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.

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