NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 19, 2009

How can we reform U.S. K-12 education so that U.S. students will be competitive with Finnish teenagers?  Technology -- particularly online education, say Terry M. Moe and John E. Chubb, authors of "Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education."

Technology holds two potentially dramatic benefits, say the authors:

  • 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, is technology's ability to destroy the political barriers that prevent education reform.

For instance:

  • In 1995, 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.

Moe and Chubb report that there are 190 cyber charter schools today in 25 states, up from 57 such schools in 13 states in 2002-03.  Many of the new cyber charters are managed by two for-profit companies, K12 and Connections Academy.  Meanwhile, some students in traditional schools are taking individual courses online, and companies such as Educomp, based in India, are tutoring U.S. students after school hours.

Teachers unions, of course, are appalled.  They know that "the new computer-based approaches to learning simply require far fewer teachers per student -- perhaps half as many, and possibly fewer than that," according to Moe and Chubb:

  • Online charter schools employ two or three teachers per 100 students; the average public school employs 6.8 per 100.
  • Technology also disperses teachers geographically (making them elusive for union organizers); lets in private-sector players who aren't members of the guild; and enables outsourcing to foreign countries.

Source: James K. Glassman, "The Cyber Way to Knowledge," New York Times, June 18, 2009; based upon: Terry M. Moe and John E. Chubb, "Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education," Jossey-Bass, April 27, 2009.

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