Friday, February 24, 2012

Virtual Academies: Questions Remain, Please Move Cautiously Iowa

Yesterday Ben Petty, Superintendent of Schools for BCLUW & GMG and I had the opportunity to testify at the Capitol in front of the Senate Oversight Committee regarding the implementation of 100% Virtual Academies in Iowa. The Des Moines Register has a detailed article about the testimony that was heard yesterday, along with a story that ran on WHO-Channel 13, I encourage you to go check these stories out.

Prior to the Senate Oversight Committee hearing at the
 State Capitol, making sure my phone is off!
I am probably gaining a reputation across the state as someone who is opposed to online learning and the opportunities that it presents students, since I have been very critical of both Connections Academy and K12 virtual academy.  Let me begin by setting the record straight:  I am not opposed to online learning, in fact I am a very strong proponent of online learning.  Where the divergence in opinion happens is the concept of 100% online learning, without the need for a student to ever set foot in a classroom, and the aggressive and deceptive recruiting practices that have begun to proliferate the airwaves in recent weeks.

As stated above, I am a proponent of online learning, but not as the sole delivery model for instruction.  Let me explain.  In the Hudson Community School District, we utilize an online program for students for a variety of strategic reasons.  First, it is a wonderful tool for credit recovery.  Students who may be short credits for graduation can and have taken courses through our E2020 program who may not have otherwise graduated.  Undoubtedly, we have had tremendous success in this arena.  The Department of Education will release cohort graduation rates on March 5th, and I am proud to say that for the 2010-2011 school year, Hudson will boast a 100% graduation rate, compared to a statewide rate of 88.32%.  Furthermore, our dropout rate is .6%, compared to 3.38% statewide.  We can point to the implementation of E2020 and say that yes, there is a place for online learning in Iowa Public Schools.

It also serves as a tool to use when we have specific courses a student may be interested in taking that may not be otherwise available.  As a small school district, many of our courses, particularly the upper level courses such as Calculus, are only offered as one section.  We work very hard to ensure that AP and honors courses aren't placed in the schedule at the same time or period, but it is not always possible to do this.  On top of that, we sometimes have to place popular electives such as Art and Music opposite required courses, so this presents additional challenges and strains on the schedule.  In these cases, we have provided online courses for our students.

The key difference is that these courses are offered in a blended format under the direction of our own faculty locally.  By blended, I mean that there is a blend between online format, and face to face interactions with live teachers in the same classrooms.  We are able to closely monitor our students and make changes to instructional practices that may not be otherwise available in a completely virtual environment.  Teachers are diagnosticians, who are able to determine where leaning is disrupted and nimbly make adjustments to their practice and strategy.  In the online environment that we have elected to use, we are able to hold our students accountable by closely monitoring their progress and having face to face interactions with these youngsters on a daily basis.  Not only are we engaging these students in a virtual environment, but they are taking many courses in our regular and traditional setting.  So yes, there is a place for online learning in Iowa Public Schools.

My concerns are with an environment that is 100% virtual, meaning (once again for emphasis) that the students will never set foot inside a school.  Now, I have to confess that when this initially broke, I didn't pay too much attention.  My belief has always been that local school districts should be permitted to do what they believe is in the best interest of their students, provided it is within the confines of state law.  While I don't agree with the practice, I am only the superintendent at the Hudson Community School District, no where else. 

In my opening statement, I testified that my real concern began one day on my way to the office when I heard a radio spot for Connections Academy, and reminding listeners that open enrollment ends on March 1st.  The spot went on to tell them how to apply.  Upon reaching my office, I did a quick Google search for Connections Academy where I was directed to download and fill out the open enrollment application from the Department of Education and then mail it to Columbia, Maryland.  That is when I first cried "Foul"!  We have a longstanding tradition in Iowa to refrain from recruiting open enrollment students.  I asked the Senators to consider the view they would take if I were to begin using tax dollars to buy advertising spots for open enrollment in local media markets.  I openly object to this blatant 'poaching' of students.  I was further discouraged to learn that these for profit companies will collect 97% of the per pupil funding for each student that enrolls.  As I told the Senators and my colleagues in the NICL, we have enough battles and wars to fight as superintendents; I am not interested in fighting with my friends and colleagues.  My firm belief is that this type of competition may damage the spirit of collegiality and sharing among school districts. 

Educationally speaking, the data does not seem to suggest that virtual academies are more successful than traditional based classrooms.  In fact, independent research indicates that many of these schools fall short of meeting the AYP requirements of NCLB.  The studies that show gains do not indicate results that are statistically significant, or exceed gains of traditional schools.  Furthermore, I wonder if fully online classes provide the opportunity to engage with peers in rich discussions about current issues and events.  I also wonder about the impact these academies will have on social skills and interactions.  Might a student choose a virtual academy for unhealthy reasons, such as avoidance of peers or teachers, an inability to work through social problems, fear of public speaking, or a myriad of other reasons?

