary to update our thinking regarding transparency and accountability: they are already out of date and will be increasingly so moving forward.  It would be absurd to require Jordan Visser to take the AIMS test. The AIMS has nearly played itself out for the 19th Century factory model school system in Jordan’s home state and has nothing to do with Jordan.  Regarding the ESA program, the public’s interest in transparency would be better served by collecting national norm reference exam data and having them analyzed by a qualified academic researcher.  Regarding the broader education system, Texas has already moved to replace minimal skills tests with subject specific end of course exams at the high school level. If a student takes a Physics class, shouldn’t we be curious as to whether or not they learned any “Physics”?

Creative destruction usually kills outdated ideas before outdated organizations. Our notions about how to provide transparency in a changing K-12 world have been running behind schedule.

The Solyndra of Digital Learning

September 19, 2011

Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, and Netflix CEO, Reed Hasting, have an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal that starts out great but then goes dramatically downhill.  They begin by recognizing the amazing potential of digital learning:

In the past two decades, technology has revolutionized the way Americans communicate, get news, socialize and conduct business. But technology has yet to transform our classrooms. At its full potential, technology could personalize and accelerate instruction for students of all educational levels. And it could provide equitable access to a world-class education for millions of students stuck attending substandard schools in cities, remote rural regions, and tribal reservations.

But then they advocate for a federal government-backed corporation to realize digital learning’s potential:

Too often, the market for educational technology has been inefficient and fragmented. The nation’s 14,000 school districts, more than a few of which have byzantine procurement systems, have been inefficient consumers and have failed to drive consistent demand. And a robust R&D base for improving and refining educational technology has been sadly lacking.

To help remedy those gaps, the Department of Education is launching a unique public-private partnership called Digital Promise.

The last thing digital learning needs is a government funded outfit to develop it.  The government is particularly bad at picking technological winners and losers.  And if the government pours money into Digital Promise and signals to states and districts that they should adopt what Digital Promise endorses, they will stifle a developing vibrant marketplace that will experiment with different technologies and approaches to learn what work best.

If you don’t believe me that the government is particularly incapable of picking winners and losers in technology, just look at the example of Solyndra.  The government poured more than half a billion dollars of stimulus money into Solyndra’s technology for solar energy, believing that it would be the wave of the future.  As it turns out, they backed a more expensive technology that failed to win in the marketplace.  Solyndra recently declared bankruptcy, laying off more than 1,000 workers and blowing more than half a billion dollars of taxpayer money.

In addition to blowing taxpayer money by backing the wrong technology, Digital Promise is the digital learning equivalent of mandating Betamax.  If we privilege the wrong technology we will crowd out better solutions and productive innovation.

Giving taxpayer money to certain outfits also runs the risk of corruption, since political connections may well influence which company and technologies get backed.  This leads to Crony Capitalism, or crapitalism.

For the sake of digital learning, Mr. Secretary, please stop “helping” it with a government backed organization, like Digital Promise.

(Correction: Digital Promise is a Non-Profit Organization, but all the points still apply)

Digital Learning Utah

May 4, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Lawmakers have been passing so many major reform bills in so many states that it can make your head spin. Tenure reform, collective bargaining reform, private choice expansion. Indiana, Oklahoma and Florida have all undertaken multiple major reforms, and a few more Big-10 states seem poised to join them. Sessions are far from over, but it is already clear that 2011 will set a new standard for K-12 reform.

One of the new laws already in the books very much worthy of note is Utah SB 65- The Statewide Online Education Program. The authors of this law drew upon the Digital Learning Now’s Ten Elements of Quality Online Learning to develop a very broad online learning policy. The law funds success rather than just seat time, has no participation caps and allows multiple public and private providers. The program starts for public high school students in grades 9-12 but then phases in home-school and private school students for eligibility. You can read the legislation here.

Last week at the Heritage Resource Bank, I was on a panel with William Mattox from Florida’s James Madison Institute. Mattox gave a fascinating talk about blended learning from the perspective of a parent. Mattox related that he and his wife have been home-schooling, but that their son had been taking a couple of online courses as well. His son decided to join the baseball team of his district school (Florida allows such participation, and it netted their flagship school a Heisman Trophy and national championship).

When his son joined the baseball team, he learned that there were other players on the team doing the same thing. Far from being unusual, this customized learning approach was old hat. It was a very compelling talk, and exactly where Utah is heading. This is the first important step towards Tom Vander Ark’s bracing prediction:

Weʼre headed for radical choice–not just school choice but choice to the lesson level. Weʼll soon have adaptive content libraries and smart recommendation engines that string together a unique ʻplaylistʼ for every student every day. These smart platforms will consider learning level, interests, and best learning modality (i.e.,motivational profile and learning style to optimize understanding and persistence).

Smart learning platforms will be used by some students that learn at home, by some students that connect through hybrid schools with a day or two onsite, and by most students through blended schools that mix online learning with onsite support systems. Choice between physical schools will increasingly be about the learning community they create in terms of the applications and extracurricular opportunities and guidance and support systems. Families will gain the ability to construct a series of learning experiences that fit family needs, schedules, preferences, and interests.

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