Category Archives: Virtual schools

Online schooling gives kids more time

The Evergreen Freedom Foundation points out a benefit of online learning: Children have time to do their schoolwork AND take on other pursuits. It has a profile of a few children who have taken advantage of the benefits that online learning offers. One has toured Europe with his band, while another has used the scheduling flexibility of online learning to participate in a social service charity.

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Teacher: I don’t like virtual schools, but they’re necessary

Online learning is coming to Indiana, and a teacher there is resigned to it:

As a classroom teacher, I’m not crazy about online schools. I like to think that I can challenge, question, excite and ignite students in a way no Internet program ever could. I’m also a realist. If Indiana wants to improve high school and college graduation rates, we must make education as flexible as possible. Enter online learning into the landscape.

It’s important to remember that there can be a role for teachers in online schooling. In fact, many online schools employ teachers, who interact with students via phone, e-mail, or chat. In a hybrid scenario, students periodically come into a bricks-and-mortar school to interact with teachers.

For more on homeschooling, see the Kansas Education resource page as well as this archive of blog posts.

By the way, the article mentions homeschoolers. The Home School Legal Defense Association, which many homeschool families belong to, actively discourages one form of online schooling, the virtual charter school: It “strongly cautions homeschoolers against enrolling in virtual charter schools,” saying they are nothing more than miniature versions of public schools that target homeschoolers.

Why is virtual schooling advancing at a dial-up pace?

Kids are adapt at using electronic media. Why not tap into that interest for educational purposes?

Katherine Mangu-Ward, writing on virtual schooling, starts out her article this way:

I know a 3-year-old who’s a master of online multitasking. Give him an iPhone, and he’ll cheerfully chat you up while watching YouTube cartoons or playing an alphabet game. In 2010, toddlers start consuming digital information not long after they’ve started consuming solid food.

Now take that kid, tack on a handful of years, and drop him into a classroom. A child who was perfectly content with a video stream, an MP3, and a chat flowing past him is suddenly ordered to sit still, shut up, and listen while a grown-up scrawls on a blackboard and delivers a monologue.

There are plenty of issues with online education: Is the technology readily available across income levels? (There are plenty of subsidies for low-income families.) How well does it compare with off-line education? (Favorably, it turns out.) And most importantly, will political pressure keep it from achieving its potential?

Mangu-Ward describes the different ways that online providers have approached the established education industry. There’s working with it (the Florida Virtual School) and taking an in-your-face approach (the company K12).

Though there are some promising developments (notably in Florida, where the virtual school offers only a la carte classes and not diplomas), “online education is coming to the masses at the speed of a 14k modem.”

For one thing,  the NEA opposes online schooling–or at least when the online experience lets students get an education apart from the environment of a traditional public school. Here’s an official statement from the teacher union:

There also should be an absolute prohibition against the granting of charters for the purpose of home-schooling, including online charter schools that seek to provide home-schooling over the Internet,” says the organization’s official policy statement on charter schools. “Charter schools whose students are in fact home schoolers, and who may rarely if ever convene in an actual school building, disregard the important socialization aspect of public education, do not serve the public purpose of promoting a sense of community, and lend themselves too easily to the misuse of public funds and the abuse of public trust.”

This statement touches on several of the key questions of the debate over schooling: How important is “socialization”? (Home schoolers can interact with the broader world very well, from what I have observed, and some aspects of institutional school life–the cliques, peer pressure, reckless behavior, the burden of minority students of “acting white,” and so forth, aren’t exactly things that all parents would want their children to be socialized in.) Should the intellectual curiosity, learning style, and interests of a child be subsumed to some broader need to spend time in an institutional setting?

The NEA’s opposition to virtual schooling isn’t just bluster; its affiliates in Indiana, Wisconsin,  and Oregon have succeeded in stunting the growth of virtual schooling through persuading the legislatures to impose restrictions on who may enroll. The educational interests of kids, it turns out, are less important to lawmakers than the financial and power interests of the union.

Kansans, meanwhile, can take heart. There are several online programs available to them, and they’re available across districts lines, so if one doesn’t work for your student, you can always try another. See this page for more information.

More on virtual schooling

One of the most common search-engine terms that people use to find this site is “virtual schools.” No surprise there, I suppose. I will be adding some information to the virtual schools section in the days to come, including summaries of recent stories on the topic.

Reversing the Failed Centralization of Learning

What education needs may be a little less centralization, and online learning may help.

To date, says a new book by a Harvard scholar, education reform efforts have been too centralized. [No Child Left Behind? Just the latest example.]

In Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning, Paul E. Peterson looks at the ways in which virtual schools can transform and personalize the learning experience–and perhaps saving taxpayer dollars in the process.

He says in an interview,  “In the past we shifted power away from families and communities to larger, more centralized entities—initially to bigger districts and eventually to control by states, courts and the federal government. The schools we have today are so bureaucratized learning has stagnated.” Ironically, many education reforms, including smaller classes (more attention by the teacher) and bigger schools (more choices in classes), have resulted in increased centralization of education.

The template for what’s going right in virtual learning these days is the Florida Virtual School (FVS), which offers 200,000 student course (that is, the 200,000 courses taught to a smaller number of students).

Peterson says that state policies must allow for a vigorous competition among brick-and-mortal schooling and virtual learning. In the case of Florida, the growth of the FVS has encouraged a number of districts to add virtual classes to their offerings. (Kansas is fairly good in this respect. It allows students to take online classes “off campus,” that is, from districts other than their own.  This expands the options of online learning.)

Peterson warns, “virtual education is still in its infancy and a lot of diapers will need to be changed before it matures.” For example, virtual learning–like any new technology–will at first be concentrated among the more affluent, before innovation leads to more widespread use. We must not, though, allow the perfect (no virtual program will ever make a mistake) be the enemy of the good by strangling the growth of this new approach.

