Education NewsTracker

Online Learning Advocates See Virtual Schooling as Integral to Education Reform

Students in Tennessee could click their way through more courses, if a Capitol Hill push to embrace online classes for K-12 education gains traction.

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would bring requirements such as teacher-student ratios, which public schools that have traditional buildings and classrooms already adhere to, to bear for their online counterparts. That bill has not yet made it to either chamber of the Legislature for a floor vote.

Advocates recently laid out their position that while virtual schooling is edgy and perhaps intimidating to some, it is a potent tool for keeping students engaged and in school.

Virtual schools do the most to innovate education and level the playing field for kids everywhere, compared to other areas of technological reform in education, said Susan Patrick, president & CEO of the nonprofit International Association for K-12 Online Learning and a former director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education. Patrick was speaking at a forum at the Sheraton Wednesday hosted by the Nashville-based Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank.

“What’s one thing we know about research on the brain and student learning?” Patrick asked. “It’s that not all kids learn in the same way at the same time.”

Even though the U.S. is innovating with virtual schools, those innovations are uneven from state to state, Patrick said.

“Right now we have 30 of 50 states that allow for full-time virtual schools, and there are about 225 of those across the country,” Patrick said, and added that although their numbers are dropping, about 30 states have state virtual schools.

Tennessee lost its state-run online education program, e4TN, because it had been fully funded with federal education technology dollars, it was one of the best uses of such money by the states, according to Patrick.

But virtual schools still exist in Tennessee, like the Virtual Instruction to Accentuate Learning (VITAL) program in Putnam County.

The VITAL program allows students in the Putnam County School District to enroll in online classes that may not be provided on-site. Students coordinate their online coursework with an on-site facilitator and attend a lab at the school during which they can work on their coursework at their own pace, the website says.

Some students may qualify for independent study after a few weeks of enrollment, provided they score high enough on progress reports. The progress reports are e-mailed by the instructor to the on-site facilitator, student, parents and virtual learning coordinator twice a month.

Last year, Tennessee lawmakers passed the Virtual Public Schools Act, opening the way for school boards, the state and charter schools to sponsor online schools. The bill, HB1030, set curriculum requirements and required teachers in virtual schools to be certified in the same manner as teachers in traditional, physical schools.

A bill this year would update those requirements. The bill, HB3062, allows the State Board of Education to set new teacher-pupil ratios for online instruction programs and requires that the education programs maintain those ratios.

It also requires programs to offer the same amount of time to students to learn and work, as is offered in other education programs, while at the same time allowing for students to work at their own pace.

“There are many reasons why kids choose not to finish school, and anything we can do to encourage them to stay in school, and to get their diploma, is a good thing,” said Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, sponsor of the bill. “It’s my hope, that through virtual education, we’re able to offer other programs or services that we may or may not be able to in other schools.”

The bill passed the House Finance Committee on last week, on its way to the floor. Its companion bill passed out of the Senate Education Committee.

The bill originally contained a requirement that at least one online course would be necessary for graduation of all students that enter the 9th grade in the 2013-2014 school year. This provision was removed because of the cost, Williams said.

However, not all members of the Legislature feel that virtual schools are the way to go in state education reform. Skeptics see gaps in accountability and the potential for shifting money away from the traditional public school system.

“You know I was not for virtual education, and I still am not for it,” Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, said in the House Education committee on Feb. 28. “They haven’t convinced me, and I think it’s wrong that a kid can start out in kindergarten and go through the 12th grade and never set foot in a school.”

But this is not reflective of the trend in online education, Patrick says.

“The biggest driver nationally of online courses is that the students otherwise do not have access to the course in their high school,” Patrick said at the Beacon Center forum. “So, 97 percent of these kids that are learning online are learning in a high school environment, taking individual courses.”

Patrick also explained how the other countries around the globe have been experimenting with virtual education as a way to keep up with the changing world.

Turkey developed world-class Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses for online, she said, and four years into the program almost all of Turkey’s 16 million students are using online education.

In Canada, the province of Ontario has invested in the full range of K-12 digital education, including four digital versions of each course for high school students.

Additionally, British Columbia has 14 percent of its high school students taking online courses. By comparison, only 1.8 million out of 50 million students in the U.S., or more than 3 percent, use supplemental online learning, while only 250,000 use it full-time, Patrick said.

Press Releases

McCormick’s Next Task Force to Tackle Economic Development

Press Release from Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga; July 14, 2011:

Representative Jimmy Matlock Named Chairman; Group Will Explore Ways to Reduce Government, Allow Private Sector to Expand

(July 14, 2011, NASHVILLE) – With the 2011 Southern Legislative Conference coming up this weekend in Memphis, giving Tennessee legislators the opportunity to learn about the best practices from other States and share our own, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R—Chattanooga) announced the formation of what is expected to be the final task force of the House Majority.

