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Taking Shackles off Georgia’s Digital Learning Virtual School

Mike Klein

Georgia legislators have begun to remove shackles that prevented the Georgia Virtual School from achieving its vast potential to help connect students with digital learning.  Two bills would fix a flawed funding model, prohibit schools from blocking students who want to enroll in GAVS courses, and create an expanded clearinghouse of courses available statewide.

Legislation (SB 289) to fix the funding formula and significantly expand student access to digital learning has passed the Senate and this week it received unanimous voice vote approval in a House education committee hearing.  Legislation (HB 175) to create the state clearinghouse of online course offerings has passed the House and Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers sponsored SB 289.   As originally drafted, the bill required that each incoming student who begins his or her freshman year during the 2014 – 2015 school year would need to complete at least one online digital learning course prior to graduation.

The requirement to complete at least one course is now gone, but the intention remains strong. “I don’t think that’s such a big problem but I understand others do so we’re just saying it’s going to be available and we certainly want to encourage our (local school) systems to use it as much as they can,” Rogers said.

Georgia Virtual School has been a successful but nonetheless somewhat timid foray into digital learning.  GAVS is located inside the state department of education.  Seven years ago it began to offer a limited schedule of supplemental courses to students statewide.  GAVS is extremely valuable to students who need courses that are not offered locally, for instance, advanced placement and science courses.

But Georgia Virtual School enrollments were limited to just a few thousand per year by the General Assembly, and students could not enroll in GAVS courses unless they had permission from their local school system.  A state audit published in December 2010 reported that some local school systems admitted they would deny permission because they did not want to lose state funds.

The funding formula problem was addressed in the Senate legislation sponsored by Rogers.    Under the existing format a local school loses all state funds when a student selects a GAVS course over one offered in the local school.  Under the new formula the state would keep a portion of the cost up to $250 but the school would still receive up to $400.  In effect, the school wins $400 if the student is using GAVS resources.

Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers

Senate Bill 289 is also explicit about guaranteeing student access:  “A local school system shall not prohibit any student from taking a course through the Georgia Virtual School, regardless of whether the school in which the student is enrolled offers the same course.”

House Bill 175 will create a vehicle for local school systems and charter schools to share their online learning resources.  For example, Cobb County and Gwinnett County have extensive digital learning resources that they would be able to register with the state clearinghouse. These courses could be available to any student anywhere in Georgia.

Many education bills are working their way through the State Capitol, including the charter schools constitutional amendment resolution and a substantial reworking of the state funding formula, unchanged since 1985.  The digital learning bills have not received quite the same headlines as others but their potential impact to change how millions of Georgia students learn is vast.  Rogers estimated the number of GAVS students could grow from 15,000 next year to 100,000 in just a few years.

“Sometimes we forget the major role of education is to prepare our students for a future outside the classroom,” Rogers said.  “I think society in general has moved in that direction at a very rapid rate.  If a student takes anywhere from 48 to 60 classes over a four-year period in high school that one of them be a digital class is probably good for their preparation.”

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

March 15, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

HOPE Should Not Become Just Another Government Spending Program

Mike Klein

HOPE, Again:  About those reports that the HOPE scholarship could face a new economic tsunami because so many Georgia kids are qualifying for the full tuition Zell Miller Scholarship:  Really?  Are these kids nothing like the 50 percent who lose HOPE after one school year?  And if we suddenly have so many super smart kids, why do our national test scores still suffer?

New proposals are already being floated to address HOPE financial stability one year after the General Assembly thought it had bought the scholarship program some time.  While all those numbers are being crunched, perhaps someone should look at why more than half lose the scholarship after one year, two-thirds after two years and nearly three-fourths after three years.

HOPE matters.  But HOPE should not become just another government spending program.

Congratulations:  Georgia Virtual School science department chair Asherrie Yisrael has been selected as a finalist for National Online Teacher of the Year.  The award has two sponsoring entities: the Southern Regional Education Board and the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

Asherrie Yisrael, National Online Teacher of the Year Finalist

Yisrael was honored as the 2010 – 2011 Georgia Virtual School Teacher of the Year.  Her specialties are advanced placement physics, forensic science and physical science.  Georgia Virtual School (GAVS) is the state Department of Education online learning program resource.   It has about 10,000 students who select online courses from a broad-based curriculum.

