March-April 2008 Selected Content
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
Risks Public Virtual Schools Pose to Homeschools
Technology's impact on education continues to increase. Virtual schools are growing, although not as quickly as some enthusiasts predicted, and are clearly here to stay. Many of us homeschoolers are continuing pretty much as we have been, purchasing curriculums or developing our own and learning from real life. (We are not talking here about what homeschoolers of all ages learn using the Internet to find out how hurricanes form, why Lake Baikal is shrinking, or how to make barbecue sauce.) However, virtual schools could have a serious impact on homeschooling. This column will consider homeschoolers' perspectives on virtual schools and ways in which we need to be careful not to let virtual schools undermine our homeschooling freedoms.
First, some definitions. Virtual schools operate primarily by means of the Internet, with teachers and students communicating principally through software programs, email, chat rooms, real time Internet classes, and other technologies. Virtual schools can be public (that is, supported by tax money) or private. Some public virtual school students study in conventional public school buildings, using the schools' computers. Others work in their homes using their own computers or equipment loaned by their public virtual school. As a further complication, some public virtual schools are charter schools; some are not. Terminology and technicalities vary from state to state.
To maintain our homeschooling freedoms, we need to be clear about the relationship between homeschools and virtual schools. Among the points to consider are the following.
Some homeschoolers take virtual courses from curriculum providers or public or private high schools, colleges, universities, without enrolling in a public school to do so. This is similar to homeschoolers' taking conventional courses from correspondence schools, technical schools, colleges and universities, etc. A virtual course is sometimes useful in meeting a prerequisite for a more advanced course or gaining admission to a college or special program. It can give increased credibility to a homeschool transcript. It can offer an organized way to begin studying a new subject.
Such virtual courses also have the same disadvantages as other courses. For example, they cost money. They require students to follow someone else's direction rather than encouraging them to take responsibility for their own learning and pursue what interests them.
If they consider using virtual courses at all, many homeschoolers think about whether such courses are consistent with the approach to learning they have chosen and want to follow, especially for younger children. Questions come up like these:
Do we want our children to learn from the real world; their own experiences with daily life; interactions with family, friends, and members of our community; explorations of the natural world; participation in various organizations, including 4H, scouts, and church; and so forth? Of course, if we want to, we can supplement these primary, hands-on experiences with secondary learning experiences, like reading, visiting websites, and using learning resources. Supplements like these bring our families into contact with people, ideas, and indirect experiences that are not part of everyday life. Such an approach allows children to explore what interests them, learn in ways that work well for them, go at their own pace, learn how to learn, and embark on a path of lifelong learning.
Of course, children enrolled in virtual schools also learn from the real world when they're not doing school work. However, they have less time and energy for such learning. Also, because the very idea of school has such a powerful hold on almost everyone, families enrolled in virtual schools may assume that what they learn from the virtual school is more important than the less programmatic but essential learning they are doing outside it.
Another question is how a curriculum someone else has developed would affect our homeschool. A curriculum presents the curriculum developer's ideas about what children should learn, in what order, at what ages. Some parents are reassured by such programs, feeling more confident that their children are learning the basics and have the opportunity to learn material similar to what children in conventional schools are supposed to learn. As homeschoolers, we can choose curriculums designed to help our children develop the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values that we want them to have. We are not required to accept content and values chosen by the state. Of course, many homeschoolers choose not to use a purchased curriculum, preferring other approaches.
Other questions arise about how computers affect people, especially young children. Common sense leads many parents to wonder how developing brains are affected when children regularly spend significant amounts of time looking at a computer screen and using a keyboard. What happens to brains that are dealing with the intense, multi-media output of computers? Recent studies support these concerns. (For example, see http://www.newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/Don-t-Talk-to-a-Friend-While-Reading-7212.aspx?RelNum=7212.)
Enrolling children in a virtual school has serious consequences. Virtual schools require that children catch on or memorize at least temporarily and feed back on tests the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values that the developers of the program chose. Parents who enroll children in any school are surrendering much of their control over their children's educations. However, virtual schools are by their very nature more intense and precise than conventional classrooms. Computer technology allows teachers to track pupils' work and test results precisely, store this information, and sort it for future use in ways that are impossible when grading assignments and tests by hand. Parents surrender more, and it can be more significant and have greater impact, when they enroll their children in a virtual school than in a conventional school.
At least one virtual school prides itself in requiring what it calls "mastery." Students must correctly answer at least 80% of test questions on a given topic and receive a grade of M (for "mastery") before they can move on. Those who do not get 80% correct receive a D (for "developing") and must study until they score 80%. Tests for "mastery" are given for each lesson, not just every few weeks or months. Developers and supporters of this program are proud of its efficiency and thoroughness.
