Friday, September 19, 2008

Call For Action: An Iowan Virtual Academy

It is time for me to add a different purpose to my blog starting with this post. Yes, I want to raise awareness about different tools to use in the classroom. Yes, I want to continue to give updates about what is happening with education in Iowa. And yes, I want to continue discussion with news events as they happen. But my ultimate goal is to put forward 12-15 broad themes, musts for the state of Iowa, and continue to develop those. I'm labeling them "Calls for Action", as they require second order change for both educators and state officials.

The first is most closely tied to my position. We are severely shorting our students by not having a virtual academy. We need to act, to push the legislature, to find best practices and quality curricula, to build the proper technologies, and to secure the infrastructure to make this happen. And yes, we will need the funding. But, I can think of no initiatives in education that will pay for themselves the way a virtual academy would.

Of all the required data elements from NCLB, only one unequivocally predicts future success: dropout rate. Students who drop out from high school earn only 75% of what students who graduate do, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau. That goes to 44% of what students who earn a B.A. make. And it gets progressively worse as a person gets older, where those who do not graduate do not get raises that meet the increases in the cost of living. If we are truly aiming for "No Child Left Behind", our aim should be directly on 100% graduation rather than test scores.

Here is the item that makes this difficult: students who drop out do not have bad test scores. As a principal, I was unable to draw any correlation between the ITED scores and the dropout rate... in fact, there were several gifted students who were falling through the cracks. It's not content knowledge, it's engagement with the learning process where we are failing.

In the past, we clung to a belief that students would come around to our model of education. They would follow by our rules and be engaged by what we found engaging. If they didn't, then they would suffer the consequences, which meant dropping out. It was their choice. Of course, that view of education might have been somewhat successful (at least not glaringly out of date) before the world flattened and our societies shifted. When the educational program we offered didn't change, our old world view was exposed as being the model of inflexibility it is.

Bottom line: we need as much a variety of learning environments as we can so that we can meet the needs and interests of the full diversity of learners. We need ultimate flexibility. And, by stubbornly suggesting that learning only takes place best in a traditional classroom with a traditional time schedule period and a traditional method of instruction with traditional grading for assessment, we are losing our learners. Worse, we are being un-democratic. And there is no bigger shame for the American school system than that.

A virtual school offers us an unbelievable array of flexibility. I've shared the story before of the student in our school within a school program who stayed up until 2:00 in the morning studying, only to sleep in until noon the next day and miss his classes. Why can't we take the learning to him when he is ready... during the evening hours? Or, there are those students who feel the need to work to earn money, and feel a stigma about coming back for a 5th year of high school to get their diploma. Why can't they take the credits they are missing online, away from the stigma?

I base my decisions on the democratic model instead of the market model. If we need to do something for a student's education to be just, then we need to do it, regardless of cost. The absurdity is, the virtual model makes sense from a market standpoint as well. When a student, just by earning a diploma, makes $7000 additional a year, that is money that can be taxed and brought back into the fold. It reduces crime rates and brings better health care options. It saves us money. It is one of the best investments we can have.

At-risk students drive the urgency for a virtual academy, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. When I taught talented and gifted students, there were many occasions where students were beyond what the classroom teacher or I could offer them. With a virtual academy, I've just expanded my challenging options, be it biochemistry for 7th graders or algebra for 5th graders. English Language Learners coming into a new school system have little in terms of quality education as they learn the language, especially in small rural districts which can't afford full-time ELL staff and find native speakers. An online class can act as an academic bridge until a student's language development catches up. And with the inequity between our rural and urban offerings, a virtual school levels the playing field. I told you about the gurus that I have worked with, and undoubtedly there are many more out there in the state. Wouldn't it be great if our students could benefit from all the gurus, regardless of geography?

We need the virtual academy now. This needs to be a state-run entity, or else we will slip into territorialism and competing policies between districts. It needs to have our best and brightest minds tackling this. And, it needs the blessing of the Department of Education as a necessary corollary to the Iowa Core. If the state doesn't act, (if we don't put enough pressure on our legislators), this will be lost and the times will leave us further behind. Districts will be forced to act on their own, and the haves will further outpace the have-nots. It is truly a shame when Florida is well outpacing us in innovation.

No comments: