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Friday, December 07, 2007

Problems Are Brewing in Wisconsin

These two articles were posted at entries in one of the discussion forums at the NACOL website. The first....
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI)
Column: Why is union out to kill a good school?
December 7, 2007

"They could learn a lot from our teachers about a new way of teaching," Rose Fernandez told a radio interviewer.

She's a parent at Wisconsin Virtual Academy, the Fredonia-based online public charter school. She was talking about the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state teachers union whose slogan is, "Every kid deserves a great school."
WEAC, not in a learning mood, had just gotten a court to outlaw Fernandez's kids' great school. About 850 children who attend the school are now left hanging after Wednesday's Wisconsin Court of Appeals decision. The school will stay open while it appeals, but a further loss would endanger every virtual school in the state.
Why would the teachers union try to kill a high-performing public school?
Because, said a written statement from the union, laws written for traditional schools can't be applied to virtual schools. We need new laws to "make them accountable."

Accountable? Such as testing students and reporting results? They do that. The academy's scores on state tests are just dandy - exactly in line with schools in Cross Plains, Mukwonago and Fond du Lac that the academy families I talked to would otherwise use. Ninety-two percent of the academy's students score proficient or advanced in reading.

And if the virtual school doesn't satisfy, parents can put their kids back in the school down the block. Yet it's the virtual school that may get closed. Have you heard of the union suing to close any brick-and-mortar schools that are failing?
All irrelevant, argued the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. It sought, with the union, to close the academy. Whether the school successfully teaches is beside the point, said the department's lawyer. Whether it fits the state's regulatory model is what counts. The court agreed.

This makes Wisconsin unique, says Susan Patrick, who heads the North American Council for Online Learning. She used to head educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education. She says to her knowledge, no state has shut down virtual schools over a teacher licensing dispute.

That's the core of WEAC's argument, that because parents help students with lessons that are planned, delivered, tested and evaluated by licensed teachers, the parents are teaching without a license.

About 92,000 students attend 173 virtual schools in 18 states, says Patrick. Nowhere else, she says, have courts ruled virtual schools illegal. "Wisconsin is kind of unique," she says.

Nonetheless, says the court, the law is the law. This is admirably constructionist, though the judges also said laws must be "tempered and clarified" by regulators or the state would be banning everyone's unlicensed parent volunteers and teachers aides. It's fair to ask why regulators then took such an obtuse view on this particular school, arguing parents were such detriments that the whole thing should be closed.

We can guess why WEAC says that. It's because the union isn't interested in making the model work.

The court acknowledged the law could be read as meaning that anyone without a license - such as parents - be kept at arm's length from classrooms. The virtual academy is a paradise of parental involvement. The union aims to shut it down anyhow.

If it succeeds, it will disemploy its own people, since the academy's teachers are dues-paying union members. The union persisted anyhow. It did this because it cannot bear to see success for a kind of schooling in which there's about one teacher for every 42 students, not when WEAC's aim for years has been to see more teachers hired even as enrollments statewide begin to fall.

The union says it wants laws to govern virtual schools. Yet when such a law worked its way through the Legislature last session, WEAC opposed it, eventually tugging on Gov. Jim Doyle's leash to get him to veto it. The law embodied the ideas of a panel of experts that state schools superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster convened. Her agency nevertheless opposed the bill and has apparently offered no guidance on a replacement.

This is the teachers union, and the officials beholden to it, in action. They're torpedoing a good school and, possibly, a whole branch of school innovation. One in five students nationwide will take an online class in college, says Patrick. Michigan now requires all children to take at least one online class. Yet when a school here goes entirely online and spends four years evolving how to do it right, the union's reaction is to spend four years suing to shut it down. How dare WEAC use that slogan?

"Perhaps the legislation simply has not caught up with times and technology," wrote the court. If so, the Legislature needs to change that now. DPI and the union need to get new attitudes. And 850 kids need to know the great school they deserve is going to stay open.

Patrick McIlheran is a Journal Sentinel editorial columnist.

And the second...
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI)
Editorial: A blow to innovation
The Legislature should ensure that online public schools can continue serving students in Wisconsin.

From the Journal Sentinel
Dec. 7, 2007
Wisconsin kids may be locked out of the virtual schoolhouse after a state Court of Appeals decision Wednesday that threatens the future of online learning for public schoolchildren. But the Legislature can fix the problem by crafting a law that makes clear that the state supports such alternative and innovative means of instruction.

The court ruled that the academy, run by the Northern Ozaukee School District, violated state laws governing teacher certification, charter schools and open enrollment. The court said the academy wasn't based in the Northern Ozaukee district, even though its administrators are in Fredonia, because students and teachers learn and work from their homes. The court also decided that parents, and not the certified teachers who oversee lessons via computer, are the primary instructors.

In effect, the court ruled that Wisconsin Virtual Academy is a turbocharged form of home schooling and that therefore "the problem is not that the unlicensed WIVA parents teach their children, but that they 'teach in a public school.' "

The ruling will be appealed, and should be. But it also should prompt a thorough debate in the Legislature about how best to encourage and fund online learning.

