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A new law expanding virtual schools?

Posted by Jim Stergios  December 10, 2012 08:00 AM

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Back in January 2010, there was a lot of hope that the charter school expansions associated with the new law would work out well. The data on that is largely tremendous. The new charters are faring very well, thank you.

There were other elements in the law including the creation of statewide “virtual schools,” schools where students could do much of their coursework online. That promise was not kept, as the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education put into place what were onerous regulations that dissuaded all but the Superintendent of Greenfield Schools from attempting to create such an entity.

Susan Patrick, perhaps one of the most informed policymakers on virtual education, noted at a recent event in Massachusetts that the Department Education actually took her original advice on best practices in how to regulate online learning (no geographic restrictions, no enrollment caps, and pay for successful course completion, etc.) and did the exact opposite. (Check out from 22:00 to 24:30.)

In many states throughout the country, virtual or digital schools are serving ever growing numbers of students. During this public debate, my organization has urged everyone to look at Florida’s Virtual School, even inviting FLVS’s founder, Julie Young, to speak with district and state policymakers.

This past week, the Senate gave a second chance to digital learning in Massachusetts, passing a bill that expands the presence of virtual schools statewide, so that by 2020 the Board of Education could license up to 10 of such schools.

The bill, which originated in and was passed by the House as H4274 (no online summary available), gives emphasis and preference to those schools that will serve students with distinct medical issues, that have dropped out, travel for the arts or sports, fear bullying, and are high-performing students.

Starting in 2013, the Board of Education will be able to grant three virtual schools from 2013-2016, the same number from 2016-2019, and up to four in the 2019-2020 cycle. Again, no more than 10 can be created. Applicants for licensure can include school districts, charter schools, teachers, and parents – and the existing virtual school in Greenfield is guaranteed one of the licenses. The Senate bill establishing 37 elements necessary in any application, but then sets the following parameters:

  • The number of students attending virtual schools full-time will not exceed 2 percent (currently, about 19,000 students) of the statewide student population
  • Local school committees can restrict local enrollment if more than 1 percent of its students attend virtual schools (for a point of reference, in Boston around 550 students, in Chelsea 60, in Lawrence 130).
  • At least 5 percent of students have to come from the district within which the virtual school is formed.

The bill also does away with “seat time” requirements – that is, the minimum number of hours that a student must spend physically at school. It places the same curricular mandates and requirements for standardized testing as are present in all Massachusetts public schools.

As argued before (here, here, and here), I am a big supporter of lots of choices for parents. So in principle this is a good bill. I also appreciate the fact that the licenses will be given out for period of three to five years with a accountability review based upon achieving promised improvements in student achievement and other important metrics.

In section (m) there are requirements that the school submit an annual report that includes

  • a “discussion of progress made toward” stated goals;

  • “a list of the programs and courses offered;”

  • “a description and number of the students enrolled,” applied and not admitted;

  • “a [detailed] financial statement)”;

Section (m) requires “information regarding, and a discussion of,”

  • student attendance and participation;

  • student-teacher interaction;

  • student performance;

And, finally a discussion of

  • courses completed and not completed;

  • the creation of “a community for students”;

  • activities “to engage students and how students participated”;

  • parental involvement;

  • “the school’s outreach and recruitment efforts”.

That’s a lot of discussions and descriptions, and for the most part useful for the Department of Education as it seeks to learn about what is working and may work in the future. The bill also requires the Department will then produce its own report based on MCAS and other metrics, which it will provide back to the school and the public.

What is missing from all of this are two things I’ve noted in previous posts on virtual learning, drawing from the experiences in other states. First the negative, then the positive experiences.

As the New York Times’ Stephanie Saul made clear in her 2011 piece on virtual schools, Pennsylvania was seeing over 50 percent of its virtual students withdraw from the courses they were taking. The problem was solvable – and it required little more a proper auditing of teachers and students together with a change in the payment system so that payments followed the child, but were only made after the student had successfully completed a course.

Such a change would have all kinds of virtues, including creating incentives for the virtual school to seek out students who were good fits for online courses – not just warm bodies that would sign up for a course.

Which is where the positive experience of the Florida Virtual School comes in. Established in 1997, during the administration of then-Governor Lawton Chiles, FLVS started due to a $200,000 grant from the state department of education and support from the Alachua School District and the Orange School District.

As I noted in a previous RTS post, the Florida Virtual School, a Better Government Competition winner, is the example we should be looking at:

FLVS is not a simple distance learning option, with correspondence-style courses and videoconferencing, as you can find in rural western US states, Alaska and parts of Canada. FLVS is a completely internet-based model that provides students in rural as well urban settings everything from AP classes, summer intensive work and remedial support to a full-fledged K-12 curriculum. FLVS is a statewide school system funded on a “pay for performance” basis. Rather than focusing on “seat time,” it aims for students’ mastery of their subjects.

The numbers show that it is working. FLVS’ course completion rate has consistently remained above 80%, with 80,000 students completing 100,000 course enrollments (each enrollment equivalent to one semester’s work). These students range in demographics and in terms of needs—from emotionally and physically handicapped students to the academically advanced. Minorities comprise about one third of FLVS’s population, exceeding the national online learning participation rate among minorities by about 20%. Among AP students, minority participation was at 39% in 2006-2007. You can see some FLVS student activities here.

Susan Patrick’s iNACOL notes that FLVS has

pushed next generation learning forward with a combination of competency-based learning and performance-based funding. With open enrollment, students can register and begin online courses any day of the year… Funding is provided when students successfully complete courses. Every student in Florida has access to the 115 online courses offered by the Florida Virtual School, providing licensed educators who are skilled in online instruction.

This performance-based funding model has required FLVS to develop sophisticated data systems that monitor student progress in detail. Data was integrated between the instructional and administrative information systems used in the school. Specifically, the learning management system for the online course data was integrated with the student information system for a standards-based learning model for monitoring progress in real time.

Florida Tax Watch reported that the performance-based model of Florida Virtual School was a better return on taxpayer dollars—serving a higher percentage of under-served students, while producing better results in student learning outcomes—than traditional models.

So, where does this bill come out on funding? Well, as you might expect, we have got our work cut out to ensure that we are putting the right incentives into place. The bill notes in section (k) that

The amount of tuition per pupil a school district shall pay for its student or students who enroll in a commonwealth virtual school shall be the school choice tuition amount.

The school choice tuition rate referred to in the Senate bill is 75 percent of any school’s “operating cost per full-time equivalent pupil for the receiving school district.” The tuition rate is capped at $5,000. As Patrick notes in the video at top (again the same segment, 22:00 to 24:30), it is far better to have the funding follow the child on a per course basis, with the check being cut only when the student successfully completes the course.
But, alas, we will still be cutting checks among districts.

As a P.S., the final section of the Senate bill makes an explicit warning:

Upon release of the proposed regulations, the board shall file a copy thereof with the clerks of the house of representatives and the senate who shall forward the regulations to the joint committee on education. Within 30 days of the filing, the committee may hold a public hearing and issue a report on the regulations and file the report with the board.
That’s a bunch of words that admonish the Commissioner of Education not to tie this law up with red tape. Well said, Senators.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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