Thirty-nine online teachers from 26 states were nominated for the SREB – iNACOL award.  The winner will be announced on March 1 during SREB’s virtual learning conference in Atlanta.  Other finalists are Leslie Fetzer from North Carolina and Tracey Seiler from South Carolina.

SREB and iNACOL established the national online teacher award two years ago.  Yisrael is the second Georgia teacher nominated.  Gabrielle Bray of Gwinnett County was nominated in 2010.

School Choice Rally: It’s looking like at least 1,500 will rally for School Choice outside the State Capitol at 10:00am Wednesday.  And perhaps the weather will cooperate — mild and partly cloudy!

Georgia legislators will address alternate authorization for charter schools during the current General Assembly.  The latest negative headlines include Gwinnett County again turning down a charter for Ivy Preparatory Academy whose students have an outstanding academic record, and Fulton County’s rejection of the Fulton Science Academy which was named a 2011 National Blue Ribbon School Award recipient by the U.S. Department of Education.

The Americans for Prosperity Georgia chapter will present screenings of its new film “Making The Grade in Georgia” hourly start at 2:00pm in the Georgia Room of the Twin Towers  office building directly across the street from the State Capitol.  Here is a link with more information.

Georgia Tax Climate:  Wednesday morning the conservative Tax Foundation will release its 2012 business climate index that measures how states compare in five categories: corporate tax, personal income tax, sales tax, unemployment insurance tax and property tax.  Data is based on tax policies as they existed last July 1 when most states began their new fiscal years.

The Tax Foundation ranking is not against any specific baseline.  States can move up or down even if they make no changes because revisions in other states can affect overall rankings.

The Tax Foundation ranked Georgia No. 34 nationally last year.  Foundation economists found 33 states with overall better business tax climates and 16 that were worse.  Georgia tax reform remains a work in progress this year after the 2011 Legislature was unable to enact reform.

Unemployment insurance tax gets less attention than it deserves.  Georgia began to borrow federal funds starting in December 2009 because the state could no longer afford to write unemployment benefit checks.  Georgia owes $721 million in principal plus tens of millions of dollars in annual interest.  Options to find repayment dollars include imposing higher taxes on employers and reducing benefits, which could mean fewer weeks, smaller checks or both.

The Tax Foundation business tax climate index will be released at 10:00am Wednesday.

Yellow Jackets 1, Volunteers 0:   Friday’s announcement that Georgia Tech will become a national tier one university transportation research center means the state made a better case than our nearest northern neighbor.  Tennessee would have located a national think tank at the Center for Transportation Research on the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville.

Governor Nathan Deal announced Georgia’s plan to pursue the transportation research center initiative last May when he addressed the state Logistics Summit in Atlanta.  Georgia Tech will coordinate research by seven state universities plus three in Alabama and Florida.  Tech was also named to participate in a regional initiative coordinated by the University of Florida.

Here’s a salute to the Woodruff Foundation that provided essential local startup seed money.  The total investment for two years will be $7 million with half from the federal government.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

January 24, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Slim” Chance Georgia Will Meet No Child Left Behind Goal in 2014

Mike Klein

State schools superintendent John Barge believes chances are “slim” that Georgia will meet the federal government’s No Child Left Behind 100 percent proficiency requirement in three years.   The first-year superintendent made that clear Thursday when the Department of Education released 2011 AYP – Adequate Yearly Progress – and graduation rate reports.

Notably, the state did not release 2011 AYP results for the Atlanta Public Schools system which is embroiled in a test cheating scandal.  The DOE website said results are being withheld until it “can determine which data are impacted by the investigation findings.”  Some 179 educators were identified as possible test cheaters after a ten-month special prosecutors’ investigation.

AYP is the national education measuring stick created by No Child Left Behind.  President George W. Bush signed controversial legislation into law nine years ago.  It mandates that schools nationwide improve math, languages and graduation percentage rates in successive years for schools to be judged as having met Adequate Yearly Progress expectations.

State School Superintendent John Barge

During the 2002-2003 academic year an elementary school could meet AYP if 60 percent of third graders passed reading and language arts standardized tests.  Today the minimum is 80 percent, next year 86.7 percent, one year later 93.3 percent, then 100 percent in 2014.  The formulas are similar for all elementary, middle and high school AYP standardized tests.

In a statement that accompanied the report, Barge said, “The goal of 100 percent proficiency for all of our students by 2014 is well meaning, but because there are so many variables in the lives of children that schools cannot control, the likelihood of achieving this goal is slim. There is so much more to a school’s and a child’s progress than one test score at a single point in time.”

