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The Story of Virtual Learning's Failures and Why Texas Must Fight to Overhaul the System

TCCRI recently published the Final Report of our 2019-20 Education & Workforce Task Force. The Final Report is the result of numerous Task Force meetings throughout 2020 as well as long-standing priorities of TCCRI and TCCRI Education Task Forces over the years. The Report discusses, among other things, key policy debates surrounding virtual and remote learning. This LIFT Perspectives post contains much of that section, which details why the many school districts around the state were unprepared to offer quality virtual options to Texas students.

Public education in Texas was not prepared for the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic. The state proved ill-equipped to adapt to the sudden decision to close schools and attempt to educate children remotely through virtual offerings. The resulting efforts early in the pandemic were more “crisis teaching” than virtual education. While this occurrence could not have been fully anticipated, the pandemic revealed a series of failed policies that exacerbated a trying situation.

The failures and dissatisfaction with virtual options forced upon children across the state are well documented. As the Texas Tribune reported in an article dated November 20, 2020 titled “Many Texas families say remote learning isn’t working and they want it fixed,” there is wide recognition that virtual schooling and remote learning need to be more well thought out and planned:

Almost midway through the school year, it has become increasingly clear that virtual learning is failing a sizable number of Texas public school students whose parents decided to keep them home as COVID-19 grips the state.
The disturbing number of students posting failing grades while trying to learn in front of computer screens has also brought into sharper focus the failure of state education and political leaders to prepare for an academic year they knew would be like no other.
Over the last month, The Texas Tribune has interviewed more than 30 educators, students, parents and experts across the state about their experiences with remote learning. Parents and students describe a system in which kids are failing, not necessarily because they don’t understand the material, but because the process of teaching them is so broken that it’s difficult to succeed.
Teachers say they are scrambling to retool education, creating new videos and online lessons from scratch and struggling with new demands and limited time.

Despite the failures in K-12 implementation, remote learning and virtual education have been part of the larger instructional landscape for two decades. Such technologies have long been fully integrated at institutions of higher education in Texas, with full courses available online across a broad spectrum of degree plans and schools. Higher education offers fully online schools and degrees. K-12 public education in Texas has not taken advantage of the innovative advances in technology the same way that higher education has. As a result, it has stagnated. The pandemic has shed a blinding light on that stagnation and the policies that undermine an effective virtual education program.

The primary reason why K-12 districts and charter schools in Texas do not avail themselves of digital innovation to a more effective extent is because of open opposition to those innovations by the public education establishment. Visit the website of any public education interest group and you will find that they openly oppose virtual offerings and related reforms. The Texas Association of School Administrators opposes virtual offerings of any kind if they directly help parents and students instead of being funded and controlled directly through the public education system. The Texas Association of School Boards takes the same position. The teachers associations are no different, with Texas AFT’s 2021 legislative priorities making clear that virtual offerings are necessary during the pandemic, but will be opposed at other times.

Every opportunity these organizations have had to take a position on virtual education reforms, they’ve opposed them. Take, for example, the Texas Virtual School Network (TVSN). The TVSN was created in 2007 and been neglected ever since as Texas falls farther behind the policy curve implemented by other states. Its offerings are limited by statutory rules, such as an arbitrary cap of three courses allowable per student. Another restriction is a requirement that schools offer a course “in a traditional classroom setting” before the course may be offered online. Another impediment to the growth and utilization of the TVSN is an eligibility requirement that essentially restricts full-time enrollment to students who were enrolled in a Texas public school in the previous year, or who are a dependent of a member of the armed forces. This excludes homeschool students, private school students switching to public schools, and students whose families just moved to Texas. This policy is exclusionary in effect and intent.

Ironically, the state has created a system where – statutorily – a district cannot educate its own students in a virtual mode and receive funding for their education. Perhaps the most preposterous feature of the TVSN statute is the grandfathering of four districts and one charter school that are authorized to operate full-time virtual programs. No one else need apply, even if a local school board makes a decision that expanding virtual offerings to their own students is in the best interest of their communities. Otherwise stalwart local control advocates such as TASA, TASB, and Raise Your Hand Texas turn a blind eye to this inconsistency, even when their individual members would favor such a reform.

Bills are filed every legislative session with the intent to modernize the TVSN to the benefit of schoolchildren. All the aforementioned public education groups oppose these reforms as a matter of course.

Take, for example, Senate Bill 610 from the 85th Legislative Session. The bill proposed to expand TVSN offerings to grades kindergarten through second grade. Like the existing TVSN, it merely would have been one additional tool available to educators and parents. No student would have been forced to use it. When that bill received a public hearing in the Senate Education Committee on March 30, 2017, several parents publicly testified in favor of the bill and told the committee how it would help their school-aged children. Not a single parent testified or registered against the bill. In contrast, here is a list of organizations who came out in force to oppose this marginal reform:

• TX-American Federation of Teachers

• Texas Association of School Administrators

• Texas Association of School Boards

• Texas State Teachers Association

• Texas Association of Community Schools

• Texas Rural Education Association

• Texas Latino Education Coalition

• Texas School Alliance

• Association of Professional Educators

By the time these politically powerful organizations were through, Senate Bill 610 had turned into a proposal to conduct a “study” on expanding the TVSN to additional grade levels. The bill passed the Senate but died in the House of Representatives without receiving a public hearing.

