RALEIGH — Instant messages, loud music, and spitballs have no place in the classroom, but North Carolina’s rural school districts could benefit from a different type of disruption. That’s the conclusion the John Locke Foundation’s top education expert reaches in a new Spotlight report.
Virtual charter schools, expanded online course offerings, and new off-site high school campuses are among the examples of “disruptive innovation” recommended in the new report. Those changes also could lead to substantial savings for taxpayers.
“At first glance, promoting ‘disruption’ is counterintuitive,” said Dr. Terry Stoops, JLF Director of Education Studies. “Only anarchists, physicists, and the IRS endeavor to bring disruption to an otherwise orderly environment. Yet when the system deviates from its core mission because of entrenched interests or a powerful status quo, radical or ‘disruptive’ change is required.”
Stoops bases his recommendations on the “disruptive innovation” ideas put forward in recent years by scholars including Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen. “The main idea is that public schools should replace their outdated standardization model with a customized, student-centric approach that meets the education needs of individual students,” Stoops said.
For North Carolina, these ideas translate into a series of recommendations, Stoops said. “Virtual schools and expanded online options are no panacea for a statewide public education system that continues to graduate less than three-fourths of North Carolina’s high school students in four years,” he said. “But these options expand parental choice and personalize learning, two long-sought reforms that promise to improve public education in North Carolina and beyond.”
Topping Stoops’ list of policy changes is a “rigorous” cost-benefit analysis of virtual schooling. “Assess budget implications, student and parent satisfaction, and student performance,” he said. “Initial findings of cost savings are suggestive, but the state should expand online course offerings only if the new costs are offset by larger cost savings for personnel and school buildings at the school district level.”
Policymakers also should allow state, local, and federal education dollars to follow students to the traditional or virtual school of their choice, Stoops said. “This makes sense statewide,” he said. “But if that’s not politically feasible, then the state should give preferences to low-income students and rural counties by implementing a means-tested program.”
North Carolina should exempt statewide virtual charter schools from student enrollment restrictions, Stoops said. The state also should maximize competition by expanding the number of virtual school providers. “That includes private and for-profit online schools, as well as institutions of higher education in North Carolina and beyond,” he said.
Another recommendation focuses on developing off-site high school campuses in conjunction with government agencies, private companies, and small businesses, Stoops said. “Students could spend a portion of their day fulfilling course requirements online and use the remainder of the day to gain practical experience in a field or profession of their choice.”
A final idea involves shifting tutoring and professional development online through “e-tutoring” services and “e-learning” communities, Stoops said.
Stoops focused his attention on rural North Carolina because dispersed rural populations tend to have less access to educational choices than their urban and suburban counterparts. “State officials classify more than one-third of North Carolina’s schools as rural,” he said. “Since an average of 99 percent of North Carolina classrooms have an Internet connection and there’s an average of one Internet-connected computer for every 2 1/2 students, expanding online options makes sense.”
Education and government leaders should be cautious about reaching the wrong conclusions from the report, Stoops said.
“Calls to improve technology infrastructure in public schools should not be used as an endorsement of state- or city-provided household broadband service,” he warned. “Nor should these recommendations be seen as an endorsement of plans to provide laptop computers for public school students. Neither of these ideas has shown evidence of increasing student achievement in any meaningful way.”
Stoops also finds limited evidence to judge the effectiveness of the existing North Carolina Virtual Public School. “It’s one of the largest and fastest-growing state-operated virtual schools in the nation, but it is not reaching a significant portion of the state’s rural student population,” he said. “In terms of disruptive technology, these students could become catalysts for systemic change.”
Greater use of technology could do more than benefit students, Stoops said. “Taxpayers also could reap benefits from systemic change,” he said. “More research is necessary, but there appears to be a link between boosting the number of virtual school courses and reducing per pupil expenditures.”
North Carolina school districts have spent more than $13 billion on new buildings and other capital needs since 1995, Stoops said. “A robust online education program would have the potential to save the state billions in capital expenses over the long term,” he said. “That’s another good reason for lawmakers and education leaders to take these recommendations seriously.”
Dr. Terry Stoops’ Spotlight report, “Good Classroom ‘Disruption’: Use the Internet to expand educational options in rural school districts,” is available at the JLF Web site. For more information, please contact Stoops at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].