Virtual school funding cuts in Kansas could stifle innovation

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Apr 2, 2014

The Kansas Supreme Court recently ruled that the state government was in violation of the state’s constitution for failing to equitably fund K-12 public schools. In accordance with that ruling, the state legislature must find a way to allocate an additional $129 million to disadvantaged schools by July 1. Last week the Kansas House Appropriations Committee was considering a plan for remedying the funding issued that involved cutting in half the amount of per-pupil funding for virtual schools. On Monday, I testified before the Kansas House Appropriations Committee in relation to this issue. That testimony is included below.

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Testimony to the Kansas House Appropriations Committee
Thomas Arnett, on behalf of the Clayton Christensen Institute
March 31, 2014

At the Christensen Institute, we look at education from a unique perspective. We work to understand how to make innovation in education far more predictable and successful.

Disruptive innovation is a term we use to describe how sectors get transformed so that life-improving technologies become more accessible. As one example, consider computing. In the 1950s, computers were huge mainframe machines that only large corporations and research institutions could afford. Fast-forward to today, and we all carry computers in our pockets that are far more powerful than early mainframes but that are sold at only a fraction of the cost. We’ve seen this type of transformation play out in sector after sector, such as in retail, steel, national defense, the auto industry, and health care.

As we’ve studied the education sector, we’ve found that online learning is an innovation with this kind of transformative potential. In our traditional education system it is incredibly difficult for teachers to truly address the individual learning needs of each student. Just think back to the moments in your own schooling when you were either bored or lost because your personal learning needs were not being met. This isn’t a problem with our teachers or our curriculum. Rather, the problem results from a fundamental design flaw in our traditional, factory-model school system. Ideally, we could remedy this problem with a one-to-one teacher-to-student policy. But unfortunately, we’ve never been able to afford that.

The good news is that we now live in a time in history when online learning has the potential to facilitate this kind of personalized instruction. With online learning we can customize instruction to meet students’ individual learning needs. We can also provide students with more timely feedback on their learning progress, and teachers can use online-learning data to better identify students learning difficulties and intervene appropriately.

As we’ve studied the emergence of online learning, our projections indicate that it will eventually become an integral component of our mainstream school system. Where we see the most exciting growth in online learning is in a phenomenon we call blended learning. Blended learning refers to instructional models that blend online learning with face-to-face, brick-and-mortar school settings.

While we see personalized instruction through blended learning as the future of mainstream education, I want to emphasize the importance that full-time virtual schools play in the online learning ecosystem.

Disruptive innovations that transform sectors often get their start by serving people in circumstances where mainstream alternatives are not available. For example, early desktop computers like the Apple IIE were not sold as replacements for corporate mainframes, but rather as toys for hobbyists or educational devices for children. These were people that just couldn’t afford a mainframe. Similarly, online learning plays the critical role of making educational opportunities accessible to students. For example, students who are homebound for medical reasons, who travel for sports or performing arts, or who struggle to succeed in traditional schools.

A second important role that virtual schools play is in fostering the continued development of online learning across the sector. First of all, virtual-school providers are creating many of the most innovative online instructional tools. As virtual schools continuously work to better serve their students, they are pushing the frontier of effective online instruction. Second, the existence of these schools often encourages local districts to develop their own personalized-learning offerings.

For these reasons, I strongly encourage you to take measures to ensure that virtual schools are provided with the funding they need in order to continue serving students and advancing innovation in personalized learning.

Thank you.

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.