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?
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?