Race to the Top opens up to districts

California school districts will finally be able to seek Race to the Top money without interference and resistance from Gov. Jerry Brown and state officials.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Tuesday announced much anticipated draft criteria for a $400 million competition open to individual districts or groups of districts nationwide. That’s enough money to fund a projected 20 proposals for grants of $15 million to $25 million, Duncan said.

For districts and qualifying schools in California, this will be the last opportunity to pursue innovative ideas and school models they have not been able to develop in cash-strapped times. The three previous Race to the Top rounds have been open only to states, and California has been shut, although it was one of nine finalists in the second cycle and was all but guaranteed at least $49 million in round three. However, Brown declined to sign the application on behalf of seven districts that put it together, because he believed it would have obligated the state to enact statewide reforms he opposed. As a result, Duncan rejected the state’s application out of hand.

That hasn’t discouraged John Deasy, superintendent for Los Angeles Unified, one of the lead districts in the aborted last round. Deasy said Tuesday that the nation’s second largest district certainly will be applying for $25 million. LAUSD’s pilot schools, its new teacher evaluation system, and experiments in other schools are the kinds of reforms that Race to the Top is encouraging, he said.

Applications will be due in July; the awards will be announced in October, and money for the grants disbursed in December.

LAUSD and the other six Race to the Top districts formed the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, to continue their work implementing Common Core and teacher evaluation. They also have been encouraging federal education officials to open up Race to the Top to districts. Hilary McLean, director of communications for CORE, said that the superintendents remain intrigued at the possibility and will examine the criteria for applying either singly, as LAUSD intends to do, or collectively.

There will be a new twist. The top priority will be, Duncan said, “personalized student-focused learning” ­– approaches and programs directed to meeting individual student needs within and outside of the classroom. The Department of Education describes these on the Race to the Top website as “collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools to deliver instruction and supports tailored to the needs and goals of each student, with the goal of enabling all students to graduate college- and career-ready.”

21st century technologies

One obvious applicant pool would be districts and charter schools with a widespread use of online and blended learning; the latter is a hybrid that combines classroom instruction and online learning. California has leaders in blended learning: Palo Alto-based Rocketship Education, along with districts (Los Altos School District) and charters (Summit Public Schools) working closely with Mountain View-based Khan Academy on technologies that track individual students’ progress and allow them to learn at their own pace.

Among large districts, Riverside Unified, with 43,000 students, is the farthest along in piloting online and blended learning. It also operates the Riverside Virtual School for 12,000 students in and outside the district. Principal David Haglund said that a Race to the Top grant would enable Riverside to take its individualized learning commitment to scale.

But Duncan said that new technologies are only one approach to break the “one size fits all mold.” Pointing to the Promise Neighborhoods model of community involvement in schools, Duncan said this could be done by bringing adult tutors into the schools and establishing partnerships with community groups, colleges, and health services to meet the academic, physical, and emotional needs of students. Oakland Unified’s ambitious Community Schools, Thriving Students initiative, which has established partnerships for school health clinics in some schools, with plans for a community STEM concentration in West Oakland, is one effort that could be taken to scale. Deasy said that pilot schools with home visitations and extended-day programs are examples of what the district might choose to expand with a grant. LAUSD hasn’t decided whether to target certain schools or concentrate on select grades.

Some of the proposed criteria and stipulations may disqualify some districts and give others pause:

  • District applications must serve at least 2,500 students (too large for some rural districts and charter school organizations but not in a consortia with others), with at least 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch subsidies;
  • Applicants must agree to priorities of previous rounds of Race to the Top. These include having a data system that links teachers to students and a commitment to employ a teacher evaluation system by 2014-15 that gives significant attention to growth in student achievement;
  • The superintendent, president of the school board, and head of the teachers union all must sign the application. In previous rounds, union leaders’ consent was not required but helped a state’s score.

United Teachers Los Angeles didn’t sign off on LAUSD’s previous applications. Deasy said he assumes that the union would not stand in the way of pursuing $25 million for the district.

Charter movement’s U-shape

Charter schools in California tend to be bipolar, with disproportionate numbers of very high and very low performing schools, according to a newly released analysis by the California Charter Schools Association.