As the graphic metaphor of diapers  illustrates, online learning won’t always been successful or done right.  We’re going to have to say “and that’s going to happen.” Some regulations may be necessary, but if we try to regulate all risks out of existence, we regulate progress out of existence, too.

But isn’t virtual learning limited to high school? Not necessarily. But even if it is, virtual learning can be powerful. As Peterson mentions in this video presentation (roughly at the 9-minute mark), the focus in in education reform has been on the lower grades, but the greatest needs are in high school.

Truth be told, I’m not in favor of at least one of Peterson’s recommendations, which is that a federal agency put a stamp of approval on online courses–that’s a step away from his fundamental message, it seems–but I’d like to think that online learning could be one way of cutting through the bureaucracy that keeps educational progress in check.

Wisconsin Audits Virtual Schools

Earlier this year the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau virtual schools in the state. The full, 116 page report is in PDF, but you can read a much shorter set of highlights. What follows below is an even shorter list.

History of enrollment

  • Virtual schools started operating during the 2002-03 school year, with 4 schools operated by 3 school districts enrolling 265 students.
  • During the 2007-08 school year, 15 virtual charter schools enrolled 2,951 students, most of high-school age.
  • Over 90 percent of students participate in open enrollment–that is, their virtual school experience is provided by a district other than the one to which they are assigned by their residence.

Where’s the money?

  • Under state law, a school district must pay the district that operates the virtual school $6,007 per full-time student. About half–8 of 15–of the virtual charter schools spent less than that.
  • Most of the revenue received by virtual schools ($14.2 million out of $18 million) came from state aid payments.

Teachers

All 161 teachers employed by a virtual school program have licenses that are required by state law. Teachers in one district do not meet a new requirement concerning subject-matter licensing.

Academic performance

  • Compared with students in traditional schools, students in virtual programs scored higher on reading but lower in math on state assessments.
  • However, “only a small number of pupils were continuously enrolled in virtual charter schools for the past several years,” suggesting that comparisons may not yet be valid.

Coming later, perhaps: Some tidbits from the full report.

Lifting the Caps on Virtual Schools

Education Week reports on efforts to lift the caps that restrict the growth of virtual schools in some states. Among the points:

  • Online enrollment is growing at 30 percent a year.
  • In Wisconsin, over 90 percent of parents, teachers, and students involved in online schooling are satisfied with it.
  • Teacher unions are concerned that they’ll lose members if online schooling leads to a decline in the number of teachers. [No surprise!] Yet online schools can give today’s teachers new career options.
  • Because of enrollment caps imposed by legislatures, some online schools in Oregon and Arkansas have waiting lists. Some schools in Wisconsin may face the same situation in two years.

Another challenging facing online schools is that they are subject to legislatures cutting their budgets. From a political economy standpoint, that’s understandable, especially if the online schools are stand-alone ventures and not part of a school district. School districts have political power through members of school boards and being seen as a community asset. Online schools, by contrast, are much smaller (at most 1 percent of the enrollment of any state), their students are sometimes dispersed throughout a state, and as a result, they’re more vulnerable.

For more on virtual schools see the Kansas Education page on the topic.

Virtual Schools Update

I have updated the page on Virtual Schools, in particular, the directory of virtual school programs in Kansas. The update isn’t complete, however, so be warned. One remarkable fact about the list is that districts big and small are getting into the act, which is a good thing. If you want a “credit recovery” program to repeat classes you failed or just didn’t complete, you can find them. If you want to take an advanced class that isn’t at your district, you can find that, too. If you want to take “general” classes online rather than in a classroom, you can do that, too–and choose from a number of options, too!

Kansas Serves as a Model for Virtual Schooling

My friends at the Platte Institute for Economic Research say that Nebraska ought to look to Kansas when it comes to virtual schooling. Policy analyst Anne Duda writes the following. (I’ve made the most interesting and relevant comments in bold).

Technology has transformed everything in our daily lives. We carry cell phones in our pockets and GPS mapping equipment in our tractors, but yet, we in Nebraska have not fully allowed technology into our school systems. Despite computers being a staple in almost every classroom, they are not being used to their full potential. If technology were properly integrated then students in Cozad and Louisville would be able to take Arabic and Cantonese along with all thirty-seven Advanced Placement (AP) classes. There should be no reason students in Lexington and McCook do not have the same opportunities as students in Millard or Lincoln.

Virtual education can provide many of these services at a lower cost, with higher test scores, grades and AP scores than ordinary classroom education. States such as Kansas and Florida have documented over 10 years of success; therefore, many of the complications associated with starting a new system have been remedied. Virtual charter education systems allow the state to save money while concentrating on what students need.

Ideally, all Nebraska students should be eligible to attend virtual charter schools free of cost. “Charter schools are public schools founded by teachers, parents, or community organizations that operate under a written contract with a state, school district, or other entity. Because they are public schools, charter schools are open to all students, they cannot charge tuition, they have no religious affiliation, and they abide by the same state and federal testing, financial, anti-discrimination, health, and safety regulations. Unlike traditional public schools, however, charter schools are managed locally on-site and operate with more autonomy and flexibility than traditional public schools.” [1]

Virtual charter schools are a little different in that all class interaction is over the internet, students will not necessarily be in a school building. The implementation of virtual charter schools is not only cost effective, but has several other advantages as well. First, transportation to and from school would no longer be a concern to families, especially in rural areas. Inner-city parents would have additional alternatives to a failing school. In addition, adult learners returning for their GEDs would have greater flexibility in their options by being able to take classes online, at home and on their schedules.

Not only will virtual schools benefit parents and students, but teachers will benefit as well. Virtual schools systems provide curriculum to teachers, which reduces valuable time currently required for lesson planning. This would also allow teachers more time for instruction and feedback. Having curriculum provided would give every class the same basic format. Through trial and error, other states have found that a standard format helps students learn because, while the course content will vary by subject, the layout of each lesson is relatively similar. In addition, computer menus, options, and help are all located in the same location, enabling the student to jump in and start learning class material.