I shared this in my testimony, taking it a bit further by providing real life examples.  It is important now more than ever to ensure that our students have the ability to communicate effectively.  Any Saturday you can go to the local mall and observe the phenomenon that exists with teenagers.  Notice how they communicate with one another, it is solely through text messaging!  Future employers are taking notice too.  They are looking for a work force of individuals with a skill set who can work collaboratively on projects and effectively communicate their ideas, not individuals who would prefer to work alone and in isolation.

There are also financial considerations that must be examined.  In a school district that operates a home school program, those students are eligible for a student weighting of .3 FTE, which is roughly $1,800 per year.  We don't operate a HSAP (Home School Assistance Program), but if we were it would generate a revenue stream of approximately $23,400.  With this program, the students would be weighted at 1.0 FTE, which is roughly $78,000.  Sounds great until you consider that none of it would stay in the district.  It would go to the districts partnered with the virtual academy, of which $75,000 would go to the out of state for profit corporation.  You understand of course that the revenue stream of which I speak is generated through property tax and state aid.

In the final analysis I question the legality of virtual academies in Iowa.  Dillon's Rule specifically grants power to localities (such as school districts) very narrowly.  In the case of local school districts, we do not have authority unless it is specifically given in state statute.  The bottom line is that if there is a question about a local governments power or authority, then the local government does not receive the benefit of the doubt.  These districts would argue that the authority for such academies does exist in Chapter 256 of the Code of Iowa.  In this statute, it does state that online learning is permissible if it is not delivered as an exclusive means of instruction.  However, one of the reasons given that this is not exclusive online instruction was because they [district] will send the students a jump rope for physical education.  They go on to offer a plethora of extra-curricular activities such as football, baseball, music, etc.  However, the disclaimer at the bottom of the page reminds students and parents that, while they are more than welcomed to participate, the school district does not provide transportation to practices or games.  I guess if you live in Davenport and want to open enroll in the virtual academy, that is going to be one serious commute for football practice or choir.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Board of Directors Meeting Monday Evening

I was just remarking to my administrative team earlier in the week that we have made a lot of progress on a variety of issues so far this year.  It certainly helps when you are not making the budget cuts and reductions that we had to make a year ago!  We have a clear plan out in front of us and are working hard to make this vision a reality.  Thanks to our Board of Directors for carefully vetting all the issues that come before them, and asking the critical questions that are necessary to ensure a good decision!

At this time we are moving forward with several facilities improvements that are long overdue.  The plans for the high school parking lot and phase two of the elementary electrical upgrade were approved and released for bidding on Tuesday.  We are so excited to finally be at the bidding stage.  The elementary electrical upgrade will position us nicely for the future as we make plans to install a wireless network within the next year, and shortly thereafter launch a one to one computer initiative.  This is very exciting!

I spent some time with the board evaluating the proposed budget for the 2012-2013 school year, (our hearing by the way is scheduled for March 19th at 6:00 in the board room). It appears our tax rate will decrease slightly, and we should be able to balance the total tax bill on Hudson residents, in spite of an increased taxable valuation based on the rollback formula.  I will be sharing more information on the budgeting process in the weeks ahead, but as always if you have questions please call me!

For many years (decades in fact), the special education program has been a contracted service through our local AEA.  After this year, the AEA will no longer be providing these services.  This means that Hudson will now have our very own special education program, with our own employees, and have a greater role to play in the delivery of these services.  While we expect to experience growing pains during this transition, we are very excited about the opportunity to bring a very high quality program under the umbrella of the Hudson Community School District.  To help with this transition, we have set a board work session for Wednesday, February 29th at 4:30 p.m. in the Board Room.

We have also signed a contract with Impact Marketing in Waterloo to rebuild our website with a vision of a site that attracts a high volume of traffic, is easy to navigate, and provides our patrons with the information they need with the minimum number of clicks.  The goal is to be in a position to launch this site by July 1st.  An ambitious goal indeed, but well within our possibilities!

Finally, a little teaser for next time.  Tomorrow I am scheduled to appear in front of the Senate Oversight Committee on the subject of virtual academies, with another superintendent colleague and friend of mine Ben Petty from BCLUW.  I have numerous concerns about the proliferation of this type of learning environment in the state.  We intend to testify to the committee about our concerns.  Stay tuned, I will fill you in on my experience in a few days!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Don't Text and Drive

I was searching through my list of unpublished posts this afternoon and noticed this embedded video that I want to share with everyone quite some time ago, but with all the other topics that had come up, this one slowly and gradually worked its way to the bottom of the list.  When I come up with ideas for posts, it typically gets a title with a a few lines of text and perhaps a URL for a later reference.  My intention is that sometime in the future when I have writers block, I will scan through my list of unpublished posts and see if anything has been started that I may want to finish.  Although this had an original time stamped date of November 8th, it is a very timely post now.  You may recall earlier in the school year the very tragic death of a high school student from St. Ansgar when a young high school junior hit the back of a school bus.  This past Friday, the Iowa State Patrol determined that this youngster was texting when her car hit the bus.

