As America grapples with the challenges of COVID-19 and the need for flexible models of K-12 education, two new enterprises are quietly rolling out of the Grand Canyon State — specifically, Arizona State University — that could significantly shake up the landscape of elementary and secondary education:
• A rapidly expanding online instructional platform for students delivered through ASU’s charter school ASU Prep Digital;
• A first-of-its-kind master’s program in classical liberal education and leadership for teachers launching this fall through ASU’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL).
Indeed, while teachers’ unions are busy suing to keep schools from reopening in Florida and are demanding a defunding of police and a moratorium on charter schools before they will tolerate classroom reopenings in Los Angeles, ASU Prep Digital appears to have recognized that families are less interested in the unions’ dramatic political theatre than they are in having access to effective instruction this fall: After launching its online program for high school students in 2017, the school is now expanding to serve students in all grades from kindergarten through 12 and has added rolling enrollment options for sixth- through 12th-graders to accommodate its surge in demand.
This should spook purveyors of the status quo for two reasons. First, within its university operations, ASU has scaled up online enrollments to more than 45,000 students, (a number that’s more than doubled since 2015 and is now larger than the student bodies of most brick-and-mortar college campuses.)
Given the rapid growth of ASU Prep Digital’s charter school program in just three years, there seems little reason to doubt that a similar trajectory is not on the horizon. Second, and perhaps more significantly, ASU Prep Digital may have begun to crack the code for high-quality virtual K-12 instruction, substantially outperforming the state’s public school system on both math and reading outcomes.
Indeed, just as ASU expanded its online footprint in higher education through partnerships with Starbucks, for example, ASU Prep Digital is now offering resources to school district leaders both in Arizona and around the country. Looking just one state to the north, for example, one finds public school districts making striking announcements like this one: “Utah students can now take free online high school courses with ASU Prep Digital.”
Of course, for all the potential of ASU’s technological forays into student learning, the university may be about to more significantly begin reshaping the instruction of America’s teachers. Indeed, launching also this fall through ASU’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership program is a new degree pathway for K-12 teachers: a master’s program in “classical liberal education and leadership” that aims especially at “those who are teaching or aspire to teach in classical education programs.”
Classical charter schools — like the Great Hearts Academies in Arizona and Texas — have offered families among the highest-caliber alternatives to traditional district school options. Building a pipeline of qualified instructors and leaders for such models is likely to ensure families’ access to such programs going forward.
In speaking to the National Governors Association in 2018, ASU President Dr. Michael Crow declared: “We all inherited a design for public higher education that is rigid, fixed, [and] largely incapable of understanding how to modernize.”
Sadly, these words ring all too true in many cases of our public K-12 system as well. But with efforts like ASU Prep Digital and the university’s master’s in classical education, students and teachers will find at least two more avenues of flexibility in these times of uncertainty.
Matt Beienburg is the director of education policy at the Goldwater Institute.