Virtual school systems allow for two types of classes to be offered. One option includes interactive teacher-led lessons; the other is self-taught with daily feedback on homework and progress from accredited teachers. Teachers typically instruct between twenty and fifty students, depending on grade levels. The teacher regularly monitors students’ homework and attendance in addition to making phone contact with parents twice a month, which is more than most traditional schools. The benefit of the dual class options is that students who are proficient in one subject may need less hands-on help from a teacher. At the same time, if they are in a class where they struggle, they will need and receive guidance that is more intensive.

Classes can be taken either full-time as a replacement for traditional schooling, or as a supplement to add a particular class that the home school district might not offer. Students taking classes as supplements to their regular schooling could use a study block during their regular school day to take a class, or they can take it at home, the library, or the community center like the full-time virtual students. Classes are electronically customized to each student, providing instruction at the exact level they require. With virtual education, students are no longer frustrated because the pace of class is too slow or too fast. These programs can be especially relevant for students with learning disabilities. In fact, the most successful, documented virtual schooling program, What Works Clearinghouse, is designed specifically for helping special needs and low-achieving students improve their reading skills. All of this can be done for a fraction of the cost of traditional education.

Currently, school financing is based on a rarely seen, archaic formula that provides funding to the schools as a whole. Virtual schools operate differently. Each student is provided with funding equal to the average cost per student of the regular public schools. If the child attends a virtual school or a traditional public school full-time, then that school receives all of the student’s money. If the student attends both schools part-time, then the money is divided based on how many classes the student is taking at each facility. This money could not transfer to religious schools, since that would take additional legislation. Another added bonus of virtual charter schools is a lack of taxing authority; they cannot raise your taxes because they have a short fall, which is not likely. In Oregon, for example, ordinary public schools spend $10,000 per year, per child. The state’s charter schools operate on less than $6,000 per child.

Despite costs and education benefits, virtual schools do have one potential downside; lack of social interaction. Students are able to interact with their teachers and classmates online through chats, message boards, instant messaging and e-mail, but they lose a face-to-face connection and the skills associated with it. Communities can make up these short falls by providing activities, including prom and homecoming for their students. YMCAs, YWCAs, and churches can provide sports while community and cultural centers provide activities for students to socialize. Another option is mixed classrooms, particularly with the younger students, in which the students spend part of their day on guided virtual learning and the other part of their day in traditional classroom learning. Social interaction is not a large enough issue to table the idea of virtual schools, especially not when it will give communities an excuse to gather.

The primary obstacle in Nebraska for virtual education is legislation. First, we have no charter school legislation. The two most important aspects of a potential bill are that the charter schools will report directly to the State Board of Education and that no limit exists on the number of children that may attend. Without these, future virtual education bills would be hindered before they were even written. The second piece of legislation that is needed, is a virtual education bill, which mostly needs to allow a school to exist without students physically being in the building. In addition, it would need to address funding formulas, primarily allowing money to follow students.

Virtual education will benefit everyone in the state. It will reduce overall education costs to the taxpayers of the state, while increasing class options and opportunities. The lack of social interaction can easily be solved by communities coming together for their children.

Virtual schooling along with charter schools allow for schooling to be truly adapted to the changing circumstances of the new century. They could also help address the challenges of counties with low and declining population. At least Kansas has some charter school legislation (it could be made better). And it does have some experience in virtual schooling. It’s not the only way to improve schooling, but it is a valuable part.

Can technology fix what ails American education? Terry Moe and John Chubb think so, and they’ve outlined their ideas in a new book, Liberated Learning.

Here are some excerpts from a recent Wall Street Journal book review.

What can online learning do?

“They think that technology — particularly online education — holds two potentially dramatic benefits. One is simply a general improvement in education as students from “anywhere — poor inner cities, remote rural areas, even at home” gain access to high-caliber instruction. More important, the authors say, is technology’s ability to destroy the political barriers that prevent education reform.”

The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School is an example of online learning in action:

“As for results, even though the school’s demographics are average or even below average, Cyber was rated as having made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in No Child Left Behind, hitting all 21 educational targets. By contrast, barely half of Pennsylvania’s bricks-and-mortar schools received the AYP rating. On SAT tests, Cyber students scored 97 points higher than the state average.”

What do teacher unions think of the idea?

“Teachers unions, of course, are appalled. They know that “the new computer-based approaches to learning simply require far fewer teachers per student — perhaps half as many, and possibly fewer than that,” Messrs. Moe and Chubb write.”

Still, the authors hae high hopes for online schools:

“The authors also believe that, by allowing the door to be cracked open with online schools, the unions won’t be able to shut it. With the encouragement of students’ parents, millions of children will rush in, overcoming current union-imposed enrollment caps. Since labor costs keep rising, school districts, hard-pressed for funds, will naturally turn to technology as a way to get more for less.”

More for less? Bring it on.

Funding for Cyberschools

Cyberschools, or schools that primarily use online technology, are one exciting addition to the education landscape. But they’re somewhat controversial, since some of the money sent to brick-and-mortar schools end up with the cyberschools. (Of course. Cyberschools don’t have the usual expenses of traditional schools, but they do have expenses nonetheless.)

The Commonwealth Foundation addresses the fact that in Pennsylvania, cyberschools are under fire.

Cyber schools cost significantly less per pupil than district-run schools.  While school districts spend over $13,300 per pupil, cyber schools received $8,700, on average, for each student—a difference of nearly $5,000 per pupil. In addition, the state reimburses school districts for 30% of the cost of charter schools (including cyber schools).  In other words, school districts keep more than half of their per-pupil costs for each child they no longer educate.

Latest on Virtual Schools

Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning 2008 offers an introduction to online learning.

Full-time or supplemental?

