Day 11: Put virtue in virtual school regulations

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For Aristotle, virtues required wisdom, the ability to find balance between extremes. So, famously, he noted that courage was neither cowardice nor charging ahead with a devil-may-care attitude. Regulations require that kind of balance even in a virtual age.

Virtual learning is a huge untapped opportunity in Massachusetts. Some people consider its potential to individualize instruction and address some portion of the ever-present classroom problem of kids learning at different paces as game-changing. The conversation sometimes feels like the conversation on stem cell research–perhaps overblown, perhaps not. The fact is we are early in finding out.

The issue of the pace at which kids learn is an important one. Many kids are bored because teachers have to adjust lessons to take into consideration the needs of all kids in the classroom. Other kids need a level of direct interaction that isn’t possible with a single teacher in a classroom, even with after-school hours and even with the addition of a teacher’s aide. Then there are many high school kids who need to work; without greater flexibility in the last two years of high school, they may consider dropping out.

Virtual learning, whether online supplements for traditional learning styles or outright “virtual schools”, is increasingly a way to ensure much more time on task, a flexible schedule, and new capacity without hiring an unsustainable number of teachers.

State Representative Will Brownsberger notes that even though Massachusetts “is a hot bed of educational innovation in its universities, it’s light years behind when it comes to online K-12 learning.” The January 2010 Act Relative to the Achievement Gap exorts the state to get a move on in pushing virtual learning in Massachusetts.

The Florida Virtual School is the example many people point to (full disclosure: Julie Young and FLVS won Pioneer’s 2008 Better Government Competition). FLVS is not a simple distance learning option, with correspondence-style courses and videoconferencing, as you can find in rural western US states, Alaska and parts of Canada. FLVS is a completely internet-based model that provides students in rural as well urban settings everything from AP classes, summer intensive work and remedial support to a full-fledged K-12 curriculum. FLVS is a statewide school system funded on a “pay for performance” basis. Rather than focusing on “seat time,” it aims for students’ mastery of their subjects.

The numbers show that it is working. FLVS’ course completion rate has consistently remained above 80%, with 80,000 students completing 100,000 course enrollments (each enrollment equivalent to one semester’s work). These students range in demographics and in terms of needs—from emotionally and physically handicapped students to the academically advanced. Minorities comprise about one third of FLVS’s population, exceeding the national online learning participation rate among minorities by about 20%. Among AP students, minority participation was at 39% in 2006-2007.

Given the fact that many high school students drop out because of a frustration with school work (too difficult or too boring) and the need to work, expanding. You can see some FLVS student activities here.

Paul Peterson and Harvard Business School’s “disruptive technology” guru Clayton Christensen are really impressed with FLVS but they note that there are many models out there and new ones to be developed. In Los Angeles there are charter schools experimenting with an “integrated” technology approach—which basically means that they know that improving their students’ study habits, knowledge, and skills will require intensive, even one-on-one, instruction over a longer day. Technology can help bridge the gap in resources and engage students in way that really takes hold, especially if coordinated with teacher activities in the school.

The fact is we have a lot to learn about online learning. And we need to let it develop, in much the same way we’ve let the internet thrive without a heavy hand of regulation.

Enter the proposal for a Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield. The district had looked at a number of virtual learning models, including the FLVS. It proposed setting up a statewide virtual high school. I can’t judge the merits of the proposal, but the immediate question became money. If students in Worcester or other districts enrolled in the Greenfield virtual school, they would have to divert $5,000 per child (well below the $13,400 statewide average for educating a child) from their local school budget.

The problem is that when money enters the picture, those with interest hold onto their wallets. The Department of Education’s response was to develop regulations–regulations that protected districts across the state. The Board of Education just approved these regulations, which require any particular virtual school attract a minimum of 25 percent of its students from within its local district, and that the virtual school enroll no more than 500 students. Any time a school wants to operate outside of those regulatory guideposts, proponents will need to step before the throne, kiss the Commissioner’s ring, and seek special dispensation.

These are some of the most restrictive regulations in the nation. Marty Walz, who was key in advancing the January 2010 school reform package, is not impressed. Speaking to the Globe, she noted that the regulations may contradict the spirit of the recent reform law:

These proposed regulations will certainly make it more difficult for some school districts to open a virtual school, and to me that is moving in the wrong direction.

The state bureaucracy has to stop protecting the status quo. At this early stage in the game, the state should allow more students to access a virtual school and it should not tether the virtual world to location. In addition, in the process of seeking high-performing charter school operators, the state should seek out several proposals that will integrate virtual tools into instruction. Given their flexibility, charters may be able to fashion new school-based uses of virtual learning that are more than simple add-ons.

Crossposted at’s Rock the Schoolhouse.