The state DOE reported the 2011 initial high school graduation rate was 79.5 percent, nearly identical to last year, but that bears discussion later.  DOE said the percentage of schools statewide that made AYP declined to 63.2 percent from 71 percent last year.  The percentage of schools graded “Needs Improvement” increased to 17.5 percent from 15.4 percent last year. Continue reading

July 22, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Four Terrific Videos Show Learning is Viral, Mobile, Interactive, Independent

Mike Klein

Ask anyone from the baby boomer generation about our youthful learning and you will likely find a common thread:  Learning took place in a classroom where we listened to teachers and recited things we read in books.  Success was measured by how much we could regurgitate.

Today learning is viral and mobile.  It is interactive and independent.  Clunky books are losing ground to online lessons.  Success is often the ability to use deductive reasoning to establish the relationship between facts.  The teacher might be online.  Classmates might also be there.

The internet contains many examples of this new style learning.  We found a few that really illuminate what is possible in modern learning.  Here you will be introduced to Georgia students whose learning literally takes them around the world, and to Cartersville students who use the Georgia Virtual School credit recovery project.  And there is so much more.

Have you seen a great education video?  Tell us and we will pass it along.  My Georgia Public Policy Foundation mail address is mikeklein@gppf.org.  Get in touch.  Now, here are some terrific learning video resources:

Flat Classroom Conference: A Vision of the Future

Georgia educator Vicki Davis and her partner Julie Lindsay brought students from Georgia and around the world to Qatar for the 2009 Flat Classroom Conference.  This video is their story.  Conferences were held in Mumbai, India in 2010 and Beijing, China in 2011.

Georgia Virtual School Credit Recovery

Georgia Virtual School is the state Department of Education’s online learning project that is available to high school students statewide.  Credit Recovery is online learning for students who need to repeat a course they initially failed in a traditional classroom.  This video introduces you to GAVS credit recovery students at Woodland High School in Cartersville.

Online Learning: A Terrific Alternative for Parents

Author John Watson and Chicago Virtual Charter School founder Sharon Hayes explain why some students achieve better results with online learning than inside traditional classrooms. Hayes is a former principal in Chicago city and suburban area high schools.  We also hear from Pennsylvania parent Linda Dupes whose children participate in an online charter school.\

Virtual Learning: A Day in the Life of the Brems Family

Meet John, Ellie and Emma Brems and their parents Mindy and Bob.  The kids are Connections Academy students.  One room in their house is their classroom-at-home.  Here is a real world example of one family’s successful interaction with online learning.  Connections Academy will offer courses to Georgia students beginning this fall.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

May 2, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gwinnett’s New Online Campus High School Prepares for August Launch

Mike Klein

Increasingly, learning happens anytime and anywhere. Georgia’s largest school system will launch an entirely online high school in August.   And the General Assembly might vote next week to create a new statewide clearinghouse for online content supplied by school districts.

Gwinnett County has 42,000 high school students. This fall Gwinnett will launch an Online Campus high school for 125 students with expansion already planned into middle and lower grades. This new school expands an ambitious online program that began eleven years ago.

“Our interest level for online courses has grown over 100% every year,” said Gwinnett associate superintendent Steven Flynt. “If we look at how the online program has grown, we’ve served over 30,000 students. This past year we had over 5,000 students enrolled in at least one class.”

The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) predicts 50% of all high school content will be taught online within eight years. “Fast Facts About Online Learning” says online courses are available in 48 states and 27 have statewide full-time online schools.

“Virtual schools are where we are going. I think we all know that,” Georgia state Senator John Albers said during a recent state capitol education committee meeting. “It’s not leading edge anymore. It’s today’s technology. We’ve got to find a way to get kids through school. If they need to work part of the day, they can go to school online at whatever time of day it makes sense.”

Most Georgia public education students … there are 1.65 million … will always remain in traditional classrooms where some will have access to completely online or blended instruction. But faced with high quality competition from online education companies, Georgia districts are starting to put more aggressive emphasis on cyber learning strategies.

Forsyth County opened iAchieve Virtual Academy this year with about 130 online students in grades 6-to-12. Students need high speed internet access and their own computer. Courses are approved by the district and the state. Academy graduates will earn a Forsyth diploma.