One common way of disaggregating online programs is to distinguish between supplementary and full-time programs.

Programs are (generally) supplemental or full-time. Though the distinction is not always sharp, here are some of the qualities that generally characterize the two types of programs.

Supplemental programs:

  • A student takes one or two courses online but are otherwise enrolled in a traditional school.
  • No Child Left Behind and other assessment requirements are levied on the traditional school program.
  • Are generally funded by a dedicated appropriation from the legislature.
  • Their growth is measured by the number of course registrations. One-third are increasing registration by a rate of more than 50 percent a year.
  • They’re generally at the high-school level.
  • Most are run by a state education agency, not necessarily the department of education.
  • Supplemental programs are more common than full-time ones: While 17 states offer “significant” full-time programs, 23 offer “significant” supplemental programs.
  • Generally, “state-led online programs” are created by the state, are open to students anywhere in the state, and offer supplemental opportunities to students. The Illinois Virtual High School, the Kentucky Virtual High School, and the Michigan Virtual High School are examples.

Full-time programs:

  • A student is enrolled exclusively in an online program.
  • No Child Left Behind and other assessment requirements are levied on the full-time program.
  • In most states are funded by a per-pupil formula for full-time enrollment equivalent (FTE).
  • Their growth is measured by FTE enrollment, not course registration.
  • Their growth comes not so much from more students enrolling in existing programs, but more programs being developed. On the other hand, the second-largest full-time program grew 25 percent in the year surveyed.
  • Are generally not run by a state-level agency. The exception is the Florida Virtual School, which has over 700 full-tine students, but many more students taking supplemental classes.
  • May be run by either a charter school or a local school district.
  • Often supported by an organization such as Connections Academy, K12 Inc., Insight Schools, or iQ Academies, which provides content, teacher training and management.

Who takes online classes?

A variety of students, though it appears that honors students outnumber students who are “credit recovery,” or making up failed or missed classes.

Some numbers about growth of online learning

  • Most small programs are run by districts (LEAs, technically); most big programs are run by a state agency.
  • The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School has 7,798 students. It is the largest full-time program. The second-largest program is the Ohio Virtual Academy, at 5,225 students. But most full-time programs have fewer than 1,000 students.
  • Nearly one-third of all supplemental programs have seen course registration increase by 50 percent or more.
  • Programs that felt constrained in their growth blamed funding more than any other cause. These were generally supplemental rather than full-time programs. The policy environment was the second-leading concern.

Policy Issues

The report mentions some policy issues that face online learning, including:

How should students and programs be assessed? One way is to take a snapshot test of online programs, but many people think that a “growth model” is the best way of assessing the student and the program.

Should teachers be required to take additional training? Do teachers learn how to teach in a virtual school setting? Some states are deciding that the answer is yes, and creating new requirements.

Can students take an online program anywhere, only only in their own district? Some states still place restrictions on students seeking online coursework. Should a student’s district of residence have a veto over whether he takes an online class offered by another district? Incredibly, in some states that is the rule. But if a student does “leave” the district for a program offered elsewhere, how much money goes with him? The state base amount? Local money?

How quickly can home-school and private school students be eligible for these programs? Some states say that only students who attended a public school in the previous year may attend a public virtual school. While we recognize the concern over funding, this requirement fails to recognize that the focus of public education should be about educating students. Making a student first spend a year in a public school would be, for many students, making them “mark time” until they can do what they really want–learn in a way that works for them.

What should be the basis of funding? : Based on geography? Should funding for online schooling be based on geography, or should the same amount be allocated to each student’s online learning regardless of where he lives?

What about elementary students? While most students who take part in online learning are high school students, some are elementary school. The appropriateness of online learning for lower-division students presents a host of questions that we’re going to omit for now.

Will online learning truly disrupt class? Business professor Clayton Christensen suggests in his book “Disrupting Class” that online learning will revolutionize education. The authors of Keeping Pace, by contrast, warn that any transformation is not automatic. They point out that the people who benefit from online learning (students) are not the people who fund schooling (that would be legislators) or purchase educational services (for now, that’s school districts). In other words, there are a lot of institutional obstacles to online learning being a significant force for change.

Where does Kansas fit in?

How does Kansas compare with other states?

  • There are 35 programs in the state, run either by a school district or an educational service center.
  • It does not have a state-led supplemental program; 34 states do.
  • It does offer full-time programs; 21 states do.
  • It is one of 17 states to offer both supplemental and full-time programs.
  • Two states (Kansas is not one of them) currently or will require that a student take at least one online class to graduate.
  • Florida is the only state to require that all districts create or provide an online learning program.
  • In Kansas, Colorado, Idaho and Wisconsin, program audits led to suggestions that a moratorium be placed on online learning. Instead, the legislatures in each state placed additional regulations on the programs, but not a moratorium.
  • By contrast, two states (Connecticut and Delaware) scaled back their plans, citing budget concerns.
  • Unlike Wisconsin, it does not place a cap on the number of students who can take an online class or participate in an online program offered by another district. Unlike the Texas Legislature, the Kansas Legislature has not opposed students crossing district lines.
  • Kansas gives an equal funding to students regardless of geography. (This is a good thing.)

Recommendations of the report

  • Make sure that families are free to choose online learning.
  • Schools of education should teach future teachers how to teach online courses.
  • States should recognize teaching credentials of other states. This will help teachers cross state lines.
  • Create a national standard for content. [Not sure we can buy into that.]
  • Revise financial standard to make sure that the qualities of the online environment are taken into account, rather than depend on “seat time” and other old-school measures.
  • Establish basic tools for measuring program quality. For example, do students complete courses?

Here are some other takeaways from the report, though not formal conclusions:

Per-pupil funding models are more stable than legislative appropriations.

Kansas Resources

Finally, KSDE has a portal to information on virtual schools.

The State of Online Schools in the State of Washington

How are online schools doing? The Washington Policy Center takes a look (PDF) at online schools.

