Education Secretary Betsy Devos is widely expected to make school choice the centerpiece of her reform agenda. A major unanswered question is the extent to which her larger goal of empowering parents via choice will extend to online, course-based choice, which presents very different public policy questions.
Reflecting the lack of attention to course-based choice, DeVos’ confirmation hearing included many questions about school but not one about course-based choice. Similarly, President Trump has promised $20 billion for school-based choice but nothing for course-based choice.
A critical difference between the two types of choice is the vastly greater number of options associated with course-based choice. The difference between school-based and course-based choice grows out of the difference between implementing choice via transportation versus the internet.
Choice delivered via transportation is restricted to local, brick-and-mortar schools, because it is prohibitively costly and time-consuming to transport students to different locations to take different courses.
Transportation-based school choice is so costly in rural areas that only one brick-and-mortar school choice is feasible, which helps explain why the two Republican senators who opposed the DeVos nomination came from rural states.
Only with internet-based choice do many choices become practical, as it costs no more to deliver a course 10,000 miles than one mile.
Nowadays, with almost all American schools connected to broadband internet service, the communications obstacle to course-based choice has largely been overcome. But until families are supported with better course information, meaningful choice will remain a dream.
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How should we cope with the massive increase in course options? Clearly, a new accountability paradigm is necessary. Fortunately, higher education points toward a solution. For decades, colleges, including public colleges, have allowed and often required their course consumers to rate courses. These ratings, which now include online courses, are published online for not only course instructors and school administrators, but also course consumers.
Many higher education faculty oppose such ratings. But the ratings persist because they provide an essential service to students and school administrators while also providing valuable feedback to help faculty improve their teaching.
K-12 students, jointly with their parents, should also be empowered to fill out course ratings. Previously, when K-12 students had no course choice, such a ratings system would have served little purpose.
Perhaps the best example of a government-funded course rating system that is both independent of course providers and comprehensive is GoArmyEd, a service provided by the U.S. Army to help its soldiers and retirees choose among more than 1,000 accredited colleges.
Soldiers receiving government tuition assistance fill out course ratings and these, aggregated by school, are posted on GoArmyEd’s online portal for student use.
Related: What can Betsy DeVos really do?
In addition to better information about online courses, parents need better information about the local schools that provide the services essential to supporting those courses. Unfortunately, that local support has often been grossly inadequate.
Consider the harmful restrictions on course-based choice in my own local public school system, none of which has received local press coverage, including: No online course allowed for a subject taught by a teacher in the school building who teaches a similar subject; courses chosen for their ability to save the school district money over its conventional courses; restrictions on online courses taught by remote teachers with different union bargaining arrangements; and courses offered without the local human and other resources needed to support this fundamental change in pedagogy.
Underpinning such restrictions are the awful politics of course-based choice. Local school administrators and teachers tend to think of course-based choice as comparable to throwing a grenade into their buildings. And they have a point. It would entail substantial disruption to local schools, as content-based expertise would be outsourced and rigid contracts based on the old way of doing things would have to be renegotiated.
The political obstacles associated with the new course-based division of labor are so great that some policymakers believe only “virtual schools,” which bypass local schools altogether, can provide adequate course choice. But given the need most families have for local schools, this is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Local schools will remain essential. They will need to continue to babysit, feed and motivate children during school hours, as well as provide social, exercise and extracurricular opportunities. Many have variously described the teacher of the future as a learning mentor, facilitator, coach, shepherd or community builder. Fortunately, many local teachers, especially new ones, find this transformation empowering, not threatening.
Families should be able to rate not only their online courses but how their local schools and mentors support those courses.
America’s current system of K-12 educational choice is primarily based on wealth. Wealthy families can choose to live in the best school districts and send their kids to the best public or private schools.
Course-based choice promises to democratize access to the best educational options worldwide just as the 15th century invention of the printing press made high-quality books available to the masses for the first time in history.
Just as some governments, such as the Ottoman Empire, severely restricted access to the printing press, many local school districts are unreasonably restricting access to course-based choice.
Many innovative public policies were required to realize the full benefit of the printing press, including inventing public schools to democratize literacy. Public-policy changes of similar magnitude will be necessary to realize the full benefit of course-based choice.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
J.H. Snider is the president of iSolon.org, a nonprofit committed to exploring and advancing opportunities for democratic reform, and a former school board member.