Wednesday, February 19, 2014

INDEPENDENT STUDY: Gov. Brown’s new online learning target

by Tom Chorneau, SI&A Cabinet Report |

February 19, 2014 (Calif.)  ::  After withdrawing an aggressive plan to enhance online learning in K-12 classrooms last year, Gov. Jerry Brown has returned with a less ambitious proposal – but one that may have broader impact.

Brown drew national attention in early 2013 for his embrace of flat rate college courses offered online and for a system that would allow K-12 districts to collect state attendance funding for students enrolled in asynchronous online instruction. But questions over accountability of the K-12 system forced the governor to drop his ideas heading into final budget negotiations.

This year, Brown is looking merely to streamline the system schools must go through for converting student independent study work into seat time and thus state funding.

The non-partisan Legislative Analyst, in its latest review of Brown’s education budget proposal, said his idea is generally a good one – but suggested it should be applied across the entire K-12 system instead of just high schools.

“This time the governor isn’t so focused on whether the learning is being done entirely online or partially in a traditional setting,” said Kenneth Kapphahn, a fiscal and policy analyst at the LAO who helped write the section on independent study.

“Instead, he’s proposed a broader plan, trying to make the whole system more flexible and take some of the complex, compliance rules out of the program,” Kapphahn said.

Last year about 140,000 students relied on independent study for at least half of their coursework, according to the LAO, with about two-thirds of that coming from high schools and the remainder from the lower grades.

Independent study has become the default vehicle for many types of alternative curriculum in California – including online learning – because it provides districts some method of giving students freedom to work outside the traditional classroom and still qualify for state support.

The problem, as Brown has pointed out, is that the current independent study system was designed decades ago, before the advent of the internet. It is also saddled with a long, complex set of rules imposed on district administrators and teachers aimed at ensuring students are doing work that is aligned with state curriculum goals.

In the traditional setting, districts qualify for state funding only for the days that students are physically in school. Districts are required to offer a minimum number of classroom hours, or seat time, which vary by grade. The independent study program allows students to earn credits for work their do on their own, overseen by a teacher who is charged with certifying that the work can be translated into seat time.

Kapphahn explained that the current system for certifying work into seat time is very prescriptive and can discourage districts from offering the option given the investment required to administer the program.

Last year, Brown suggested that the independent study system should be reconstructed so that the academic contract focused more on measurable outcomes than sequence of a step-by-step work product. He also supported the notion that online learning would benefit by allowing instruction to take place independent of when a student was working and when an instructor was checking in.

But because of concerns raised by the California Department of Education and the LAO over accountability, the governor decided to shelve the proposal.

Brown’s latest plan, offered in his January 2014 budget, would retain existing requirements that students work under written learning agreements and the general supervision of a teacher as well as a provision allowing instruction to occur off site. The governor, however, has dropped his idea to allow districts to collect ADA for asynchronous online instruction.

He is asking, however, that the local school board be given authority to certify coursework. That is, instead of making teachers go through the process of certifying that all individual assignments meet state standards, make it a one-time certification granted for an entire course by the school board.

The LAO said the idea is a good one given that it would reduce the amount of administrative work teachers would need to perform and allow more time for helping students.

Brown’s seat-time conversion plan would be limited to high schools but he’s proposed a variation for lower grades.

K-8 independent study would still require a contract with the student, but Brown would require daily, on-site instruction to be under the supervision of a teacher. The LAO suggested this idea wasn’t much of an improvement over the existing system.

“The supervision requirements are more flexible than the rules for classroom-based instruction, but less flexible than the rules for existing (independent study) or the new course-based option,” the LAO said. “We think a blended learning program willing to make the effort of establishing learning contracts for all of its students would be likely to use one of the more flexible (independent study) options.”

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