Restrict Course Access in Texas at our peril

By:

Sep 5, 2014

Testimony to the Texas Senate Education Committee, August 26, 2014

Esteemed Chairman Patrick and Members of the Committee:

Thank you for convening this hearing. As an education researcher for the Clayton Christensen Institute, my message for you is that as a result of HB1926, Texas is making progress toward Course Access, but only tepidly. Delaying and restricting the growth of this momentous innovation comes at our own peril.

“Course Access” refers to policies that provide students with expanded course offerings beyond those offered traditionally through their neighborhood schools. Course Access is growing in popularity nationwide, driven by an interest in offering students a menu of course options—whether online, blended, or face-to-face—delivered by a range of diverse, accountable providers.

In some respects, Texas is moving in the right direction with Course Access. Thanks to HB1926, districts are required to pay for high school students to take up to three online courses each year through the Texas Virtual Schools Network (TxVSN). With over 11,000 student enrollments, TxVSN is 11th in size compared to other states’ supplemental online-course programs—not first place, but certainly not last.

But in at least seven critical ways, Texas is falling behind and missing the moment:

  1. We allow districts to deny students enrollment in TxVSN courses if they believe that they offer students a “substantially similar” in-house alternative.
  2. We limit participation to three online courses per year.
  3. We require districts to inform students of their options, but this has no teeth. In my informal survey of my North Austin neighborhood, 24 out the 25 parents responded that they were not aware that public dollars will pay for students to take online courses. When I asked how well schools communicate online course options to parents, 88 percent of the parents said “not at all” or “poorly.”
  4. We are not aggressive about building out a world-class website, one that is truly optimized for the user experience, free from bureaucratic legalese and clutter, and transparent with data about provider performance.
  5. We have not been aggressive about recruiting a host of capable course providers. Why not push to cultivate the broadest catalog of high-quality providers in the world?
  6. We cap the price of courses at $400, which eliminates the possibility of offering premium courses. Better to let the Commissioner negotiate prices.
  7. We are not thinking about developing the assessments we need to be able to measure if these courses lead to student growth. We need tools to measure the “before” and “after” picture. We could build, buy, or license these, but we desperately need them given that we want to hold providers accountable for results.

Here’s why these problems are a big deal: If we fail with statewide Course Access, we withhold from students in Odessa and Canadian Texas and El Campo and Graham the privilege of accessing the previously unimaginable learning opportunities that a networked world now makes possible. In today’s world, there is no excuse for thinking that the smallest populations of students in the most remote areas of Texas cannot learn Mandarin Chinese, study physics, or master computer science if that’s their dream. When we delay or restrict, Texas loses the moment.

If we fail to build and promote a highly-regarded statewide program, then families will increasingly turn to their districts for course options. The problem with this for Texas is that districts do not have the time or resource to vet and manage an abundant catalog. In fact, most districts that choose to offer online courses in-house contract with only one provider, rather than deal with the hassle of managing multiple providers. Furthermore, most districts are ill-equipped to hold providers accountable for performance as well as the state could. Texas loses the moment.

If we ignore the importance of an abundant TxVSN, we deny districts the opportunity to become financially stronger. Online courses allow districts to offer specialized courses to a handful of students without incurring the costs of serving entire classrooms of students. Texas loses the moment.

If we fail with Course Access, we overlook one of the most promising ways that the power of disruptive innovation is rising up in the 21st Century to help the resource-constrained education system do more with less. Online learning is a disruptive innovation that is changing the way the world learns. To ignore its potential is to disregard the most promising technology for advancing mass education since the arrival of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. Why lose this moment?

I hope that a leader will rise up in Texas to help us seize this moment. I see a future where Texas schools will be able to offer students the broadest set of high-quality, highly-effective options of any schools in the world. Let’s have the vision and perseverance to make the most of the clear opportunity before us.

Thank you.

Heather Staker

Heather is an adjunct researcher for the Christensen Institute and president of Ready to Blend. She is the co-author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools and co-founder of Brain Chase Productions, which produces online-learning challenges disguised as worldwide treasure hunts for students in grades 1-8.