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Virtual high school Blue Sky makes case for online accountability

Part one of two articles
In an era where talk of accountability in education has hit a fever pitch, pity the publicly funded school that dares to tinker with the conventional concept of “school.” We may talk about encouraging innovation at every turn, but in reality we still have real issues imagining school as anything other than a building in which kids and grownups spend a predetermined number of hours a day fulfilling prescribed roles.

Virtually the entire system — and the computers that keep it moving — revolves around this basic construct. Individual Minnesota schools report the time pupils spend at their desks to the state, which kicks back tuition dollars. We evaluate what we get for that money by dedicating a certain amount of that seat time to standardized tests.

What happens, then, when you get rid of the bricks, mortar and scheduled seat time? In the absence of “school,” how do we know learning is taking place?

Blue Sky Online

This week was to have been a pivotal one for Minnesota’s first wholly virtual high school, Blue Sky Online Charter. After two years of back and forth, the state Department of Education’s claim that Blue Sky has engaged in persistent, repeated violations of state law, school administrators and officials were to have their day in court.

The state charges that the school has a pattern of graduating students who have not completed required coursework. The school counters that each time it attempts to comply with the DOE’s requests, it faces new complaints.

Hearing postponed for talks
A review of available documentation, some of it redacted by the DOE because of student privacy, sheds very little light on the validity of either side’s arguments, which were to be laid out at a hearing that had been scheduled for Monday before an administrative law judge in St. Paul. That proceeding was postponed last Friday at the state’s request, as the two sides continue to try to reach a negotiated settlement. Check back in this space later this week for a look at what Blue Sky’s case says about the evolving, imperfect process of closing charter schools in Minnesota. 

Regardless of its eventual outcome, the case raises a number of questions about accountability in an online setting. In the absence of seat time, how do you measure “attendance”? How about student performance — something that varies depending on whether it’s evaluated objectively, on an exam, or subjectively, as in an interaction with a teacher?

Before it’s possible to consider those things, it’s probably useful to have some understanding how a virtual high school operates. Reams have been written over the last two years about the school’s alleged failings, most of it hewing closely to releases and statements put out by state officials. What follows is what has received very little attention, Blue Sky’s largely unrebutted case for itself.

Founded in 2000 Blue Sky serves students in grades 7-12 and graduated its first class in 2005. It has an actual, physical office in West St. Paul and faculty and students spread all over the state. Before its name became associated with so much notoriety, Blue Sky had about 900 students; today enrollment is down by more than a third.

Low test scores
Test scores have hovered in the basement ever since. Last year, students met federal criteria for academic proficiency just 13 percent of the time. The school has not made adequate yearly progress since 2005.

Critics contend this makes it every bit the failure its similarly performing, corporeal counterparts would be deemed. Critics within the charter community go a step further, suggesting that underperforming charters were supposed to be easier to close, and Blue Sky’s case illustrates the need for stricter oversight.

Blue Sky counters that its student body, while all over the map academically, includes a hugely disproportionate number of kids who have tried up to half a dozen other high schools, only to drop out because of issues ranging from serious mental illness to learning disabilities that make the seat-time model impossible.

Students end up at the school for a reason, according to Director Don Hainlen. Many are single parents — the school recently graduated a 31-year-old grandmother — have substance abuse problems, legal entanglements or are homeless. One fourth are special-ed students.

Other kids have been victims of bullying or have grown fatigued with trying to “hold up” in front of other students. One refused to attend conventional schools after years of being mocked for a speech impediment.

Not all are struggling. Right now Blue Sky has a student who travels as a professional Motocross racer, a couple of speed-skaters, a member of the Minnesota Orchestra and a touring ballet dancer. Some are rural residents who were homeschooled when they were younger.

Each student is assigned a team
Each student is assigned a team consisting of a home-base teacher, counselor and social worker who have contact with each student at least once a week. Teachers can monitor the amount of time each of their 10-15 home-base students is online, the amount of time spent on each task and where they are in a given lesson.

