Dead last in digital ed

State rating overstates some weaknesses
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California is a backwater for K-12 online learning, according to a new analysis of states’ policies toward virtual education. Other states are clearing away obstacles and adopting innovative strategies, such as allowing middle school students to take high school courses online and letting students start online courses anytime and complete them whenever they show competency. California is stuck in the past, imposing the standard calendar and student-teacher ratios on a virtual world.

At least that’s the implication of Digital Learning Now! – a project of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, headed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and the Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit headed by former Democratic Gov. Bob Wise of West Virginia. California scored at the bottom of the 72-point rubric, which was released at the Foundation’s conference in San Francisco last week.

With recent reports out of Colorado and Minnesota showing students in virtual schools significantly underperforming their peers, California can certainly wonder whether it’s smart to rush headlong into this brave new world, as Utah has done. Caution may be the watchword.

And some of the many measurements that Digital Learning Now chose are suspect, according to Eric Premack, executive director and founder of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento. But Premack, who has counseled online schools through state regs, has long advocated loosening some of the restrictions limiting expansion and experimentation in online education. These include restrictive student-teacher ratios for online independent study schools and, for blended learning schools that combine online studying and classroom instruction, the imposition of a minimum number of minutes of daily instruction by certificated teachers. The latter rule limits the ability of successful schools, like Rocketship Education, to expand their learning labs beyond a quarter of the day.

Premack adds another inhibitor not covered by Digital Learning Now!, the reluctance of the University of California to qualify high school online courses as satisfying A-G requirements for admission to a UC or CSU campus.

California was redundantly dinged in the scoring for its requirement that an online operator can only open a school in a county and adjacent counties. While the national for-profit online operator, K12, Inc., has opened enough online charter schools to cover the large population areas in California, not every student in the state has access to online offerings, one of the criteria. The alternative, as in Florida, is for the state to open a statewide online school. Premack argues that California’s geographical requirement encourages innovation.

Last year, Bush and Wise came up with 10 elements of high-quality digital learning. They are:

  • Student Access: All students are digital learners.
  • Barriers to Access: All students have access to high-quality digital learning.
  • Personalized Learning: All students can use digital learning to customize their education.
  • Advancement: All students progress based on demonstrated competency.
  • Quality Content: Digital content and courses are high quality.
  • Quality Instruction: Digital instruction is high quality.
  • Quality Choices: All students have access to multiple high-quality digital providers.
  • Assessment and Accountability: Student learning is the metric for evaluating the quality of content and instruction.
  • Funding: Funding creates incentives for performance, options, and innovation.
  • Infrastructure: Infrastructure supports digital learning.

Over the past year, they developed 72 measures of the elements. Go here for California’s scorecard. Some, like a law requiring that all students be equipped with an Internet access device, are aspirational. A few, reflecting Bush’s conservative politics, are ideological: e.g., extending publicly funded digital learning to private school students. And some are innovative, worth experimenting with, such as tying funding for online schools to student performance, the passage of an end-of-year exam.

There is nothing in state law to prevent school districts from charging ahead with blended learning, as done by Rocketship and the new Silicon Valley Flex Academy. Bureaucracy and anxiety over the unknown are the chief obstacles. The state also has freed up textbook money to permit districts to purchases digital materials.

If anything, the new scorecard should prompt state officials to look around at what other states are beginning to do – and to start to experiment with the good ideas.

Note: Digital Learning Now! did not rank the states. But you can do state-by-state comparisons on this interactive map. And Brian Bridges, director of the California Learning Resource Network (CLRN) and a font of knowledge on digital courses, did calculate the states’ individual totals. Out of a possible score of 72, Utah and Wyoming topped the states with 49. The median was 27, he reports in his blog. With 14 points, California was last.

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9 Comments

  1. All of these people, so excited about digital learning, might do well to travel a few hours away from an airport, fire up their laptop, and start downloading some digital content. Assuming they can find a place to connect, while they’re waiting, they may want to bring a novel to read.
     
    Are any of these people doing anything to address the issue of broadband availability? What have they done to develop rural broadband? The federal e-rate program (which I expect many of these people oppose if they even know what it is) still has a long way to go to even get every school access to broadband, let alone providing places for kids to access from home or community centers.
     
    The idea of online digital learning is a joke when your entire school is served by a 1 mbps line.
     
    There’s a town on the north coast of California, Point Arena, that illustrates the problem exquisitely well. As the closest point on the mainland to Hawaii, the main internet trunk line – huge bandwidth – goes right through the town as it goes offshore. But, the people of Point Arena and the surrounding community have no access to this bandwidth. AT&T is not interested in serving them. When the local provider unexpectedly went out of business last year, businesses, homes, and workers were all left in the dark, with many having to commute over an hour each way to the nearest town with a working public wi-fi. Dial-up connections would time out on some of their essential applications, like their payroll services.
     
