LEXINGTON — Inside a rural high school, five Advanced Placement physics students furiously scribbled notes about a video of a Yale University professor speaking more than 1,200 miles away. With textbooks open, they watched a lecture about Newton’s Laws on a giant screen, while their classroom teacher simultaneously offered examples of those laws in action. When the lecture ended, they had yet another to chance to learn: A physics video chat with their tutor, a sophomore physics major at Yale.
That experiment is starting with these high schoolers in the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest and most rural parts of the country. It’s too soon to know how well the free pilot program mixing online and in-person learning will work, but one thing is clear: Without it, said Holmes County Superintendent Angel Meeks, AP physics in this rural Mississippi district “would not exist.”
“Students in Holmes County do not have the same benefits as students in more affluent areas,” Meeks said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide access and opportunity they might not otherwise have.”
Providing a rigorous pre-college curriculum has long been a struggle in many of the more than 7,100 U.S. rural school districts, where a lack of teachers, dwindling enrollment numbers and tight budgets make it difficult to offer electives, foreign languages and even basic classes that are a given in many suburban and urban schools. As a result, rural students often lag their peers in advanced courses, and also in college attendance and completion.
A 2015 report found that the lack of AP classes may increase the financial burden on college-bound rural students: Students who don’t take AP classes don’t earn college credit that could enable them to graduate more quickly, and such students are “more likely to pay for additional remedial coursework when beginning college.”
That’s why there’s considerable excitement about the free program bringing AP physics to Mississippi this school year, courtesy of the Global Teaching Project, a Washington D.C.-based education company that is part of a nonprofit consortium in the state. A few years ago, the Holmes County school district offered a few college-level AP courses at only one of its three high schools. After the three schools consolidated during the 2014-15 school year, the newly formed Holmes County Central High School was able to offer five classes, including AP calculus, English language and English literature.
Holmes County, where half the students live below poverty level, is following a national trend by using online resources to offer more advanced high school courses to its students. It’s a model that Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, has called for, claiming that virtual schools can offer “valuable options’’ in rural areas, where educators are eager to expand courses, as long as they don’t have to push already tight budgets or direct student funding away from schools.
Indeed, many rural districts have turned to online offerings as a fast way to increase college-level courses and either fill in for teachers they don’t have, or make better use of the teachers they do have. If a teacher is not fully qualified or certified to teach a course, some schools opt to have that teacher facilitate an online class for students, checking progress and answering student questions.
Earlier this year, Illinois launched a self-directed online AP pilot program for 75 students at 10 rural high schools. In Maine, students at rural schools can take courses through a state-funded online program, but must work with an adult mentor at school during the course. In Colorado, rural districts have worked together to offer more AP courses by creating video conference classrooms, where kids at one high school can watch courses taught by a teacher at a neighboring school.
Still, as more rural schools look to virtual programs for help, there’s little evidence that online learning is equal to or can exceed outcomes from traditional in-person instruction, and some experts are urging caution — along with greater attention to quality. Some of the more time intensive virtual programs have shown poor outcomes.
Gary Miron, an education professor specializing in evaluation, measurement, and research at Western Michigan University’s College of Education and Human Development, is concerned about the rate at which many states are adopting online learning programs, or even making participation in these programs a graduation requirement. “We’re getting legislation [about online learning] pushed in quickly and rolled out really rapidly, and we really still don’t have sufficient evidence,” Miron said.
Although it’s not easy to track participation in online programs, a report by the Evergreen Education Group, a leader in digital learning research, estimated that some 2.7 million students took about 4.5 million online courses in 2014-15. That’s a sharp increase from the 2002-03 school year, when, according to the U.S. Department of Education, students took 317,000 online courses.
At least five states now require an online course as a graduation requirement, and many schools that turn to online learning find a growing number of programs available, all with varying degrees of depth and breadth. Some choose individual units or lessons within classrooms where students can move at their own pace, with a teacher serving as a facilitator.
Related: Should we hit the pause button for online and blended learning?
Schools can also choose programs developed by various organizations or colleges, offering lessons intended to supplement teaching in difficult AP subjects, rather than serving as the sole learning experience for students. They can also turn to organizations like K12.com for online Advanced Placement courses. K12.com says the courses “follow curriculum specified by the College Board.”
At the more extreme end of the spectrum, some high school students enroll in virtual schools for all or some classes, which may be run by states, nonprofits, universities, or private companies. Quality can vary greatly. Some states have embraced full-time virtual schools: In Pennsylvania more than 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charter schools that have a graduation rate of only 48 percent.
Nationally, some providers of online education have faced controversy, lawsuits, and even shutdowns for misleading students and failing to provide an education. In 2017, several companies opened so-called “online high schools” that turned out to be no more than diploma mills. The businesses, charged with violations by the Federal Trade Commission, were later banned from operating in a settlement reached with the federal agency.
And while outcomes for students studying in online schools are “consistently below traditional public schools,” enrollment in full-time online and blended learning schools continues to increase, according to a 2016 report by the National Education Policy Center. The authors of the report called for more oversight of virtual and blended learning schools, and urged policymakers to slow or stop their growth until more research is done.
Potential pathways, solutions
Other possible solutions for improving access to courses have been offered by rural school advocates, like Robert Mahaffey, executive director of the Rural School and Community Trust, who proposes expanding courses in rural schools that invest more in their staff, as well as offering teachers more pathways towards credentials and certification
“We don’t want to lower the bar or water down that content,” Mahaffey said. “[T]teachers need to be in positions where they’re able to deliver content and not be restricted by particular credentials … how can we create professional pathways for teachers so they can get those certifications?” he added.
