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Balancing Innovation, Accountability in Cyberschools

Technological advances are continually creating new opportunities to effectively educate Colorado’s K-12 students through online learning. Colorado needs to look forward in protecting an environment for innovation, while balancing needed accountability for cyberschool operators.

Two decades of open public school enrollment have given Colorado families a gift that continues to be unwrapped. Today, Colorado school districts offer numerous charter schools and other options, including full-time online programs. Twenty-two unique online schools serve students anywhere in the state, while 23 programs serve only district residents.

Some of the dismal reports about Colorado’s full-time online education programs reinforce what many of us already knew. On average, these schools have shown disappointing results in educating and retaining students. The Colorado Department of Education plans to conduct a comprehensive review of the standards and accountability for online schools. Senate President Brandon Shaffer has requested an emergency audit of online schools.

However, technology is being developed so quickly we don’t know what future programs will look like or what the challenges might be. Though it is customary for government agencies and politicians to react to bumps in the road with more regulation, a closer look need not inspire more burdens on online schools already supervised by school districts and heavily regulated by the state.

More than 840,000 students attended Colorado public schools last year. Full-time online schools served about 15,000 of them, or less than 2 percent. The majority of full-time online students learn primarily from home. A parent is the student’s “learning coach,” while the student is assigned one or more qualified teachers employed by the online school. A major exception: Hope Online Academy’s mainly high-risk students attend learning centers assisted by “mentors” and are supervised by teachers.

Students leave traditional schools and enroll in a full-time online program for many different reasons. For some, their educational needs weren’t being met, their physical or emotionally safety had been compromised, or it was a better fit for their personal circumstances or opportunities.

Not all children will be successful with an online program without first developing the necessary skills, discipline, and motivation. A number of students end up leaving an online program because of the strong accountability and rigor.

But an increasing number of resources are available, including our School Choice for Kids website (SchoolChoiceforKids.org), which provides important information, as does the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

Key policy changes also can be made to help improve online learning results while protecting innovation. University teacher preparation programs are drastically behind in training teachers how to use digital tools and how to effectively educate students from a distance. Many veteran teachers need intensive training to develop these new skills, especially as more and more students enroll in programs that blend the power of online learning technology with traditional schooling in various ways.

Further, both traditional and online educators need stronger incentives to keep students in school and ensure they complete course requirements successfully. Rather than funding schools based on how many students show up in early October, the state should use multiple student count dates to determine funding. And as Utah has begun to do this year, funding should follow students to the course level, allowing traditional and digital learning opportunities to be blended and personalized.

The Colorado Cyberschool Association and many others in the online school community desire to share best practices and work toward solutions.

As we take an honest look at the data and seek to find answers, let’s not turn back the clock on expanded educational opportunities.

Pam Benigno, a former online charter school board member, directs the Independence Institute’s Education Policy Center.

This article originally appeared in the Denver Post on October 17, 2011.