What does that lesson look like? Again, it’s hard to visualize a class in cyberspace until you’ve taken one.  Blue Sky has some truly amazing digital tools, which can be sampled on its website. The school uses a mix of purchased software, open-source code such as Moodle and programs developed by Blue Sky staff.

Similar programs are making it possible for Minnesota’s public higher-ed institutions to enroll and graduate nontraditional degree candidates who would never before have been college candidates — something state officials and policymakers here and elsewhere are crowing about

Many public-school districts now incorporate online learning into their curricula. Minneapolis, for instance, can’t wedge as many classes into the day as International Baccalaureate high schoolers are required to take, so many go home and finish their day via the Internet.

Blue Sky argues that tough as it is to track seat time in a virtual environment, online learning offers plenty of accountability. Because each of the school’s software packages “talks” to the others, its system captures every contact between staff and student, be it text, instant-messaging during “class time” or e-mail.

No back-of-the-classroom doodling
A student who claims to have received vague instructions may be confronted with explicit directions. There is no figuratively sitting in the back of the class doodling: Anyone who signs on and doesn’t actually work is logged out after a few minutes.

Graphs tell students how they are doing in terms of staying on track to finish the term, and make suggestions about time management. Engagement is highest Sunday through Tuesday because lots of students like to front-load their weeks.

“Many of our students don’t log on until 10 at night and may work until 2:00 or 3:00,” said Hainlen. “We have some teachers who like those hours, too.”

The exception is the administration of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, which must be proctored. Blue Sky administers the test at 35 sites around the state. Teachers look forward to the exams because students armed with instructor photos seek them out.

And what of the personal relationships that are a vital, if tough to measure, part of an education? Again, this is an area where many Blue Sky students struggled in conventional schools. “We find students have better relationships with adults when they are not face to face,” said Hainlen. “They’ll have much more honest communication.

“Regular schools say no cell phones and no texts,” he added. “Not here. If texting is what works for them, we can do that all day long.”

Brittany Thomforde has worked at Blue Sky for six years, most recently as its special-education coordinator. “Students tend to divulge a lot more much more quickly because they aren’t in front of us,” she said.

Science teacher Leah Sickman works out of her home in Cloquet. In addition to agreed-upon instructional appointments with students, she signs on and off of her Blue Sky “classroom” throughout the day. She shuts down while she feeds her family dinner, for instance, and then signs back on to answer questions from night owls who are just starting their school day.

In addition to virtual models of old-fashioned experiments — measuring volume by using matter to displace liquid, for example — Sickman sends her students out to do fieldwork. She asks them to take photos to record their experiments away from the screen.

Harder but more flexible for teacher
Because she is expected to meet each student on an individual level, Sickman said she actually works harder at Blue Sky than she did in a bricks-and-mortar school. She has young children and values the flexibility.

So what of the state’s complaint that the school is graduating students who have not completed courses that meet state standards? To this, Blue Sky’s administrators concede there have been problems, but say they have worked hard to address everything that’s been brought to their attention.

Last fall a reconstituted school board hired Hainlen, formerly superintendent for the Chatfield Public Schools, Dassel-Cokato Public Schools and Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton Public Schools. He was also a principal for the St. Louis County Schools, Morris Public Schools and Backus Public Schools districts.

Administrators also purchased an online curriculum called Aventa that has been used successfully by other online programs in Minnesota and elsewhere. “Our delivery is different,” said Hainlen. “The content has to be every bit as compliant.”

So does Blue Sky offer educational services that are of value or teach us something? No matter how the current issue is resolved, it seems to me that despite the two years of back and forth between the school and MDE that question may not really be answered. In part, this may be because the controversy highlights weaknesses in the state’s charter oversight policies.

Thursday: Has Blue Sky’s right to due process been respected?