The Republican Caucus Small Business and Economic Development Task Force will consist of ten Members of the House Majority. In a letter announcing the appointments to the task force, Leader McCormick outlined specific duties for the working group. They include:

  • Identifying regulations that are impeding job growth in Tennessee’s private sector and developing measures to remove those hurdles;
  • Ascertain the best practices of other States when it comes to paving the way for job creation by small businesses and companies;
  • Develop strategies and potential policy initiatives to make Tennessee’s environment better for business expansion and recruitment.

Representative Jimmy Matlock (R—Lenoir City) was given the responsibility of chairing the task force. The other Members include: Representative Charles Sargent (R—Franklin), Representative Curtis Johnson (R—Clarksville), Representative Steve McManus (R—Cordova), Representative Jon Lundberg (R—Bristol), Representative Pat Marsh (R—Shelbyville), Representative Sheila Butt (R—Columbia), Representative David Alexander (R—Winchester), Representative Bill Sanderson (R—Kenton), Representative Ryan Williams (R—Cookeville), and Representative Tim Wirgau (R—Buchanan). The group intends to meet when other scheduled legislative committees meet such as the Fiscal Review Committee or summer study meetings.

“With unpredictable policies that affect businesses coming out of Washington, I believe it is our responsibility to create good policies that will have a positive effect on job development for Tennesseans,” said Majority Leader McCormick. “This task force will conduct a thorough review of our Code and find places where we can eliminate burdensome government regulations that are hurting Tennessee businesses. While Democrats are the Party of income taxes and ineffective government solutions to our challenges, I believe the proper path to sustainable, long-term economic growth is by unleashing the power of entrepreneurs and our business community.”

Rep. Matlock agreed and added, “We had a successful 2011 that included a number of pro-growth reforms for Tennesseans. However, there is much work to be done. This task force will be responsible for presenting a package of recommendations to the full Majority that will form the basis of our next economic development package. I appreciate the opportunity to lead this group and look forward to getting to work.”

“Since Governor Haslam and our Republican Majority were elected last fall, we have been consistent in our efforts to reform the way government operates and to create a consistent environment for Tennessee businesses. This task force is the next logical step in that cause and I look forward to hearing how we can help Tennessee’s job creators,” said Rep. Johnson.

“Small business is the backbone of the American economy and our economy here at home,” said Rep. Wirgau. “Job development is the number one issue on the minds of Tennesseans and, as a business owner myself, I look forward to identifying ways we can get government out of the way so our job market can start growing once more.”

House Speaker Beth Harwell (R—Nashville) concluded, “This is a smart undertaking for our Majority. 2011 saw us institute a number of critical reforms that will help businesses grow. We reformed education for our children, implemented tort reforms for the business environment, and we reduced the size of government. Next session, I believe we can drill down and identify some specific policies that will have a positive impact on Tennessee’s job market. I look forward to hearing the results of this task force’s work.”

Leader McCormick announced the appointments in a letter to all Members of the House Republican Majority. The full text of the letter is below:

July 14, 2011

Fellow Caucus Members:

I sent a letter to each of you yesterday announcing the appointment of a Republican Caucus Firearms Issues Task Force. This task force, along with the Energy Task Force that was formed earlier this year, will provide a vital service to our Caucus and to our State by conducting significant research on complex issues.

The main goal of the House Republican Caucus is to implement good public policy that will benefit all of Tennessee’s citizens. Without a doubt, the greatest issue for Tennesseans is the lagging economy that our nation is currently experiencing. Since our Majority was formed, our number one concern has been economic development for Tennessee. This includes job development, business expansion, and private sector growth. Though we had a successful 2011 legislative session, we can do more. That is why I am excited to announce the formation of a final task force that will concentrate squarely on that issue.

I have asked ten of our members to form the Republican Caucus Small Business and Economic Development Task Force. This group will develop strategies and potential policy initiatives to make Tennessee’s environment better for business expansion and recruitment, as well as identify regulations that impede job growth in Tennessee’s private sector and develop measures to remove those hurdles. Another key task of this group will be to ascertain the best practices of other States when it comes to paving the way for job creation by small businesses and companies. Providing a great business climate is a process of constant improvement, and I look forward to hearing the task force’s report to the Caucus at the conclusion of their research.

The Republican Caucus Small Business and Economic Development Task Force will consist of the following members:

Rep. Jimmy Matlock, Chairman

Rep. Charles Sargent

Rep. Curtis Johnson

Rep. Pat Marsh

Rep. Tim Wirgau

Rep. Steve McManus

Rep. Jon Lundberg

Rep. David Alexander

Rep. Sheila Butt

Rep. Ryan Williams

Rep. Bill Sanderson