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Education Funding

Analysis Notes Virtual Ed. Priorities in RTT Winners

By Ian Quillen — September 14, 2010 6 min read
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While public education experts have been debating which priorities weighed most heavily in the second round of the federal Race to the Top grant awards, a review by an online education group shows most of the 10 winners submitted strong online-learning proposals.

Susan D. Patrick, the president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, said a wiki document released by the Vienna, Va.-based group highlighting the virtual-learning components in all 19 round-two finalists’ applications shows the winners—nine states and the District of Columbia—were ready to use the grant money to offer more online opportunities and to make needed policy changes.

Further, she said, those changes are happening in regions that traditionally have been hesitant to embrace online learning. While all 16 state members of the Southern Regional Education Board, which has succeeded in encouraging its members to embrace online learning, make up more than half the 27 states with statewide virtual schools, Ms. Patrick said she was more encouraged by the applications from outside that region.

“Florida certainly has been a leader [in online education] for a long time,” Ms. Patrick said. “But that’s not new information. So it was really nice to see Massachusetts, New York, and some others move not only in the direction of online learning, but to be considering the policy shifts.”

Using funds under the 2009 federal economic-stimulus law, the U.S. Department of Education has awarded a total of $4 billion to 12 winners in the two rounds of the Race to the Top competition, which is intended to spur state efforts that mesh with Obama administration priorities for improving K-12 education. (“Race to Top Now Faces Acid Test,” Sept. 1, 2010.)

Competency-Based Focus

Many of the policy shifts Ms. Patrick referred to involve replacing traditional seat-time requirements—which mandate the hours a student must spend in class to gain credit for a course—with competency-based requirements that allow students to progress at varying paces through a course depending on their mastery of the subject.

Massachusetts’ application highlighted existing efforts to direct federal stimulus aid toward creating competency-based online courses and “blended” learning courses, which mix face-to-face and virtual lessons, both for alternative school students. New York is cited in the iNACOL report for the statewide technology plan it adopted in January that calls for offering all students online and blended learning opportunities.

Georgia’s plan indicated an interest in completely replacing seat-time standards, both in online and regular classes, while both Ohio’s and Rhode Island’s applications pointed to similar, already-established systems.

Award-Recipients' Proposals

The DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA plans to construct a collaborative online platform geared toward teacher professional development.

FLORIDA plans to focus the outreach efforts of its Florida Virtual School on rural students and more specialized courses. In addition, it hopes to foster more preservice online teacher training in several of the state’s teacher colleges.

GEORGIA plans to develop online professional-development courses focused toward STEM teachers, and expand the the Georgia Virtual School’s plans to offer more STEM courses. The state is also exploring replacing seat-time-based education systems with a proficiency-based pathway, especially for online credit-recovery students.

HAWAII plans to provide an open-source online platform where teachers can collaborate with each other to develop curricula and share resources. It also plans to create online professional-development opportunities and organizations.

MARYLAND plans to use RTT funds to build an online model to deliver to teacher-preparation institutions on the common-core curriculum. It will also focus funds on the Maryland Virtual School with the creation of eight online-only STEM courses.

MASSACHUSETTS plans to provide online courses for licensed teachers to help them earn an English-language-learner or special education teaching license. Also, the state intends to continue to establish a network for alternative secondary schools to develop and deliver online and hybrid courses for the state’s core subjects.

NEW YORK plans to use RTT funds to support online and blended (online and face-to-face) professional development and instruction. It also plans to focus online instruction on high-quality and credit-recovery courses.

NORTH CAROLINA plans to direct online instruction resources from the North Carolina Virtual School to students with limited brick-and-mortar teacher and course availability. It will focus particularly on math and science subjects.

OHIO plans to offer more online courses to students with social and economic disadvantages with an added focus on Advanced Placement courses, employing its recently passed credit-flexibility allowance.

RHODE ISLAND plans to build an online instructional-improvement system for teachers and is in the process of building a virtual learning network for students. It is also reviewing providers for a statewide virtual high school.

