Yes to Blended, But Maine Should Authorize Virtual Schools

Maine is doing a lot right in education.
The Maine Cohort for Customized Learning is a group of nine districts leading the way in meeting the needs of every student. Several cohort schools were featured in a recent Nellie Mae report on innovative schools. Rather than advancing students based on time in a seat, these schools ask students to show what they know.
Maine is the only state to provide every secondary student with a laptop. With most states moving to online tests in 2015, states and school districts around the country are trying to figure out how to catch up with Maine.
Maine has a great commissioner and a good plan: Education Evolving: Maine’s Plan for Putting Learners First.
Like my home state of Washington, Maine was late to authorize charter schools. Washington made a provision for 40 schools over five years, while Maine only approved 10 slots.
In October the Maine Charter School Commission announced that it had received five charter applications including two virtual charter school proposals. This is the second time around for the virtual schools which withdrew the first time around when the commission members “did not feel prepared in a short time period to review virtual school applications.”
Some commission members had the opportunity to learn about the benefits of blended the best of online and onsite learning yielding personalized learning for students. Blended learning has the potential to extend the reach of great teachers and improve working conditions.
Commission members concluded correctly that they should focus on blended charter models. Most U.S. schools will adopt or develop a blend of online and onsite learning by the end of the decade and they will serve about 85% of U.S. students.
However, a focus on blended learning shouldn’t come at the expense of virtual schools. About 10% of students will be served by virtual charter schools. Some will learn at home–and for a variety of reasons ranging from location, health, sports and life circumstance. Some will learn in cooperatives with other families–a neighborhood blend. Some will be part of a traveling team, theater troupe.
The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (where I’m a director) recently issued principles for model legislation. In addition to the competency-based strategies common in Maine, iNACOL calls on states to “ensure each student has access to a full range of high- quality online courses, full-time online learning programs and new learning models using blended learning.
The 10 Elements of Quality Digital Learning recommends full and part time access to online courses. Nearly 400,000 Florida students will benefit from part-time access to Florida Virtual courses. There is simply no reason that any student in America should not have access to every Advanced Placement course, every foreign language, and every advanced STEM course. A student that struggles in a course should have the opportunity to take it from another teacher using another approach.
Maine students–all students–deserve access to a good local school and good online options.
The proposed virtual schools would be supported by Connections Academy and K12, both Getting Smart advocacy partners. This blog first appeared on EdWeek.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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