Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Public vs. Independent DL Accountability

We all know that different Distributed Learning (DL) programs require different things from parents and learners. It's an inconsistency that either works to our advantage or drives us crazy as we compare notes with other DL parents. Many families who enroll their children in a DL program are lucky to find a program that fits with their learn-at-home style and some are even luckier when they find an online teacher who is understanding of the parents' educational philosophy. Some parents never find that fit and may drift from program to program in the hope of finding it. A few parents decide that it's not worth it and switch over to registration under Section 12.

But how and why do the different DLs operate so differently from one another? Why do some require weekly reporting while others only require work samples three times a year? Why do some try to contact kids and families weekly and others do not? Well, it comes down to how the school interprets accountability--and how firmly the Ministry, either through an evaluation team, a school board office, or the Office of the Inspector of Independent Schools (OIIS), impresses upon the school what it needs to do to be "in compliance" with its contract with the Ministry.

So, let's take a look at those DL contracts or "agreements" that are signed by the school district or independent school authority. Here are the points I found that relate directly to providing services to learners:

Public DL Schools Agreements

Money:
  • the funds provided are being used to support Learners using services, courses or programs through Distributed Learning
  • the process used to determine the amount of funding to be allocated to direct and indirect costs by the Board including, but not limited to instruction and technology, is transparent
  • it will not use funds [or offer equipment required to participate, such as computers]... as an incentive to have a Learner [enroll]
  • the Board will provide a tuition-free educational program... which consists of either provincial or Board/Authority Authorized courses the Board will comply with all Ministry policies... pertaining to the delivery of an educational program by mean of Distribute learning including those requiring the Board to meet or exceed the Distributed Learning Standards... make available supplemental supports for Learners; in particular, Special Education, Aboriginal Education and English-as-a-Second Language supports
  • the Board may provide educational services, materials or resources to Learners through a third party, on the condition that the Board... ensures that the educational services, materials, resources are supervised by an employee of the Board who is an Educator, and pay the third party directly and not the Parent, Learner or any other person
Foundation Skills Assessments (FSA):
  • the Board must work to achieve a 100% participation rate through Distributed Learning... in the Foundation Skills Assessments... in the Ministry's Distributed Learning Satisfaction Survey
LearnNowBC
  • the Board will provide support for Learners who reside in the Board's school district and who are enrolled in an education program provided by a Distributed Learning School in another school district within British Columbia
  • sharing support includes but is not limited to testing services and supervision, timely sharing of Learner information and records, coordinating reports to Learners and the Ministry, and any other service that position the Board as an education provider within a coordinated province-wide distributed learning system
Teachers
  • in delivery all or part of an educational program by means of Distributed Learning, the Board will employ only Educators who have prior experience or training in teaching using Distributed Learning Methods
from: http://www.bced.gov.bc.ca/dist_learning/docs/dist_learn_agmt.pdf


Independent DL Schools Agreements

Compliance and Accountability
  • the Authority agrees that it will comply with all British Columbia legislation, including by without limiting the Independent School Act and all regulations and orders made under that statute, all policies of the Ministry and the Distributed Learning Standards
  • the Authority agrees that it will provide the highest quality, interactive and engaging learning opportunities and assessments that are suited to student's individual needs
  • the Authority acknowledges that its educational programs delivered through Distributed Learning will be evaluated and inspected in accordance with the Distributed Learning Standards... and agrees to work to meet, or exceed these Distributed Learning Standards.
Special Education
  • if the Authority makes an application for special education funding for Students [Level 1, 2, or 3]... the Authority must apply the approved funding for supplementary supports for students with special needs
Money
  • the Authority may provide financial assistance to Students or the parents or the guardians for Students for a portion of Internet connection fees only if the Student requires an Internet Connection to participate in an educational program delivered... through Distributed Learning
  • may not provide financial payments or reimbursements to Students or the parents or guardian of Students
  • may not use any of the funding... as an incentive to have a Student enroll
  • may lend, but may not give, equipment that is part of the educational program, such as computers, to Students or the parents or guardians of Students
  • if the Authority uses a third party to provide educational services, materials, educational resources or supplies to Students, the Authority must ensure that these are part of an educational program supervised by a Teacher, and ... pay the third party directly and not the parent or guardian of the Student or any other person
Student Records
  • the authority must provide the Ministry with the following information about each student: Personal Education Number, date of enrollment, courses enrolled in, date when Student became an "active" participant; withdrawal date; confirmation of course completion; course assessment result; any other information about a Student's enrollment as requested
Foundation Skills Assessment
  • The Authority must work to achieve 100% participation rate of Students who take all or part of their educational program through Distributed Learning in either the Foundation Skills Assessments or an equivalent assessment to be determined by the Ministry
from: http://www.bced.gov.bc.ca/independentschools/is_forms/dl_program/dl_agrmnt.pdf