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/29/2011 - 11:19 am.

    “Charter oversight policies” may be an oxymoronic term, not just in Minnesota, but nationwide. Plenty of charter schools have turned up in headlines in the 3 states where I’ve lived, and it’s usually not in a favorable light. Typically, it’s also usually not because of problems that have just recently occurred, but because there’s been an ongoing pattern, over a l-o-n-g time, that has either been allowed to slide, or that hasn’t really been monitored by the agency that’s supposed to be keeping track of such things. Often, that lack of attentiveness has to do with the current bias in favor of charter schools, coupled with politically-driven hostility to the “standard” public school model.

    That said, Blue Sky sounds like an interesting experiment, and that, in itself, highlights a primary issue with charter schools in general. They were originally conceived as experiments – places that would try new techniques, new technology, new ideas, and then report those back to the “regular” school establishment after they’d had quite a bit of “real-world” testing in the charter school environment. That’s what Blue Sky sounds like to me. Charters were intended to be a kind of applied-research arm of the “regular” public schools, not a substitute for them. Instead, driven sometimes by parents with their own agenda, sometimes by politically-motivated outsiders, sometimes by idealistic education professionals, charters have been transformed into competitors of, or substitutes for, public schools, instead of an experimental adjunct.

    Neither charter nor public schools have so far benefited from that transformation.

    That same transformation turns many comparisons into the apples vs. oranges variety, and that might be what’s happening in the case of Blue Sky, as well. It sounds like an interesting experiment, and in many of the sorts of circumstances Beth describes, might well be a viable model to track further, and to emulate down the road if the ongoing research shows that it works better than “regular” school. Or, it might be an ongoing waste of time, energy and money. There are few tangibles in education. “Results” are often ephemeral, and sometimes don’t show up for a decade or more after the student has left the school, virtual or bricks-and-mortar, behind.

    My bias, as both graduate of, and long-time practitioner in, the bricks-and-mortar public school arena, tends to be that online education leans toward the glorified correspondence course, something that was deemed decidedly inferior to in-person, face-to-face contact with an instructor when I was a student and, later, as a teacher. Given the advances in technology of recent decades, that may not be quite as certain now as it once seemed, but the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. As long as we’re putting as much emphasis (misplaced in my view, but that’s another issue) as we are on the results of statewide standardized tests, there’s no reason why Blue Sky or other charter institutions should be able to skate by on less-rigorous standards than a “regular” school.

    At the moment, I’m inclined to be ambivalent, as Beth appears to be.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Schapiro on 06/29/2011 - 12:21 pm.

    If ever there was an issue that calls for good human judgment as opposed to hiding behind “objective standards” this is it.

    The progress of these students is not going to be measurable with “something evaluated objectively, on an exam.” The issue is are these students getting “decent” treatment from the school and the state and is it better than alternatives.

    Dennis Schapiro

  3. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 06/29/2011 - 01:48 pm.

    Ray: I “attended” half a day of school at Blue Sky and had many of my ideas blown up. But I’m not an educator and I spend enough time in schools to know where my limits lie. If you have oodles of time, I’d be curious what your thoughts are about the classroom demo on BlueSky’s site.

    Dennis: Amen. Wouldn’t that be a great discussion?

  4. Submitted by Hannah Maloney on 06/29/2011 - 02:08 pm.

    I am a student at Blue Sky and I just wanted to say how supportive and kind the people teaching me have been! It is really amazing how close I feel to everyone even though we are all so spread out! They all have been irreplaceable in helping me move forward calmly.
    No boredom, less stress, I love it! Especially with algebra! The dread I used to feel coming into any math class completely disappeared when I entered Blue Sky. My teacher spent hours tutoring me in class lives until I could understand the material.

