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New NEPC Review a Line in the Sand?

The growing debate over the effectiveness and feasibility of online learning is too complicated to break simply into "for" and "against" camps.

Proponents of online learning concede questions linger regarding how best to fund online programs, identify students that best fit the model, and yield the best academic results. Critics, meanwhile, often stress the difference between demanding research to prove effectiveness of online models and asserting that no such models exist.

Yet it's hard to interpret a recent review from the National Education Policy Center as anything less than a line drawn in the sand between itself and the Fordham Institute over the issue, and perhaps more broadly across the nation's political landscape, after the NEPC not only challenged the findings of a report from the institute, but also the motivation behind it.

In the Fordham Institute's "Overcoming the Governance Challenge in K-12 Online Learning," former founding partner of EdisonLearning and current Leeds Global Partner CEO John E. Chubb argues for states to gain more control of education at the expense of districts to allow more rapid adoption of instructional technologies.

In the NEPC's responding review, Wayne State University professor Michael Barbour says there is no evidence to support that rapid adoption is academically or financially desirable for the nation's schools. He also claims the report appears to have the ulterior purpose of making inroads into the K-12 market for corporations.

The conflict reinforces the building perception that virtual education has the potential to become a political kickball, given the NEPC's perceived liberal stance on education policy issues, and the Fordham Institute's open embrace of issues championed by conservatives, such as school choice and financial austerity.

But until this point, both organizations have—to their credit—remained nuanced in their discussion of virtual education.

The NEPC's work has been more cautionary than accusatory. In its only other direct criticism, the NEPC cautioned in a review issued on March 6 that a Fordham report claiming that the costs of fully online education models to be lower than either brick-and-mortar or blended models did not sufficiently parse disparities within exclusively online, blended, and brick-and-mortar models. It's a criticism the report, to some extent, also made of itself.

Previously, the NEPC had issued a report in January that found achievement at privately managed online charter schools to lag behind achievement at similarly managed brick-and-mortar charters, but lumped blended charters into the brick-and-mortar category. It also issued an October publication warning simply that growth in fully online education was outpacing researchers' ability to study it.

Meanwhile, the three other papers in the Fordham Institute's series focus more on how to meet challenges in digital learning rather than why, addressing issues such as the size, quality, and compensation of teachers, funding models, and quality control challenges.

Given that context of measured responses, it's perhaps unfair to try and attribute the more aggressive tone of this most recent NEPC review simply to a climate that is imploring all analysts of virtual learning to choose one side or the other. But it certainly reflects what has been seen elsewhere in the debate surrounding K-12 online learning. And it's unlikely to recede anytime soon.

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