4 Policy Innovations Missing From The Conversation @illinoispolicy @HowardLFuller #edtechchi

I attended a meeting of the Illinois Policy Institute yesterday called the Chicago Digital Learning Symposium.  Policy was the topic more so than digital learning and the two main themes seemed to be support for school/parent choice and digital learning business innovation.

I am not, as a rule, against either.  However, as I drove home across my state, I did feel that they were missing the valid opportunity afforded by the moratorium on digital charters in Illinois this year to discuss and develop school code policies at the deeper level.  Not addressing these deeper topics makes it hard for many people, including me, to “join the parade.”

So below are four policy innovations which should affect all publicly funded school options which I would suggest be included in the conversation.  Three of the four are general to school reform, while the forth is specific to digital learning inclusion:

1)Even the playing field.

The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.-Aristotle

The fundamental issue I have with a “money follows the child” school/parent choice policy is that schools are not equally burdened.  Public schools must take everyone regardless of  school readiness or metrics of any kind. They are also held accountable to NCLB/AYP.  If a choice or charter option is to be made available using public funds, then they also should be held to those same rules.  They should not be able to cherry pick students or dismiss those who do not succeed in their model.  Public funds should be reserved for projects which support the public good for all. This in itself is not a digital learning issue, but rather one of the school/parent choice model.  It simply affects digital learning because blended/hybrid models are all the rage at the moment for charter school innovation.

2) One thing maligned at the meeting was the state of Illinois policy that State of Illinois Certified Teachers are required for digital learning. Then at the same time they mentioned the lack of a talent pool in Illinois.  As a citizen of a state with a high unemployment rate and a member of the talent pool, I object on both counts.  I feel strongly that we have a civic duty to employ qualified local people.  I happen to work for the Illinois Virtual School, and we have managed to do this just fine.  Our teachers meet the same standards to be employed as any Illinois public school teacher.

“Think Globally, Act (and employ) Locally”

-The Linux Professional Institute

Additionally, the changing role of the teacher in this age was discussed.  If anything this strengthened my resolve that a strong teacher preparation program is important for any teacher in a digital classroom, and Illinois standards are fairly rigorous in that regard compared to many states. An argument could be made that Illinois needs to add a digital preparation component to its requirements of new teachers and digital learning professional development for existing teachers (a digital endorsement for example).

3) Home school accountability to educate children. To the many dedicated home school parents and parent associations, I salute you and all that you do.  However, the open ended policy in the State of Illinois towards homeschooling without accountability for learning has led to some consequences which can for some students be very negative.  Especially for young girls homeschooling is sometimes being used as a way to keep children from learning enough to know their rights as citizens, or explore their options and potential.  This disheartens me, because many home school parents are doing well by their children.  However, that isn’t always the case. Dr. Howard Fuller alluded to this “fourth group” of  parents, in both traditional and home schools, who are denying their children education. Children we need to educate in spite of their family.  Illinois is currently ranked 39th in terms of homeschooling record keeping requirements, homeschooling assessment of learning, and homeschooling teacher qualifications according to the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.To me a major policy revision is needed in this state for accountability of parents who are home schooling their children particularly in the area of record keeping and assessment.  Home schooling can be done well and it is in many cases.  I simply believe we need to do better at ensuring that it is being done well because education is a public good in a democratic society.

4) Digital Divide $ for a school to provide digital learning options part of the state funding for that student should include adequate off-site/off-hours access to technology. VOISE Academy of Chicago noted for example that they do not allow students to take technology home.  Not only that, but many students do not have off-site access to internet services.  They do not all have smart phones.  Even those with smart phones often have limited data access.  If a school is truly embracing digital learning, then digital access must be addressed.

As many have suggested before me, solving the access divide should be this century’s version of the highway development project of the Eisenhower era.  I also feel that this should be public-private partnership as expanding this access would also expand the access possibilities for business and private citizens enhancing the market.  Illinois currently has a grant program for digital divide money, but this needs to be expanded and schools which seek to grow digital learning should be required to provide partnerships with local businesses or access in much the same way as transportation is required for students who would otherwise not be able to safely access brick and mortar schools. Education is a public good, and digital learning without digital access is a false promise and a misuse of public funds.


Teachers, Tutors, Mentors, and Monitors –The range of involvement of educators in online/blended learning

On many hiring surveys, employers ask their potential employees how self-directed they are.  This is a question that resides with the employee, who they are and how they operate.  The same is true of students.  A good coordinator of services who wants to enroll a student in a class needs to ask themselves and the student how self directed the student is, before determining the placement.

Online/Blended learning comes in a variety of flavors, a range if you will of how educator involved the course will be.  In some courses for example, there is a teacher, a true teacher who creates assignments, works directly with students, modifies curriculum to meet individual needs, and presents and assesses content. In some courses, there is no teacher.  There is a computer.  The complete extent of educator involvement is that someone a monitor is assigned the task of checking off that the student presented some documentation of complete.  This person is often a librarian/media specialist or guidance counselor with zero content knowledge.  The website (or app) is programmed with if/then functionality which determines what parts of the course a student must complete or repeat based on test scores and auto-graded assignments.  Then there are examples of both teacher-led and monitored courses which are supplemented with tutors. Tutors are typically broad knowledge experts who are not involved in the course design and implementation but do interact with the student on a content specific basis.  Mentors bridge the range between monitor and tutor.  They are again not involved in the course design and implementation and range in content knowledge and oversight capacity from implementation to implementation.

Many policy makers are trying to decide which is the best model.  The answer quite simply in the United States is all of them.  Now I know you might be asking why country matters, in truth it doesn’t, except that as a philosophy held since the Ben Franklin days we believe in the value of an educated voter populace. So it stands to reason that since people are different, and have different levels of self-directedness, if we want them all to be educated we must offer a range of educator involement to reach them all.

Here’s the catch: Teachers, even as lowpaid as they are, cost money. Using the business model of lowest bidder wins, teachers will never be in the equation.  The solution is a different business model. The bid should be based on highest demostrable educational achievement as our currency.  In this model, we consider cost as a factor amongst equal methods, but method efficacy is first and foremost in the evaluation.

This then begs the question – how can efficacy by measured? I would argue that success might be only measurable on an individual basis.  Students are not to be mass produced. So the answer again is keep all methods available for the best results.  Education is not a numbers game…or at least it shouldn’t be.