It should shock no one that that the version of virtual education and remote learning forced upon Texas school children during the COVID-19 pandemic has failed. It was created and implemented on an ad hoc basis by public education interests who have spent over a decade opposing its further utilization. It did not have to be this way.

TCCRI has long advocated for expanded virtual and digital offerings, not as a panacea, but as part of a larger portfolio of educational tools the state should make available, as explained two years ago in TCCRI’s 2017-18 School Choice and School Finance Task Force Report:

Technology in the classroom and how it is used are issues of paramount importance. Within the existing structure of public education, technology can change the learning process. The right tools—computers and tablets—and the right learning software can personalize learning in ways previously not possible.
Blended learning, for example, empowers the student to move at his or her own pace with less teacher interaction and more learning by doing. In one 2017 study, 57 percent of teachers who use blended learning in their classrooms said that technology has helped those students collaborate more with their peers, and 48 percent stated that digital tools have helped students take greater ownership over their studies. Direct instruction will always matter, but blended learning changes the process, providing new ways of learning through personalized instruction and interaction.
Beyond in-classroom reforms, school choice through virtual schooling takes the traditional model of an instructor providing educational lectures, but creates a marketplace where students can bypass the limitations created by classroom assignments based on geographical location and access courses and lectures from top instructors across the state, nation, and world.

Imagine a Texas in which the public education advocacy groups embraced technology and innovation, and worked to incorporate them into the public education system.

Imagine if, four years ago, the Legislature had passed Senate Bill 1482 (L. Taylor) to create the Next Generation Commission on Digital Learning to “develop and make recommendations for establishing a framework to incorporate digital teaching and learning in public schools.” Senator Taylor filed the same bill two years later (SB 2431). One of the charges of this Commission would have been finding ways to implement these technologies in a way that would actually “improve student outcomes.” That bill did not become law and Texas never studied those issues. Instead, school districts threw digital options together out of necessity because of a pandemic. There was no time to consider what worked and what did not. With four years or even two years of thoughtful deliberation on virtual and remote learning policy, the children of Texas would have been far better off than they are today.

Imagine a Texas in which the Legislature had passed Senate Bill 1455 in 2019, which was the product of an interim charge to “review the Texas Virtual School Network (TVSN) and recommend methods of updating and improving the system to boost online virtual education.” In accordance with the Senate Committee on Education’s unanimous consent to the study’s recommendations, SB 1455 would have modernized the TVSN with a statutory overhaul that expanded access to all school-aged children and expanded offerings to allow a broad variety of providers to supply content and courses, including local education agencies, traditional ISDs, public charter schools, institutions of higher education, non-profit organizations, and private entities. These providers would be vetted, accredited, and subject to approval by the Texas Education Agency. They would also be subject to the same accountability measures (i.e. “A-F” grades) as traditional public schools and public charter schools. Failure to maintain a “C” rating or higher for three straight years would force the provider to shut down and be placed on a “do-not-hire” list. SB 1455 would have created a robust marketplace for virtual and remote public education. Had that bill passed, Texas would have been profoundly better situated for what happened with pandemic-related school closures and the necessity of virtual and remote learning in 2020.

Of course, much like every other reform to public education that would have given the slightest bit of control over to parents and students, public education advocates opposed the bill.

Public education advocates who have spent the last decade opposing the technologies now relied upon by millions of students and educators are not strongly positioned to continue opposing those reforms. If they are not willing to sit at the table and be part of the solution, they should be ignored. State-level reforms to virtual education are unavoidably necessary in 2021.

Whether it is through the TVSN or an expansion beyond that network, Texas needs to completely overhaul and modernize its virtual offerings across K-12, with the objective to implement a top flight menu of virtual offerings to use in the event that millions of children are once again forced to learn from home. Content and curriculum should be aligned with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) and should require approval from TEA before going live. Being a content provider should also require application and approval. Accountability through the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) should be required of everyone using these offerings so that parents, regulators, and policymakers can compare results, emphasize and promote what works, and discard what does not. There should be no restrictions on the type of provider, be it public, private, non-profit, or corporate. The more, the better. So long as providers are producing the educational tools the state needs and students can use, the state should welcome those tools.

Had such a system had been put in place four years ago, it is conceivable that each grade would already have dozens of providers approved. Schools could be using those providers and their content to supplement their own in-person offerings. Maybe 6th grade teachers in urban areas like one provider the most, but 6th grade teachers in more rural areas prefer another. Maybe homeschoolers would find a provider they like best and use that content to supplement or completely guide their own at-home learning. But consider that when the pandemic hit, a tested infrastructure for remote learning would already have been in place with multiple providers and platforms, each with a track record of success or failure tied to the state’s accountability system. School districts could have head into virtual and remote learning in March and August of 2020 with a realistic expectation of what type of product they were delivering to millions of school children being forced to adapt.

Senate Bill 1455 proposed much of what this recommendation describes. A new version of SB 1455 or a different bill with the same vision should be filed and passed in the 87th Legislative Session. The children of Texas will be better off because of it. The Texas Legislature should listen to the parents who understand that these reforms are desperately needed, and not to the interest groups who have always opposed them. Those opponents will use the failures of virtual and remote learning in 2020 to convincingly advocate against any proposed reforms, but it must not be forgotten that their refusal to allow the system to be modernized played the central role in those failures.


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