In duplicating a pattern that it found last year, in its first “Portrait of a Movement” annual report, the Charter Schools Association renewed its call for local authorizers to focus attention on academic achievement and to not renew the poorest performers on the state’s Academic Performance Index. CCSA has identified 29 schools – about 5 percent of the state’s eligible charters – that fail to meet the minimum academic criteria of three measures; CCSA is recommending closure of the 10 that are up for charter renewal by the end of this school year. (Small schools and schools classified as serving highly mobile and at-risk students, known as ASAM schools, were excluded from the list.)

One of CCSA’s metrics, which is highlighted in the Portrait, is the Similar Students Measure, or SSM. It predicts a school’s API after factoring in student demographics – including family income, parent education level, mobility, ethnicity, and percent English Language Learner and Special Education students – and then plots whether schools exceed or fall short of the prediction. It’s the SSM, a schoolwide counterpart to the value-added metric that projects a teacher’s impact based on students, that shows concentrations of charter schools at the upper and lower ends in comparison  with non-charter schools. By taking into account the student body served, particularly in schools with large proportions of disadvantaged students, the SSM gives a richer picture than the raw API score alone, according to the Association.

Charter schools form a 'U' based on their predicted API scores, with large clusters of low- and high-performing schools, compared with district schools, when defined in 5 percentile groups.  Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, page 4.)
Charter schools form a 'U' based on their predicted API scores, with large clusters of low- and high-performing schools, compared with district schools, when defined in 5 percentile groups. Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, p. 4.)

Based on three years of student testing of 789 charter schools, the SSM showed that one out of eight charter schools (12.7 percent, or 100 schools) fell in the bottom 5th percentile of their predicted API, compared with only 4.2 percent, or 312 schools, of non-charter schools (see graph and chart). If they had performed purely as predicted, only 39 charters would have been in the bottom 5th percentile.

Nearly one out of five (19 percent, or 150 schools) fell in the bottom 10th percentile of predicted API scores, compared with 9.1 percent, or 673 schools, of non-charters.

At the other end, one out of seven charters (14.7 percent, or 116 schools), fell in the top 5th percentile band and more than one out of five (21.8 percent, or 172 schools) were in the top 10th percentile. Had they performed as predicted, again only 39 charter schools would have been in the top 5th percentile. By comparison, 4 percent of non-charters (295 schools) are in the top 5th percentile and 9.1 percent (673 schools) are in the top 10th percentile.

It’s the “U” pattern of top and bottom schools, so visible on a graph, that CCSA wants to turn into a “J.”

The percentage of charter school students in the highest performing charter schools (13.4 percent of those tested in 2011) far exceeded the percentage attending the lowest performing charters (7.5 percent). Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, page 6. Click to enlarge.
The percentage of charter school students in the highest performing charter schools (13.4 percent of those tested in 2011) far exceeded the percentage attending the lowest performing charters (7.6 percent). Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, p. 6.)

By another measure, it’s already happening. Nearly twice as many charter students attend the top 5th percentile of schools, based on their predicted API scores, than attend the bottom 5th percentile of charter schools: 30,350 students or 13.4 percent of charter students attending the highest-performing schools, versus 17,115 or 7.6 percent of charter students attending the lowest-performing schools.

The 'U' becomes more of a 'J' when the measure is the percentage of students in high versus low performing charters, based on their predicted API scores. That's because fewer students are enrolled in the least performing schools. Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, page 5.)
The 'U' becomes more of a 'J' when the measure is the percentage of students in high- versus low-performing charters, based on their predicted API scores. That's because fewer students are enrolled in the lowest-performing schools. Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, p. 5.)

That’s because the lowest-performing schools are smaller, an indication they may be having a harder time with finances and enrollments (see chart and graph).

Success with low-income students

The Portrait offers a further look at Calfornia’s 987 charter schools:

  • Charters operated by a nonprofit Charter Management Organization – like KIPP, Aspire Public Schools, Rocketship Education, and Alliance for College Ready Public Schools in Los Angeles – were concentrated at the top, with 40 percent of charters operated by a CMO in the top 10th percentile of Predicted API measure. Independent, solo operations tended to be clustered in the lower 10th percentile.
  • While there are high-achieving independent study and virtual or online charter schools, a disproportionate number are clustered at the bottom. Of the 25 schools identified as online charters, eight (32 percent) fell in the bottom 10th percentile, with three or one-eighth in the top 10th percentile. It’s still a small sample, the report notes, so more research is needed.
  • Charters serving primarily low-income children are doing well academically. Nearly a quarter of the 108,000 students tested in schools where at least half of the families qualified for free or reduced lunches attend schools in the top 5th percentile of schools. Thirty-five percent of students attend schools in the top 10 percentile  compared with 11 percent in the bottom 10th percentile of schools.
Data comparing Oakland's charter schools to Oakland Unified schools show that nearly half of charter school students attend schools in the top 10 percentile, far exceeding their predicted API score. Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of A Movement, page 36.)
Data comparing Oakland's charter schools to Oakland Unified schools show that nearly half of charter school students attend schools in the top 10th percentile, far exceeding their predicted API score. Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of A Movement, page 36.)

The Portrait highlights the success of charters in Oakland, where they comprise 23 percent (29 schools) of Oakland’s 126 schools and 19 percent of its 31,700 students. The report credits Oakland Unified’s “active oversight” and its “rigorous charter review process containing clear and transparent standards for approval and renewal.” A surprising 48 percent of charter students in Oakland attend a charter whose Predicted API score fell in the top 10th percentile, compared with 6 percent of students in district schools; only 4 percent of Oakland charter students attend a school in the bottom 10th percentile.

Weeding out lowest performers

The Similar Students Model is one of three metrics that CCSA uses to determine which schools to recommend for charter non-renewal. The other two are the absolute API score (must be over 700) and growth in API (minimum of 50 points over three years). CCSA says it invites charters to make the case why they shouldn’t be on the list by presenting  other data on student achievement. A few have taken them up on the offer, says Jed Wallace, CEO of CCSA. And CCSA says that it visited most, though not all, low-performing charters last year.

There’s been little change over the past decade in the concentration of low-performing charters. If its recommendations were followed, as charters come up for renewal, the number of charters clogging the bottom 10th percentile could be significantly reduced over the next seven years, the organization asserts.

But CCSA’s methodology and its criteria have met resistance, within the ranks of the community and outside of it. Eric Premack, executive director of the Sacramento-based Charter Schools Development Center, criticized the use of self-reported demographic data on income and family education and the focus on API and California Standardized Tests, which he calls a crude measure of a school’s performance.

Premack’s criticism may have resonated where it counts. CCSA spent months negotiating with Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Julia Brownley to have the minimum API score of 700 and its three-year growth target incorporated into AB 440, on charter revocations.

But after a two-hour meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown, Brownley pulled it and another bill on charter accountability last September, shortly before they were to go to Brown for his signature. No one has said why, but Brown, who started two charter schools in Oakland, made it clear in a veto of a bill sponsored by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg last year that he wants to de-emphasize API and test scores as a measure of a school’s performance and look at qualitative measures, including school inspections.

A rush of new technologies

A combination of forces is creating an inflection point for technology to redefine the process of learning and the structure of schools, Ted Mitchell, CEO of a venture philanthropy organization and former president of the State Board of Education, told a conference on math and technology at Stanford University on Thursday. “The market is ripe for disruptive innovation.”

Because they offer a new potential for personalized learning, the new tools can be an antidote to budget cuts that have increased class sizes and made it much more difficult to respond to the needs of individual students, Mitchell said. “Teachers are working hard with what they have. They need help, and (the new) tools are part of the solution.”

A dozen of the new math tools were featured at the conference, sponsored by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, and Mitchell’s NewSchools Venture Fund. (See Kathy Baron’s accompanying story on the renewed debate over Algebra I.) They included everything from engaging games for elementary students to open source digital textbooks and networking platforms for teachers.

Some of the new technologies, Mitchell observed, are diagnostic, detecting individual students’ weaknesses and then assigning content to fill in gaps in knowledge. “They recognize that kids come to school with unequal levels of preparation,” he said. That’s why “personalized learning is essential.”

NewSchools Venture Fund has shifted its funding from charter schools to new technologies that he described as “synergistc innovations that make school systems more effective.” Of the dozen and a half startups that NewSchools funds, Mitchell cited two that have gone farthest in challenging the structure of learning. At the School of One, encompassing three schools in New York City, students work individually on their own “learning map” and don’t attend classes per se. Software algorithms schedule what students learn daily, based on individual needs. It’s a fundamentally different school structure that demands a different approach to teaching.

Contrasting the School of One is the force of one, Salman Khan, whose 2,700 instructional YouTube videos in the online library of Khan Academy have gone viral; an estimated 4,000 schools are independently using the videos in the classroom. NewSchools is funding pilot programs in 20 California schools, helping teachers in diverse combinations of schools weave Khan into their curriculum. Because they enable students to progress at their own pace, the videos are changing the nature of teachers’ relationship with students, Mitchell said.