Differences

Now, neither of these agreements seems that big of a deal, but there is one key thing that I notice, other than the fact that they are not anything close to being identical:

The points of the agreement directly address some issue that the system has had in the past. Both of them have very pointed references to the FSA. Both speak to not providing money to families (either directly or indirectly) as an incentive to enroll and that families can't be reimbursed directly for resources or services. But here are the differences:
  1. The public DL agreement speaks to accountability and transparency about where the money goes (although it no longer says it can't be spent outside the program). This is because DLs used to be (and probably still are) "cash cows" for school districts. A good deal of the DL money is pulled out of the program and redistributed around the school district. One memorable school district enrolled 600 DL students, put one teacher in charge of the program, provided families with some money for resources, and that was it. Of course, that funding was all clawed back and these students were registered as homeschoolers later in the year. In recent conversations with a parent "in the know" on another email list, I was told that "Three or four years ago, EBUS was getting 50% of the funds that came into the district with the students, and that was the lowest percentage of any school in the district (SD 91) for K-12 students. Another district's DL program was getting 60%, and one district official told me that their DL program was receiving 30%."
  2. The way Special Education funding is provided to public and independent schools is quite different. This is reflected in how it's discussed in the agreements. Public schools assess "need" themselves, independent schools have need "assessed" for them through an application process. It's clear, in the Independent DL Agreement, that the money is to go toward services for those learners. The public school agreements only states that they must provide supplemental resources to learners with special needs, although they do have a separate policy statement for Special Ed.
  3. The other big difference is the focus on compliance in terms of delivery of service, participation in inspections, and the keeping of student records for independent DLs. Historically, independent schools have not had the same dedication to keeping up with student records and may have also created more concern about compliance around delivery of service, especially in terms of supervising a child's educational program.
DL Standards

These differences in terms of compliance and accountability also show up in how the DL Standards for both public and independent schools are written. If you are interested, it's worth the time to go and look at what these Standards are. The Public DL Standards are, in my opinion, written with the BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF) in mind as they are careful to not tread on any professional toes. They are almost poetic in the way sentences are phrased. The focus is on Management of Learning (communication of expectations to students, provision of support, selection of resources, assessment), Fostering Social Learning (creating a sense of community, online discussion, interactions between students and student/teacher), and Stimulating Cognitive Processes (engaging students' interest in course content and resources). In addition, there is an emphasis on 21st Century Skills and Assessments, an American organization that is associated with a variety of corporate Strategic Council Members. (For more information about education as business in BC, read this interesting BCTF article from 2002.)