    These people are all wringing their hands about mean old regulation, but they forgot about physics, that there needs to be some mechanism to transmit data to and from a school before any fun can be had. Tellingly, in all those links up there, even the ones that purport to be about access, they talk about money for digital content (many of these people sell it) and flexing rules… but not once do they mention the need to build out broadband to schools. (They also don’t mention computers, or wiring each classroom for 20-30 power outlets, for that matter.)
     

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  2. I should add, they’re not alone in their ignorance on rural broadband and infrastructure. The many-hundred page Race To The Top digital assessment proposal, with all of its pages talking about the glorious promise of digital testing and how they’ll spend their … $300 million, was it? … to get everyone using these tests by 2014… also never mentions the pesky detail of funding or procuring computer hardware or network bandwidth to schools.
     
     

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  3. Good point, EL. One of the 72 measures — one of the best — is whether or not the state has ensured that every school in the state has broadband. Then there is the question of computer access to those students who don’t have it. Comcast has announced a program of providing high-speed internet for $9.95/month to low-income families, along with a coupon for a $150 netbook. A step in the direction of universal participation, which will be critical.

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  4. Kids who have access to broadband from home have huge advantages in developing knowledge and doing their homework. That Comcast is developing programs for low income families is great news, and to their credit. But too much of America has no access to broadband at any price, or only to satellite, and this is hampering our economic development as well as preventing schools from taking full advantage of digital opportunities.
     
     

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  5. I have been wanting to ask…  thank you for addressing the issue of online access.  I used to substitute in different districts — one (Cupertino) had a computer for every three kids.. another had none.   I love the open access of new online curricula, but worry about delivery.  Do you have terminals or pc’s for each child?  Do you take turns?  Do you do groups?  I would love t0 hear, thanks.

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  6. Like access to computers will do it all….  Not one word about libraries — in a state with the lowest level of school and public library service in the nation. 49 other states have school librarians teaching digital skills. CA has 1000 teacher librarians for 6 million kids. And you don’t even notice.

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  7. Reading through the “scorecard,” I confess that I feel more emphasis on selling product than on educating California’s kids.
     
    Let’s consider some of the elements that they consider equal in importance to  ”(68) State law requires all schools to have high-speed broadband Internet access.” (Interesting. Not “State has provided,” but “State requires.” )

    “(8) State law requires students to complete at least one online course to earn a high school diploma.”
    Where’s the study showing this is essential to student readiness? Cynical me can only concluded that what would normally be considered bureaucratic micromanagement is a plus when it requires buying your product. Remember, this is equally important to “provide  require broadband.”


    “(11) Under state law, class size restrictions and/or teacher-student rations for traditional classrooms do not apply to blended brick-and-mortar schools.” (9 &10 are similar)
    Alas, with its limit of 32, California has not yet achieved the nirvana of 60-100 1st graders in a classroom with computers.


    “(67) State law requires a majority of content, such as textbooks, to be provided digitally.”
    Huh? Why is this important to helping kids learn? How is it better/easier for kids to read on a screen instead of on paper? If schools want digital content, fine. Why should state law require it? Alas, no cheerful “ACHIEVED!” sticker for California on this one.
     
    My favorites, of course, if I’m the sales guy are:
    “(51) State offers for-profit options for digital learning, including content, individual online courses and virtual and blended brick-and-mortar schools.”

    “(52) State law provides the same amount of funding and the same payment process for virtual schools, whether the provider is public, charter, not-for-profit and for-profit to providers.”
    (Item 53 is actually the same, except swap “individual online course providers” for “virtual schools.”


    All of these are stamped with the optimistic “(NOT YET)”. I’m sure they have some pedagogical study proving that it is essential to student learning that a for-profit entity is involved.

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  8. Apparently strikethrough, while in the editor, doesn’t actually submit that way. My line above of
    Remember, this is equally important to “provide  require broadband.”
    Was meant to have “provide” with a strikethrough format. Sorry!

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  9. After talking with my students today and trying Khan Academy for myself, I believe the thing Bush and Wise forgot to take into account is the fact that we are dealing with human beings. I love math and I found Khan too slow. A student said to me today,” It is so boring, I like it when my teacher teaches it, sometimes he uses a funny voice.” A teacher can gage when the students interest is waning and throw in a joke or call them by name. They are human beings and I hear over and over, “I like having my teacher teach me.”
    These apps are nothing new. Computers have always been effective at teaching rote skills. There has always been and still are great software programs and websites for skill building. Some apps are directly taken from a site and do not even have everything the website offers. This is not new folks.
    I believe this is a way to standardize teaching in a one size fits all. A real classroom is not one size. I believe the best thing for a student is a good teacher. A real live, breathing teacher, not a robot. Textbooks online? Great! Lessons? Only supplementally, it can not replace teaching especially for small children. The number one performing country in every area? Finland. They value and support their teachers, number 1! All else comes second. The USA still needs to figure that out.

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