The conditions are ripe for new technologies. Three-quarters of students have access to tools connected to the Internet; between cell phones and cheaper computers, tools are “ubiquitous,” he said. Reflecting a generational shift, new teachers are arriving competent with new technologies and anxious to use them. And Common Core standards, which California has adopted, have created a national market for technology developers. The new standards have created a new opportunity to engage teachers in developing curriculums around robust and intellectually challenging  material, Mitchell said. “This is a moment of real difference.”

Obstacles to implementation

Other conference speakers  tempered Mitchell’s enthusiasm with caution while acknowledging technology’s potential impact.

If districts had $100,000, they should put it not into technology but into improving content, said Jeremy Roschelle, director of the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International. “There is no magic to the use of technology; studies prove that.” Technology must be integrated into the curriculum and must be accompanied by training of teachers, he said. “Isolated buckets of money don’t work.”

Pat Sabo, a math teacher for 35 years and a National Education Assn. delegate, warned of a “reality gap between what the state and local agencies say we’re going to do and what we’re prepared to do.” Noting that there is one computer for every four students in California schools, with most of those four years old and without technical support at the schools, she warned policy makers, “Do not set policies with ideals that cannot be met.”

Mitchell’s successor as State Board President, Michael Kirst, said that the state must remove obstacles to the adoption of digital textbooks. The seven-year adoption cycle of curriculum materials no longer makes sense, he said. But as for the explosion of new technologies, he said, “There needs to be a system to evaluate what math tools actually raise student achievement.”

Of course, there’s no state money now for computer hardware and new technologies, but Kirst and others expressed optimism  that the explosion of software for cell phones and low prices for stripped-down computers, like the Google Chromebooks, will make access cheaper.

Gerry Shelton, former chief education consultant to the Assembly Education Committee, cautioned against relying on younger teachers – who breathe technology like air – to bring it into the classroom. “In recent years, they’re the ones we’ve be handing pink slips to. I’ve had a feeling that we’re losing a generation of teachers.”

Next step for online initiative

With a formal title and a favorable fiscal analysis in hand, backers of an initiative to broaden access to online college preparatory classes will begin gathering signatures today to qualify for the November ballot.

The proposed initiative would give students the right to go elsewhere for a course required for admission to a UC or CSU campus if their school doesn’t offer it. While they could drive to a nearby district, they also could take the course online. It would establish a California Diploma, which would be awarded when a student completed the 15 required courses, known as A-G.

The initiative, which promoters are calling the California Student Bill of Rights, would remove some of the state’s significant regulatory and geographic restrictions to online courses. It could affect tens of thousands of high school students who might not have access to all A to G courses.*

Since students could turn to a charter school, a college, or a for-profit online provider for a course, critics had surmised that the initiative would drain school districts of some of their state funding. But the Legislative Analyst’s Office and the Department of Finance, in a four-page analysis concluded that the initiative in the long run would create “savings potentially in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually” for local school districts “if schools experience efficiencies and widespread participation in the use of online courses.”

“This is what we believe, and they (the LAO and state analysts) saw some of the same cost savings from efficiencies,” said David Haglund, principal of Riverside Virtual School, the largest district-run online school in the state, and chair of Education Forward, the group sponsoring the initiative.

Haglund predicts that, rather than lose tuition money, districts would respond by offering their own online courses and by creating interdistrict compacts to share curriculums, course monitors, and labs for courses needing them, for example. Rather than offer Chinese or AP Physics for a handful of students in a high school, the district might offer them online to a few dozen from several high schools.

The initiative wouldn’t wouldn’t override teachers contracts’ limits on class sizes for various subjects. Details on course payments would be left to follow-up legislation, state regulations, or negotiations between districts and vendors or other districts. The initiative also wouldn’t offer a universal right for students to shop around; it would allow them to pursue courses not offered by their own district – an important distinction, Haglund said.

Update: Edgar Cabral, the LAO education analyst who did the fiscal analysis, doesn’t disagree with Haglund on that point, but notes that the initiative does not define what a student’s “unrestricted access” to an A-G course would entail. For example, would a student with a scheduling conflict for AP chemistry have the right to pursue an online course elsewhere, or could a school tell the student to try again next year? Could the district limit the student’s course choice to a district or vendor with which it has partnership? Or could the student choose any qualifying online course? The initiative leaves it to the Legislature or State Department of Education to spell out how course providers would be reimbursed.

Quality controls would also prevent students from enrolling in courses offered by fly-by-night vendors or poor-quality schools.

  • Local districts would have to certify that the course meets A-G requirements;
  • It would have to be taught by a teacher with an “appropriate” subject matter credential. It would have to be taught by a teacher with an “appropriate” subject matter credential. While not specifying a California credential, districts and teachers unions could argue that one would be required, as with other teachers in bricks and mortar classroom, since the initiative creates parity between online and traditional schools;
  • The student and parent must consent to the course;
  • A teacher must be available to answer students’ questions, provide information, and make assignments.

Attorney General Kamala Harris didn’t buy the sponsors’ preferred “Bill of Rights” title. Instead, it will appear on the ballot as the “Online K-12 Education, College Preparatory Courses Initiative.”

But the positive fiscal analysis will make it easier raise money for signature gathering and the more expensive campaign for passage, Haglund said. His group has oral commitments for $500,000 of the $2 million needed to collect 504,000 verified voter signatures, he said. Donors will start identifying themselves in coming weeks; many of the backers are expected to be from Silicon Valley.

Haglund sees the initiative as the basis for a flourishing of online and “blended learning,” which integrates online learning and a traditional classroom. The next step, requiring regulations or statutory changes, would grant course completion – and funding for it –  based on proof of proficiency, not the traditional completion or “seat” time.

Other key leaders behind the initiative are Haglund’s boss, Rick Miller, superintendent of Riverside Unified School District; Gordon Freedman, former Vice President, Global Education Strategy at the education technology company Blackboard, Inc.; Bill Fowler, who retired last year after leading Cisco Systems’ Global Education Group; and Bill Erlendson, who retired last year after serving as assistant superintendent of San Jose Unified.

* It’s not clear how many students would benefit from the initiative. Haglund estimates 40 percent of students lack access to the full range of A-G courses based on estimates by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access. But that figure, while hard to pin down, is likely overstated. See comments in an earlier post on the initiative.

Killer apps and creative disruptions

You’d have thought Salman Khan was George Clooney. After his keynote presentation and follow-up seminar at the California School Boards Association’s annual convention in San Diego on Friday, school trustees besieged him with questions and requests. A few sought his autograph; others mugged for a photo with him. Eventually, the event moderator gently reminded them, “Mr. Khan has family waiting for him in the hotel.”

Khan is the creator of Khan Academy, whose 2,700 online  tutorials are viewed by up to 3.5 million people each month. Started four years ago as YouTube-based math help for his cousins across the country, they’re now being used independently, Khan estimates, in 10,000 classrooms. This year, following a successful experiment with two fifth-grade math and two seventh-grade pre-algebra classes in the Los Altos School District, the videos are being formally piloted with teachers in 16 California school districts as an element of classroom math instruction (see an article in today’s New York Times).

The growth of Khan Academy doesn’t surprise Michael Horn. He predicted phenomena like it in Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, which he co-wrote, after graduating from Harvard Business School, with Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen. Khan Academy is one piece of the larger shift to online learning that led Horn to predict that half of high school classes will be online within a decade.

“Khan Academy is a classic disruptive force. It has totally low barriers of access – it’s free – that make it a killer app” that will go viral, Horn said in a recent interview. “When you see that some kids in Los Altos are doing algebra in fifth grade, and you realize that those kids have a leg up to get to college, you’ll demand (Khan Academy), too.”

Khan videos are a tool, part of a strategy for individualized learning – the ability to “really create a student-centric education system where each child can learn at the pace and the path that makes sense for them, because every one of us has different learning needs.” (Go here for a video interview with Horn and here for a transcript of it.)

Horn, now executive director for education at the Innosight Institute in Mountain View, follows trends nationally and is supportive of efforts to break down the barriers to online learning in California. One of those is the California Student Bill of Rights Initiative,  which would enable a high school student to take a college prerequisite course online anywhere in the state where it’s offered by a certified teacher in an accredited high school or college (see a commentary by David Haglund, a chief proponent of the initiative, elsewhere in TOPed today).

But Horn predicts that most online learning will be done in an existing school by integrating the virtual and physical classroom in a “blended learning” environment. Even those students who take online courses could be required to do so in a school’s computer lab, with advisers overseeing them, he said.

