January 5, 2023
My wife and I learned an important lesson during the pandemic — there’s a huge difference between: (1) innovative education services designed especially for virtual use; and (2) on-the-fly “virtual instruction” by classroom teachers suddenly thrown into an unanticipated crisis. The latter is often a disaster. (Just look at the latest test scores on our Nation’s Report Card.) But the former can be an absolute delight.
Indeed, my wife has been (re)learning Spanish in recent months using a digital education service called Duolingo. Like other language acquisition apps (Rosetta Stone, Babbel, etc.), this virtual program exploits many of the advantages of individualized education. It identifies how much a learner knows at the outset, then builds vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and listening skills. The learner advances at her own pace. No time is wasted waiting for classmates to catch up. And no content gaps are left unfilled because a slow learner had to move on with the rest of the class.
My wife loves her daily language exercises, which come easily to her since she studied in Spain during her college years. And while my wife says nothing can top language learning by immersion in a foreign country, she has found that digital education programs can facilitate initial language acquisition far better than she had imagined. No, digital learning can’t replace some of the higher-level language courses she took as a Spanish major. But it can lay a solid foundation for deeper learning much like an introductory in-classroom foreign language course.
All of which begs an important question for policymakers: Why do K-12 funding systems continue to favor introductory foreign language courses taught in a classroom over digital education programs like Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, and Babbel?
The answer is that K-12 education funding is still based on the (outdated) factory model of education, which envisions all courses being taught at a centralized brick-and-mortar location.
Thankfully, some policymakers are beginning to change that. State legislators in Arizona and West Virginia have recently adopted innovative plans that allow families to pay for their child’s learning out of an Education Savings Account (ESA). The state deposits the child’s per-pupil funding into the student’s ESA; and the parents then spend the funds in the best way they see fit — whether that is by paying tuition at an all-in-one school or by patching together learning programs from multiple providers (including virtual education programs).
In the next legislative session, Florida policymakers are expected to consider a universal ESA proposal. (Currently, ESAs are available only to special-needs students in Florida.) Sunshine State policymakers would be wise to follow the lead of Arizona and West Virginia and adopt these innovative plans.
Indeed, ESAs would fund an array of “a la carte” education programs and services — online classes, one-on-one tutoring, specialty courses taught by learning boutiques. And some of these programs and services would be even more cutting-edge than one might initially imagine. For example, remember what my wife said about “immersive learning” in a foreign country? Get this — a Naples-based enterprise called the Optima Foundation recently developed a classical education curriculum using immersive technology. Wearing virtual reality headsets, students in this program are “transported” to ancient Rome to hear debates among the leading philosophers of their day. Sound amazing? No doubt it is. And this is just one of the many learning opportunities that an ESA-funded system makes possible.
So, let’s hope Florida policymakers have learned the same lesson my wife and I learned during the pandemic. Innovative education services designed for virtual use are far, far better than on-the-fly “virtual instruction” by classroom teachers suddenly thrown into an unanticipated crisis. And the best way to help K-12 students take advantage of these innovative programs is for Florida policymakers to adopt universal ESAs for all interested families.
William Mattox, who lives in Tallahassee, is the director of the Marshall Center for Educational Options at The James Madison Institute.