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.”