Rocketship Education, a high-performing elementary charter school organization with five schools in San Jose, has developed a blended model with a learning lab that students use 100 minutes each day. It has the added benefit of affordability: Rocketship employs one teacher less per grade and plows back savings to pay teachers more and hire academic deans to develop new teachers. Instead of cutting arts and physical education, districts could double down on them by using savings from a blended model, Horn says.

Changing roles of teachers

Teachers won’t vanish; their roles will evolve. “They’re going to be really important, but a group of them will be the mentors and motivators and facilitators of learning. A group of them will be content experts who can answer those content-heavy questions,” Horn said. “And a group of them will probably be case workers who help to fill in with the non-academic problems that have always held some kids back.”

Horn tempers his enthusiasm for online learning with a few caveats and a note of caution. In eliminating obstacles to online education, California should tie funding to student results. Florida to an extent does already, and now Utah will withhold significant reimbursements to online providers until the students demonstrate they’re proficient and have finished the courses. Accompanying that, California should eliminate seat time – the assumption that students cannot complete a course in less than a semester or a year. Money should follow students, based on however long it takes them to master the course.

“As it starts to walk into this, California has to adopt a very strong mindset that we’re going to be very concerned with student outcomes,” Horn said, and not repeat mistakes of states that have not focused on accountability.

Geography shouldn’t be destiny and won’t with Student Bill of Rights

In his biography of Steve Jobs, author Walter Isaacson recounts an interesting story about Steve’s first days at a low-income middle school in Mountain View. Early on, confronted with violence, overcrowding, and poor instruction, he threatened to drop out. His parents scraped together enough money to buy a house just three miles away on the other side of the district boundary, which meant that Jobs could attend a school in a more affluent neighborhood with better educational opportunities. Other kids have not been so lucky.

It may surprise you to learn that nearly one million high school students in California attend schools that do not offer sufficient numbers of “A-G” courses (those required for admission to state colleges and universities. This inequity, highest in low-income and minority areas of the state, is quickly becoming a 21st-Century civil rights issue. State data indicates that Latino and African American students graduate high school, complete A-G courses, and go to college at rates significantly below the statewide average. California’s existing public education system includes barriers that prevent students from attending schools or taking courses outside of their district of residence, resulting in a geographic factor essentially determining their educational opportunity. These families simply do not have the opportunity afforded to the Jobs family, who could afford the cost of a move.

The California Student Bill of Rights Initiative, a project of Education Forward, seeks to remedy this inequity in access through an initiative slated for the November 2012 ballot. The proposition addresses this problem directly by utilizing information and communications technologies to break down the barriers between students and educational opportunities. Under this proposed law, students will be provided unrestricted access to all of the courses required for college entrance, including those offered within their own school district, at a community college, or through approved and accredited online schools.

Forty-five years after the Jobs family moved to pursue a better education for their son, the world has been transformed by technology that Steve envisioned. Innovators like Jobs have fundamentally changed the way the world does business – how we communicate, shop, and learn. It is time for the California public education system to step up and engage new learners in ways that are meaningful and relevant to them.

Several years ago, the emergence of new information and communication technologies prompted me to engage teachers, students, and parents in an ongoing conversation to think differently about where and how learning takes place. Over time, our concepts of school, classroom, teaching, and learning have been challenged and our thinking reshaped. We have begun to introduce new learning models into the system. Many of those ideas can be seen at work in the Riverside Virtual School, which has emerged as a model blended learning program in California. Students at RVS come onto campus to participate in meaningful learning activities as they are called for in the curriculum or recommended by the instructors. Student learning needs drive the design of each individual student’s educational program. Consequently, no two student schedules are the same. These new personalized school models have resulted in significant expansion of blended learning on comprehensive school campuses in Riverside and elsewhere via the California Open Campus.

This consortium of school district leaders acknowledges the changing environment and has begun the process of transformation that will reach across organizations and into the homes of our families. We acknowledge that the economy is struggling and that we simply cannot do what we have always done. We must find ways to become more efficient while at the same time increasing our effectiveness in raising student achievement. We accept the understanding that we live in a different world than the one we grew up in – one in which digital natives rely on digital immigrants to understand their new learning styles and academic needs. We feel an obligation to become adept at change and do things differently until we are able to achieve the outcomes expected of us. Consider joining us in this endeavor and move Education Forward.

