Reversing the Failed Centralization of Learning

What education needs may be a little less centralization, and online learning may help.

To date, says a new book by a Harvard scholar, education reform efforts have been too centralized. [No Child Left Behind? Just the latest example.]

In Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning, Paul E. Peterson looks at the ways in which virtual schools can transform and personalize the learning experience–and perhaps saving taxpayer dollars in the process.

He says in an interview,  “In the past we shifted power away from families and communities to larger, more centralized entities—initially to bigger districts and eventually to control by states, courts and the federal government. The schools we have today are so bureaucratized learning has stagnated.” Ironically, many education reforms, including smaller classes (more attention by the teacher) and bigger schools (more choices in classes), have resulted in increased centralization of education.

The template for what’s going right in virtual learning these days is the Florida Virtual School (FVS), which offers 200,000 student course (that is, the 200,000 courses taught to a smaller number of students).

Peterson says that state policies must allow for a vigorous competition among brick-and-mortal schooling and virtual learning. In the case of Florida, the growth of the FVS has encouraged a number of districts to add virtual classes to their offerings. (Kansas is fairly good in this respect. It allows students to take online classes “off campus,” that is, from districts other than their own.  This expands the options of online learning.)

Peterson warns, “virtual education is still in its infancy and a lot of diapers will need to be changed before it matures.” For example, virtual learning–like any new technology–will at first be concentrated among the more affluent, before innovation leads to more widespread use. We must not, though, allow the perfect (no virtual program will ever make a mistake) be the enemy of the good by strangling the growth of this new approach.

As the graphic metaphor of diapers  illustrates, online learning won’t always been successful or done right.  We’re going to have to say “and that’s going to happen.” Some regulations may be necessary, but if we try to regulate all risks out of existence, we regulate progress out of existence, too.

But isn’t virtual learning limited to high school? Not necessarily. But even if it is, virtual learning can be powerful. As Peterson mentions in this video presentation (roughly at the 9-minute mark), the focus in in education reform has been on the lower grades, but the greatest needs are in high school.

Truth be told, I’m not in favor of at least one of Peterson’s recommendations, which is that a federal agency put a stamp of approval on online courses–that’s a step away from his fundamental message, it seems–but I’d like to think that online learning could be one way of cutting through the bureaucracy that keeps educational progress in check.

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