Virtual Schooling Can Prevent Some Dropouts

This next item comes from the U.S. Department of Education. It describes the benefits of virtual schools and online learning. Virtual schooling can benefit students for a variety of reasons, including offering talented and gifted students classes they can’t get in their regular school.

For other students, it’s the difference between going to school or dropping out:

The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts, found that “circumstances in students’ lives and an inadequate response to those circumstances from the schools led to dropping out.” Most students surveyed for the report said that their classes were uninteresting and lacked opportunities for “real-world” learning, so the students lost interest in going to school. Other reasons that students dropped out included the need to make money, to care for a family member, to raise a child, or because academic challenges caused them to fail or fall behind due to a lack of earlier preparation.Appropriately implemented, online learning can enable districts to provide solutions to help address each of these reasons students leave school and as a consequence, could play an important role in reducing the current rate of high school dropouts. A Project Tomorrow survey of more than 319,000 K-12 students nationwide discovered that 57 percent of high school students indicated interest in or have taken an online course in the past year, and 39 percent liked the self-pacing that online classes could provide. In 2007, the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL) found that “42 states have significant supplemental online learning programs, or significant full-time programs, or both. Only eight states do not have either of these options, and several of these states have begun planning for online learning development.”

The Growth of Online Learning

Teens are one of America’s fastest growing groups of online users and consumers. Just six years ago, surveys showed that merely 60 percent of American school-aged children used the Internet. Yet as of November 2006, a PEW Internet & American Life Project survey showed a dramatic increase, with 93 percent of teenagers online regularly and more than nine in 10 Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 using the Internet. The fact is that more teens than ever before use the Internet as a way to interact with others–and it’s not just to send and receive email, but to create and share information and content more often than any other age group in the country.

While teens are immersed in the online culture, according to a 2007 survey by the Sloan Consortium, only 700,000 public school students, mostly high schoolers, enrolled in online courses in 2005-06. While the total number represents a very small sample of the total high school population, the latest Sloan figures represent a tenfold increase over the number enrolled in online courses over their survey in the year 2000, and that number is growing. A 2002-03 National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report download files PDF (521 KB) on distance learning found that an estimated 8,200 public schools had students enrolled in technology-based distance education courses, which represents 9 percent of all public schools nationwide. That survey revealed that the percentage of schools with students enrolled in distance education courses varied substantially by the instructional level of the school. Overall, 38 percent of public high schools offered distance education courses, compared with 20 percent of combined or ungraded schools, 4 percent of middle or junior high schools, and fewer than 1 percent of elementary schools.

While some schools do respond to and embrace this new teen culture, there is still a “digital disconnect” between schools and students. In the 2002 PEW Internet & American Life Project study, The Digital Disconnect: The Widening Gap Between Internet-Savvy Students and Their Schools, students revealed that the Internet helped them do their homework, and they described many other ways the Internet is used for education-related activities. Indeed, they use the Web as an “online textbook.” They sift through reference materials, organize information, and study with friends through instant messaging. Students report, however, that there is a “substantial disconnect between how they use the Internet for school and how they use the Internet during the school day and under teacher direction.” And even in the relatively small number of well-connected schools, students report that the quality of web-based assignments can be poor and uninspiring. Since then, there is increased acceptance of online curriculum, but many schools and teachers have not acknowledged that “online” is the way students communicate.

It is possible, nevertheless, to provide quality online learning opportunities that engage and inspire students. The number of online providers that utilize Internet technology to deliver effective, non-traditional learning approaches to students is growing, and several states are moving ahead with legislation that will offer online curricula as a practical alternative to the traditional classroom.

Challenging Students Outside the Classroom Walls

“Harnessing the power of innovation for the benefit of American schools is fast becoming an education imperative,” said Secretary Spellings in the introduction to the newest OII Innovations in Education Guide, Connecting Students to Advanced Courses Online. The Guide, along with a webcast that promoted its availability this past December, focuses on case studies from six providers who offer rigorous curricula to students through the Web. The online content includes a variety of Advanced Placement (AP) courses, International Baccalaureate (IB) classes, and other dual enrollment options that enable students to earn college credit while still in high school.

The Guide gives examples of promising practices in key areas including ensuring course quality; recruiting, counseling, and supporting students; and tracking outcomes for continuous improvement. According to the introduction, the Guide’s “aim is to familiarize districts and schools with the issues they must consider and address if students are to achieve success in this new form of learning.” But students are ready to welcome the virtual classroom.

For more on the topic, see the Flint Hills page on virtual schools.

Virtual School Plan in Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s fledging virtual schools were threatened by a court decision earlier this year, which said that existing practices violated state laws governing teacher certification and other matters. It looks like a legislative compromise will allow the schools to go forward.

In an editorial, the Wisconsin State Journal had this to say:

The bill announced Thursday would establish new virtual school standards that would allow the schools to remain open. The standards would address the court ‘s decision by ensuring that the primary instructors would be certified teachers. Under the standards, only certified teachers could develop lesson plans and grade assignments. Those teachers would be required to have at least 30 hours of training in online teaching. And teachers would have to respond to inquiries from parents and students within 24 hours during the work week.

[snip]

Wisconsin cannot afford to stifle virtual schools with outdated legal requirements. The full Legislature should cram for quick passage of the compromise bill this spring.

Cram to pass online school bill, Wisconsin State Journal, January 26.

Yet Another Virtual School

Proving that a good idea gets replicated, a new virtual school is opening in Kansas. This one is Kaplan Academy of Kansas. The academy will be operated by Kaplan Virtual Academy, a national provider of virtual schools.

There’s still time to attend an open house in several cities, including Wichita and Mission.

Students will be able to take some or all of their classes through the school, which is under the administrative oversight of USD 207 ( Leavenworth).

The Garden City Telegram has the basics, including some comments from the local superintendent, who has his reservations.

