I participated in an education panel Friday night at Mercer University, sharing the stage with three impressive people, Philip D. Lanoue, Clarke County superintendent, Daundria Phillips, assistant principal of the Gwinnett Online Campus, and Kristin Bernhard, education policy adviser to Nathan Deal.
Since we both arrived early, Dr. Phillips, a Mercer grad, and I talked about her online high school in Gwinnett, which offers both a full-time program and supplemental courses for students enrolled in brick and mortar schools.
The online high school is a full-time, diploma granting high school that appeals to students who want flexibility — including kids who are performers or athletes. The virtual high school opened in August for students.
Students in the online school must meet all county graduation requirements. Students can work online any time of the day or night on their courses. The school has 100 full-time students, but expects to grow as parents and students in Gwinnett learn more about it and it expands to the middle school grades next year and the upper elementary grades in 2013. Phillips said about 40 percent of their full-time students are interested in acceleration.
While the material is taught online and students can do their work at midnight if that suits them, there are set times when students must be at their computers with their teachers and classmates. (If students miss these synchronized sessions, they can go back and listen later.) In addition, science classes include mandatory in-person labs, and all critical testing is done in person.
Students can even take PE online. Students wear Polar Heart Rate equipment provided by Gwinnett Online Campus to verify that they worked out, and they have to be within and/or above their target heart rate zone for 70 percent of their workout. So, it’s not a breeze by any means.
Once the panel began, Dr. Lanoue of Clarke County made several interesting comments, including that the observation that schools that talk mostly about discipline make that their priority, while schools that talk about academic performance end up making that their main focus.
He also said that he was not a great teacher in his first years: “I was so bad. I would have fired myself,” he said.
He and I had similar comments on accountability. He noted that Clarke County’s graduation rate in 2004 was 50.2 percent; for African Americans, it was 35 percent. “There wasn’t high-stakes anything,” he said.
According to GOSA report card, the system’s graduation rate is now 70 percent.
But Lanoue said that states and feds are attempting to use tests for high-stakes purposes for which the tests were never intended, including evaluating teachers and determining whether students can move ahead. (The panel talked about the Move on When Ready concept, and whether passing a test is enough assurance that students are really ready to move ahead, especially in light of the comments by many teachers that the CRCT is a minimum skills exam.)
Kristin Bernhard, education policy adviser to Nathan Deal, talked about the teacher evaluation system that the state will pilot in the 26 Race to The Top districts. One component will be student feedback on teachers, although Bernhard said it will not be a matter of asking, “Was this teacher nice?”
Questions will be more substantive, she said. While teachers advising the state on evaluation designs were wary of the idea initially, they were more amenable once they saw the questions, which will query students on whether the teachers knew about the material they were teaching, said Bernhard.
“Once they read through the questions, the teachers said, “I would really love to know what my students feel about this,’” said Bernhard.
Bernhard also talked about the state’s career ladder, which is being structured to keep good teachers teaching by providing prestige and advancement within the classroom setting. “We don’t want you to become an assistant principal if your passion is teaching,” she said. So, Georgia may see such distinctions as teacher specialists, learning specialists or teacher leaders.
This led Lanoue to note that passionate teachers should be assistant principals, principals and superintendents, saying that he still sees himself as a teacher.
It was a great panel and it was run by Mercer students. (It was the most organized panel I’d ever done.)
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog