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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Special Board Meeting on Online Learning and Teaching; Virtual Schools

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
April 15, 2011

Massachusetts has been a leader in adapting technology and online learning to supplement traditional classes in "bricks and mortar" schools. Initiatives such as the Virtual High School are providing valuable additions to the course offerings available in many of our smaller schools. In the past few years a new trend is emerging nationally - the creation of "virtual schools" through which enrolled students receive all or most of their academic instruction online. The Board's special meeting on April 26, 2011, will focus on the topic of virtual schools, giving us an opportunity to learn more about the opportunities, challenges, and issues presented by this new educational model.

Virtual schools are in operation in more than half the states, and in many of those states they are attracting significant levels of interest and enrollment. States are experimenting with a variety of educational models - some of the schools are state-sponsored, some are district-sponsored, and some are established through the charter school mechanism.

Here in Massachusetts, the achievement gap legislation enacted in January 2010 (Chapter 12 of the Acts of 2010) explicitly authorized local school committees to establish virtual schools under the new Innovation School program. The state's first virtual school, MAVA@Greenfield, was established in September 2010 by the Greenfield School Committee, with day-to-day operation of the school contracted to a private entity, K12 Inc. MAVA@Greenfield is currently serving more than 200 students in grades K-8, coming from more than 80 local districts. The Hadley School Committee has approved the creation of a second virtual school, serving grades 3 to 12 and scheduled to start operation in September 2011. Hadley has contracted with Kaplan Virtual Education for the day-to-day operation. Several other districts, including Boston, are having preliminary discussions regarding virtual schools.

Because school committees can establish an Innovation School on their own authority, no approval is required from the Department or the Board for a virtual innovation school. The Board's regulations do, however, place limits on enrollment, and in particular on the proportion of out of district students that can be served in a virtual school. In the summer of 2010, under authority that the Board delegated to me, I granted MAVA@Greenfield a one-year waiver of the out of district limit, to allow them to accept a larger proportion of out of district students. The Hadley School Committee is seeking a similar waiver for its new school. This request was discussed and tabled at the March meeting of the Board. I anticipate bringing back the Hadley request, as well as an expected request from Greenfield to continue their waiver, to the May Board meeting, so our discussion at the special meeting this month is particularly timely.

I have invited three distinguished educators to make brief presentations to start off our special meeting:

  • Dr. Susan Lowes is the director of research and evaluation at the Institute for Learning Technologies at Teachers College, Columbia University. I have asked Dr. Lowes to give us her perspectives on what is happening nationally and what we can learn from the emerging research.
  • Kimberly Rice is the assistant chief operating officer for the Boston Public Schools and the chair of the Board's Educational Technology Advisory Council (ETAC). She will summarize ETAC's discussions and advice to you on this topic, as well as provide some viewpoints from the perspective of a large urban district.
  • Dr. Susan Hollins is the superintendent of the Greenfield Public Schools. She will give you a progress report on the MAVA@Greenfield School.

Chair Banta has asked that we leave ample time for Board discussion and follow-up questions. I have invited two additional educators to join us for the question and answer period: Susan Patrick, former director of USED's Office of Educational Technology and now the president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning; and Superintendent Nicholas Young of the Hadley Public Schools. Associate Commissioner Jeff Wulfson and Connie Louie, director of our Instructional Technology office, will also join us for the discussion.

I am enclosing with your packet several items for background information:

View HTML Page
Board's Regulations Governing Innovation Schools (603 CMR 48)
Download PDF Document  Download Word Document
List of members of the Board's Educational Technology Advisory Council (ETAC) and the Commissioner's Advisory Group on Virtual Schools
Download PDF Document  Download Word Document
Links to Online Sources of Information, prepared by ETAC
View External Link
"More Pupils Are Learning Online, Fueling Debate on Quality", New York Times, April 5, 2011

Last Updated: April 20, 2011
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