Article originally appeared online in “Virtual School Meanderings”
As the Obama Administration prepares to announce the big winners in its signature Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation grant competitions, the Nation’s Capital seems to be sporting a bumper crop of public school turnaround agents-to-be, tinged with excitement for their federally-sponsored chances at the reform helm.
To be certain, the more promising of these plans offer much reason for optimism that families in neighborhood public and charter schools across many states will experience improvements. And government bureaucrats at all levels will be better equipped with data to measure the progress they are making.
But will this be enough? Or are achievement gaps facing poor and minority children simply too vast to expect Secretary Duncan’s billions to make much of a difference within their lifetimes?
Today two in five Latino eighth graders continue to score at miserable “below basic” levels on the National Assessment for Educational Progress – a predicament from which escape with a high school diploma compares only with the unlikeliest performances of master illusionists like Criss Angel or David Copperfield.
Even greater urgency is depicted by the Education Trust, which projects that if current trends hold, out of every 100 Latino kindergartners in the United States, only 11 will obtain a bachelor’s degree.
Has public education failed Latino families? So vast are these gaps that they hold major implications for the American economy as a whole, and especially for regions with large and growing Latino populations.
For these children and their families, an online learning revolution could hardly come at a better time. The best of these programs produce almost unprecedented educational efficiency, making it available for all to share, regardless of their zip code or family income.
For starters, high-quality online (or online hybrid) programs provide teachers with continuous verification of individual students’ content mastery, allowing them to specialize instruction to their particular needs. Such efficiency in instruction, which can already be found in the best classrooms in the best schools, can make a world of difference. This is ideal for teenagers striving to balance their educations with other priorities.
Another factor that makes online learning especially valuable for Latinos is its inherent ability to help overcome the regional shortages of the best, most qualified teachers – a shortage that often hits Latinos hardest of the nation’s minority groups. Such programs can increase access to Advanced Placement courses, or to high school teachers with a college major in the subject they teach – two chronic shortages that face Latinos disproportionately in many states. Such shortages are particularly acute for qualified bilingual teachers, and worst in states like Illinois that continue to mandate bilingual education.
There are numerous reasons to believe the time is right as well. The Pew Hispanic Center found that home broadband use among Latino households increased by more than 13 percentage points between 2006 and 2008, and regular internet use has increased as well. Better yet, the proliferation of cellphone-based education platforms can bringing the classroom to buses and bus stops, lunch breaks, and wherever students find the time to use them – a welcome development for young adults juggling school with work or raising a family.
Latinos are willing and able to take advantage of educational choices made available to them. As noted by researchers Matthew Ladner and Dan Lips, Florida Latinos’ fourth grade reading scores rose from 25 points below the national average for white students to just 6 points, between 1998 and 2009, thanks to the impact of that state’s choice offerings and other reforms.
What challenge, if any, could be a more important match for the “Disruptive Innovation” that forward-thinkers like Clayton Christensen and Gisèle Huff argue will be the natural outcome of “making technology an integral part of the curriculum and redefining the role of the teacher?”
Don Soifer is Executive Vice President of the Lexington Institute and co-author, with Lori Drummer, of a recent paper, Libertad de la Educación: School Choice Solutions for Closing the Latino Achievement Gap, from which this article is partially excerpted.
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