A multi-state network for course choice?

Among the most thought provoking of the recommendations in the recent course choice/access report published by Digital Learning Now (DLN) is the call for creation of a multi-state network for course choice. According to DLN, “The effort can help states establish robust quality control measures for online courses and providers, expand the number of quality online course options available to students (particularly those who have been underserved), and take advantage of efficiencies of scale to lower costs of initial authorization.”

This recommendation is relevant not only to course choice states, but also to other states that have a required online course approval process. Approval processes exist in most course choice states, but required approvals of online courses and/or providers exist in many other states as well.

The recommendation to create a multi-state network for course choice is provocative for several reasons:

  1. It addresses a sizeable existing inefficiency. Most states that review online courses use either the iNACOL National Standards for Quality Online Courses or the standards developed by Quality Matters (which are based on the iNACOL standards), usually with some modest state-specific modifications. States that have adopted the Common Core State Standards are using these standards for core subjects. Therefore states that have adopted Common Core are essentially conducting duplicate reviews, at significant cost to each state and each provider.
  2. If states adhered to common reviews, they could do more reviews, or do them more often, at the same cost. Most states that have required online course reviews are not able to do as many as they would like, or as often.
  3. Creating a multi-state market would allow providers to invest more heavily in a wider range of courses. Because providers have to get course approvals in many states, they have a strong incentive to focus on core courses and the electives that attract the most students. A multi-state approval process would likely lead to a significant expansion of online courses available for many students.
  4. But cooperation across states in an area such as course quality is rare at best, and perhaps non-existent. As logical as the idea of a multi-state network is, it goes up against a long history of state and local control of education. The recent political skirmishes over Common Core and the national assessment consortia suggest that the focus on the state and local level has not changed much.

The report gives a couple of examples of inter-state cooperation (see Appendix A: Background on Interstate Reciprocity Systems), but Keeping Pace research suggests that the account of teacher reciprocity is not an especially good example.

Still, the recommendation is stimulating, and even if a large multi-state course choice program isn’t feasible, perhaps a few states can agree on a common way to review online courses.

A review of Digital Learning Now’s new Course Access Report

Digital Learning Now (DLN) and EducationCounsel recently released Leading in an Era of Change: Making the Most of State Course Access Programs, which provides a strong overview of what Keeping Pace has called “course choice” programs—state policies that allow students to select one or more online courses from a provider other than the student’s enrolling district. With course choice, funding follows the student to the course provider.

The report is worth reading for anyone who is involved in education policy and, in particular, in expanding options for students. One section stands out—the discussion of “Core components of effective state Course Access programs.”  Specifically, the report says that effective state Course Access programs “likely include” the following:

  1.  “Meaningful and rigorous state review of prospective providers and/or courses
  2.  Strong monitoring systems
  3.  Flexible and sustainable funding models
  4.  Alignment with the state’s broader education systems
  5.  Deliberate and sustained engagement with districts and schools
  6.  Effective communication with students and parents
  7.  Clearly defined student eligibility”

The list seems right to me, based on Keeping Pace reviews of course choice/access programs in the states that offer such programs.

Another section that I found particularly helpful is “Learning from Past Efforts: Charter School Authorization and the Supplementation Educational Services Program,” which provides an honest review of lessons from previous reform efforts. “Other innovative programs in recent years have faced many of the same obstacles, and have not always succeeded in surmounting them.” Speaking of charter school efforts, the report notes “elements of quality in charter authorizing have emerged and been embraced in states throughout the country”—but only relatively recently.

Two other thoughts generally related to policy come to mind when reviewing the DLN report.

First, even though DLN and Keeping Pace are run by highly experienced digital education policy researchers, the DLN and KP lists of states with course choice programs aren’t exactly aligned. There is quite a bit of overlap, but the complexity of interpreting state policies leads the two reports to different conclusions for some states. These are not simple categorizations and reasonable people can disagree at the margins.

Second, the ways in which policy is implemented are particularly important to topics related to school or course choice for students. There are few areas in which I have some disagreement with the DLN report.  Among them, the report glosses over issues of how districts can refuse students’ selection of online courses from outside their district of enrollment. Some course choice/access states are putting in strong measures to ensure that students will truly benefit from choice. Others are not. In yet other cases the situation is unclear, and we won’t fully understand the situation until we know how many students are choosing online courses after the program has been in place for at least a couple of years.

In Florida, students have had the option to choose an online course from the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) for just over a decade, and FLVS has recorded nearly two million successful course completions in its history. Any state that is wondering if its students are choosing online courses at expected rates therefore can find a baseline comparison by looking at the course completion history of FLVS and adjusting for population size. FLVS exceeded 50,000 course completions within a few years after course choice was implemented, then doubled and doubled again in the next four years. Other states that are implementing course choice should expect enrollments in the tens of thousands quickly, moving close to or into hundreds of thousands of online course completions within a few years.

Online courses fill a critical need

A recent report from Digital Learning Now, Making the Most of State Course Access Programs, reviews and makes recommendations on what Keeping Pace calls “course choice” – state policies that allow students to select one or more courses, usually online, from a provider other than the student’s enrolling district. With course choice, funding follows the student to the course provider.

