The importance of scale in education analysis

In Keeping Pace 2015 we include some basic numbers about education that many people know, but are sometimes overlooked. These include the facts that the U.S. has about 100,000 public schools, 60 million students (depending on whom is counted), and 3 million teachers. (Click on images to enlarge.)

K12 education numbers

We also include some numbers that describe the size of the U.S. education market:

Size education market

Why are these numbers important? Because K-12 education is so large that seemingly significant numbers often represent just a very small proportion of activity.

For example, we discuss state virtual school budgets, and point out that the 24 state virtual schools collectively are spending about $300 million per year. At first glance that sounds substantial, but in fact it represents less then two-tenths of one percent of state education budgets in those 24 states. Certainly $300 million is a large number, but it’s not large relative to those states’ total budgets.

SVS budget numbers

Along similar lines, when Mark Zuckerberg and other donors pledged $200 million to transform the public school system in Newark NJ, on the surface that sounded like a game-changing amount of money. But the funds were to be spent over multiple years, and the district of about 40,000 students has an annual budget in the neighborhood of $1 billion. So the seemingly transformational donation amounted to about 4% of the district’s annual budget.

When discussing online learning—or any other part of education—we should keep in mind proportions and percentages, and not focus solely on the absolute numbers as they can be deceiving.

Keeping Pace 2015 report is now available online

We released the Keeping Pace 2015 print report at the inacol symposium a couple of weeks ago, and the pdf is now available for download as well.

A report that is more than 120 pages long is difficult to summarize in one or a few blog posts, but here I’ll summarize a few key ideas that we explore in more detail in the report. Key findings of Keeping Pace 2015 include the following:

  • The center of online learning activity and growth continues to shift from state-level organizations, such as state virtual schools and online charter schools, to individual districts and schools. Schools and districts are exercising greater control over their online and digital learning programs as affordable options become more available, schools’ expertise grows, curriculum and technology products improve, and teachers become more skilled at integrating online courses and techniques into their instruction. Much like today’s musical artists who often sample other music to re-mix, re-envision, and re-create new songs and sounds, practitioners today are taking different elements of digital learning, with varied backgrounds and sources, for use in their own schools, programs, and classrooms.
  • Thirty-one states had full-time online schools operating statewide in school year (SY) 2014-15; 25 of those states have virtual charter schools. We estimate that approximately 275,000 students were enrolled in over 3.3 million semester equivalent online courses in online charter schools in the 2014-15 SY.
  • State virtual schools are operating in 24 states, providing supplemental online courses to about 462,000 students, taking a collective total of about 815,000 semester equivalent online courses, a 10% increase over SY 2013-14.
  • Based on extrapolations from a wide range of suppliers, state agencies and schools, we estimate another 2.2 million students taking a total of about 3.8 million online courses. These are mostly in addition to the state virtual school numbers. Together, they sum to over 4.5 million supplemental online course enrollments taken by K-12 students in SY 2014-15.
  • Enrollments in individual online courses trend heavily toward students in grades 9-12, with 84% of supplemental courses being taken by high school students. Enrollments in full-time online schools are more evenly distributed with 46% of course enrollments in grades 9-12, 28% in grades 6-8 and 26% in grades K-5.
  • Course enrollments by subject area are concentrated in core subject areas of math, language arts, science, and social studies, with 74% of courses in these categories. This percentage incudes both supplemental and full-time course enrollments. Electives comprise 26.1% of all course enrollments, including world languages, physical education and many other courses. These data support the anecdotal evidence that schools will often select elective online courses that the school does not offer. The number of world languages courses (2.5% of the total) is lower than many observers might expect, suggesting that the proverbial example of a rural student taking a Mandarin course, while important to the student, is not nearly as common as core subjects and other electives.
  • Digital learning activity across the private school sector ranges from full-time online schools and supplemental online courses, to schools that are heavily focused on integrating digital content and tools into their existing instructional approaches. Key barriers to increased adoption in private schools are 1) teachers tend to have greater control of their classrooms than in public schools, making school-level changes more difficult; and 2) parents are generally satisfied with existing private school options or don’t believe that online or blended learning models will result in improved learning.
  • Policy remains important to improving and expanding the digital learning landscape, particularly with regards to whether students have access to online schools or online courses. However, as more delivery of online learning migrates to schools and districts, state policy has less impact on those programs and on the overall landscape. Some of the key policy issues touched on in this year’s report include data privacy, course access, accountability, online learning graduation requirements, and teacher certification.

