Quick Facts to Inform a Young Year

Article excerpt

TOWARD the end of any year comes a prolific rush of products. In the education industry, this means a rash of new reports, whether end-of-the-year studies, deliverables for funders, or incremental reports that add to the knowledge base for predicting events in the new year. This year, three such items provide intriguing new knowledge.

VIRTUAL HIGH SCHOOLS

Did you know that 28 states have established statewide virtual high schools? Two researchers at the Education Commission of the States--Melodye Bush and Michael Colasanti--recently completed a database of these statewide programs by thoroughly combing through state statutes, session laws, state board rules and regulations, and documents from state departments of education. The program in New Mexico is a pilot, but the other 27 provide statewide access to a central resource for online coursework. The range of options is wide.

Diploma-granting or supplemental. Most statewide virtual high schools do not actually grant diplomas. Only those in Arizona and North Dakota appear to do that. In most states, the local district remains the diploma-granting entity. However, Utah's virtual high school can issue a diploma to students who are home-schooled, have dropped out, are past graduation age, or are ineligible to graduate for other specific reasons.

Focus areas. Statewide virtual high schools typically have a specific focus, such as core curriculum, accelerated courses, or credit recovery. Twenty-two state programs offer core curriculum. West Virginia offers non-core electives, and Virginia's virtual high school focuses on Advanced Placement (AP) courses. A federal grant allows the University of Iowa to run the Iowa Online AP Academy.

Capping the number of courses. Five states set a cap on the number of credits a student may earn online in a specific time period. For example, Georgia limits virtual course-taking to one semester course during the regular school year. Hawaii's limit is two classes per semester. Other states' limits typically range from three to six credits per year. Such limits allow more predictability with regard to the costs of virtual school programs and ensure that students take some courses in a traditional classroom setting, where they can benefit from interaction with peers and teachers.

Online teachers. Virtual high schools require instructors to teach in a new kind of environment, and 22 states require that online instructors have specialized training. Georgia requires teachers to have a specific online teaching endorsement. Alabama requires elementary/secondary teachers to have training for teaching online but allows faculty members at postsecondary institutions to teach online without state certification. Twenty-five states require online teachers to meet the same requirements as classroom teachers.

Oversight. Most states with virtual high schools require the administering agency to submit reports for evaluation annually or every two to three years. South Carolina's requirements are among the most specific. Each year the state board must report to the general assembly such information as the courses offered through the virtual school, number of districts and students participating, number of private and home-schooled students participating, student success rates, number of students who dropped a course and their reasons, expenditures, and number of students unable to enroll because of space limitations.

TIME IN SCHOOL

State policy makers are always looking to squeeze every ounce out of the school day. State policy usually establishes a minimum number of instructional days or hours (pupil/teacher contact days). However, fewer states explicitly address whether certain nonteaching activities count toward that minimum. Michael Colasanti and I dug into the details of such policies.

In Massachusetts, the state board defines "structured learning time" as time during which students are engaged in regularly scheduled instruction, learning activities, or learning assessments within the curriculum. In addition to classroom time when both teachers and students are present, structured learning time may include directed study, independent study, technology-assisted learning, presentations by persons other than teachers, school-to-work programs, and statewide student performance assessments. Explicit exclusions include breakfast, lunch, passing periods, homeroom, recess, nondirected study periods, receiving school services, and participating in optional school programs.

In Michigan, the minimum number of hours required is 900 and excludes lunch, study hall, strike time, and parent conferences. The 900 hours includes passing time. However, if a school requires 990 hours, it is allowed to count both study hall and passing time. Iowa sets the minimum school day at 5.5 hours and explicitly excludes counting lunch. In Alaska, the minimum school-day length is set at four hours for grades K-3 and five hours for grades 4-11, although the state commissioner may approve exceptions. South Dakota excludes recess and lunch, but most of the other states that exclude such "intermissions" do not define the term, so it is difficult to determine whether it's passing time, lunch, or recess. In Delaware, lunch does not count toward the minimum day. Georgia disallows rest periods, recess, breaks, class changing time, and lunch. Utah disallows lunch and passing periods but allows recess to count. Wisconsin allows lunch to count, but excludes recess and passing times. Whew! This could make you dizzy.

IMPLEMENTATION OF NCLB

Finally, I can't resist including just a few interesting tidbits from the U.S. Department of Education's National Assessment of Title I: Final Report, Volume I: Implementation. This document comes from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and is dated October 2007, although it appears to have slipped rather quietly into the public realm.

If my reading of the report is correct, the highest-poverty schools continued to receive smaller Title I allocations per low-income student than did low-poverty schools ($558 versus $763). Everything else I've read suggests that this problem has been fixed. Obviously, that's not so.

Elementary schools received 74% of Title I school allocations in 2004-05; the share allocated to middle schools (14%) and high schools (10%) was smaller than their share of the nation's low-income students (20% and 22%, respectively). Seventy-one percent of elementary schools received Title I funds, compared with 40% of middle schools and 27% of high schools. This raises questions about the most commonly used metric by which low-income students are identified: free and reduced-price lunch. High school students, in particular, resist being identified as low-income.

Trend data for 36 states suggest that most will not meet the goal of 100% proficiency by 2013-14, unless the percentage of students achieving at the proficient level increases at a faster rate. For example, 29% of the states with consistent elementary reading assessment data for low-income students would meet the 100% goal for this subgroup by 2013-14 if they sustained the same rate of growth that they achieved from 2002-03 to 2004-05. Looking across the eight different student groups tracked by NCLB and using current growth rates, an average of 31% of the student groups within these 36 states would reach 100% proficiency in fourth-grade reading. Only Nebraska would reach 100% proficiency for all student groups and assessments that were included in this analysis.

And my personal favorite factoid: nearly a quarter of principals and teachers in identified schools were not aware that their school had been identified as in need of improvement.

There are three volumes in this series of reports on Title I. This one is on state implementation, another is on Reading First, and the third is a summary of key findings. They are worth tracking down.

The year is relatively young, and there are so many more facts to come. The question is, What will we do with them?

KATHY CHRISTIE is vice president for Knowledge Management and the ECS Clearinghouse, Education Commission of the States, Denver.