Gwinnett is widely respected for innovation. This year the district received the $1 million Broad Prize for urban education excellence from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

Christopher Ray is a 17-year veteran of Gwinnett schools, and for the past seven years Ray has been an elementary school principal. Ray was selected as Online Campus high school principal in January. Student applications for the new online high school were due the end of last week.

Ray said now “the real fun begins, looking at the students who will be with us next year, looking at the courses we need to offer. Are there courses that we need to develop before August? There are no problems. There are great opportunities. It’s like a big chess game. If you make one move, what are the implications and the repercussions?”

With 160,000 total students, Gwinnett is the state’s largest system. The number of entirely online students is expected to increase annually. Middle school courses are planned in fall 2012 followed by third, fourth and fifth grade upper elementary online curriculum one year later.

Associate superintendent Flynt described starting the online high school as “getting down into the weeds. You need to look at the concept and the big picture items but you can’t miss the details.” Serious planning began two years ago. Public announcement was held until January, Flynt said, because, “We wanted to make sure we had everything in order.”

Gwinnett will combine state-approved curriculum with courses from Desire2Learn, the Canadian company that is a major online player. Online students will take all state tests that are required for traditional high school students. They will earn a Gwinnett County diploma, no different from the diploma earned by brick-and-mortar students.

Ray said Gwinnett will combine existing school district instructors with adjunct faculty, and most will have previous experience teaching in Gwinnett schools. Instructors will be provided with cell phones so they can maintain pupil contact. Students must provide a computer, but Ray said students who cannot afford one will be assessed for help on an individual need basis.

Gwinnett’s expansion might include an opportunity for its online courses to be used statewide. Lilburn Rep. David Casas introduced legislation to create the Online Clearinghouse Act.

“This opens the door for school choice at a micro-level,” Casas said. “This is so new. The only state that’s doing it is Ohio and they just started so this is front-line stuff, really cutting edge.” Under House Bill 175 any school system could offer its courses to the Online Clearinghouse.

The Clearinghouse would operate inside the Department of Education which manages the Georgia Virtual School. GAVS offers curriculum but not diplomas. About 9,000 students per year use GAVS for advanced placement and other courses not offered in their own schools.  Another 20,000 use GAVS for credit recovery, bringing its total impact to about 30,000 students per year.

The biggest difference between GAVS and the proposed Clearinghouse is where the courses originate: GAVS develops much of its curriculum; the Clearinghouse would use local school district content. HB 175 passed the House and a Senate vote is expected before the session ends next week.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

April 6, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia Virtual School Opportunities Unlimited, But Changes Necessary

Mike Klein

What is a virtual school? How does it teach? Who uses it? What does it cost? Is it any good? Those were legitimate questions when Georgia Virtual School opened its online learning doors to students in fall 2005. Those same questions are valid today and there are a few new ones.

There are many answers to what is a virtual school and how does it teach. Online learning may include internet-based courses taught by a classroom teacher, or internet courses taken with or without access to an online instructor.  The distinct advantage is students have access to courses not taught in their own schools. In Georgia, six county school districts offer their own online courses, and the state also has a large charter cyber school.

Georgia Virtual School (GAVS) is a $5.4 million entity within the $7 billion state Department of Education. This small and fairly low profile division distributes online courses to public, private and home school high school students – no middle school courses are offered this year.

GAVS is nationally well-regarded.  The 2009 Southern Regional Education Board analysis of state virtual schools commended Georgia for becoming the first state to create online teaching certificate standards. GAVS also has become a national leader for its advanced placement course offerings.

A new performance report from the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts is a thorough Georgia Virtual School analysis loaded with recommendations to make it better. The 46-page study was released three days before Christmas which explains why there has been sparse public recognition of its findings.

The best way to think about GAVS is as a supplemental program service and not a school. It does not offer degrees; you never “graduate” from GAVS. More than two-thirds of its 30,000 students last year participated in online credit recovery to retake a course they initially failed. GAVS provides faculty for all courses except credit recovery which is entirely online.

Performance report analysts wrote positively about GAVS but they also concluded it “does not have a strategic plan that addresses the fundamental issues of who should be served, the future direction of the program, or measurable goals and objectives. In addition, the program lacks sufficient performance measures and benchmarks for assessing the quality of the program.”

Challenges GAVS faces during its sixth year are virtually every kind – how to fund the model, student eligibility, decisions about course offerings, how to establish a cost basis, the proper balance between full-time and adjunct faculty, how to measure student performance, and how to divide compensation between GAVS and local school districts when students enroll in GAVS.

