WSJ: The Cyber Way to Knowledge

James K. Glassman, former under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the next revolution in education. Here's an excerpt:

Every three years, the Program for International Student Assessment ranks the education levels of 15-year-olds around the world. The most recent test, in 2006, brought back results from 30 industrialized nations that were hardly inspiring for U.S. teachers and parents. American students' science scores lagged behind those of their counterparts in 20 countries, including Finland, Japan, Germany and Belgium. The numbers from the math test were even worse: The U.S. came in 25th. The "rising tide of mediocrity" in American schools -- famously so described in 1983 by a government report called "A Nation at Risk" -- would now appear to be about chin-high.

In response to "A Nation at Risk," Terry Moe and John Chubb in 1990 published "Politics, Markets and America's Schools," which identified special-interest groups -- mainly teachers unions -- as the culprits in preventing the reforms urged in the report. Now Messrs. Moe and Chubb have returned to the subject with "Liberating Learning," a more optimistic sequel. The authors believe there exists a magic bullet that is capable of shattering the unions' political power and, at last, bringing the sort of reform and excellence to U.S. K-12 education that might make U.S. students competitive with Finnish teenagers. The ammunition? Technology.

Mr. Moe is an academic researcher at the Hoover Institution; Mr. Chubb, an executive with Chris Whittle's for-profit education venture, Edison Learning. They think that technology -- particularly online education -- holds two potentially dramatic benefits. One is simply a general improvement in education as students from "anywhere -- poor inner cities, remote rural areas, even at home" gain access to high-caliber instruction. More important, the authors say, is technology's ability to destroy the political barriers that prevent education reform.

Despite much public rhetoric about the urgent need to improve American education, despite the investment of billions of dollars in schools, little progress has been achieved. Why? Messrs. Moe and Chubb blame the "politics of blocking" -- the thwarting of such simple reforms as paying teachers for performance. Many states prohibit even gathering data that link individual teachers to the test scores of their students.

Technology, the authors say, may enable the circumvention of political blocking. They make their point forcefully, with copious and surprising examples. In 1995, for instance, Midland, Pa., a declining steel town on the Ohio border, launched the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. Today the online school serves 8,000 students throughout the state. And the classes aren't just digital correspondence courses -- there are textbooks and live educators, including "synchronous teachers," who work with students through instant messaging, voice and interactive whiteboards while the kids are engaged with their lessons online. Advisers are required to communicate with students' families at least once a week by email and once every two weeks by phone.

As for results, even though the school's demographics are average or even below average, Cyber was rated as having made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in No Child Left Behind, hitting all 21 educational targets. By contrast, barely half of Pennsylvania's bricks-and-mortar schools received the AYP rating. On SAT tests, Cyber students scored 97 points higher than the state average.

Read the entire article here.

James K. Glassman is the president of World Growth, a nonprofit economic development organization. For information on how to bring him to your next event, visit

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