What Barack’s Mother Understood About Her Child’s Education That We Don’t.’

As a working mother worried about the quality of her son’s public school education, Ann Dunham decided to take charge. She subscribed to correspondence courses, then homeschooled her boy for three hours each morning before he left for the local school and she went to work. It wasn’t easy, but the effort paid off: Dunham’s son, Barack Obama, became America’s 44th president. Granted, Dunham’s situation was unusual–she and her son were living in Indonesia at the time–but her decision to go hands-on to supplement her child’s sub-par public education carries a valuable lesson for frustrated parents struggling for answers to America’s declining public school standards: get involved. And the good news is that technology today gives parents the power to shape their child’s education in ways unthinkable just a generation ago.

For anyone questioning American public school quality in 2009, here’s a reality check. The graduation rate for Washington, D.C, public schools this year below 50 percent. In California, the country’s most populous state, public schools produce one dropout for every three graduates. Two out of the three who do graduate can’t read at an eighth grade level. In other states too, quality is trending downward.

Alone, each of these facts is alarming. Collectively, it is a crisis—a crisis involving your child’s and America’s future. Virtual schooling may not be the answer to restore intellectual vigor in a society of sinking public education quality. But there is clear evidence it can be one answer.

Dunham taught her son English from correspondence courses she got by mail after weeks of waiting. Today, access to online databases makes modern teaching materials for English and a treasure-trove of other knowledge available instantly, anywhere in the world. Both time and circumstance will make virtual learning only more attractive in the future. In an era of budget overload, virtual schooling is both cost-effective and flexible.

Several providers of virtual school curricula, report enrollment up sharply and prospects for future growth are strong. Why? Because virtual schooling works. A 2007 Florida study of the 2004-05 and 2005-06 school years, showed virtual school students consistently outperformed their counterparts in traditional middle and high schools.

My husband and I decided early on that our three daughters’ education was ultimately our responsibility. We used available technology to supplement their education, from learning-to-read computer programs to virtual college classes. On any given day in our home, our daughters, now ages 21, 18 and 15, take a class offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), listen to a Nobel Laureate’s lecture or study a second language—all from programs that are either free or have nominal costs.

Has our hands-on journey been successful? Our eldest is on the President’s list at college, our sixteen year-old attended an accelerated college program at our local university and our fifteen year-old attends a hybrid school with an emphasis on math, science and engineering.

With the explosive growth of online learning opportunities, at the click of mouse or the use of an iPod or iPad, parents now have access to help their child learn anything, anywhere and at any time.

Our family is not alone in discovering this reality.

In Disrupting Class, Clayton Christensen noted enrollments in state-accredited online courses went from 45,000 in 2000 to roughly one million in 2007. He estimates that in ten years, enrollment in online learning will surpass that of live instruction.

That’s hardly surprising. As any parent knows, America’s kids “speak” and think digital in ways we never can. Personal digital devices such as iPhones, iPods and other smart phones are increasingly the access point for learning: 72% of US Children ages 13-17 own a mobile device.

So, as a parent, help them optimize their iPhone, iPad or computer for learning. iTunes U offers stellar lectures from top Universities and there are Apple apps from preschool flashcard reading apps to a SAT vocabulary challenge game. Teach them to use tutors online or take college-level classes online not offered by their school—or even consider the benefits of a full-time virtual school.

With budget cuts looming, America’s public schools face bigger hurdles than ever to provide our children—and our nation—with the skills needed to compete in today’s global economy. Virtual learning resources can help meet that challenge. They can also encourage learning outside the classroom and give new value to intelligence and the learning experience