A review of NEPC report recommendations

In previous blog posts I commented on the NEPC report (Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2013 here and here. Readers of those posts know that I have some disagreements with NEPC, and other areas where I agree with and appreciate the report. My mixed-bag views of the report recommendations are similar. I will start with an incomplete and annotated list of recommendations that I think make sense below, and follow up with a separate blog post covering the recommendations with which I disagree. State education agencies and the federal National Center for Education Statistics should clearly identify full-time virtual-schools in their datasets, distinguishing them other instructional models.

I agree; this would be useful to researchers and policymakers. I do think that NEPC may have to think about what level of face-to-face instruction might be inherent within these schools that would still be considered fully online. Our early research for Keeping Pace 2013 is revealing how many schools that states (and often Keeping Pace) have classified as fully online actually have a face-to-face component.

State and federal policymakers should promote efforts to design new outcome measures appropriate to the unique characteristics of full-time virtual schools. I agree with this with a major caveat: I believe that policymakers should promote efforts to design new outcome measures for all schools. iNACOL has addressed this; see Measuring Quality from Inputs to Outcomes: Creating Student Learning Performance and Quality Assurance for Online Schools. (Disclosure: I am one of the report’s co-authors.)

Policymakers should develop new funding formulas based on the actual costs of operating virtual schools. Yes—and iNACOL is also addressing this issue, with a report coming out in October. (And again, I am among the co-authors.)

Policymakers should develop new accountability structures for virtual schools, calculate the revenue needed to sustain such structures, and provide adequate support for them. I agree, but it seems like this recommendation is largely the same as the previous two.

Policymakers should require high-quality curricula, aligned with applicable state and district standards, and monitor changes to digital content. I’m on the fence about this recommendation because, arguably, if policymakers get the outcomes right then we shouldn’t have to worry about the inputs. But in the absence of good outcomes measures, some review of curriculum by the state might be appropriate. The counter-argument is that content review is a district or school role, not a state role. (In some future post I plan to address why I think online content is over-regulated compared to teaching and technology systems.)

Policymakers should develop a comprehensive system of summative and formative assessments of student achievement, shifting assessment from a focus on time- and place-related requirements to a focus on student mastery of curricular objectives. I could not agree more.

Policymakers should assess the contributions of various providers to student achievement, and close virtual schools and programs that do not contribute to student growth. If a good accountability system is created, then I agree with this in principle, except—why only virtual schools? Why shouldn’t all schools be treated the same?

Policymakers should suspend requirements that students take online courses in order to graduate from high school. The NEPC authors might be surprised to find that I’m on the fence about this recommendation. Much of online learning, and education reform, is based on the premise that students and families should have more educational options and control over their choices. An online learning graduation requirement is clearly not a choice. On the other hand, the legislatures that have created these requirements have done so because they believe that technology skills are necessary and online courses provide them. I am reluctant to suggest that I’m in a better position than Michigan legislators, for example, to say what’s best for students in Michigan.

Coming next: the NEPC recommendations that I believe are off-target.