See Another virtual school to come online in state, Garden City Telegram, August 28.

Are Students Property?

The Manhattan Mercury offers a short look at the virtual school offering of iQ Academy, a project of KC Distance Learning and USD 383 Manhattan.

How will the financing work? “Funding for the academy will come from the state, and will be allocated the standard per-pupil rate. That money pays for the laptop computer, Internet and sound equipment each student will use.” That funding will be split between KCDL and USD 383.

The program won’t consist of kids simply sitting in front of a computer quietly looking at the screen: “A program called Elluminate allows students to log on to a virtual class with headphones and microphones. The monitor acts as a blackboard, and teachers and students can speak to each other and share ideas during class. ”

Though the program was recently announced, 185 students have signed up. Obviously, it’s going to meet some needs.

Some similar programs are confined to the staff and students of a specific district. Not so with the Manhattan effort: “Teachers in the program will not necessarily be from Manhattan, but all will be certified and licensed to teach in Kansas. That means a home-schooled student in Manhattan could be taking an upper-level algebra class from a teacher logging on in Oregon. Also, students from other school districts can enroll in the program. In fact, of the program’s 185 students, only about 10 are from USD 383.”

So a student in a small town in western or southeastern Kansas might be able to take a class from a school based in Manhattan. You might think that’s a good thing, especially if there’s something that appeals to the student that can’t be met in his own school.

But at least in the minds of some, you would be wrong.

“That fact has some critics worrying about inter-district student theft, but [school director Brooke] Blanck said that hasn’t been much of a problem.

‘Some districts have been screaming,’ she said, ‘but that was mostly a few years ago. The ones that have dealt with programs like this are less worried now.'”

Were you tripped up by the same phrase that we say? Inter-district theft? Are students property? Of course not. Yet the expression is another reminder of how we tend to value systems and overlook students as individuals.

Another silly objection has been raised about virtual schools: sports. Remember that sports are (or should be) ancillary to the larger mission of education. “There has also been concern about schools using the online tool to build athletic powerhouses. Students from other districts could enroll online and play sports at the school, they say, but not actually go to the school. But Kansas State High School Athletic Association (KSHAA) rules demand that students participate in at least one class at the actual school in order to play sports.”

How many students are going to live in Leavenworth, enroll in a virtual school in Manhattan, seldom if ever set foot in a classroom there, and yet somehow be on the football team? Given the great trust that we place in schools, it’s remarkable that anyone be limited in their opportunity to pursue education through online methods out of fear that a school will use its online school to gin up its sports activities.

The dreaded “s” word comes up, too: “Other critics, including school board member Dave Colburn, who tentatively voted for the program, fear students who take online classes exclusively will miss out on critical social development opportunities. Colburn acknowledged that the district needs to move forward and that some students can benefit from online education programs, but said much of the credit for his social blossoming goes to the teachers he had growing up.”

Cast aside for a moment the perils of forming public policy based on one person’s lifetime experience. Socialization occurs in schools–not all of it good–but not only in school. There are opportunities within FFA, religious groups, scouting groups, and other venues. In addition, some virtual school programs bring students together on a regular basis for social activities.

Some parents credit online programs, in particular the program that preceded iQ Academy, with being very helpful to their children:

Others swear by the program, deeming it a Godsend.

Michaela “Micky” Norman was worried last year that her 16-year-old son Tevan was going to be kicked out of school. Tevan was diagnosed with above-average intelligence, Norman said, but suffers from an anxiety disorder and was failing virtually all of his classes.

“You keep getting told you’re failing all the time,” Norman said. “He didn’t believe in himself anymore, so the possibility of working with me at home was great. He went from flunking every class to getting almost straight A’s. He had a 3.5 GPA this last semester.”

Tevan said the program has set him free, in a way, to focus on his studies without the distractions that almost doomed his education.

“The main thing is that you don’t have the influence of all those other kids, so it’s just you and what you want to do,” he said.

It would be wrong to assume that all or even most children participating in online programs have social skills, however.

A class of cyber-grads, Manhattan Mercury, August 8, 2007

More Virtual School Options

There’s going to be a new virtual school in Kansas:

“The Southwest Plains Regional Service Center, based in Sublette, is opening Southwind Virtual School this year in partnership with school districts in Scott City, Montezuma, Sublette, Stanton County, Dighton and Dodge City. ”

The article in the Garden City telegram describing this school says that it is suitable for homeschoolers. But that’s not the only possible audience. Students who attend a traditional school may also find a virtual school suitable for taking one or two classes.

The article also mentions students in southwest Kansas. But from a technological standpoint, there’s no reason why a student in Wichita, Lawrence, or Leavenworth might not find something valuable in the program. After all, some virtual schools in the state accept students from anywhere within Kansas. (A few even take students from outside the state, as long as the families pay tuition.)

Here’s how the virtual school works in this case:

“The kindergarten-through-eighth-grade program uses the K12 Curriculum, a widely used online learning resource that aligns with Kansas learning standards. The service center provides a staff of trained educators and free access to the online resources, which parents can choose to use in whatever way they see fit, said Jara Wilson, educational specialist at the center.

“‘The parent is still the primary learning coach,’ she said. “We provide educational specialists as support and guidance for the parent.'”

So how did this offering come about? Competition:

“the school came about as a result of some local superintendents who asked the service center what they could do about the loss of students to virtual schools based in places like Lawrence. Students enrolled across the state, even if only virtually, are counted in the virtual schools’ enrollment figures instead of the local districts, and the local schools lose that funding.

The service center, therefore, decided to open a virtual school of its own, partnering with school districts that wanted to share in the monetary benefits of keeping students enrolled locally.”

Here’s another thought: if you hear someone say that school employees aren’t concerned about money, just kids, don’t believe them. School employees can understand dollars and cents as much as anyone else. As a result, kids in southwest Kansas are winners. They could use the Lawrence program. Now they will also be able to use a program based in their own region. And given the local presence of the service center, they are more likely to hear about the virtual school option in the first place.