But such stark efficiency or, some would say, robotic conditioning, raises additional questions: As parents, do we really want someone else to have that much control over what goes into our children's brains? Do we want our children to learn in this way, instead of figuring things out themselves and experiencing the thrill of discovery? Do children find joy in this kind of learning or at best do they only feel relieved that they might not be punished or humiliated when they don't know the right answer? What happens when the course ends? Do the children want to continue learning? Do they know how to learn without a program to spoon-feed them? Do we want them to become receptacles into which are put pieces of information that they then repeat on demand?
These questions become even more serious for parents who consider enrolling their children in a public virtual school. They must accept the curriculum chosen by the state. This dictates what knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values children will be expected to acquire and demonstrate that they have acquired. Religiously-based curriculums are not an option, even from curriculum providers who offer them to private schools, including homeschools. For example, Calvert has both religiously based and secular curriculums, but only the secular is available in public virtual schools.
It is important to establish and maintain the distinction between homeschools and virtual schools. Virtual public school students who happen to study in their homes (rather than using computers at their local public school or elsewhere) are not homeschoolers. Homeschoolers take direct responsibility for their children's educations and make choices consistent with their principles and beliefs, not those of the state. The point is not WHAT we homeschoolers choose but THAT we choose, that we as parents make the choice. By contrast, families who choose public virtual schools are letting legislators, public officials, school boards, teachers, and others dictate their children's education.
Another major difference between homeschoolers and public virtual school parents is that homeschoolers have worked long and hard to prevent unnecessary state regulation. Those who have ended up under such regulations continue to oppose them. By contrast, many parents of public virtual school students welcome regulations, saying that without certified teachers, state approved curriculum, and testing, they would not be confident they were doing the right thing or their children were going to be okay.
If we don't maintain the distinction between homeschools and virtual charter schools, the regulations put on public virtual school students may be put on us. It is ironic, sad, and could be tragic, that we homeschoolers, who started out to maintain our right to educate our children according to our principles and beliefs and not those of the state, could end up under greater government control than families who send their children to conventional public schools. The government could only directly regulate their children while they were attending school, leaving their homes free from government regulation, but it could regulate our children, and us, in our homes.
To safeguard our homeschooling freedoms, we homeschoolers can work to influence the ways in which public virtual schools that are located in students' homes are regulated. This can be difficult to do. Legislators and other tend to be quick to assure homeschoolers that such regulations apply only to students in public virtual schools, not to homeschoolers. Because most people are so used to state control of education, they do not give it much thought and have a hard time understanding the depth or subtlety of our concerns. Here are some specific suggestions we can present.
It is important to remember that the state is going to regulate the attendance of students of public virtual schools that are located in students' home and the number of hours they spend on school work and evaluate what they are learning. It's not enough for students to take state-mandated standardized tests. If the state doesn't ensure that students are attending school (however attendance is defined for students of public virtual schools that meet in their homes), it is failing to enforce the compulsory school attendance law for these students, a precedent it cannot afford to set if it wants to maintain a role in education. If the state doesn't make sure that these students spend a minimum number of hours per year, it will undermine the principle of "time on task" that is essential to the public school system as we know it.
It makes a difference how the state regulates public virtual school students in their homes. It sets a precedent of government monitoring and overseeing private citizens in their own homes. Many people will inevitably gradually come to accept this kind of government intrusion and surveillance, even if it seems wrong to them at first. In addition, as determined as we homeschoolers are to maintain our homeschooling freedoms, once the precedent is set, we may find that as a small minority we cannot stem the tide. We may end up subject to some, if not all, of the oversight that students of public virtual schools face.
Given this reality, what approaches to regulation of public virtual schools seem least worst? Generally speaking, it seems better to have regulations from the outside in than from the inside out. In other words, it seems better to have teachers and administrators from public virtual schools contacting parents by phone and email to request reports from them than to have school officials making frequent home visits and using webcams and other devices to observe what is happening in homes. The state should not be given opportunities to determine whether parents are qualified for the role they play in virtual charter schools or whether parents need training or counseling to prepare them. School personnel, social workers, special education specialists, and others should not be given opportunities to evaluate the effectiveness of children's educations based on parental behavior and competence, whether homes meet health and safety standards, etc.
Many homeschoolers are not interested in virtual schools. Those who are find it helpful to consider how virtual schools, and especially public virtual schools, affect their children's development and learning. In addition, to maintain our freedom from unnecessarily regulation by the state, we need to work to ensure that legislators, the media, and the general public understand the differences between homeschools and public virtual schools whose students happen to work in their homes. It is also in our best interest to work for the least intrusive means of regulation of students of public virtual schools that are located in students' homes.
© 2008, Larry and Susan Kaseman