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Getting virtual learning right

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How to avoid the pitfalls and fulfill the promise

Expanding virtual learning opportunities  is a critically important step for New Mexico.
Virtual schooling was a critical component of the “Florida Model” for education reform, which helped transform achievement across student sub-groups there from nearly worst to first within a decade.
The Florida Reform model has since been adopted by Gov. Susana Martinez — with good reason.
Academic outcomes indicate the state’s traditional schooling system is not up to the task.
New Mexico ranks 49 in fourth-grade reading proficiency; 48 in eighth-grade math proficiency; and 50 in graduation rates. Poor funding does not explain such poor performance.
Per pupil education spending has increased 54 percent faster than the rate of inflation since 1991-92.
With a $400 million budget deficit, such performance is no longer tenable — and state policymakers know it.
New Mexico has already taken nationally recognized strides to transform the provision of high-quality, cost-effective education to a diverse and growing population of students through virtual education.
In particular, this includes the award-winning Innovative Digital Education and Learning New Mexico (IDEAL-NM) program. The results are impressive. Rural school district superintendents report a 96 percent passing among students taking hundreds of online courses.
Statewide, IDEAL-NM students have a pass rate that is higher than 95 percent in credit-recovery courses and advancement courses.
These results have helped increase the statewide graduation rate 11.4 percent over the last two years.
The challenge now is fostering a competitive online learning landscape to promote continuous improvement, innovation, and efficiency among a variety of online education programs — not just state-led initiatives.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools documents only six charter schools that include virtual education components in New Mexico, even though applications for such charter schools are on the rise.
Moreover, as of the fall of 2010 the New Mexico Public Education Department had not approved a single application for full-time, multi-district virtual schools.
Policymakers should monitor this state of affairs to ensure public – and private-sector providers – have the opportunity to serve students.
They can begin by following five promising practices used in other states and abroad. First, fund for success using a student-centered, results-based financing structure.
Funding follows students to the virtual schools of their choice, and schools receive funding only after students successfully master their course material.
Next, implement expansive enrollment policies that do not cap the number of students who may enroll in virtual schools part- or full-time.
It makes no sense to stifle successful programs; and unsuccessful programs will suffer natural attrition as parents enroll their children elsewhere.
Third, eliminate rigid teacher certification mandates and allow full teacher licensure reciprocity to maximize students’ access to the teachers that are best for them.
Talented individuals with advanced degrees or industry-specific skills should not be barred from teaching.
Likewise, students should not be denied access to top quality educators simply because their licenses are from out of state.
Fourth, eliminate anachronistic regulations including class-size mandates, compulsory education codes, and seat-time requirements.
Inflexible mandates are symptomatic of a system-centered approach to schooling that puts virtual schools at a disadvantage because they are structured around students’ mastery of subject material.
Since virtual schools also do not have the geographical or time constraints of bricks-and-mortar schools, such mandates are unnecessary obstacles to student-centered, individualized learning. Finally, protect parents’ rights as educators by exempting them from state licensing requirements.
A high level of parental involvement is vital for virtual learning to succeed because parents oversee course assignments, check home work, and supervise their children’s progress.
Some national teachers union leaders consider these activities “an excess of parent involvement,” and at least one state teachers union affiliate sued — unsuccessfully — to limit parents’ roles as educators.
The opportunities online schooling offers, including transformed incentives for schools and teachers to meet students’ unique, individual learning needs, have made the expansion of virtual education a cornerstone reform across the country and the world.
Now is the time for New Mexico to expand on its successes and lead the way.

Lance T. Izumi
Vicki (Murray) Alger
Rio Grande Foundation