Keeping Pace preview: What does a long look back—and ahead—suggest? (Part 1)

Written by Mickey Revenaugh and John Watson Mickey Revenaugh is Executive Vice President, Connections Learning and Co-Founder, Connections Academy, and is a long-time Keeping Pace sponsor and supporter. Mickey and John co-wrote this post, a version of which appears as the conclusion to the Keeping Pace 2013 report.

Keeping Pace 2013 is our 10th edition of the report. A landscape changing as rapidly as K-12 online and blended learning sometimes forces us to narrow our focus to the path immediately ahead and behind, but this decade anniversary provides a vantage point from which to look back with a longer lens than we often use, and to look further ahead as well. What does this longer view suggest?

The complexity of change is accelerating

Ten years ago, the world we surveyed in Keeping Pace was contained within a few well-defined dimensions: there were state-led supplemental programs and virtual charter schools, and hardly ever the twain did meet. When we wrote nearly a decade ago that “Pennsylvania has experienced significant public conflict between cyber charter schools and school districts” while “Illinois has a centralized approach in which most online education activity is by the statewide virtual high school,” we covered most of the landscape as a whole. We envisioned more of the same expanding across the nation over time, and advocated for policy frameworks to ensure quality through growth along both dimensions.

Nothing is quite so simple now, from the standpoint of either policy or practice. While there are some constants—for example, the strains in Pennsylvania continue, resulting in both annual legislative battles and a proliferation of district cyber programs—nearly every aspect of the online and blended landscape has become more complex, more interconnected, and more volatile. Providers have multiplied and diversified: yesterday’s virtual charter school operator is also today’s course vendor and blended learning consultant, while a few of the leading state virtual schools now eagerly serve full-time students in grades K-12. The image of the massively open and free holds a powerful lure (see our recent post about MOOCs). As customers, schools and districts want it all: a desire for a few AP or credit recovery courses quickly blossoms into an all-out smorgasbord of virtual, blended, part-time, full-time, and mobile offerings. Multiply this by tens of thousands of districts and all 50 states, and the difference that a decade makes is clear.

It almost goes without saying that policy is still not keeping pace with practice in our field – how could it? At least in part because of the speed and complexity of online/blended learning development, state legislatures have moved in uneven bursts to create course choice programs, or build virtual options into their charter laws, and incent districts to create opportunities for students. Tackling the really big issues, such as equitable funding and true measures of quality, would mean looking at these same issues for all forms of education, and only a few states have been brave or unified enough to try.

Change runs in both directions

While many states have created more online and blended opportunities for students, some policy changes take us a step backwards. For example, Keeping Pace has documented the reduced funding or closing of several state virtual schools. What looked a decade ago like an inevitable replication across the nation of the state virtual school model foundered with the Great Recession; only the most resourceful (or fortunately funded) have managed to thrive, and most of the prominent state virtual schools were created at least a decade ago. Whether or not a single public online course provider is the best option—some thoughtful advocates argue for allowing multiple providers—these changes have resulted in net fewer high-quality options for students, at least in the short term.

In addition, the paths of some related education trends inspire caution when it comes to big changes happening quickly. Take the Common Core. In 2007, the idea of consistent academic standards among states was a pipe-dream. Within three years, all but a handful of states had voluntarily signed on to the consortium-created Common Core State Standards Initiative. By 2011, everyone was waiting breathlessly for the amazing new assessments that would measure mastery of these deeper, smarter standards. And as of fall 2013, multiple states are considering legislation to repeal the Common Core standards while scores of others have backed out of the assessments altogether. Although we remain optimistic about Common Core, the cycles of change in education have gotten faster and more furious since the first Keeping Pace.

Where does this lead us? We will post part 2 of the Keeping Pace 2013 conclusion tomorrow.