A future post will examine the report and its findings in more detail. In this post I am highlighting just a single paragraph, from the report’s introduction:

“A recent U.S. Department of Education report tells us that, nationwide, only half of our high schools offer calculus, a little more offer physics, and too many students do not attend schools that offer the full range of math and science courses to prepare students for college – Algebra I, geometry, Algebra II, calculus, biology, chemistry, and physics. This especially affects underserved youth from minority groups and in high-need areas. One-quarter of our high schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students do not offer Algebra II; a third of these schools do not offer chemistry. The same situation is true with regard to courses in music and the other arts, foreign languages, and so forth.”

These numbers are staggering. They are a reminder that online courses can and should fill a critical need for many students: providing courses that they would not otherwise be able to access.

(The DLN report introduction, by former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, doesn’t identify the report it references. However, it appears that the report is from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, and is titled Data Snapshot: College and Career Readiness, Issue Brief No. 3, from March 2014)

In recent years the focus of many digital learning advocates and funders has been shifting from fully online to blended, and in particular to blended courses and schools in which students and teachers spend most of their time at a physical school.Policymakers, funders, and advocates should not lose sight of the fact that online courses—in which students and teachers communicate at a distance—have a record of demonstrated success. Given the political will and a relatively small amount of funding, states could very quickly make the full range of courses available to all students.

The only reason that students today don’t have access to a full range of courses is because policymakers and educators are choosing to allocate funding elsewhere.

Where are all the education data geeks?

This post is a final thought on the Moneyball/data series of blog posts in the last two weeks.

Among the numerous changes created by the ubiquitous collection of big data is the emergence of amateur data crunchers. Some of the most thought-provoking analysis of baseball statistics comes from people who are interested enough to crunch numbers on their own time. Some of these are young people who are hoping to discover something exciting enough to attract the attention of a professional baseball team. Others are hoping to be picked up by a sports website that may pay them. Even if they are ultimately aiming to be hired based on their work, they are spending lots of time without any promise of payment.

This dynamic is also playing out in other fields. When you have time to spare, check out A day in the life of a NYC taxi—which uses publicly available data to track the movement of cabs around the city, tracking when the cab is full and empty, when it starts and ends trips, and the fares. The creator of the site, Chris Whong, considers himself a civic hacker.  He says, “I’m always interested in some new approach to understanding the civic environment, understanding cities via technology. For me, that manifests itself usually in visualization and usually in playing with urban data. So I’m always looking for another juicy data set to find some nuggets of truth or some nuggets of information that are not otherwise available just by looking at the rows and columns.” Whong estimates that he spent about 50 hours of his own time on the project.

Other examples exist as well. Nate Silver’s 538 website often includes stories about similar data-crunching being done by individuals with little or no organizational backing, and no clear revenue motive. I also see examples on The Atlantic’s Citylab site. On these and other sites, and on topics ranging from sports to politics to urban design, fascinating and useful work is being done by self-described “data hackers.”

Does this same situation exist in education? I know of a couple of bloggers who do this type of work—but compared to other fields, it appears that unaffiliated education data crunchers are few.

If the answer is yes, others do exist, please let me know examples by email to (john (at) evergreenedgroup.com) or in the comments section below.

If the answer is no, then that’s another reason to make education data (scrubbed to protect student privacy) more widely available.









NJ online snow day rejection shows that policy still restricts online learning

The opening of this article captures the story of a school in New Jersey that moved to learning online during a day the school was closed, only to find that it couldn’t count the day.

“State education officials are viewing a New Jersey school district’s “virtual school day” as an innovative idea.  However, the day will not count toward the official 180 days of school due to state laws requiring facilities be available during the school day.”

District Superintendent P. Erik Gundersen was motivated to try the new approach to a snow day because the district had already used its planned three days, and would have to schedule another school day if it lost an additional day to weather. As reported by CNN,  “Gundersen alerted teachers that he expected to cancel classes and asked them to develop lessons students could complete from home…[when school was cancelled] students logged in on school-provided laptops, they were able to ask teachers questions, work through assignments or jump into class discussions, even if they sometimes took breaks to shovel the walkways.”

At the time, the district didn’t know if the state would allow the day to count toward the required 180 days, and subsequently the New Jersey Department of Education said no, despite some signs of success: “more than 96% of Pascack Valley Regional High School District students and all of the staff logged onto their district-issued laptops.”

How much learning took place on the snow day is unknown, as logging on isn’t a good proxy for learning activity. The state could reasonably argue that the school district has to demonstrate some level of learning to meet state requirements. But the reason that the state has denied the virtual snow day counting toward state requirements appears to have nothing to do with whether learning took place, and is instead due to a state policy that assumes that facilities must be open for learning to occur.

The specifics of this case are unclear, but it shows that it is difficult to be at the cutting edge of innovation in education, because laws often don’t allow for original approaches. There are few other fields in which innovators have as many regulatory and political minefields as they find in K-12 education.






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