Student Performance
Analysis of 31,070 course enrollments taken since GAVS opened in fall 2005 found a 75% completion rate and an 80% passing rate. “These indicators suggest that GAVS is providing quality online instruction to its students,” the performance report said.

Measuring online student performance against students in traditional classrooms is an inexact science because sample sizes are so different. For instance, 31,761 classroom students enrolled in fall 2009 high school biology; five took online high school biology.

The Department of Audits performance report found GAVS enrolled 5,547 students in 8,923 courses last year, up 16% from one year earlier. The vast majority (83%) were public school students while 9% attended private schools and 8% were home-school students.

Nearly half of total enrollments (46%) were in core subjects – math, science, social studies and language arts. Another 40% were electives and 14% were enrollments in advanced placement courses. GAVS offered 114 courses last year; half (exactly 57) were core subject courses.

The performance report said GAVS “has not established a systemic approach for selecting courses to add to the curriculum or established priority areas for the types of courses to offer.” It said course decisions are made by “informally consulting” with stakeholders. The report said a formal curriculum review process should be developed.

Funding Models
The funding discussion is complicated with many stakeholders. GAVS leaders would like to expand course offerings and increase the number of students.  During our conversation last fall GAVS director Christina Clayton discussed how she would like to grow the student base to 100,000 students.

Christina Clayton

“I really want to break into K-5; we don’t serve that population now,” Clayton said.  “Listening to teacher and parent focus groups, what I am hearing is we need more of a resource to support technology literacy for our K-5 students so they are ready for middle school, high school and beyond.”

GAVS funding comes from three sources: the legislature, public school districts and students. The largest share is state funds allocated by the General Assembly; state funds paid tuition for 78.6% of course enrollments last year. Public schools paid for 14.4% and students paid for 7% of enrollments. Students pay directly for all courses taken during summer.

Importantly, the performance report said GAVS “has not analyzed whether the per-segment allocation of state funds or the tuition approximates the actual cost to deliver an online course.” Without that information, the report said, GAVS cannot ensure that it is covering costs.

The General Assembly also limits state funds; last year it agreed to fund not more than 8,500 course enrollments. GAVS has not outgrown state funding – some 500 fully funded enrollments were not used last year – but a cap of any kind is a roadblock that serves to slow the potential for program growth. Georgia has some 1.65 million public school students.  Barely 2% participate in GAVS courses.

Students must receive approval from their local school districts before they are permitted to enroll in GAVS courses. Some local public school district facilitators told Department of Audits analysts that they have denied permission so the local district can hold onto state funding rather than transfer those dollars to the state virtual school.

The report noted, “GAVS’ current funding model was established in 2005 without any analysis of what the cost of delivering an online cost should be.” It said, “GAVS should determine the purpose of the tuition amount (to recover all costs or partial costs), and periodically update the tuition amount as necessary to reflect the actual cost to deliver courses.”

Additional Recommendations
GAVS should write a three-to-five year strategic plan and then update it annually.

GAVS should develop student eligibility policies to reduce inconsistencies when local districts decide which students should be granted or denied access to GAVS courses.

GAVS should establish a standard student-teacher ratio and better monitor instructor workloads.

GAVS should consider how to handle hiring in-house so that it could cancel a $135,000 contract with Kennesaw State University which currently handles GAVS hiring and background checks.

Department of Education footnotes in the performance report often said the agency agreed with findings and would work to incorporate recommendations into new planning.

(Read the complete report on the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts website. Click here and then click on the Performance Reports icon. Enter “Georgia Virtual School” into the search window and click again. You will need to download the 46-page report.) (Georgia Virtual School link here.)

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

January 16, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Barnes, Deal Education Agendas Should Emphasize Online Learning

Education agendas proposed by Georgia’s two major candidates for Governor leave wide open a hole that any running back would appreciate.  Nathan Deal and Roy Barnes put forward plans that give only slight mention to online education.  That misses a significant education priority for Georgia children.

Georgia’s candidates have the opportunity to take a bold step.  They could declare Georgia will become a national leader in online education offered by the Department of Education.  They could say every high school student will participate in at least one online course each semester.  They could say it will happen within their first term.  Georgia is a long way from being able to provide those resources, but Georgia can get there.  One of them could make it happen. Continue reading

September 12, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment