Teachers Unions vs. Online Education

Kids live on the Internet. Why aren't they learning online too?


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.

Picking Fights

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."

The result was a compromise that neutered virtual education in Wisconsin. K12 could continue to operate, but it could enroll students only from the physical district where the charter school was located—essentially stopping the Internet at the county line. And enrollment was capped at 5,250 students. For good measure, Wisconsin announced plans to create an FLVS-like state-sponsored virtual academy, which will compete with K12 on lopsided terms and, unlike in Florida, be firmly under the control of the education bureaucracy.

Unions Fight Back

The National Education Association, the country's main teachers union, takes a hard line on virtual charters such as K12. "There also should be an absolute prohibition against the granting of charters for the purpose of home-schooling, including online charter schools that seek to provide home-schooling over the Internet," says the organization's official policy statement on charter schools. "Charter schools whose students are in fact home schoolers, and who may rarely if ever convene in an actual school building, disregard the important socialization aspect of public education, do not serve the public purpose of promoting a sense of community, and lend themselves too easily to the misuse of public funds and the abuse of public trust." But analog unions can't stave off online education for digital natives forever, and state-run virtual academies like FLVS—rather than virtual charters like K12—make it easier to control the pace of change.

Similar battles have been fought in Oregon, where the state teachers union declared last year that resisting another full-time virtual charter company, the Baltimore-based Connections Academy, would be its top priority. "You'd think among all the kids in Oregon there are some other pressing issues," says Barbara Dreyer, CEO of Connections, which runs one Oregon school and dozens of others across the country. When 2009 began, the state legislature had already obliged the union by capping enrollment for virtual schools and mandating that kids do work under the eyes of physically present teachers. Yet union support for funding and expanding the state's Oregon Virtual School District (which has been slow to attract enrollment) remained strong, with union members citing the existence of the government-run academy as sufficient to meet online education needs in the state.

Says Dreyer: "Many states say, 'We hate the whole thing with these for-profit providers. We should just do it ourselves.' But with the exception of FLVS, nobody has been able to do it. It's complicated; it takes capital. It's tough to do it from scratch. They don't have expertise. It's particularly tough in these times when there is no money."

Something analogous happened four years ago in Indiana, where the charter school law seemed to authorize the creation of full-time online schools. K12 launched a program and started recruiting students. Even though the legislative session was over for the year, when opponents of online education got wind of the new venture they executed some special maneuvers to insert language into the budget bill to kill the virtual charters. While a hybrid model did get up and running, it was on a far smaller scale than originally intended, leaving most of the interested parents and kids out in the cold. This year, with the demand for online education still growing, the union supported the creation of a 200-person pilot program for the state education department to run its own virtual academy. 

In its 2010 legislative program, the Indiana State Teachers Association claims to support virtual schools. That is, as long as the programs adhere to nearly all of the criteria that define traditional schools, including class size, seat time, teacher licensing, grading mechanisms, and the physical location and conditions for testing. They can't open their programs to homeschooled kids, and they can't spend more than 5 percent of their budgets on administrative costs. 

Teachers unions, consistently among the biggest donors to U.S. election campaigns, are incredibly powerful. The National Education Association can buy and sell elections, but a continuous flow of membership dues will be tougher to come by if online education blooms. 

Make New Friends

Politics aren't the only reason online education is coming to the masses at the speed of a 14k modem. Cultural resistance is strong as well. Parents and politicians fret about the consequences of creating a nation of lonely nerds with Google tans.

Socialization looms large in discussions of online education, but the worriers may be missing the point. For one thing, kids are already doing much of their socializing on their screens. That hasn't brought sports, clubs, summer camp, or neighborhood activities to an end, and neither will online education.

More important, it's not clear that the kind of socialization we're currently offering kids in schools is doing them any favors. Even in schools where the quality of education is decent, enthusiastically partaking in it can make you a mockable nerd, even a target for daily brutalization. The problem is worse among minority populations at large urban schools. Smart black kids across America are choosing not to speak up in class every day, even when they know the right answer, because it's not worth the social suicide. A large body of social scientific literature investigates this problem, beginning with Signithia Forham's seminal 1986 paper "Black Students' School Success: Coping With the 'Burden of "Acting White."?'?" The reasons for the problem remain a topic of heated debate, but the problem itself is well-established: Surveys consistently show that black students worry more than white students that their peers will criticize their academic success.

While the smartest kids face one set of troubles, the slower kids in the same classes have problems of their own, mutely letting lessons roll by because they're afraid of asking a question and being called stupid. Learning online in the morning and then heading out to play in the park in the afternoons could be a much better alternative for both kinds of kids.

The real issue here isn't socialization but something else. If there is one thing that nearly all American parents have in common, it is the paralyzing fear that they might have to figure out what to do with their children all day, every day, for 12 long years. Michael Horn, one of the co-authors of Disrupting Class, estimates that the number of kids who might learn full time at home tops out at 5 million, a figure based on how many live in family structures that allow for all-day adult supervision. That leaves more than 90 percent of the nation's 55 million school-age children in need of someplace to go during the day.

The Future of Online Education

One promising idea is a hybrid approach, where kids get the socialization and adult supervision of a shared physical space but consume much of their actual instruction online. Of the million kids already taking classes online, some are just logging in from their bedrooms, but others are taking courses on computers in community centers or gyms or heading out to the strip-mall outposts of private tutoring companies.

Such hybrids are springing up around the country. Rocketship Education in San Jose, California, brings at-risk elementary students together in a safe, colorful, trailer-like modular space, with a small staff to keep an eye on the kids while they do lessons online. Dropout recovery programs such as AdvancePath Academics catch kids who have fallen out of the system. Some of these programs, in which the content is administered primarily online, give kids physical spaces to learn in shopping malls. Kids in mentoring programs such as Group Excellence are offered a choice: they can opt for after-school tutoring in a physical space with free pizza, or take advantage of 24-hour support to do the same work on an iPhone, netbook, desktop, or even a Nintendo, whenever they want. 

State governments spend between $10,000 and $15,000 annually on each of the nation's 55 million school kids, making primary and secondary education a $1 trillion market. Under ordinary circumstances, that kind of money attracts entrepreneurs. But the uncertainties of politics, the powerful opposition of the teachers unions, and the astonishing technological backwardness of the education establishment discourage would-be entrepreneurs and, perhaps more importantly, potential investors.

In the 2010 annual letter from his charitable foundation—the biggest in the United States, with a $33 billion endowment—Bill Gates listed online education as one of his top priorities. "Online learning can be more than lectures," he wrote. "Another element involves presenting information in an interactive form, which can be used to find out what a student knows and doesn't know." Hundreds of smaller contenders are proliferating, trying to figure out ways to exploit the new medium and answer concerns about what a nation of online learners might look like. Carnegie Learning uses artificial intelligence techniques to customize math learning to the individual. The Online School for Girls creates and administers advanced courses geared to female learning styles. The list is as large and diverse as the iPhone app store and growing every day.

Internet access isn't a barrier anymore. The digital divide has essentially closed. A 2009 Pew Research Center report found that 93 percent of Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 are online. Computers are cheap, and they're getting cheaper every day. Textbooks are expensive, and they always have been. There's a point not too far off where the price of a decent laptop and the price of a single hardback biology textbook will converge. Books full of nonhyperlinked text already must seem like a cruel joke to the congenitally connected. The virtual charter school company Connections Academy supplies its 20,000 full-time students with computers as part of the package.

Adults who weren't weaned on broadband find the beeps and boops of their computers distracting, but distractions from the computers aren't a problem for kids. Slow brain death from data deficit while they sit still, eyes forward, listening to a one-dimensional lecture that's going too slowly, too quickly, or in the wrong direction altogether is a much more serious threat.

Failing for Success

From the perspective of education reformers and policy wonks, beaten down by a decades-long war of attrition, online education has swept onto the scene with astonishing speed. Paul Peterson, the Harvard education scholar, calls the rate at which the online education sector has grown "breathtaking." But his private-sector counterpart Tom Vander Ark—who helped found the country's first K–12 online school in 1995, served as the executive director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and now runs a private equity fund focused on education—has a different view. "Coming from the business world, I thought this would all happen fast," he says. "It's frustrating that 15 years later online learning is just beginning to mature."

Until recently, virtual schools have been funded by state education budgets. Now states are increasingly fishing for federal dollars. Sixteen states included an online education component this year when requesting funds from Race to the Top, a federal grant program launched under George W. Bush and expanded under Barack Obama that was designed to bribe states to push toward greater teacher accountability and competition. The first round of funding was awarded in April, and while the inclusion of online education in several of the winning proposals is encouraging, the grants heavily favor top-down, state-run online academies over virtual charters and other bottom-up options.

Vander Ark calls the online component of the Race to the Top finalists' plans "lame." On his blog, he explains: "Given less than optimal policy environments, state v-schools can and do play an important role in supporting blended environments and online options." But "we're a generation behind where we should be in terms of online tools, platforms and options—a state government caused market failure. Where competition is welcomed, we'll see innovation."

The existing offerings are making life better for hundreds of thousands of kids. But we're a long way from widespread access to genuinely innovative educational practices. Only 28 states allow full-time online programs right now. If you're a kid who lives in New York, you don't have access to any public online programs. In Virginia you have online A.P. courses, but nothing full time. If you're in California, you have access to full-time programs but not supplemental ones, unless you happen to live in a district that made an independent investment in online learning.

We can't let state legislatures and federal grant programs pick winners. We can't let teachers unions allow only one version of online education to squeak by. But if online learning keeps growing, when that 3-year-old with the iPhone graduates from high school in 2025, education will be virtually unrecognizable, and thank goodness for that. 

Katherine Mangu-Ward (kmw@reason.com) is a senior editor at reason.