School closures designed to impede the spread of COVID-19 have prompted North Carolina’s public school educators to transition to online instruction.  But this transition has been uneven across classrooms, schools, and districts.  As parents begin to assess the quality of online instruction provided to their children, they will find that some educators excel at using online tools and resources to furnish learning opportunities for all children, and others do not.

Online education eliminates classroom management challenges and mitigates limitations on time, physical space, and print resources.  As such, outstanding educators may provide superior instruction to a larger number of students than would be possible in a conventional classroom setting.  North Carolina lawmakers and public education leaders should stop trying to push the “square peg” of conventional classroom instruction into the “round hole” of online education.

Why not allow parents to use public dollars to contract with skilled and enterprising public school teachers who offer exceptional online instruction?

Navigating the transition to online education

As I have pointed out in a previous article, most teachers design lessons for classroom settings.  This includes the presumption that students will be in class to receive face-to-face instruction from their teacher and will engage in meaningful interactions with both the teacher and classmates.  Even the most skilled classroom teacher with meticulously planned lessons may find that activities that succeed in conventional classrooms may require extensive revision to work well in an online setting.  It takes experience and talent to excel as an online educator.

As North Carolina public schools adopt various forms of full-time online education, the fastest route to creating even greater educational inequities would be to compel students to resume schooling with assigned classroom teachers who are ill-equipped to offer sound online instruction.  Student learning should not be impeded by teachers, schools, and districts that are slow to transition to online education due to technical or organizational barriers.  It is better to allow parents to select educators who know how to use internet-based resources to deliver content effectively.

The master online educator concept

Suppose licensed master teachers developed exceptional online English language arts courses for middle school students or Advanced Placement Statistics course for high school students. If the state granted them the status of “master online educator,” students currently enrolled in any North Carolina public school could opt to take their courses via an online or distance learning program.  The teacher would be held to the same performance expectations as public school educators working online or in brick and mortar schools. Grades and course credit earned would be recognized at the student’s base school and also by postsecondary institutions and employers.

In this arrangement, assigned classroom teachers would be relieved of the burden of posting daily lessons, formulating assignments, and creating and administering tests.  Master online educators would be responsible for delivering all aspects of online instruction.  But teachers previously assigned to the child could aid the coordinating master online educator for the duration of COVID-19 school closures.  Their duties would include grading assignments, scoring assessments, identifying gaps in knowledge, offering one-on-one tutoring and assistance, ensuring that all modifications for special needs students are addressed, and working with the master online teacher to ensure that all students under their watch remain engaged.  It is an arrangement that acknowledges comparative advantage.

Some may object that this system would relegate assigned classroom teachers to a role similar to that of a teacher assistant.  But I believe that is an inappropriate characterization.  Assigned teachers have valuable insight into their students and local conditions.  They can use that information and skills as a classroom teacher to provide individualized instruction to children who struggle to master curricular content provided by the master online educator.  The relationship between the two would be collaborative – neither a promotion for the master online educator nor a demotion for the assigned teacher.

The state may choose to limit the number of students served by master online educators. The maximum overall ratio of teachers to students enrolled in one of North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools is 1:50 for kindergarten through eighth grade and 1:150 for ninth through twelfth grade.  Certainly, these ratios could be increased significantly based on the aptitude of the master online educator and assigned teachers.

Of course, master online educators taking on these additional responsibilities would receive an additional per-student salary supplement, while assigned teachers would continue receiving their normal salary and benefits.

Implementation challenges of the master online educators concept

Aside from reasonable questions about cost, regulation, and governance, some may object that it would be difficult to determine which teachers offer high-quality online courses and thus would qualify for master online educator status.  I contend that we let parents decide.  A simple online portal would allow parents to select from courses based on readily available information, including pass rates on state assessments, growth (or value-added) scores, experience, credentials, aggregate evaluation scores, course subscribers, comments and ratings from current and former students and their families, and sample lessons and assignments from online courses.

I am the first to acknowledge that marshaling the political will and resources to expand opportunities for educators and public school students during a crisis is daunting. But it is necessary.  Unless lawmakers and state education leaders take bold, decisive action now, an extended school closure may produce a series of educational, economic, and social challenges that would take years to resolve.