Two years after Minnesota overhauled charter school oversight, a new report is raising important questions about whether the state Department of Education has the staffing and the vision to ensure that another education innovation -- online schooling -- is serving the best interests of students and the state.
The report, released last week by the respected Office of the Legislative Auditor, focuses on the growing number of K-12 students who take classes online instead of in a traditional classroom. The report from auditor Jim Nobles and his staff could not be more timely.
Minnesota is currently home to 24 state-approved online schools, 16 of which allow students to enroll full time. The number of students taking classes on their computers is burgeoning. In just four school years (2006-07 to 2009-10), Minnesota saw a doubling in the number of students taking courses on a part-time basis from online schools. At the same time, full-time online enrollment "more than tripled," according to the report.
The auditor's report is likely the most complete online-education analysis to date in Minnesota, which raises the question: Why hasn't the Minnesota Department of Education done a comparable white paper providing the same high-altitude view of online education's promise and problems? The state's landmark online education legislation was passed in 2003. No one got around to doing this level of analysis until now?
The well-researched report pulls together data already reported to the state. But it goes beyond that, gathering local information and diving into the data to analyze it. In doing so, it delivers jarring news about the declining performance of Minnesota students enrolled full time in online courses. These students have increasing difficulty completing coursework. In addition, they are more likely to drop out of school than are students in more traditional settings.
Students enrolled full time in virtual classrooms are also not keeping pace with traditional students on standardized math tests, though their performance on reading tests generally was similar. Students, it should be noted, often came to online schools after bouncing around schools and with already documented lower test scores.
The report rightly concludes that online education is not in crisis in Minnesota. But it is clear that key factors that contributed to abysmal charter school oversight in the state -- inadequate Department of Education staffing and a reluctance by officials to embrace change -- could prevent Minnesota from making the adjustments necessary to improve online education in the state.
This page is sympathetic to the shrinking resources faced by the Minnesota Department of Education and the growing compliance demands on it. But state education officials did themselves no favors with the "buzz off" tone of their official response to the auditor's report. Their curt dismissal of many oversight improvements proposed in the report suggests a troubling reluctance to identify and prioritize online-education problems -- or figure out new ways of doing things.
Mandated timelines, suggested by Nobles, may not be the right solution for the department's often lengthy online-school application process. But the slow turnarounds are still troubling and suggest a lack of dedicated staff and inadequate information for schools interested in new online options.
Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius also should have embraced the report's suggestion to encourage local schools to band together and provide cost-efficient online learning ventures. Officials' dismissal of it suggested they viewed this as more work for the department and something new they weren't willing to try.
Minnesota has a long history of embracing education innovation -- from the Post-Secondary Enrollment Option program to charters. Evaluation and adjustments are always necessary to make new strategies work. The auditor's report is an overdue chance to scrutinize how to improve use of this new educational tool in Minnesota. Cassellius should seize this high-profile opportunity to work with legislators, educators, parents and students to make the state a leader nationally.