Experts watch Utah's online education experiment

I’ve been surprised that there isn’t more news about Utah’s new online education program . . . in Utah. Nationwide, education experts are watching closely to see how students, teachers and school districts respond to the new opportunity to earn up to two credits online each year — with state funding.

Paul Peterson, an education professor at Harvard and director of its Program on Education Policy and Governance, recently wrote about the Utah program in Education Next. He focuses on the benefits, and also potential risks, of state school districts competing for online education dollars:

“If digital learning is to advance beyond the pilot stage, it needs to work within the current system of public education, not against it. Public school districts have a legitimacy unrivaled by any other institution in American education. Whether digital learning is blended into the classroom or offered online, or both, districts have to be part of the action.

The solution is to put districts into competition with one another within an overall framework that maintains course quality. If that is done, then it will only take two or three entrepreneurial districts to convince the remainder that they need to adjust if they are to keep their students from slipping away, one by one, course by course.”

But he also notes that” there could be a race to the bottom, as each district looks for the cheapest provider. If tests are easy, some students might be tempted to take a course no matter how poorly it is constructed. Clearly, some kind of industry or state vetting of courses is needed if online learning is not to become the latest fad to go wrong.”

Peterson promises to report back on how the Utah program is working. I’ll post what he has to say on this blog. For now, here’s the link.


  1. Heidi Phillips

    My children belong to an online charter school. We have been having school at home for the past 2 years. It is one of the best things we’ve ever done for our family. The curriculum is from a private provider and it costs less than it would to put my kids in the local district school. The curriculum is head and schoulders above what they would get at local brick and mortar school. The Math and Language Arts is so much more advanced and more is taught. They also have a wonderful history program. In Kindergarten, they learn about historical figures. Beginning in 1st grade, they learn about the Fertile Crescent, Ancient Egypt, Greece, Africa, and Asia. And this world history goes on through 4th grade. I love “auditing” their classes. There is a lot of stuff I never learned in school. Some of the things were touched on in college history, but not as good as my kids’ school. 5th and 6th goes in depth about U.S. history. The Science is also taught on a regular basis, so much more and so much better than district school. The Art courses are like the best Art Appreciation/History college courses with application. We just really love it.

    The lessons are presented in several different ways to reach different learners. It’s custom made. The children have a parent (who really cares and knows them–and I’m getting to know my kids better this way, such a blessing) working one on one with them and with a world class curriculum. It’s so ideal. It’s sad that in other states, families have to live with the threat of their schools being shut down from year to year. In Utah, we don’t allow the teachers’ union to be that powerful, that’s why the UEA has a chip on its shoulder.

    My second grader is finished with 2nd grade Math. She was able to move ahead because she knows the material. I think with her observing her 4th grade sister do her Math, it helped. She can start 3rd grade Math very soon. I love that they aren’t tied down by the limitations of a class full of kids that the teacher has to keep under control and keep on the same page, so to speak. My kids love to learn now, when before, they were bored at district school.

    I know online school at home, cyber school, virtual school, or whatever it’s called around the country, isn’t for everyone, but I’m so grateful that in Utah we have choice in education. Parents and their kids can choose what’s best for them and their unique situations. Utah is a model for the nation.

    The NEA/UEA’s attitude towards parents’ choice in education for their own children, is wrong. On the NEA website, and on the UEA’s Ms. Gallegher-Fishbaugh’s blog, it echoes the mantra of Michigan’s Debbie Squires: “Educators know best how to serve children, that’s not true of an individual resident (i.e. parent). Parents may not know what’s best for their children…don’t have the capability…but educators do.” Squires said that in front of a MI legislative hearing about virtual schools.

    This attitude is very disturbing. It has been the parents/tax payers who have required the teachers to be educated and qualified to be able to spend time with our kids away from us. And so we can trust them to keep our kids safe. And this “Frankenstein’s Monster” has been turning on us telling us we don’t know what’s best for our kids and we’re not qualified to teach our own kids. I think it’s frightening. And some parents have given up their responsibilities since the schools have taken over caring for their kids. The public education system has been an enabler and we’ve enabled them.

    It’s such a way of life for our family. We have crossed the Rubicon (I learned that saying from my 2nd grader’s history lesson about Julius Caesar, never hearing that saying before). I can’t imagine going back to sending my kids to a brick and mortar school, it seems so unnatural. And the thought of going to a Parent-Teacher Conference to have the teacher tell me about what kind of person my child is, or to lecture me on what we should do differently at home–that just sounds so sad to me now.

    My kids have learned so many things and they remember them. they are excelling in the tests. I don’t see it as a fad at all. Check out They are our provider and they are here to stay.

    My preschooler is using UPSTART by the Waterford Institute. It’s an online preschool. She now reads on a 1st grade level and is doing late K/early 1st grade math. No way, can I do her the injustice of sending her to Kindergarten at the local school where she would be taught her ABCs (one letter a week) and how to count to 10 for the 1st term. And skipping grades is next to impossible there. As her mother, I know what’s best for her and the much more advance Kindergarten curriculum through K12 is the only choice for her now. And she has the option of getting ahead and getting into a 1st grade curriculum if necessary for her individual needs. Thank you, Ms. McConnel for bringing up these topics.

  2. Heidi Phillips

    “If digital learning is to advance beyond the pilot stage, it needs to work within the current system of public education, not against it. Public school districts have a legitimacy unrivaled by any other institution in American education. Whether digital learning is blended into the classroom or offered online, or both, districts have to be part of the action.”

    Already, the districts receive a chunk of fundage that is allotted to online charter students, even though the online charter students do not attend district schools. So the districts are getting a piece of the action.

    Having online charter schools working within the public school system, connotes to me that the public school system would take over these cyber schools. If that happens, the quality would go down, I believe.

    Maybe the public school system and its advocates can stop working against charter schools, both online and brick and mortar. Our online school teachers are not unionized. And I hope it stays that way. I don’t think that an outsider from Harvard knows what’s best for Utah anyway.

    I don’t mean to sound zealous about this. But once this experience is tasted of being able to spend more time with your kids and witnessing their learning, most parents would not want that taken away from them. This school choice is something I’m passionate about, obviously. : )

    Thanks again, Ms. McConnell.

  3. ThoughtfulTeen

    Here’s a report on the opinions I generally hear about the online classes from myself and fellow high schoolers. (Is that even a word? I don’t know, but there’s no acceptable alternative.) –
    Most view the online classes as a way to earn more credits for those who want them. Very rarely will anyone take a serious class (english, math) online because online classes are seen as slightly less than in-person classes. You take the classes that you don’t really like online so you can fit in more fun stuff or academic stuff, because online classes aren’t as good.
    Please not that those aren’t all my opinions, they’re just the opinions that I hear expressed most often among my peers. Thought they’d give an interesting perspective.

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