(2010-07-29) Teachers Union Vs Virtual Schools

Virtual School-s are running into resistance from Teachers Union-s. The same pre-teen who will happily while away hours playing Scrabble with her friends on FaceBook dreads each Thursday afternoon, when she will be forced to laboriously write out a list of spelling words in silence alongside two dozen peers.

Online education’s biggest success to date is the Florida Virtual School (FLVS). Founded in 1997, FLVS was the first public statewide online education program in the country. Founder Julie Young had snagged a $200,000 “Break the Mold” grant from the state of Florida to experiment with online learning... The school employs 1,200 accredited, nonunion teachers, who are available by phone or email from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. Kids take what they want, when they want.

Unlike FLVS, (private/for-profit) K12 provides full-time instruction. That means students from kindergarten through 12th grade can do their entire school year online. While the curriculum isn’t particularly innovative, the model is potentially far more disruptive than a program like FLVS. K12 takes children and teenagers out of school and away from traditional teacher-student relationships. The company has some partnerships with traditional public schools, but K12 primarily works by helping Charter School-s in states with lenient laws go virtual, accepting kids (and the money they bring with them) from all over the state... For good measure, Wisconsin announced plans to create an FLVS-like state-sponsored virtual academy, which will compete with K12 on lopsided terms and, unlike in Florida, be firmly under the control of the education bureaucracy.

Says Dreyer: “Many states say, ‘We hate the whole thing with these for-profit providers. We should just do it ourselves.’ But with the exception of FLVS, nobody has been able to do it. It’s complicated; it takes capital. It’s tough to do it from scratch. They don’t have expertise. It’s particularly tough in these times when there is no money.”

It’s not clear that the kind of socialization we’re currently offering kids in schools is doing them any favors. Even in schools where the quality of education is decent, enthusiastically partaking in it can make you a mockable nerd, even a target for daily brutalization. The problem is worse among minority populations at large urban schools... While the smartest kids face one set of troubles, the slower kids in the same classes have problems of their own, mutely letting lessons roll by because they’re afraid of asking a question and being called stupid. Learning online in the morning and then heading out to play in the park in the afternoons could be a much better alternative for both kinds of kids.

One promising idea is a hybrid approach, where kids get the socialization and adult supervision of a shared physical space but consume much of their actual instruction online. Of the million kids already taking classes online, some are just logging in from their bedrooms, but others are taking courses on computers in community centers (Public Space) or gyms or heading out to the strip-mall outposts of private tutoring companies.

Such hybrids are springing up around the country. Rocketship Education in San Jose, California, brings at-risk elementary students together in a safe, colorful, trailer-like modular space, with a small staff to keep an eye on the kids while they do lessons online. Dropout recovery programs such as AdvancePathAcademics catch kids who have fallen out of the system. Some of these programs, in which the content is administered primarily online, give kids physical spaces to learn in shopping malls. Kids in mentoring programs such as Group Excellence are offered a choice: they can opt for after-school tutoring in a physical space with free pizza, or take advantage of 24-hour support to do the same work on an iPhone, netbook, desktop, or even a Nintendo, whenever they want.

Internet access isn’t a barrier anymore. The digital divide has essentially closed. A 2009 Pew Research Center report found that 93 percent of Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 are online... The virtual charter school company Connections Academy supplies its 20,000 full-time students with computers as part of the package.

The first round of funding was awarded in April, and while the inclusion of online education in several of the winning proposals is encouraging, the grants heavily favor top-down, state-run online academies over virtual charters and other bottom-up options. Tom Vander Ark calls the online component of the Race To The Top finalists’ plans “lame.” On his blog, he explains: “Given less than optimal policy environments, state v-schools can and do play an important role in supporting blended environments and online options.” But “we’re a generation behind where we should be in terms of online tools, platforms and options—a state government caused market failure (Government Failure). Where competition is welcomed, we’ll see Innovation.”

EdVisions has a High School program available across Minnesota.

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