Dead last in digital ed

California is a backwater for K-12 online learning, according to a new analysis of states’ policies toward virtual education. Other states are clearing away obstacles and adopting innovative strategies, such as allowing middle school students to take high school courses online and letting students start online courses anytime and complete them whenever they show competency. California is stuck in the past, imposing the standard calendar and student-teacher ratios on a virtual world.

At least that’s the implication of Digital Learning Now! – a project of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, headed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and the Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit headed by former Democratic Gov. Bob Wise of West Virginia. California scored at the bottom of the 72-point rubric, which was released at the Foundation’s conference in San Francisco last week.

With recent reports out of Colorado and Minnesota showing students in virtual schools significantly underperforming their peers, California can certainly wonder whether it’s smart to rush headlong into this brave new world, as Utah has done. Caution may be the watchword.

And some of the many measurements that Digital Learning Now chose are suspect, according to Eric Premack, executive director and founder of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento. But Premack, who has counseled online schools through state regs, has long advocated loosening some of the restrictions limiting expansion and experimentation in online education. These include restrictive student-teacher ratios for online independent study schools and, for blended learning schools that combine online studying and classroom instruction, the imposition of a minimum number of minutes of daily instruction by certificated teachers. The latter rule limits the ability of successful schools, like Rocketship Education, to expand their learning labs beyond a quarter of the day.

Premack adds another inhibitor not covered by Digital Learning Now!, the reluctance of the University of California to qualify high school online courses as satisfying A-G requirements for admission to a UC or CSU campus.

California was redundantly dinged in the scoring for its requirement that an online operator can only open a school in a county and adjacent counties. While the national for-profit online operator, K12, Inc., has opened enough online charter schools to cover the large population areas in California, not every student in the state has access to online offerings, one of the criteria. The alternative, as in Florida, is for the state to open a statewide online school. Premack argues that California’s geographical requirement encourages innovation.

Last year, Bush and Wise came up with 10 elements of high-quality digital learning. They are:

  • Student Access: All students are digital learners.
  • Barriers to Access: All students have access to high-quality digital learning.
  • Personalized Learning: All students can use digital learning to customize their education.
  • Advancement: All students progress based on demonstrated competency.
  • Quality Content: Digital content and courses are high quality.
  • Quality Instruction: Digital instruction is high quality.
  • Quality Choices: All students have access to multiple high-quality digital providers.
  • Assessment and Accountability: Student learning is the metric for evaluating the quality of content and instruction.
  • Funding: Funding creates incentives for performance, options, and innovation.
  • Infrastructure: Infrastructure supports digital learning.

Over the past year, they developed 72 measures of the elements. Go here for California’s scorecard. Some, like a law requiring that all students be equipped with an Internet access device, are aspirational. A few, reflecting Bush’s conservative politics, are ideological: e.g., extending publicly funded digital learning to private school students. And some are innovative, worth experimenting with, such as tying funding for online schools to student performance, the passage of an end-of-year exam.

There is nothing in state law to prevent school districts from charging ahead with blended learning, as done by Rocketship and the new Silicon Valley Flex Academy. Bureaucracy and anxiety over the unknown are the chief obstacles. The state also has freed up textbook money to permit districts to purchases digital materials.

If anything, the new scorecard should prompt state officials to look around at what other states are beginning to do – and to start to experiment with the good ideas.

Note: Digital Learning Now! did not rank the states. But you can do state-by-state comparisons on this interactive map. And Brian Bridges, director of the California Learning Resource Network (CLRN) and a font of knowledge on digital courses, did calculate the states’ individual totals. Out of a possible score of 72, Utah and Wyoming topped the states with 49. The median was 27, he reports in his blog. With 14 points, California was last.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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