All of these topics are examined in more detail in the report, and we will review some of them in more detail in upcoming blog posts.

Age does not predict teacher comfort with technology

Previous posts have explored the importance of teachers to online and blended learning enough times that regular readers may be tired of hearing about the misconception that teachers aren’t important in digital learning.

But there’s another misconception that I think is common, although I have only anecdotes and observations.

The misconception is that relatively young teachers are more likely to be comfortable with implementing digital learning, whether using technology in their classrooms, teaching fully online courses, or somewhere in between. When school leaders consider whom they would like to have piloting online courses, it’s not unusual for them to show a bias towards younger teachers.

My recent trip to the Clark County School District to visit with teachers using technology in their classrooms showed why this idea is a misconception. I was fortunate to see several classrooms with teachers using technology in a variety of ways, and one common factor was that all were experienced teachers. Although this was a very small sample, we have seen similar situations in other districts, and I have heard comparable accounts from others. Some observers believe that younger teachers want to become comfortable teaching before adding technology or teaching online, while experienced teachers are often the ones ready to experiment with new methods of instruction.

Two of the Clark County teachers separately, and unprompted, told me that using technology in their classrooms has given them new interest in and energy towards teaching. They are excited to be thinking about new ways to reach students. During a visit to another district, a teacher even suggested that learning new technology and ways to teach with it had kept her in the classroom.

As the OECD report said, “technology can amplify great teaching.”

The teachers I saw were indeed great. I suspect that they were great before they started using technology. The technology may be making them a bit better. It may also be keeping them in the classroom.

Thanks to Kim Loomis, Lucas Leavitt, Travis Warnick, Jerrad Barczyszyn, Jennifer Barczyszyn, April Hollaway, and Joanne Schmutz for opening their schools and classrooms to me, and taking the time to answer all of my seemingly endless questions.



Leadership in successful “proof points” blended learning programs

In addition to the main points about the recent iNACOL symposium discussed in a recent blog post, another highlight was listening to educators from many of the schools discussed in our proof points series. We had leaders from Spokane, Salt Lake City, Washington DC, Randolph and Middletown (New York), Horry County (South Carolina), St George (Utah), Poudre (Colorado) and Putnam County (Tennessee) take part in two separate discussions.

When we published the first set of proof points cases we discussed leadership in a blog post that noted how strong school or district leadership is present in all scalable and sustained blended learning programs.” The post discussed the passion, vision, and energy of the leaders who brought success to their schools and programs. At the iNACOL symposium discussion, these qualities and others were abundantly clear as leaders of these schools and programs talked about their jounrney. A few points stood out.

First, every program leader was a strong presenter. That in itself is a notable data point. Although current and former teachers tend to be good speakers because of their time in the classroom, it is still remarkable that every one of the proof points speakers captured and held the room during their presentations and Q&A sessions. The ability to tell the story well, in an engaging and captivating way, is a hallmark of leadership—especially for new programs.

The leaders were straightforward about the problems that had existed in their schools and districts that they were trying to solve. There was no muddled thinking, no mere application of technology without a plan. Kimberly Moritz, Superintendent of the Randolph school district in upstate New York, set the tone when she said (as she had told us months ago in our first interview with her) that the district went to a personalized learning approach in order to address “decades of mediocrity.”

The leaders gave credit to others. They routinely brought other people into our interviews during the research, and referenced these colleagues during their comments.

They were honest about challenges, both those that they have overcome and those that remain. Edi Cox from Horry County was remarkably straightforward about their challenges during our interviews—and this from a district that is considered to be among the most successful. Sam Brookes told us months ago—and told the audience in Orlando—that Putnam’s successful program grew out of reassessments after initial failures.

A potential downside exists to the apparent need for this type of leadership, as our earlier blog post explained. Among the ramifications of the importance of leadership is that a program likely can’t be considered mature until a change of leadership has occurred (along with other factors). A change of leadership, followed by continued growth and success, is a sign of program maturity and suggests that the blended learning initiative is here to stay. Until that point, it’s hard to be sure if the success of the blended learning school or program will outlast its founder.

Is the textbook dead?

People who study, practice, or otherwise think about digital learning often tend to get their news and information on the topic from a few education-specific sources, including iNACOL, EdSurge, Getting Smart, and others. Authors on these sites, blogs, and related white papers know they are writing for an audience that tends to be fairly knowledgeable about digital learning, and is often biased towards believing that digital learning is—or at least can be—a positive element in education. Given the confirmation bias that can result from this approach, it’s especially valuable to note articles from general media sources. If they are well-researched, these articles provide a valuable insight into how the general public thinks about these topics.

