Nonsensical state regulations handcuffing online learning, innovation


California’s budget meltdown is an opportunity, not to raise taxes, but to explore innovative ways to deliver services more efficiently and effectively. With the revolution in online technology, education is a perfect area to rethink obsolete delivery systems. However, according to a new book by the Pacific Research Institute, California has erected reactionary barriers that prevent this revolution from reaching millions of students who might benefit from it.

Short-Circuited: The Challenges Facing the Online Learning Revolution in California details both the promise of new learning technologies and the frustration felt by technology developers, educators, and policy experts as they confront a wall of government red tape. The potential of the online education revolution is epitomized by Rocketship Education, which operates two charter elementary schools in San Jose.

Charter schools are deregulated public schools that are independent of school districts and not subject to teachers union contracts. Although located in low-income Hispanic neighborhoods, Rocketship’s test scores are higher than many affluent district schools in Santa Clara County.

Rocketship uses a hybrid-learning model, where three-quarters of the school day is spent in traditional bricks-and-mortar classrooms and the other quarter is spent in a learning lab that uses software programs geared to the individual abilities of students and designed to teach them math and literacy skills. Preston Smith, chief academic officer for Rocketship, says that using the computer curricula in the learning lab “is adaptive so that if a kid gets a question right it gets more difficult,” but “if they get it wrong, the computer program] backs up and re-teaches.”

Compare this immediate feedback to a traditional paper-and-pencil test where, if a student gets a question wrong, he or she won’t know of the error until the test is corrected and handed back hours or days later, with little individual re-teaching given to students. Not only is the Rocketship model successful in raising student performance, it has succeeded in lowering costs significantly. Certificated teachers aren’t needed to oversee Rocketship’s learning labs, so the schools employ fewer teachers. For every four classes, Rocketship needs only three teachers, thus saving $500,000 a year.

State regulations, however, hamper Rocketship’s successful learning-lab innovation. A key problem with California’s regulations regarding minimum instructional minutes, according to Smith, is that “our learning labs do not count for instructional minutes.”

There are other frustrating and nonsensical regulations. For example, students cannot enroll in a virtual charter school – where all instruction is delivered over the Internet and the student learns at home – unless he or she lives in the county in which the charter school is chartered or in a contiguous county. So if a student lives in Marin County he or she cannot enroll in a virtual charter school based in San Mateo County, even though the two counties are just a few miles apart. Konantz, a top official at virtual schooling provider K12, Inc., sharply criticizes Sacramento policymakers who seemingly believe “the Internet changes from county line to county line.”

Virtual learning is also impeded by state regulations that require a low student-to-teacher ratio of 25 to 1, even though no studies have been conducted to justify this ratio. Further, California regulations prevent star teachers in other states from teaching California students through online courses if those teachers don’t hold a California teaching credential. Research shows that there’s no connection between having a California credential and higher student achievement.

Konantz blames the traditional public-education sector for these backwards regulations because “I think folks were afraid of losing money.”  In other words, if it were easier for students to choose hybrid or virtual charter schools, the regular public schools would lose per-pupil funding. Not surprisingly, teachers unions oppose online education alternatives. The National Education Association, parent organization of the California Teachers Association, says there should be “an absolute prohibition against the granting of charters for the purpose of home-schooling, including online charter schools that seek home-schooling over the Internet.” The California Federation of Teachers, in model contract language, says: “No employee shall be displaced because of distance learning or other educational technology.”

Lawmakers in Sacramento should click the delete button on these regulations and develop a new funding system for education. California could save money and give parents greater choice by adopting the plan put forward by new Florida Gov. Rick Scott. His plan would attach 85 percent of state per-pupil funding that parents could use for private schools, private tutoring, or online virtual schooling. “Parents should figure out where the dollars are spent,” says Scott, so “if the parents want to spending it on a virtual school or “whatever education system they believe in, whether it’s this public school or that public school or this private school or that private school, that’s what ought to happen.”

As the home of Silicon Valley, it’s unacceptable that California prevents students from benefiting from the education technology revolution. Parents and their children must be given the freedom to exercise their fundamental right to choose the type of education that best meets their individual needs.

Lance T. Izumi is Koret senior fellow and senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute. He is the co-author of three books, including Short-Circuited: The Challenges Facing the Online Learning Revolution in California (San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute, 2010). He is also the co-executive producer of the 2010 PBS-broadcast film “Not as Good as You Think: They Myth of the Middle Class School.”

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  1. Izumi might find greater support for changes to instructional minutes or “seat time” regulations if he and other proponents built on the brick and clicks models and their promise for neighborhood schools.
    Tremendous benefits can be realized with effective incorporation of online learning into our “regulated”, comprehensive district schools.  There’s the advantage of instant test results as cited in this post, there are also opportunities for acceleration, credit recovery and expanding AP and World Language offerings. Working with California public schools would yield support for the classroom technological revolution Izumi seeks.  If the point is to bring these tools and benefits to our children, the greatest impact will be felt by supporting the movement within the schools where the majority of our children receive their education.
    Don’t be fooled by the homeschool/virtual school plea.  K12, Inc,, a publicly traded for-profit company founded by junk bond king Michael Milken, has exploited that market handsomely. The company is the most profitable player in the education sector on Wall Street.  Student learning is most certainly not their primary motivation.
    Florida’s governor may choose to direct taxpayer dollars into for-profit virtual education for the few; California, thankfully, is not Florida.

