N.J. lawmakers study up on online education

Posted: September 14, 2012

New Jersey legislators got a crash course in online education this week, from virtual schools to "blended" ones, and how far other states and countries have gone with the technology.

The committee held the special session Wednesday to discuss the various models, as the Christie administration has moved ahead in approving charter schools employing the technology in levels not seen before in the state.

Two charter schools have been approved that would be entirely online, with students taking class from home or other remote locations. They have been postponed a year.

Two other "blended" schools, which opened this fall in Newark, have students come to a school every day and work with teachers both face-to-face and online.

The arrival of the new schools has sparked considerable debate among education and community advocates, with the state's dominant teachers union legally challenging the administration on the schools already approved.

This caught the legislators' attention once again and prompted the joint committee's plans for four hearings to explore the subject further.

The next hearing is scheduled on Nov. 28 to hear from the state's major education organizations. Two more will be held next year.

On Wednesday, legislators invited three national advocates who brought perspective, pointing out that New Jersey is in the clear minority in not providing programs dedicated to the online technologies.

Thirty states have some form of virtual or blended programs, including Florida, Michigan, and Alabama.

Advocates pointed to the benefits for at least some students, saying it provides access and opportunity for those who struggle to find it in traditional schools.

They said it allows for instant results on student progress, and instant feedback for teachers as well.

"One size does not fit for all students," said Michael Horn, director of education of Innosight Institute.

The concept was greeted with skepticism by several legislators, saying it can be a supplement to existing programs but shouldn't replace them wholesale.

They cited issues of socialization, funding, teacher training and even cheating as all worrisome issues.

After the advocates listed studies that found performance in some of the schools outpacing that of traditional schools, Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D., Bergen) brought out another study that found schools fared worse.

"Should New Jersey really be adopting a policy of no growth [for online schools] until we can see some real evidence of success?" asked Wagner, who co-chairs the committee and led much of the discussion.

The advocates didn't dispute entirely that further research is required on specifically the progress students make in the programs.

Not all need convincing. Assemblyman David Wolfe (R., Ocean) said there would always be critics, and the task was educating the public.

"It is pitiful that we don't take advantage of the opportunities we have," he said.

Read more of John Mooney's education stories at www.njspotlight.com

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