An excellent recent example is Slate’s article No More Pencils, No More Books: Artificially intelligent software is replacing the textbook—and reshaping American education. The article is long enough that capturing it in full is impossible in a blog post, and it is well worth reading. A few highlights include the following:

  • The article describes technology-facilitated personalized learning very well, using ALEKS as an example. The description is not overly positive or negative, and explains the concepts for people who aren’t familiar with them. Sample quote: The result is a classroom experience starkly different from the model that has dominated American education for the past 100 years. In a conventional classroom, an instructor stands behind a lectern or in front of a whiteboard and says the same thing at the same time to a roomful of very different individuals. Some have no idea what she’s talking about. Others, knowing the material cold, are bored. In the middle are a handful who are at just the right point in their progress for the lecture to strike them as both comprehensible and interesting. When the bell rings, the teacher sends them all home to read the same chapter of the same textbook.”
  • The writer uses that opening to ask the question—is this something that we want?—and then refers to many of the failed promises of education technology. “In the context of the traditional classroom, Internet-connected devices risk distracting from the learning process more than they aid it…[the] much-hyped movement to “disrupt” higher education by offering college classes online for free has begun to fizzle.”
  • Why, then, would we expect that the movement will continue, and perhaps this time be more successful? The author’s answer is, in part, because of the big bets that textbook publishers are placing on technology, citing examples from Pearson, Houghton, Harcourt, and others, plus the focus from foundations on educational approaches that require technology—even of they can be confusing (“All the grant-giving and grant-writing has given rise to a raft of overlapping buzzwords, including “adaptive learning,” “personalized learning,” and “differentiated learning,” whose definitions are so amorphous that few can agree on them.”)

The article then delves deeper into these issues and contradictory views:

“An optimist looks at [the mixed results of education technology] and concludes that properly implementing the technology simply requires an adjustment period on the part of the students, the teachers, or both. Do it right, and you’ll be rewarded with significant gains. The optimist would also be sure to point out that we’re still in the early days of developing both the technology and the pedagogy that surrounds it.”


“A pessimist looks at educational technology’s track record and sees…a long history of big promises and underwhelming results. “I think the claims made by many in ‘adaptive learning’ are really overblown,” says Audrey Watters, an education writer who has emerged as one of ed tech’s more vocal critics. “The research is quite mixed: Some shows there is really no effect when compared to traditional instruction; some shows a small effect. I’m not sure we can really argue it’s an effective way to improve education.”


“In a class that revolves around computers and software, you might think that the software would do most of the teaching. On the contrary, the students in Whelan’s class seem to do most of their actual learning—in the sense of acquiring new concepts—during their brief bursts of personal interaction with their human tutors.”

That seems like a serious problem for ALEKS. And if the software were intended to function as an all-in-one educational solution, it would be. But McGraw-Hill Education is adamant that isn’t the goal. Not anytime soon, at least.

Unlike some younger tech startups, we don’t think the goal is to replace the teacher,” says Laster, the company’s chief digital officer. “We think education is inherently social, and that students need to learn from well-trained and well-versed teachers. But we also know that that time together, shoulder-to-shoulder, is more and more costly, and more and more precious.”

The role of the machine-learning software, in this view, is to automate all the aspects of the learning experience that can be automated, liberating the teacher to focus on what can’t.”

Two overarching ideas frame the conclusions of the article.

First: “In short, MIT digital learning scholar Justin Reich argues in a blog post for Education Week, computers “are good at assessing the kinds of things—quantitative things, computational things—that computers are good at doing. Which is to say that they are good at assessing things that we no longer need humans to do anymore.”

That reference suggests that the use of technology in education is limited. In contrast, however: “It would be a mistake, in criticizing today’s educational technology, to romanticize the status quo.

Those two ideas are near the end of the long article, and they capture the status of technology in education well. Digital learning is still in early stages relative to where it will be in a short time as the power of computers continues to grow quickly, and schools’ ability to use computers grows as well. Serious concerns remain, however, and nobody should believe that technology will be a panacea in the near future at least. But those who say that schools shouldn’t be trying to evolve in new and meaningful ways, and try new approaches, have to explain why they think the status quo is good enough.

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