Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Flex Charter School, Q & A

I recently posted about a unique public California charter school I recently visited. See: Flex School post.

A comment was left on this post with many questions I could not answer. So I contacted Mark Kushner, Executive Director of Flex public schools for the answers. See his answers below.

Lowell Parker, Ph.D. has left a new comment on your post "Flex Public Charter Schools":

I have some cautious optimism about the Flex Academy that you have described so well, but red flags were waving as I went through your article, so I thought I would share my thoughts.

The first concern that surfaced was: Who is writing the software, and is there a peer review process for it? The concern here is that software coming out of the state of Texas or some other academically biased area may, for example, promote the use of materials that eliminate things like Darwin's theory of evolution in favor of intelligent design. The potential for abuse is greater than one might expect.

K12, Inc, a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange (LRN), writes and provides the online and physical text curriculum. They have over 150 fulltime and parttime curriculum writers (teachers, graphic designers, assessment experts, videographers, flash animators, video game designers, content specialists, etc) and they to date have so far spent over $120 million on the curriculum. This includes physical materials and textbooks as well since K12 does not think the traditional textbooks are often good enough. They have won numerous awards and are peer reviewed by experts on the Education Advisory Committee and others. They are widely regarded as having the finest online curriculum in the country. K12 is now partnering with MIddlebury College on world language courses and George Washington University as well, among others.

The curriculum is already used by over 100,000 students fulltime virtually worldwide and over 50,000 parttime in over 62 countries, with enrollment growing 20%-30% a year.

Go to K12.com to see the accreditation and awards etc as well as curriculum samples and videos on the design philosophy. This is not an amateur teacher or a fly by night organization writing curriculum. Note that this Flex onsite model using the curriculum is currently a small part of K12 and relatively new so most of the K12 website assumes a virtual school model at home. The curriculum isn’t new, just the adaption of the systems for a school site rather than home.

Another concern that came to mind was: Who is performing the statistical studies that will validate the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of Flex Academies as compared to traditional academic environments? Good statistical studies require lots of data that take several years to compile. It's no trivial task.

The school is a public school takes all state tests, and that data is used, among other things, to evaluate the effectiveness of the model. The model is already used at home virtually with thousands of students and satisfied parents. Flex is merely adapting the curriculum and systems for brick and mortar schools where students will attend each weekday.

While it sounded great initially that slower children get to work at a pace ideally suited to their diminished academic pace, perhaps this is not the best thing for these kids. Isn't it possible that a slow child who is pushed frequently to work and comprehend at a pace faster than would naturally result from the student working in isolation may experience mental development that would otherwise not occur. And, if a slow child has always learned at a slow pace perfectly suited to his abilities, what happens when that student tries to function in the adult world where there is no tolerance or concern for slowness?

At the high school level, there is only some degree of self pacing. The program believes that cohorts and discussions are very important and therefore students must finish certain things within a time range in order to enable those cohort discussions etc. In addition, the teachers, which are key to the model, are able to create heterogeneous groups whenever they want and/or push students to go faster when they think it is helpful.

Consider the alternative. Right now the current traditional model forces 30+ students to all go at the same pace in the class whether they need it or not. Imagine a doctor who prescribed antibiotics to the 30 patients who arrived at 9am whether they needed or not. Or surgery for all 30 who arrived at his office at 10am. We wouldn’t stand for it and it would make no sense. Yet that is what we do by analogy in traditional schools. A student has to sit and listen to a unit even he or she is an expert in that area. I assume there were many times during your education when the class was too fast or too slow. It is a waste of precious time.

I wish my concerns stopped there, but another thought was: Will there be long-term health risks, primarily for the eyes and hands, associated with having kids spending so much time working on laptop computers day in and day out. Remember, kids tend to go home from school and get on computers to stay connected with friends, etc. It sounds like a life with an awful lot of optical and digital strain.

You raise reasonable concerns. However, note students are not on the computer all day; they are reading, they are going to break sessions, they go to lab session, have breaks etc. In the 10 years of K12, they have not experienced these problems. Welcome to the modern world of computers. This will be much more akin to work than the powered down version of school we have now. Students read on the computer, they read books, and they go to meetings. This is not for everyone but it is great for many. I do understand that people of a certain generation would not do as well in a school like this nor want to.

While there are some good homework help and online tutoring websites out there that strive to help students learn and not to cheat, there are plenty of others that lack integrity; Flex Academies put students in an environment where that type of "help" will be easy to rely on. Isn't it possible, therefore, that some of the work done online by students at Flex Academies may not be their own, including tests and quizzes?

Flex has certified teachers, highly qualified academic coaches and counselors etc onsite as well. This is not experimental. K12 Inc curriculum has been around for 10 years. We are not relying on outside homework and tutoring programs. We have our own. If you go to inacol.org, you can find standards of quality online programs.

I would be relieved if someone could address these issues and put my mind at ease.

I hope that helps.

As a former traditional Shakespeare teacher, I too was skeptical of the model. Now I think it is an incredible opportunity not just for kids but also for teachers. Instead of having to teach everything, I can focus on the kids and topics that really can use my time and expertise. The software shares the work . Teachers can be more like doctors, using data to intervene when and where needed. It is not efficient to have doctors do the blood tests and radiology tests or all the work. Others share the load. The same by analogy with this model. This newer model is much better for many students and many teachers.

Best regards,

Mark Kushner

Executive Director

Flex Public Schools


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