  5. Submitted by Nate Archibald on 06/30/2011 - 09:15 am.

    Ray, your comments are interesting. In many ways I see your observation. Indeed, the State DOE has had a hard time knowing how to monitor progressive schools and some charter schools. The DOE tends to be very rigid and due to budget cuts has chosen to drop positions that might have provided better oversight. History has shown that in the progressive movement of education there have been some crooks running schools. The DOE has shut down schools with financial mismanagement, but still finds itself unable to conceive of any method of education outside of a traditional brick and mortar model. If you look at the DOE you will find that they dropped their online expert from the payrolls due to budget cuts. At present they have no one who is able to clearly grasp how online education is delivered and assessed.
    I like how you bring up that charter schools were supposed to be experiments in different forms of instruction. This is true. However, they report back to their authorizer and the DOE, which was supposed to help direct these progressive forms of education and assist them in tracking the measurable data so that it could be determined if the progressive form of education was successful or not. The biggest issue I see with BlueSky and the DOE is that the DOE doesn’t have any expertise to measure if online education is working or not. There is quite a bit of data available on a national level that points to online education as being a very powerful tool in educating our young people. But, since the DOE has no online expert they really struggle to be able to measure if BlueSky is being effective. In a perfect world, like you suggest, where the DOE is working to help schools, you would see the DOE and BlueSky working together to develop a delivery system that was the envy of the nation. However, what you now see with the DOE is an organization that is out to crush a school that it can’t wrap it’s mind around. You see a DOE that is regressive in its approach where it looks to punish innovation and get rid of charter schools so that it can force education back into a box that it can manage. The DOE doesn’t seem to be looking forward anymore, but instead (perhaps due to the significant lack of funding in education)is trying to pull back education into a Cold War era approach that it managed in the 1960s.

    It would be great to see the DOE hire an online expert who could work with BlueSky and help measure the quality of its curriculum and effectiveness of its educational approach to help determine if its students are progressing or not. Perhaps using a series of assessment tools that begin when a student enters the school and tracks their progress would be helpful. Unfortunately the DOE relies on a “one and done” testing approach with its MCA tests. The one time approach doesn’t measure improvement or failure during a school year. This is especially true of a school like BlueSky that gets a disproportionate number of students that have dropped out of the traditional system due to many systemic failures in that system and due to personal issues within their own lives.
    To determine if an experiment is a success or failure you have to have the measurement tools to make that determination. Since the DOE has no online expert and has no means of tracking improvement over the course of a school year it would seem that any decisions by the DOE would be highly arbitrary and lack substantive data to back them up along an academic line. I suppose this is why most charter schools that have been shut down have closed due to financial mismanagement rather than due to academic failure.

    The perfect world would be a DOE working to help schools improve and provide the resources and tools to improve rather than working to destroy schools that they can’t understand. I would love to see a complete revamping of the DOE so that they could become the helpers that progressive schools and traditional schools so desperately need. Their present structure really lends itself to regressive thinking rather than progressive thinking.

  6. Submitted by Nate Archibald on 06/30/2011 - 08:40 am.

    Henk you are making unsubstantiated claims with nothing to back you up. The article says that Dr. Hainlen has years of experience as an administrator. That hardly seems like administration is a mess. Also, where do you read about infighting on the board? When you look at the board minutes (go to BlueSky’s website) you see the board voting nearly unanimously on most issues. School boards must receive training in finance as a state requirement. I suspect that every board member has gone through the state required training. Nothing in the article or BlueSky’s board minutes suggests that your comments are even remotely accurate.
    Unfortunately your comments come across as bitter and spiteful with no substantive data to back up any of your claims. I hope that you can find help for the bitterness that you carry.

  7. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 06/29/2011 - 09:21 pm.

    Blue Sky may be an interesting experiment and they may have supportive and talented teachers, but the management is a mess. Infighting on the board, questionable hiring and firing, total lack of understanding of basic school finances and reporting are a huge problem at Blue Sky. Incestuous management contracts. All these problems can be tracked directly to the board and their extremely poor management abilities.

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