Here’s an interesting twist on how money from the state is distributed:

“The center is able to offer the courses free to families, and computer rentals for $20 per year, because it receives per-student state funding as would a bricks-and-mortar school, Wilson said. [Jara Wilson works for the center].

The school district where a student lives gets credit when it comes to the weightings worked into the state’s school finance formula, she said. These weightings are the extra funds schools get if they have particularly high or low enrollment, or low-income students, among other things.”

“Don Wells, superintendent at USD 466 Scott City, said his district got involved because he thought it would be a good service for families in town that didn’t want to attend public schools.”

Well, not entirely. Virtual schools are public schools if they admit any student, charge no tuition, and participate in state assessments.

Virtual school available for some Kansas families, Garden City Telegram, August 2

Virtual Schools Tour Dodge City

Two virtual school programs are visiting families in Dodge City. One is the eSchool run by USD259 Wichita. The other is iQ Academy Kansas, housed in Manhattan.

It’s a rather late notice to be of value to many people, but here’s the information:

“The Academy’s is at 7 and 8pm Thursday night at the Holiday Inn Select at Kellogg & Rock Road. The Wichita eSchool’s is at the ISC Building at 412 S. Main Thursday at 6pm.”

KWCH tv

Virtual School Tours Hays

The Hays Daily News reports on a virtual school making a tour in the area. Along the way, it points out the varied audience for such schools.

Those who have benefited elsewhere, however, are previously home-schooled students, athletes and students busy with other school commitments, students with special needs and ones seeking advanced placement courses or courses not available in their local school district.

The state of Wisconsin is beginning its fourth year with the program and has more than 800 students enrolled, and Kansas and Arizona are launching new programs this year.

Online high school set to take students in Kansas, July 27

Competition Prompts Service Enhancements

Virtual schooling is one of the latest innovations in education. It’s being prompted by competition among schools. That’s one point you can take home from an article in the Emporia Gazette about the iQ Academy Kansas. Though based out of USD 384 Manhattan-Ogden, it is open to students throughout the state.

That’s putting the pressure on other districts, which lose some state money for each student who leaves for the Academy. The prospect is causing more schools–or at least the Emporia district–to look at offering virtual schooling.

“There’s several schools out there that are doing the same kind of thing [as iQ Academy Kansas] and, honestly, we do, too,” Emporia Superintendent John Heim said. “It’s just a little more competition.”

Heim said that the Lawrence school district set up a similar academy several years ago, “and it kind of prompted us to set ours up.”

Evidently, competition among service providers has benefits in education after all!

Online school recruits Tuesday in Emporia, Emporia Gazette, July 23

Virtual Schools Questioned

It had to happen sooner or later: an innovation in education starts gaining ground, and then the questions arise. Some of these are captured in the Kansas City Star:

“When the virtual school bell rings Aug. 16, leaders of iQ Academy Kansas hope high school students from Garden City to Overland Park will be logging in for class.

Leaders of the academy, which is an expansion of the virtual school operated by the Manhattan-Ogden School District, have scheduled more than two dozen open houses around Kansas this month to recruit students for the online high school.

More Kansas schools are offering students the anytime, anyplace convenience of taking classes on the Internet. Six new virtual schools are expected to open this fall, bringing the state’s total to 34.

Comment: to see a list of some of those schools, please visit the virtual school page on Kansas Education. You can also find some information at the web site of the KSDE.

But the virtual schools also are being watched more closely by lawmakers in the wake of a spring audit that criticized the Kansas Department of Education’s oversight of the programs and questioned how they were funded.

Comment: Earlier press coverage on the report, plus a link to the report, is available on Kansas Education.

The state doesn’t have a prototypical virtual school. Some serve just high school students, others offer classes for kindergarten through high school. Some target home-schooled students, others students at risk of dropping out. Some restrict their enrollment to students within the school district boundaries, others recruit across the state.

Comment: This is similar to the case with charter schools. There is no “one” charter school. In general, our method of running schools should recognize the different needs of students.

The note about recruiting reminds us of some news stories that ran in the fall a couple of years ago. The Lawrence Virtual School was conducting outreach meetings in various cities of the state. Some school officials elsewhere objected.

Lawrence’s two virtual schools had a combined enrollment of 643 students last year, about 44 percent of whom lived more than 30 miles from the school.

Like the Manhattan school, the Lawrence school recruits students at open houses, though principal Gary Lewis said word of mouth has been the best recruiting tool.

He said there’s plenty of room in the marketplace for more virtual schools, though he cautioned that the state needs to make sure that the schools are providing quality education.

Comment: There is some role for state oversight, but the best check on the quality of schools is an informed population, particularly that segment which has children of school age. The state of Kansas has produced several products that let parents look at the performance and budget of school districts. Such products should be made widely available and improved continually.

“The key is to make sure they’re focused on kids, not on being a profitable business,” he said.

Comment: In the long run, a profitable business is one that satisfies the needs and wants of its customers. If children are free to enter and leave schools, and the fiscal and academic performance of those schools is known, quality will take care of itself. There need not be a conflict between someone making money and students learning. After all, traditional teachers and district employees, as well as those who produce textbooks and other materials used by schools, earn their living by teaching. So Besides, in Kansas, virtual schools are all overseen by school districts, not businesses.

Rep. Pat Colloton, the Leawood Republican who asked for the state audit, said she’s particularly concerned about funding. The audit found that schools receive the state’s full per-pupil funding for full-time students, though the per-student cost to operate the virtual schools in many cases may be less.

“That opens the question of whether schools are trying to make money off the virtual school,” Colloton said. “One of my questions is how the formula should be set up to reflect the actual costs of operating a virtual school.”

Comment: The costs of running a virtual school may be less. They may be the nearly the same, but different. It all depends on the schools in question.

