California impedes digital learning
If there’s one area where California, the home of Silicon Valley, should be an education leader, it’s digital learning. However, a new national report card finds California lagging in expanding the use of digital technology, such as interactive software programs and online resources, to improve student learning.
In October, the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education analyzed the performance of states across 72 categories related to digital learning. These categories focused on government barriers affecting student access, teacher certification and other issues. The report card gave grades of “achieved,” “partially achieved,” and “not yet achieved” to state actions in each category. California scored an “achieved” rating in 14 of the 72 categories.
For example, the report card asked whether states “restrict access to high-quality digital content, online courses and virtual schools based on geography, such as school district, county or state.” California does allow so-called “virtual” charter schools, which are publicly funded schools where students learn at home on their computers using interactive and adaptive online programs that allow them to learn at their own pace and access teachers at most times of the day and night. Because these students learn at home using the Internet, they could potentially live anywhere in the state and enroll in any virtual school.
Under California law, students can only enroll in a virtual charter school if they live in a county that is contiguous to the county in which the school is chartered. Policymakers are essentially saying that the Internet somehow changes at the county line and therefore instruction is diminished when it’s delivered to students in a noncontiguous county.
Apologists for the regulation argue that oversight becomes more difficult the farther the distance between students and the school’s base of operation. However, a student in the northwest corner of Kern County is much farther away from a virtual charter in southwest Los Angeles County, despite the fact that the two counties are contiguous, than if that student were in Marin County and the school was in non-contiguous San Mateo County. No wonder, then, that the Foundation report card gives California a “not yet achieved” rating for reducing geographic obstacles to digital learning.
Another category where California falls down is in the area of class-size requirements. Through online technology, one great teacher is not restricted to a single classroom of 20 students, but can be available to five or 10 times that many. The report card asks whether states restrict access to digital learning by requiring online courses and virtual schools to adhere to bricks-and-mortar class-size ratios. California earns a “not yet achieved” in this category.
The California Education Code requires a 25-to-one student-teacher ratio for virtual charter schools. This ratio was imposed even though a University of California study pointedly observed that, “no studies have been done to look into whether teachers can or should have more or fewer students online than teachers in physical classrooms.” In other words, there’s no evidentiary basis for such a requirement.
State rules also bar teachers with out-of-state licenses from teaching online courses to California students; all must have California teaching credentials. As noted in the Pacific Research Institute’s recent book “Short Circuited: The Challenges Facing the Online Learning Revolution in California,” “Forcing teachers to have California credentials prevents the possibility of having star teachers in other states to teach online students.” California gets a well-deserved “not yet achieved” rating in this category.
Jim Konantz, a top official at a large digital-learning company, says that he is surprised that much of the online-education technology “started out here in Silicon Valley, and we’re the last to get on board here in California.”