Making Sense of US Public School Distance-Learning Choices
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
Signing up for public school just got more complicated! In addition to the traditional classroom experience, some US public schools are offering a dizzying assortment of distance learning programs. One district near San Diego offers five different options! Districts are trying to provide alternatives for families who are reluctant to send their children back into a classroom. Or students may have discovered during COVID that they learn best in a virtual setting. Schools want to serve both populations.
How are families to make sense of this? What does the remote learning program offer, and will it provide a sturdy academic experience for their student? Families need to know the key questions to ask.
First, has the district developed its own virtual “academy” or are they purchasing from a national provider? Likely the company providing digital learning brings more expertise and experience, but families should do a little digging on the brand. For example, one company that is well-regarded and has been around for 22 years still has its flaws. It was unable to maintain the steep increase in usage during COVID, and many schools using the software reported problems with it.
Families should also inquire about curriculum and how it’s delivered. Will a third-party “academy” be deploying the district’s curriculum or using its own? How neatly will the alternative curriculum dovetail with the district’s curriculum, should the student wish to rejoin an in-person classroom? Will learning be synchronous or asynchronous? If lessons are a series of videos, is there ever a “real” teacher to answer questions? Some virtual academies also require an in-person component. Ask plenty of questions about format, content and expectations. Understand if there are deadlines to sign up and length of commitment. Some schools will not permit students to revert to the in-person classroom once enrolled in virtual school.
Finally, be alert to the “edu-speak.” To make good scholastic decisions, families must both decode a lot of jargon and understand the buzzwords. For example, “differentiated learning” and “individualized instruction” are not the same thing! But since digital learning programs are deployed one student at a time, providers may conflate these terms in their discussion of personalized learning. Another term to learn is “adaptive technology.” This basically means that the software enables “intelligent” lessons. It learns from student responses and puts forward more and more challenging material, adapting to the student’s rate of mastery.
Distance learning can be a wonderful tool, as we all know after our shared COVID experience, and it will continue to have its place in the world of education. Especially after this past year, families want more than ever to have this school year be a good one for their children.
Sara R. Schmidt is the Director of Business Development & Client Relations and a Senior Education Consultant for Bennett International, based in Seattle. As a member of an internationally mobile family, Sara has navigated the school search process for her own children on three continents, finding the right fit for them in public, private and international schools. She is very familiar, therefore, with the anxieties and hurdles faced by parents relocating their children around the world, and her work is informed by her own extensive experience. Sara serves as Trustee and was President of the Bellevue Schools Foundation in Bellevue, WA, and is a member of Pacific Northwest Relocation Council and Bay Area Mobility Management. She holds a B.A. Ed., Summa Cum Laude, from Wheaton College and an M.A. in Public Administration from Harvard Kennedy School and is also fluent in Spanish.
Bennett International Education Consultancy works directly with hundreds of families each year across the globe. We support families by helping them make informed decisions about the best-fit schools for their children; with our guidance, they secure placement in preschools, private day schools, public/state schools, boarding schools, colleges & universities, including schools with particular programs, such as special needs support.