Source: iNACOL

Erin Hames, the chief of staff for the Georgia department of education, suggested that momentum to consider proficiency-based standards has grown not only because new methods such as online learning can make differentiated instruction easier, but also because states are under financial pressure to direct instructional resources more efficiently, particularly for students who need remedial help.

“There are a lot of options for remedial study, but many of them are very, very costly,” Ms. Hames said. “If we can remediate students and get them prepared for exams in half the time, at half the cost, that’s a huge benefit for us—now more than ever.”

In Ohio’s application, the state’s Credit Flexibility Plan, which is being extended to all the state’s schools for the first time this fall, allows students to gain high school credit through alternative experiences that include online learning, internships, educational travel, or dual enrollment in a college course.

Ms. Patrick did not say she believed the Race to the Top evaluators were looking specifically for those policy shifts. But Thomas D. Rutan, Ohio’s associate director of curriculum and instruction, said he wouldn’t have been surprised.

“I can only surmise that it was certainly looked upon favorably,” Mr. Rutan said. “It’s sort of like a new arsenal for the schools to provide opportunities for students to do things that were not previously available. Online learning is the classic example.”

Options for Students

Mr. Rutan reasoned that online and blended learning would be favorite options for students who utilized the course-flexibility policy. He pointed to the launch this school year of the OhioLearns! Gateway program, an extension of a state program initially geared to Ohio’s postsecondary institutions, which will provide all high school students with a catalog of 40 Advanced Placement courses from which to choose. The launch follows the state’s promise in its Race to the Top application to use funding from the grant to offer AP courses to underserved student populations.

Of the other winning states that promised specific online course offerings, Ms. Patrick noted, many did so with a focus on the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, fields.

Georgia’s, Maryland’s, and New York’s applications all refer to using online classes both as professional development to prepare more STEM instructors and as courses for students. Maryland’s plan includes the use of the federal money to develop eight STEM courses over four years for the state’s virtual high school, either directly or through a contractor. Ms. Patrick suggested that states might be turning to online education because of a dearth of qualified STEM instructors in brick-and-mortar schools.

Colleen P. Semeret, Maryland’s assistant state superintendent for instruction, said such thinking wasn’t the impetus for her state’s focus on STEM in online education.

“I think that’s a very logical assumption, but that wasn’t first and foremost in our minds,” said Ms. Semeret. She added that one of the most practical reasons for Maryland to teach STEM subjects online would be to connect students in its rural districts with a wealth of in-state STEM resources clustered near the nation’s capital.

“All of this online [focus] is not just online-learning courses for kids,” she said, “but it’s really online resources for teachers to be able to open up their classrooms.”

Georgia’s Ms. Hames said STEM courses may be a more natural fit for online learning because the range of proficiency among students is very broad, with many mastering concepts at an advanced pace and many others in need of remedial study.

Early Adopters

Themistocles Sparangis, the chief technology director for the 678,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, said he also noticed the STEM trend in iNACOL’s document. But Mr. Sparangis, whose district utilizes a variety of online-learning providers, said that’s not a sign that states believe the STEM subjects are uniquely suited to online education.

“Does online education help STEM any more or less than language arts or anything like that? I don’t think so,” Mr. Sparangis said. “It’s just the fact that science and math and technology tend to go hand in hand. … I think it’s because the people involved are already early adopters [of online learning].”

Mr. Sparangis said that, while iNACOL’s review of Race to the Top applications may be eye-opening for general followers of education policy, its findings should not be surprising to those already working within virtual education.

Ms. Patrick, however, expressed enthusiasm at the quality of virtual education features within the applications and even surprise at those from states such as Hawaii, which was the only state to include provisions about building cloud-computing-based online resources for teachers.

Jayne James, the senior director of educational leadership at the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, said the winning Race to the Top applications show that online learning is “coming of age.” But she also cautioned that the states’ plans for online learning were only plans.

“We’ve got a really great opportunity to connect with teachers in a relevant and contextual way, and in an online way,” Ms. James said of the online-learning plans for the grant competition. “It’s going to be exciting to see the results of their efforts.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 2010 edition of Education Week as Analysis Notes Virtual Ed. Priorities in Recent Race to the Top Winners

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