Louisiana students will benefit from new online learning opportunities

Nearly all of us have had an experience where we were stuck in a class in which no matter how many times the teacher explained a concept, we just couldn’t grasp it. Our friends around us may have understood, but it just didn’t make sense to us. The class whisked along, we fell further behind, and the frustration mounted.

What if we had had the chance to take the class online, at our own pace, with concepts explained multiple ways until we grasped it?

Louisiana students now have that option.

Thanks to Act 2, a law that Gov. Bobby Jindal signed into law in the spring of 2012, a student attending one of the state’s lowest performing schools —those with a grade of C, D, or F —now has the right and the funding to take courses from any of the 45 state-approved high-quality course providers, so long as the student takes at least one course in her “home” district school. Students at schools graded an A or B will also have the right to take any online course that their local school does not offer, thereby expanding a student’s course options, and a district could also decide to allow a student to take any online course through the program. The law expressly forbids districts or schools from discouraging enrollment in an online course with an outside provider.

If State District Judge Tim Kelley’s ruling that the funding model for Act 2 is unconstitutional holds up during appeal, however, students will lose this option. The discussion around Kelley’s decision has largely centered on the issue of school vouchers, the most controversial aspect of the bill. The ruling would also cripple the innovative Course Choice program, however, and stifle Louisiana’s bold attempt to modernize its public schools.

Today’s schools were designed over a century ago to standardize the way they teach and test. The model, in which we batch students up in classes and teach the same thing to them in the same way, is an ineffective way for most children to succeed. The model worked fine when most students went directly to industrial jobs. But now that we ask more students to master more challenging knowledge and skills —in 1900 only 17 percent of all jobs required knowledge workers whereas over 60 percent do today —the arrangement falls short.

As every parent knows, every child has different learning needs at different times. If we hope to have all children succeed in school and life, then we need a system that can be personalized for their different needs. While the world has changed, however, our schools have not.

Instead we have an education system that mandates the amount of time students spend in class but does not expect each child to master her learning. The result is that students don’t receive the support they need to master each subject before they move on to the next one. This creates gaps in every child’s learning —gaps that haunt them later in their schooling.

Act 2 moved Louisiana forward from an anachronistic model of education into a student-centric one that allows each child to master her learning before she moves on to another concept. It is an important model for the nation that puts the emphasis on learning outcomes and student success.

The bill shifts to an outcomes focus thanks to a shift in funding models by which dollars can now follow students down to the course level, and online learning providers will be paid in part based on when a student successfully completes a given online course —rather than for merely enrolling in a course.

Students choose their online courses from a state-managed catalog. The bill’s authors hope that this marketplace of course options will allow students to comparison shop with their parents and counselors to find the right option for their needs.

As legal challenges continue in Louisiana, we must think beyond political rhetoric and instead consider what it will take for each child to reach her greatest potential. Doing away with geographical limitations and giving students access to a host of high-quality courses is a good start.

Kevin Kane is the president of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a research and education institute in New Orleans. Michael B. Horn is the education executive director of Innosight Institute, a non-profit think tank focused on education and innovation, and the coauthor of “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.” Meg Evans is an education research assistant at Innosight Institute. This article originally appeared in the Shreveport Times.