Until this year, the Manhattan-Ogden virtual school targeted at-risk students, said Brooke Blanck, the academy’s program director. The district wanted to add average and more advanced students to the virtual mix, she said, and began researching programs that offered a more rigorous curriculum.

The district contracted with iQ Academy, a Portland, Ore.-based company. This fall, iQ Academy is entering its fourth year of a virtual partnership with a Wisconsin school district.

Lisa McClure, director of iQ Academy, said full-time students who enroll in the Kansas academy will receive a laptop computer and photo-quality inkjet printer at no charge, as well as a small stipend to offset the cost of Internet access.

There’s no tuition for the school. Funding comes through the state’s school-funding formula for public schools, which in 2007-08 is $4,374 per student. McClure said a portion of the funding will stay with the district to cover its virtual school costs and the rest will go to iQ Academy.

About two dozen people attended an open house for the academy on Wednesday in Overland Park.

Peggy Collison of Shawnee, a home schooling parent, said she is considering enrolling her daughter part time in the iQ Academy to pick up a couple of classes not available elsewhere and to see whether virtual learning is a good fit.

She liked the secure online environment the school provides. And enrolling full time to get the free laptop loaded with software is an enticement.

“It would be easier with the laptop,” she said.

Comment: Virtual schools aren’t for everyone, but they can be useful for some. Let’s not try to force them into the mold of traditional bricks-and-mortar schools, or use fear that “somebody’s going to make a profit” from benefiting students.

Source: As new virtual schools open in Kansas, questions remain, Kansas City Star, July 22)

New Report on Virtual Schools

The Flint Hills Center for Public Policy has released a new report (PDF) on virtual schools.

Here’s the press release:

Make Virtual Schools a Real Option for Students

Legislative report shouldn’t deter development of innovation in education

(WICHITA) – “Legislators should not let a recent report from the Legislative Post Audit Committee suffocate virtual schools,” cautions John R. LaPlante, education policy fellow with the Wichita-based Flint Hills Center for Public Policy. “These schools revolutionize education for some students,” he said. “Students across the achievement spectrum can benefit.”

Through Internet technology, students in virtual schools can take advanced or unique courses. “Virtual Schools: For Some, the Future of Education,” a new report from the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy, offers several principles for governing online education.

Allow students to enroll in any qualified virtual school. By its nature, virtual schooling need not be confined to a specific location.

Make students secure the approval of the receiving, not the sending school. They should not have to petition their home school district to receive an appropriate education.

Don’t cap the number of virtual schools. Such a measure would harm student education.

Encourage competition and specialization by letting virtual schools accept and recruit students from across Kansas. When online learning flourishes, so do students.

In short, Kansas should not expect virtual schools to be governed in a traditional way.

# # #

The Flint Hills Center for Public Policy is an independent voice for sound public policy in Kansas. As a non-profit, nonpartisan think tank, the Center provides critical information about policy options to legislators and citizens. For more information, please visit our web site at http://www.flinthills.org or contact us at (316) 634-0218 or information@flinthills.org.

Gifted Students Need Help, Too

Though this is an old story, it’s one that points to the limits of one-sized-fits-all education. Another reason why competition and choice rather than top-down approaches will benefit all students.

Ginger Lewman, a teacher of the talented and gifted, told the Emporia Gazette:

“We know classroom teachers are currently overworked with the constraints of NCLB (No Child left Behind) and meeting the needs of so many diverse learners, that often high-ability students are left to make it on their own. Gifted students require challenge to reach their full potential just as any student deserves, but the rigor and depth is not always provided in the very classrooms where they spend the huge majority of their time.”

Another teacher commented that the talented and gifted, once ignored, sometimes”decide to go underground or hide, never reaching their full potentials.”

When children are not challenged to meet their full potential–and helped along that way–we all lose.

Wonder why some kids are bored? Back to Lewman:

“Research tells us that many gifted students enter the school year knowing up to one-third of the content (to be) covered. So then in an optimal situation, students would be learning new information daily.”

But when they’re not, nothing good happens.

Said Marcia Law, another teacher: “We need to begin to look at children based on their skills where they are, and stop tracking by perhaps the least-appropriate method–age.”

Lawman and Law are members of the Kansas Association of the Gifted and Talented and Creative.

They point out that new technologies may help:

The women want high-achieving students to have academic opportunities to take advanced-placement classes, subject and grade acceleration, distance and virtual learning and possibly international baccalaureate classes, among other goals.

“One of the beauties of new technology is that we can bring these programs to any child, regardless of school location.Source: Emporians press for support of gifted children, Emporia Gazette, January 31, 2007.

Virtual Schools’ Benefits: In the Words of Students

In the words of the Tucson Citizen, “Virtual school isn’t the stuff of science fiction.”

The paper reports that last year, over 170 virtual schools operated in the U.S., serving 92,000 students. In Arizona, virtual schools are evenly split between programs within traditional school districts (7), and charter schools (7). In Arizona, charter schools are not by design or fact creates of the local school district, to the distinction is one with a difference. The single largest virtual school in the state had over 3,000 students in its k-12 program.

The independence of charter schools is prompting school districts to make sure they are in the fray: “School districts such as Tucson Unified, already losing enrollment to charter schools, are looking to begin or expand their distance learning programs as well.”

Students in the story offered several reasons why virtual schools are useful:

* “I won’t have the distractions of other people in class who don’t want to do their work and who are trying to get me to join them.”

* “The flexible schedule is great and a lot less stressful.”

* “I’d like to finish high school in three years, so the virtual classes are great. This summer I was able to do what I wanted during the day and do my classes at night.”

The article mentions IQ Academy Kansas, which is operated by Manhattan-Ogden USD 383. (On the home page of the district, look under the “Programs” tab.) Students in that program earn a diploma from USD 383.

Source: Local parents ponder virtual high schools, Tuscon Citizen, July 17.