The Independent DL Standards don't worry about treading on profession toes because independent school teachers do not belong to the BCTF unless they also work in a public school. The BCTF has no influence in Independent Schools. There are three categories of standards addressed in the document: Administration, BC Teacher, Educational Program. Written in a chart format, these "standards" are to the point but packed full of directives.
  • Ministry funds are to be used solely for operational expenses.
  • Student records must be complete.
  • The teacher is responsible for the planning, implementation, assessment and reporting out of student learning
  • The teacher has weekly contact with the student.
  • The teacher has regular contact with the parent as needed.
  • Parent has a supporting role under the direction of the teacher.
  • All students have learning plans.
  • All core subjects meet the Ministry learning outcomes
  • All non-core subjects meet the Ministry curriculum organizers and Ministry or Authority learning outcomes.
  • Teachers are responsible for the learning activities for students.
  • Assessment is frequent and ongoing and addresses Ministry or Authority approved learning outcomes.
  • FSA is administered according to Ministry guidelines.
  • Report Cards are issued in accordance with the Independent School Act and Inspector guidelines, and based on frequent and ongoing assessment by a BC Certified Teacher.
There are more. And each of these standards is backed up by what is expected in the way of "supporting evidence". For example, under "weekly contact with student", the evidence required is "Communication demonstrates regular and varying teacher/student interaction e.g. face-to-face engagement, online synchronous and asynchronous communications, text exchange through feedback on assignments and the use of email logs of teacher/student contact."

"Active" Policy

For both Public and Independent DL programs, there is a matter of students being "Active". The government has put together an Active Policy that defines what it means to be actively participating in a DL program. This simply means that, for K-9, there needs to be evidence on file of a child's participation in the program, such as a Learning Plan and documented commitment from the parent, by September 30. "Additionally, there must be evidence of the student’s active participation in the funded educational program three weeks after the activation date."

For Grades 10 to 12, it's a bit more complicated, but some DL schools (like EBUS) actually have Activation Assignments for kids to fill in as part of the enrollment process. "Students are required to complete and submit an activation assignment for the majority of our courses. Once you have submitted your enrollment form, you are encouraged to print and begin your activation assignment while we process your registration. Your online teacher will contact you once you submit your activation assignment." from EBUS Grade 10-12 Courses

Why is this important? 

Some readers may be wondering why I think it's important to know all this. It's because of the "trickle down" effect that I've seen over my years of working in both independent and public schools in BC. Right now, it might only be on paper, but it does eventually affect families.

Focusing on my experience in both the independent and public school system, this is what I've seen happen over the years in terms of increasing accountability for independent schools:
  • In the 80's and early 90s, we didn't necessarily write report cards in independent schools.
  • In 1994, we were told by inspectors that we needed to have student files and a written year-end report.
  • In 2002, some pilot independent DL programs wrote anecdotal reports about the learners. No grades, no LOs. The student education plans were written by the parents and learners with teacher support and involvement.
  • In 2004, when pilots were approved and the enrollment caps removed, programs were told that  LCs must attend to the LOs. Some programs created LO checklists. 
  • In 2005, the student plan now had to be written in the teacher voice to demonstrate the teachers were in charge of the child's educational program.
  • In 2006, LO language had to be used in the written Learning Plans and shortly after, also in the Seasonal and Annual Reviews for both DL and "brick and mortar" schools.
  • In 2006, the FSAs were no longer optional and all students were required to write them. Some exemptions were allowed, but families were no longer allowed to decline on philosophical grounds.
  • In 2006, parents could no longer be directly reimbursed for learning expenses, so programs had to move to either purchase order system or a reloadable Visa.
  • In 2008, the Ministry of Education insisted that independent DLs send in numerical "achievement data" based on the performance criteria: not yet within expectations, minimally meets expectations, fully meets expectations, exceeds expectations.
  • In 2009, SE learners on adapted programs had to write the FSAs (these kids were previously exempt).

And so on... I'm sure I've missed some hoops along the way, especially those that came after 2009.

And the point is...

If  you look at these requirements made of DL schools, but you are not seeing it happen in your DL yet, then it's likely coming down the pike. Maybe not this year, maybe even not the next. But the likelihood of it happening eventually is high. It's also likely that DL policy will continue to tighten up delivery standards over time as DL continues to grow as an option in BC. Public school DLs will be able to dance around certain things because of the BCTF, but independent school will be expected to comply in a very clear and tangible way (as evidenced in the difference between the DL standards).

I see the increasing DL accountability as being like stretchy pants… you only know that there’s a problem when you try to fit back into your non-stretchy pants.

It's just something to be aware of.

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If you want to look further into what schools (including DLs) are supposed to be doing, here's the School Regulation portion of the BC School Act.