Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Manditory Summer School?

In this week's Time magazine there is an article about an idea that is gaining steam in many states that involves mandating summer school. The article points out that research shows that in the summer students suffer a 2 month loss in reading progress. It also points out that this is a big initiative of Arne Duncan and the Obama Department of Ed. The article also point out some interesting statistics. They take Massachusetts as an example to show that it costs the state $1300 per pupil to run summer school programs. To me this seems a bit high. The dilemma is that with districts already having to cut back across the country, how can we afford this? The counter dilemma is, with the research findings on the effect of summers off vs summer school, how can we afford not to?

When I read this article an idea synthesized in my head that I just have to get out there. I am sure it has been thought of before but it is an idea that seems to make sense to me and I believe is worth further discussion. The idea is to make mandatory summer school online. Many states are beginning to require students to have taken an online class to graduate and this for one would be one place this requirement could be met without overburdening or complicating normal school year operations. I also believe it will be substantially cheaper.

This summer I have been teaching summer school courses for National Connections Academy. Tuition for a class was $125/course and students could take up to two courses either concurrently or simultaneously. At $125/course I believe this summer program was still profitable for the school. That is roughly $1175 less per pupil than Massachusetts is reportedly spending.

Now, I know the first thing many people will say is, "What about students who don't have computers or access to the internet?" Well, such students most likely would also fall into an economic category that would qualify them for free or reduced lunch. We could use that litmus test to gauge who would be in need and provide those families with the necessary technology. A netbook costs around $350 and a stipend for bradband internet service could be issued for $100/month or less. Combined, for our most needy students that is a cost of $575 instead of $1300 (a $725 savings).

Coincidentally, doing this would also solve some other problems. Many schools would like to go to a 1:1 setting but that model has not yet proven to be financially sustainable. If we mandate students take online courses in the summer we essentially mandate that they have the tools to do so. If through a combination of providing these tools for poor families and requiring them as a school supply for everyone else we create a 1:1 potential for all students. There would be no reason why a teacher couldn't just decide theire classroom is a 1:1. Schools would then have to decide whether to mandate all teachers apply 1:1 pedagogies in their classrooms or leave it up to teacher discression. Schools would need to shift their technology priorities toward that of being a service provider and open WIFI networks to all students. I belive having this 1:1 potential for all schools would also prompt much needed innovation in our field in places where before it was hindered by lack of resources. Also, solving the digital equity problem for students will also solve it for parents. A whole new host of community education and parent outreach will be made possible. I am sure there are other problems this would solve as well.

The biggest problem I see, and the number one reason such an idea is likely to get some resistence from teacher unions and local school boards, is that many students who would never have taken an online class otherwise might find that method of delivery preferable and more suited to their needs than already have found their way there. The fear would be that these students would leave the traditional brick and mortar institutions for their online counterparts further propelling the momentious shift of pupil units to these schools. The result always means more cuts to the traditional model and with more cuts means fewer program offerings which could potentially spark another round of students leaving or force consolidation. This idea is bad for the status quo which for many of us is actually a positive.

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