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Break down the digital education divide

Break down the digital education divide

Mitch Coffman
February 21, 2011

Online school isn’t coming - it’s already here. So why are Idaho’s policymakers even slightly reluctant to offer kids more choices from among the thousands of course offerings provided by states, universities, for-profit and non-profit companies? Are we going to ride the online learning tidal wave, or is it going to crush us?

We could continue to let states embracing educational choice pass us by. The reading score on the National Assessment for Educational Progress - often called “The Nation’s Report Card” - shows that in 2005, Idaho’s reading score for all fourth-grade students was 222 and dropped to 221 by 2009. In Florida, where they grade schools on performance, reward teachers for student improvement and offer a huge array of school choice, the reading score for Hispanic fourth-graders went from 215 in 2005 to 223 in 2009. English is not the first language for many of Florida’s Hispanic fourth-graders, yet during the years when school choice came to full fruition in Florida they gained eight points and surged ahead of all Idaho fourth-graders - while our kids lost a point. This does not make a strong case for “business as usual” in Idaho.

Florida offers charter schools, scholarship tax-credits for private schools and many different online learning options including the hugely-popular state Florida Virtual School. For Idaho’s students in towns with few public schools and no private schools, online learning is the educational choice that makes sense - which might explain why they’re already doing a limited amount of it. 90% of Idaho’s districts offer at least a few online classes through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy and the Department of Education’s Apangea Math. On top of that, thousands of Idaho elementary and secondary students get their entire education online through full-time virtual schools, both district and charter. However, Idaho should unhook online learning choices from school districts and give families more freedom to choose. In Utah, the Statewide Online Education Program has passed the Senate and will fund online learning for all students from multiple course providers. Idaho should do the same to make it easy for kids to take the online courses suiting them best.

Regardless of where they go to school, today’s students are digital natives. Idaho kids living on remote ranches somehow manage to get on Facebook. As Tim McGraw might put it, they like it, they love it and if we give 'em more of it, online learning could be a cost-effective answer to the issues raised in the recent study showing rural students take fewer math classes and have substantially less access to Advanced Placement courses.

Stop letting the schoolhouse door be the digital divide. Whether they're rural or urban, jobs today’s students will have will involve computers. Teaching students to be productive using modern technology ought to start in public schools and ought to be Idaho’s public policy.

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