There are powerful forces pushing for this kind of schooling. It's clear that this will work for some children. Any prescription for schooling generally that takes the teacher out of the picture--as well as other school-based relationships with adults--is neither humanizing nor an ultimate panacea. In Freirian terms, this parallels the banking concept of education where that which is taught is presented as a fixed, objective body of knowledge rather than the outcome of politics, compromises and negotiations between interests of varying degrees of power. Accordingly, I offer this quote by Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University:
"America's capacity to survive as a democracy relies not only on the provision for free public education; it rests on the kind of education that arms people with an intelligence capable of free and independent thinking." --Darling-Hammond.
April 25, 2006, 6:57AM
Pilot electronic education projects debut here
HISD planning to launch program for 200 students in coming months
By JENNIFER RADCLIFFE
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
At 8 years of age, Brian Reynolds barely has time for school. The brown-haired, freckle-faced boy spends 15 hours a week playing golf and at least five hours a week in music lessons. He's active in his church, just graduated from the Cub Scouts and spends stretches overseas visiting family in Ireland.
For the Reynolds family, a new state-approved "virtual school" offered through a Houston charter school was a perfect match. Brian's parents pulled him out of the gifted-and-talented program at the Houston school district's Briargrove Elementary this year to enroll him in the Southwest School's Texas Virtual Academy.
"He, at first, really missed going on the playground, but I think he's accomplishing so much more," said his mother, Lynn Reynolds.
Brian must spend 30 hours a week on schoolwork, but is required to show up in person only to take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test, freeing up his schedule to travel and participate in junior golf tournaments.
The Southwest School is the first of five programs in Texas to launch under a pilot approved by state lawmakers in 2003. The Houston, Coleman, Fort Davis and Iraan-Sheffield school districts also are developing "electronic course pilots" that are expected to begin soon.
HISD officials hope to launch their program for 200 students in the next few months. While the details are not final, the program is expected to offer a broad range of math, science, language and other classes to middle- and high-school students, district spokesman Terry Abbott said.
Some critics worry that virtual schools — piloted twice before in Texas — are just a way to filter tax dollars to private companies and families that otherwise would home school their children. They've dubbed them "virtual vouchers" and say they drain resources from traditional brick-and-mortar campuses.
"This is, more or less, subsidies to home schoolers to make money when the program has no proven benefits and high costs," said Karen Miller, a resident of the Cypress-Fairbanks district who has testified against virtual school legislation in the past five years.
Advocates, however, said the technology may help reach students with special needs, such as athletes, pregnant students and potential dropouts. High-tech education options are the wave of the future, they say.
"There's no question it can be done very well," said Kate Loughrey, director of distance learning for the Texas Education Agency. "I think online learning holds a great deal of promise for the state of Texas."
Janelle James, chief operating officer of the Southwest School, said her school's program has built-in accountability such as state-required testing and end-of-course exams.
"This is not home school," she said. "There's a whole lot that's different."
The Southwest School hired K12, a for-profit, Virginia-based company founded in 1999 by former U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett, to create and manage its program. The school pays the company about 80 percent of the $4,750 in state funding it receives per student.
James said K12 has created a program that should put to rest any quality or accountability concerns critics may have.
"Being first is nice, but doing it right is better," she said. "It was not easy to do this and to get it from conception to fruition. That was a lot of effort and a lot of work."
The Southwest School, which opened its first campus in 1999, now has 1,600 students spread out among prekindergarten, elementary, secondary and residential treatment facilities. The school was rated "academically acceptable" by the state in 2005.
When students sign up for the Texas Virtual Academy, K12 Inc. ships nearly a dozen boxes of books and supplies to their homes. Everything for the year — from jump-ropes for physical education to vegetable seeds for science projects — is included.
Each student also is loaned a computer and provided a stipend for Internet access, if needed. Tests help place students in the appropriate courses, which may be above or below their actual grade level.
Lynn Reynolds said she was surprised when the diagnostic tests showed that Brian — a straight-A pupil — was struggling in geography. His skills have sharpened in the few weeks he's been studying at their southwest Houston home in the Texas Virtual Academy, she said.
"He's actually learned a lot more," she said. "I was surprised about what he didn't know."
Brian — and the 90 other third- through sixth-graders who have signed up in the Virtual Academy's first month of operation — can log on in their pajamas early in the morning or finish lessons before bed time.
Teachers check in with students regularly through e-mails, phone calls and semi-monthly conference calls. They also can track how much time students spend online, what lessons they have completed and what grades they have earned.
While it is not required, students are asked to attend monthly field trips and take TAKS preparatory classes.
Under the program, Brian's teacher oversees about 60 students a day — nearly three times the normal elementary load. Brian said he had mixed feelings about attending the virtual school, but is mostly enjoying it.
"There's a lot of bad things, like not being able to see your friends every day," he said. "But I like the work. I like science, for sure."
Brock Gregg, governmental relations director for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said he worries about how this type of impersonal schooling will affect children.
"We'll be watching very closely," he said. "It may work, but I think we should move very slowly and not expand this program until we can prove the young children learn just as quickly and just as well this way."
State school board member David Bradley, a Republican who represents southeast Texas, said he supports broadening parents' options.
"To me, it looks like an opportunity for school choice," Bradley said. "I'd also like to see a pilot program to allow true school choice — vouchers."
State officials are asking for an extension to continue the program a year past the August 2006 deadline. Because of budget cuts and the effort to create these curricula, four of the five pilots haven't yet begun.
Still, Loughrey said she thinks the pilot program — along with two conducted a few years ago — have put Texas on the verge of creating a policy that will allow virtual schools to grow.
"Sometime over the course of the next year or two, we will have a very solid idea and recommendation on the best way to move forward," she said. "As a state we're moving forward at a pretty good clip."