With the passage of the California Student Bill of Rights, California will be one step closer to ensuring educational equality across demographic, economic, and geographic boundaries. We will be one step closer to giving our kids the chance they deserve to succeed in the highly competitive 21st century global economy. Who knows how many “Steve Jobses” are out there waiting for us to help, and what they will bring given the opportunity to succeed.

Dr. David Haglund is the Director of Educational Options in Riverside Unified School District and oversees several non-traditional schools including one of California’s premier online school programs, the Riverside Virtual School. In addition to his state and national advocacy roles promoting blended and online learning, Haglund serves as the chair of Education Forward (www.educationforward.org) the leading proponent of the California Student Bill of Rights. Follow him on Twitter @hagdogusc.

Online ‘Bill of Rights’ for high school

Students whose high schools don’t offer the required courses or enough sections to qualify them for admission to the University of California or California State University would have a right to take those courses online, under an initiative that sponsors are targeting for next November’s ballot.

The California Student Bill of Rights would greatly expand high school online education, while breaking down geographic and other barriers that are denying many rural and urban students equal opportunities to attend a four-year public university. If their schools don’t offer AP history, or if calculus conflicts with their schedules, they could take the course through another publicly funded program. The initiative would also create a California Diploma for students who have accumulated the credits, known as A-G, for entry into UC or CSU, however and wherever they’ve taken the courses – in school, online, in one or more districts.

Two leaders behind the initiative are administrators at Riverside Unified School District: Superintendent Rick Miller and David Haglund, principal of Riverside Virtual School, the largest district-run online school in the state. Both say they are acting as private individuals at this point, and the initiative’s web site doesn’t identify their affiliation.

The initiative, said Haglund, “will create a right of access. ZIP codes should not determine college readiness – not with technologies that have the ability to deliver synchronous and asynchronous learning environments.”

The academic performance of students in online courses has been mixed nationwide, with recent studies in Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Minnesota concluding that online students generally did worse than students in traditional courses. The California initiative would impose requirements on online providers that would address concerns about quality:

  • The courses would need to be certified by the University of California as A-G eligible;
  • The online provider – which could be a district, charter school, community college, or private provider under contract with a district – would have to be accredited;
  • The teacher would need to have a California teaching credential or the equivalent if a college instructor;
  • The online provider would be required to document student work, and students would have to pass a proctored end-of-year exam.

“These are high bars but not insurmountable,” Haglund said. “Quality is our highest concern.”

The initiative would leave it to the state Department of Education to create regulations governing payments between providers and districts and verification of work performed. The provider of an online chemistry course could contract with the students’ home districts to offer the lab work and to proctor exams, for example.

Tie reimbursements to student outcomes

Haglund said he would propose tying tuition payments to online providers to student performance, as is being done in Florida. A quarter of the payment would be eligible only if a student got a C in the course; the final 25 percent should be tied to passage of the final exam, as determined by the state, he said.

The initiative has been submitted to the Attorney General’s Office; signature gathering is expected to begin in December. Haglund, who chairs Education Forward, the nonprofit organizing the initiative, won’t say who’ll fund it until checks start coming in, but he expects to receive support from education foundations and business executives in Orange County and Silicon Valley. He assumes he’ll be able to raise the $25 million needed to run a successful campaign.

Riverside Virtual School serves about 115 full-time students, with between 2,500 and 3,200 students from Riverside Unified and other districts taking courses. But state restrictions on online providers have hindered online growth. California ranked last in a new rating of states’ openness to online learning by Digital Learning Now! – a project of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, headed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and the Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit headed by former Democratic Gov. Bob Wise of West Virginia.

The Bill of Rights would push aside some obstacles, including a restriction that limits an online provider to offering courses only in the county in which it’s located and contiguous counties. Online providers aren’t automatically entitled to tuition for part-time students; they must negotiate payments with the students’ home districts. Full-time online schools are classified as independent study operations with strict student-teacher ratios.

Haglund acknowledged that the initiative reflects frustration over failed efforts to amend restrictions on online learning, the latest being AB 802, sponsored by Assembymember Bob Blumenfield, a Democrat from San Fernando Valley. There will be another legislative effort next year.

The Student Bill of Rights initiative “is not intended to be leverage (for passing a bill), but if it became leverage to get the Legislature to do the right thing, we would be happy with the outcome. This is just the first step,” Haglund said, to opening up online learning in California.