We’re celebrating our 5th Anniversary this year. We know a lot can happen in five years, and we’re proud to have done our part in shaping education reform over the years. So, over the next few weeks, we’ll be reflecting on some of our past work just to see how far it’s come: What drew our analysts to the work? How have the issues evolved? And what’s next? Our “retrospective series” reveals what our analysts had to say.
Laboratories of Reform: Virtual High Schools and Innovation in Public Education (June 2007)
Virtual schools are growing rapidly. But these schools are proving to be more than just another delivery system for students; they are bringing about reforms that have long eluded traditional public schools, argues Managing Director Bill Tucker in “Laboratories of Reform.” In the report, Tucker spotlights some of the most successful models of virtual schooling and provides policy recommendations, for both school reformers and virtual school leaders to help improve quality, spur innovation, and use virtual schooling to strengthen current reform efforts.
Education Sector: What drew you to this issue in the first place?
Bill Tucker: Since the late 1990s I had watched, then been involved in, emerging efforts to help corporations, governments, NGOs, and higher education use the Internet to overcome logistical, cost, and time barriers, and make both training and education more accessible. It was clear that online learning would also have an impact in K–12 education. And, as I began to talk to both online teachers and administrators, I realized that there was the potential for online learning to not only be a supplement to traditional classroom learning, but a laboratory of reform for all sorts of ideas around new teaching roles, assessment, the use of data, and competency-based learning.
ES: How has this issue evolved since your report came out? Anything surprise you?
BT: Since I first wrote about online learning in 2006, the field has exploded. But, I’m still surprised that I frequently encounter both policymakers and educators who treat online learning as if it was an invasive species to be feared, rather than an opportunity to help solve ongoing educational challenges. I’m also disappointed that many discussions of online learning have been hijacked into old, ideological debates pitting the private and public sectors against each other. One of the reasons I first profiled Florida Virtual School is that I wanted to show that innovation, within the right structure, was possible in publicly-run organizations. We’re still seeing a little of that with New York City’s iZone and at many public post-secondary institutions. But, I’m concerned that we could miss much of the opportunity to develop new public entities because parts of the system have been threatened, creating a public vs. private frame.
Finally, I’m also disappointed that many of my recommendations from the original report still stand, as the field has not yet fully utilized the data and digital affordances to develop new ideas around accountability and assessment.
ES: Over the course of the next 5 years, how do you expect this issue to develop? Where are the opportunities to continue research?
BT: There’s so much to do. The next five years are critical—there are both dangers and immense opportunities. A big focus now is to move beyond the speculative and ideological debates about online learning and use actual information about how well these programs help students learn to inform our judgment. Part of my hope is that we’ll think of online learning not as an alternative to public education, but a way in which public education begins to connect all the assets—families, communities, youth development organizations, etc.—into learning opportunities that transcend physical boundaries. This could offer amazing opportunities for youth, but may also be very disruptive to traditional institutions and in-school/out-of-school boundaries. I think we’ll need all sectors—public, private, and nonprofit—to make this work. But, since I’m convinced that many of these changes are going to happen regardless, I’m especially concerned that the public sector not retreat into a defensive posture. I’d love to see public institutions and most importantly, teachers, embrace new organizational forms and options, focusing on opportunity and equity rather than a specific mode of education.