The use of open enrollment, in which state aid follows a student from one district to another, may not be the best funding mechanism for virtual schools. Each student who enrolled in another district took along $5,845 in state money during the last school year. Schools that don't have the expense of maintaining a building may not need as much as schools that do.

But this is precisely why the Legislature needs to craft a new law that allows state funding for virtual learning in an evenhanded and fair way. The open enrollment provision of state law never envisioned online academies. Nor did the law governing charter schools.

Virtual schools offer parents a credible alternative for students who don't do well in traditional settings. Judging from 2006 Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination scores, the kids attending Wisconsin Virtual Academy are thriving. They score at or above the state average in most subjects at nearly every grade level.

This sort of competition, also seen in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, has the potential to improve education in Wisconsin. The Legislature, as well as state Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster, must embrace such innovation instead of shrinking from it.

Now, as you know from past entries I have never been a big fan of charter schools - and in particular cyber charter schools. And I'll also state that beyond these two articles, I know little about this case.

Having said that, let me give my opinion. While I am largely against cyber charter schools, this is an example of the reason why. As far as I can tell from these two items, there are two main issues: parents/guardians seem to be doing a lot of the teaching in the model used by the Wisconsin Virtual Academy and there may be some rules about students living in one district being able to attend schools in other districts that are causing problems.

For me, this is another example (along with the litany that we have seen in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania) of a cyber charter school not following the rules and regulations created by the state. In the cases of Ohio and Pennsylvania these problems tended to stem from reporting and testing - which appear to not be problems in this case.

Again for me, the parents as teachers is the more problematic issue of the two that are outlined here. I think that the students living in one district, but "attending" school in another district is a funding issues - which for the districts involved is a big deal, but something that could easily be solved with some regulations. As for the teaching issue, I understand that in almost any educational environment parents have a role to play in assisting, supplementing, and even correcting the "teaching" that goes on in the classroom (a brick and mortar one or a virtual one). The problem that I have with these models, as they are described on the WVA's website - http://www.wivcs.org/, are that they are largely independent learning models or home schooling models where the parent/guardian has access to a teacher and the student still gets tested and eventually a grade from a state-based school.

There is little difference between the model used by WVA and if I were to design a bunch of social studies instructional CD-Roms and DVDs to sell, and as a condition of the sale I (as a certified social studies teacher) would grade all of the students work and be able to answer any questions the parent/guardian or student had. This is almost the exact same thing as what the WVA provides, only they throw in a computer on loan and deliver it over the Internet instead of on CD-Rom or DVD.

Yes, teaching and teachers are the real problem here. For example, at most virtual school across Canada and the United States there has been an understanding that virtual school teaching takes more time than traditional classroom teaching and in many instances teachers have their classes capped at 20 or 25 students and teachers are only allowed to carry a load that is 50% to 80% what they would carry in the classroom. As a classroom teacher in Newfoundland and Labrador I would have between 150 and 180 student any given year over the six courses that I taught - sometimes more as this is based upon an average of 25-30 per course. The virtual high school in my province has long had a cap of 80-90 students per virtual school teacher - because they recognise that a virtual school teacher with 80-90 students will spend as much time on their professional obligations as a classroom teacher with 150-180 students.

Now we learned from the articles above that WVA has 850 students from grades K-8. If you look at their website under the information about their teachers they have 13 classroom teachers (i.e., responsible for specific grade levels) and two special education teachers. If you exclude the special education teachers that would be 65 students per teacher, if you include the special education teachers it is still 57 students per teacher. Each of these teachers are responsible for:
Language Arts, Math, Science, History, Music, and Art are the core courses. There will also be other courses in the appropriate grade levels, such as Physical Education.
Now by my count that is six courses, not counting the other courses like Physical Education and such. In order to compare this to the Newfoundland and Labrador example I used above, you take the number of students each teacher is responsible for per course and times it by the number of courses they are responsible for. If you do that you will find that a teacher with the WVA is responsible for 342 to 390 students (again, depending on whether or not you count the special education teachers in your figures).

I've never taught elementary school before, but a class or 57 to 65 students does seem a bit much. Also, most other virtual schools find that teaching online take more time and more work than teaching in a classroom, and we hear all the time that having 30 and 35 and 40 students in a class is simply too man for one teacher to manage and ensure that each student is getting a quality education and not falling through the cracks. Do you see the problem here?

This is why I think that the teachers' union and the state have legitimate concerns when it comes to the amount of teaching that is done by people who have no training on being teachers. The numbers simply mean that the WVA teachers can't spend as much time per student as even a classroom teacher would. If these kids are being successful, and their performance on the state assessments would seem to indicate they are, who is doing the teaching? We all know the answer, and this is why the judge sided against the WVA. If this is basically a glorified version of homeschooling, with some customer support from qualified professionals, than the state dollars responsible for the education of that child shouldn't be taken from one school and given to this cyber school because they aren't providing the an equivalent experience - they are relying upon the parents to do it for them.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...


nice blog!

I'm adding it to my favorites to come back to later (I suggest other readers do the same)

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Or are you a teacher at an American high school?

If so, I’m doing a quick survey and want your opinion. Please click here to take our 3-minute-survey:


If you know any parents / teachers you can send this link to, please feel free. I’m interested in all opinions!

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4:14 PM  

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