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  2. Suz wrote, “Don’t be fooled by the homeschool/virtual school plea.  K12, Inc,, a publicly traded for-profit company founded by junk bond king Michael Milken, has exploited that market handsomely. The company is the most profitable player in the education sector on Wall Street.  Student learning is most certainly not their primary motivation.
    Florida’s governor may choose to direct taxpayer dollars into for-profit virtual education for the few; California, thankfully, is not Florida.”

    We definitely should not be fooled, and we must be good complacent believers that the traditional public school system (currently failing our children) will effectively deploy new technology in a manner that does not serve adult interests more than the interest of children.  We would never expect a ridiculous 19th century Prussian model of one teacher per 30 children to be enforced… even if it means that many of those children will be forced to sit in front of a dull teacher who lacks deep content knowledge.
    For-profit, not-for-profit or government-operated schools; the only real solution is to offer students the right of exit, and the opportunity to exit, failing schools and inefficient instructional models and instead seek out new and better ways to learn. 

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  3. Rocketship may be onto something and we should foster that experiment.
    Online charter schools seem to be a tempest in a teapot.  We looked at making use of an online charter and came to the conclusion that it would be very close to home schooling.  So I’d guess the most likely beneficiaries of changing regulations for online charter schools are home-schoolers.  This is the perfect avenue for home-schoolers to get access to state resources that they so far have been denied.  Good for home-schoolers, but hardly a new revolution.

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  4. A few thoughts:
    1) It’s time for the wholesale deregulation of the government school industry in California. Scrap the ed code and write a fresh one that sets some basic practices and standards and then gets out of the way for innovation, whether in traditional schools, charters, or (gasp) some sort of private hybrids. Handily half of the ed code consists of union-protectionist, anti-competitive barriers to entry and hindrances of any sort of change whatsoever, stifling improvement. This is both at the individual level (a multitude of hurdles for aspiring teachers while existing ones are grandfathered) and the corporation/association/interest group levels (such as the restrictions on virtual charters cited above.)
    Special interests write the rules. Anything that doesn’t directly help students should automatically face a higher burden of proof. If I am ever a state legislator I will sponsor a contest that is the opposite of Joe Simitian’s “there ought to be a law,” called, “that law is nonsense!” We’ll start with the ed code.
    2) I was at a conference in Baltimore about 15 years ago. One of the panelists was Larry Ellison, who despite his occasional bombast, was and remains an internet and technology visionary. In one discussion he talked up the notion that some day, classroom teachers may become local facilitators, with a few nationally renowned superstar teachers more popular than Madonna and making more money than she did at the height of her popularity.
    I’m not sure how easily someone can become a math teacher or English lit rockstar and make a killing given how “free” so much content is on the internet, but I see iTunes University and a lot of other online resources where students can get a lot of super lessons from world-class teachers and professors, TODAY. In Ellison’s vision, the teachers of the future may be more like local site managers while the real direction of education is driven by someone producing content miles or continents away. Then again, with school sites at the mercy of the CDE today, what’s the difference between Ellison’s future and the status quo? Well, hopefully the students will learn something and get deep content knowledge, as Ed notes above.
    3) Ellison’s vision is an interesting thought, and certainly one that ought to freak out anyone banking on a $70,000 teaching job. Even at a local level NOT using technology, we could teach a lot of kids to read proficiently much sooner by boosting classroom sizes to 40+ students while stocking up on teachers aides and tightening and standardizing classroom management techniques. Three teachers aides for the price of a teacher — even more if you can get parents to volunteer. When I was a kid at Lyndale Elementary in San Jose, several of the aides were actually almost Stay at Home Moms. And they gave far more hours than they were ever paid for anyway.
    Paid or unpaid, I’d much rather have four adults in a classroom of 40 kids than one adult in a class of 25.

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  5. For the last five years I’ve taught hybrid classes in 8th grade Science and Technology. As much as I loved my virtual classroom I do feel that students need a physical classroom teacher. For being a teacher is much more than giving tests, handing out assignments, and standing in front of the classroom giving boring lectures. Especially, now a days, with parents being strapped for quality time with their kids because they are working to pay their mortgage. Students need a classroom where someone cares about them and their success. Teachers provide motivation, encouragement, understanding, a love for learning, counseling, and a powerful influence on a child’s development. Yes, my scores went up when I started doing the hybrid program that I developed, but the scores would not have gone up if the virtual classroom stood alone. Because teachers build relationships.

    The CAI instructional model has been around for a long time and students have been using it at my school for many years. The main difference, it is now online. It is unfortunate that getting good scores on a state test seems to be the only way of evaluating a student, when more important critical thinking skills and synthesizing information should be tested—if they can be.
    I propose a different solution of online classrooms and physical classrooms with more dynamic learning through activities that reflect what they learn in the core subjects of math and language arts. Lets have students learn architecture and engineering with robots to help them with their math. Lets have students make podcasts or movies from their own scripts to help them with their language arts. Getting students involved is the key to student success.

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