The Public Service Announcement above was written, produced, and filmed by the Hudson High School National Honor Society and provides a sobering reminder of the dangers of texting and driving.  This PSA was followed up by many of our students signing a Pirate Pledge, vowing to not text while driving.  You can quickly identify which students have taken the pledge by the blue "Pirate Pledge" sticker on their car.  Has your son or daughter taken the pledge?  If not please encourage them to do so.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Legislative Session So Far and Education Reform

Pardon me in advance for my cynicism.  I had hoped, naively perhaps, that with this being an election year, we would actually try to get something positive done.  Education reform is the 'topic dejour'; one of the Governor's major campaign platform issues was to 'fix education'.  School leaders and policymakers gathered in Des Moines this past summer to hear ideas about reform efforts around the world that had pushed student achievement in some countries to unprecedented levels.  There was excitement in the air indeed.  Had a new era arrived? Were we truly going to improve our system of education?

Not so fast.  The Education Blueprint landed flat on October 3rd. From its inception it was met with resistance.  One of the first pieces to fall by the wayside was a proposal to overhaul the teacher compensation model.  The reason given:  too costly at this time, more study is needed.  Fair enough.  Although I believe there were many more questions about this model than merely the cost.

Mrs. Krapfl teaches her First Grade class about reversals in
math class.
Shortly before the General Assembly convened, the final legislative package was released, and guess what?  We have figured out how to reform education for a mere $25 Million.  Wow, for those of you keeping score at home that is a pretty remarkable feat (drop in the bucket?) considering the state budget is just north of $6 Billion.  (You can get an exact number of course, but it is different depending on whether or not you are an "R", "D", or in the State Auditor's Office.)

My optimism is quickly fading.  Not only do we have a reform package that falls short of real school improvement, we have a lack of adequate funding to do the things that we are already struggling to do.

In the Branstad/Reynolds Administration Recommendations for World-Class Schools, Director Glass outlines 26 specific components for legislative consideration.  These components are divided into three sections:  Great Teachers and Leaders, High Expectations and Fair Measures, and Innovation.  It is difficult to disagree with any of these concepts, but it is not until you begin to dig deep into the specifics that you really begin to have more questions than answers.

Rather than focusing on each component, let's take a moment to examine what is missing from this legislative proposal:  funding.  We can't seriously talk about improving our educational system without having a discussion about appropriate funding mechanisms.  Instead, we are having a discussion about how we are going to lose some of our funding (you heard me right), and instead have it (in legislative words) "re-purposed". 

The plan seems to have a heavy focus on teacher evaluation, as if the reason for stagnated student achievement in some corners of the state should rest solely at the feet of our teaching force.  I do believe there are those [teachers] in the profession that are in need of assistance, or should look for gainful employment in another career, but this approach will not yield the results that are promised.  For starters we simply do not have the capacity to do what is proposed.

Section two of the proposal relies heavily on assessment of students. This is the section that includes the infamous third grade retention.  The plethora of assessments proposed would lead us to believe that constant measurement is the key to improved student achievement. 

The component that deals with third grade retention is getting a lot of negative feedback right now, and it probably should.  It is based on misleading data from a similar plan the state of Florida enacted.  The state of Florida can contend that their fourth grade students score higher on the NAEP, because those retained students are not part of the cohort.  Many studies also indicate that the so-called benefits of retention are mitigated after two years.  Did you also know that students who are retained are much more likely to drop out of high school?  What is Iowa's graduation rate compared to Florida's?  Check it out yourself right here.

In my opinion another component that is missing from this proposal is an evaluation of the length of the school year.  Our school calendar is based on a 180 day model, which was well suited for Pre-Industrial Age America.  This calendar suited us well for over 100 years, but those times have long since passed us by.  We are training youngsters for the Information Age.  It makes sense to me and many of my colleagues that if our students are exposed to an excellent teacher [for more days], then student achievement will increase.  However, this idea was dismissed because it was viewed as an erosion of local control.  This seems somewhat ironic since a majority of the plan seems to do just that.

Yesterday the Iowa Senate passed an allowable growth rate of 4%.  Unfortunately it has zero chance of going any further.  The Governor has proposed eliminating the law that requires the General Assembly to set the Allowable Growth rate within 30 days of receiving his budget proposal.  His reason is that we need more time to study the compensation and calendar issue.  Setting allowable growth in advance of the fiscal year is critical to the planning and preparation that goes into our budget cycle.  Certainly the Governor recognizes this, doesn't he?  After all, he insisted on a two year state budget in order to provide stability and predictability in budgeting. 

I guess that doesn't apply to schools.