I know a 3-year-old who’s a master of online multitasking. Give him an iPhone, and he’ll cheerfully chat you up while watching YouTube cartoons or playing an alphabet game. In 2010, toddlers start consuming digital information not long after they’ve started consuming solid food.
Now take that kid, tack on a handful of years, and drop him into a classroom. A child who was perfectly content with a video stream, an MP3, and a chat flowing past him is suddenly ordered to sit still, shut up, and listen while a grown-up scrawls on a blackboard and delivers a monologue. And school is even worse for the older girls down the hall. The center of their universe is on social networking and chat sites, so spending six hours a day marooned in a building with no WiFi is akin to water torture. The same pre-teen who will happily while away hours playing Scrabble with her friends on Facebook dreads each Thursday afternoon, when she will be forced to laboriously write out a list of spelling words in silence alongside two dozen peers.
During the last 30 years, the per-student cost of K-12 education has more than doubled in real dollars, with no academic improvement to show for it. Meanwhile, everything the Internet touches gets better: listening to music on iTunes, shopping for shoes at Zappos, exchanging photos on Flickr.
Even with school hours offline, kids are logging plenty of computer time. A January study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that kids spend an average of 7.5 hours a day in front of a screen. The knee-jerk response is to lament those lost hours and hatch schemes to pry the kids’ hands from their keyboards. But that’s the wrong approach. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em: Let kids stare at a computer screen until their eyeballs fall out, but add more educational material to the mix.
A growing number of kids and their parents are figuring out ways to sneak schoolwork online. More than 1 million public school students are enrolled in online classes, up from about 50,000 a decade ago. In Florida, nearly 80,000 kids take classes in the state-sponsored Florida Virtual School. Virtual charter school companies such as K12 Inc. provide full-time online education to 70,000 students in 25 states. Hundreds of small, innovative companies are springing up, vying to combine learning with the power of the Internet. Nationwide, 17 percent of high school students report having taken an online course for school in the last year; another 12 percent say they took a class on their own time. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, co-author of Disrupting Class, a seminal 2008 book about online education, estimates that half of all high school courses in the United States will be consumed over the Internet by 2019.
But the commercial Internet has already been around for a decade and a half. As the 3-year-old with the iPhone might whine from the back seat of the minivan: Why aren’t we there yet?
School in the Sunshine State
Online education’s biggest success to date is the Florida Virtual School (FLVS). Founded in 1997, FLVS was the first public statewide online education program in the country. Founder Julie Young had snagged a $200,000 “Break the Mold” grant from the state of Florida to experiment with online learning. In the early days, as she traveled the state selling the idea to local districts, the reception was muted. “People were sitting there with arms folded and saying, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ ” recalls the friendly, carefully manicured Young, who had previously worked as a teacher and technology adviser in the state’s public schools.
With the election of Jeb Bush in 1998, Young found herself working under a governor with a serious interest in education reform. With Bush’s support, legislation expanding the virtual school gave the program a unique advantage: Rather than allowing school officials to be the arbiters of who gets to go online and how, the law said any Florida student who wants to take an FLVS course online must be allowed to do so. The students themselves—not preoccupied guidance counselors, budget-conscious principals, or any other gatekeepers—decided whether to give the virtual school a try.
As the Harvard education scholar Paul Peterson put it in his 2010 book Saving Schools, “Much like an Everglades alligator, Young took a quiet, underwater approach.” At a time when Gov. Bush and his cadre of education reformers were regularly butting heads with the educational establishment, Young went out of her way not to antagonize teachers unions or disparage traditional schools. “From day one, what we tried to do was design FLVS so that it was not competitive with the schools, but complementary,” she says. Her pedagogical philosophy is noncontroversial—with a few exceptions, the curriculum is typical of the stuff Florida students would get in a traditional classroom—and she is studiedly nonpolitical. The courses offered by FLVS are supplemental; the virtual school cannot grant degrees on its own. Nearly every student remains enrolled in a full-time program at a physical school. The funding formula adopted by the state takes only a fraction of the annual per-student cost from their local school, and FLVS gets paid only when students successfully complete the course.
Young doesn’t use the language of reform or revolution. Instead she talks about “doing what’s right for kids.” Yet Florida Virtual School’s model is, in its own way, revolutionary. The school employs 1,200 accredited, nonunion teachers, who are available by phone or email from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. Kids take what they want, when they want. The academic results are more than respectable. FLVS boasts that kids in advanced placement courses—39 percent of whom are minority students—score an average of 3.05 out of 5, compared with a state average of 2.49 for students in offline public school classes. FLVS students also beat state averages in reading and math at all grade levels, with 87 percent of eighth-graders receiving at least a passing score on the state standardized test in math, compared with 60 percent statewide. Even critical studies of educational achievement in Florida’s online courses find that the results are as good as or better than state averages on virtually every measure.
Not all of the major players in online education have opted for the stealthy alligator approach. K12 Inc., one of the largest private providers nationwide, doesn’t mind picking political fights. One of its founders is Reagan administration Secretary of Education Bill Bennett, an outspoken conservative. (He resigned from the school’s leadership in 2005 after some intemperate remarks about the alleged links between abortion, race, and crime.) While FLVS was sneaking up on the Sunshine State’s educational establishment, K12 Inc. started showing up all over the country in 2000 with a bullhorn.
Unlike FLVS, K12 provides full-time instruction. That means students from kindergarten through 12th grade can do their entire school year online. While the curriculum isn’t particularly innovative, the model is potentially far more disruptive than a program like FLVS. K12 takes children and teenagers out of school and away from traditional teacher-student relationships. The company has some partnerships with traditional public schools, but K12 primarily works by helping charter schools in states with lenient laws go virtual, accepting kids (and the money they bring with them) from all over the state.
In the zero-sum world of education dollars, that approach means that state education bureaucrats generally don’t show up at K12’s virtual door with welcoming tater tot casseroles. In 2003 Wisconsin’s Northern Ozaukee School District was experiencing declining enrollment and hoped that bringing in a virtual charter might attract students (and their per-pupil spending allocations) from around the state. This worked brilliantly, with 500 students signing up for the virtual charter school from all over the state in the program’s first year. The district and K12 split the $5,000 that came with each kid, and everyone was happy. Well, everyone except the administrators and teachers in the districts losing enrollment dollars to the experiment in online learning. The conflict exploded in January 2004 with a lawsuit brought by the teachers union and the elected state superintendent. State Sen. John Lehman (D-Racine), who heads his chamber’s education committee, accused private education companies of “profiteering off of kids.”