Miron of Western Michigan is fond of the idea of high schools joining forces to share teachers or using technology so students in one high school can take a class, and participate virtually, as it is taught in a neighboring school.
Offering a course online is cheaper than hiring a full-time teacher for each school, but finding a way to offer online courses while still keeping “the ownership of curriculum and instruction local” is ideal, Miron said. By having some control over online learning programs, schools can keep tabs on quality and completion, which may be hard to do for online programs — especially if schools are paying other providers for classes.
Related: Rural schools find an online resources to fill gaps in mental health services for students
Miron is also skeptical whether students in high school or younger grades can direct their own learning to the extent that some online programs expect. “It’s naive to think these students can sit and master the curriculum on their own,” Miron said. Programs “may have wonderful technology … but what we strongly believe is kids at the primary and secondary level of education don’t have the metacognitive skills to be successful with online instruction as it’s being delivered.”
And, if programs lack oversight, it can be hard for a school to know if a student is performing poorly, or has dropped out, until it’s too late. This is especially true for online programs that enroll high numbers of students, Miron said.
A 2012 investigation by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida, for example, found student-teacher ratios at the online school K12.com, which contracts with various Florida districts to provide online classes, were as high as 275 students to one teacher. K12.com offered schools a smaller student-to-teacher ratio for an additional per-student fee. At the time of the reporting, the state’s maximum ratio for brick-and-mortar schools was 25 students to one teacher.
In Mississippi, which has lagged the nation in high-speed internet access for students, some districts have cobbled together funds for laptops and other devices that assist students with learning, allowing individual teachers to structure classes with technology. The state also offers a free online virtual school where students can take up to two units of classes each year to supplement in-person courses, but enrollment in that program is limited. The program is currently full and no additional state-funded courses are currently available.
The Global Teaching Project chose to pilot its program in 10 low-income high schools in Mississippi because the state is largely rural, lacks certified teachers, and because the “need was so great” said Matthew Dolan, chief executive of the program.
Dolan, a Washington-based attorney, hopes the project will eventually be a solution for rural schools nationwide that want the best of both the online and brick-and-mortar education worlds: high-quality expert teachers, student support, resources, small class sizes and human interaction.
“[We wanted] to try to come up with a solution for the overwhelming majority of rural schools … that frankly don’t have the teachers to take the lead,” he said. Dolan, who knew several Mississippi lawmakers from his tenure in Washington, was aware that Mississippi allows “consortiums,” or groups of organizations and school districts to band together, creating a vehicle for innovative programs. He relied on the advantages offered by this vehicle, and the Global Teaching Project launched the Mississippi Public School Consortium for Educational Access in 2017.
Dolan also relied on connections from his alma maters, Yale and the University of Virginia, to recruit tutors for the non-profit consortium, funded partly by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation which is also among the various funders of The Hechinger Report.
The Global Teaching Project incorporates aspects of successful high-quality online programs, many recommended by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), which publishes standards for quality online learning programs. These standards include elements like instructor-student and student-student interaction, the presence of frequent assessments, and content aligned with state standards or AP courses.
Bruce Friend, chief operating officer for iNACOL, said teacher-student interaction is one of the most important aspects of any online course. “I’m not at all a fan of online learning programs where the teacher serves more as a tutor than the actual teacher,” Friend said. “There’s a difference between me really being your instructor who’s proactively making sure you understand the concepts and skills versus me saying ‘Hey … go through your online course. I’m here if you have any questions.’”
How a ‘real-life’ teacher engages students
At Holmes Central High on a recent winter morning, physics teacher Iftikhar Azeem reviewed three of Newton’s Laws with his students, after watching Yale Professor Meg Urry on the screen set up at the front of the classroom.
“If you drop something on the floor, what happens?” Azeem asked.
“It stops,” one student offered.
“Why?” Azeem persisted.
“Friction,” another student answered.
“So, is that good or bad?” Azeem asked.
“Because otherwise things just keep going and don’t stop!” a student exclaimed.
The rest of class contained a flurry of virtual and in-person activities. Azeem led students through a makeshift experiment involving eggs, cardboard rolls, and cups of water to demonstrate how potential energy transitions to kinetic energy. Students checked in with their Yale tutor via video chat. Later, they took out cell phones and texted answers to an online physics program.
In May, Azeem’s students will take the AP physics exam, along with a handful of students from the other nine rural high schools participating in the program. Last year, 527 students in the state took the Physics I exam, and only 175 passed. In Mississippi, where 44 percent of students attend rural schools, performance on Advanced Placement exams has long lagged the national average. In 2017, the average score on all AP exams statewide was a 2.2, compared to a 2.84 nationwide. A 3 is the minimum score accepted by many schools to earn college credit.
During the 2015-16 school year, Mississippi rolled out an initiative to increase participation in AP exams, especially among low-income and minority students. That year, participation on AP exams increased 37.9 percent for minority students, according to the state’s Department of Education.
But access to such courses is still a problem. Many high schools in more rural parts of the state offer just a few, according to a review of College Board data. In many urban, more populated and affluent high schools, students have access to dozens; Oxford High School in Oxford, Mississippi offers 16 AP courses while Madison Central High School just outside of Jackson offers 23 courses.
The Holmes County students are effusive in their praise of the program so far. They especially like the personalized video-conference tutoring from an undergraduate. “Having a tutor makes it easier,” said Jaylen Dennis, 17, who plans to major in electrical engineering.
His classmate, Tamos Stevenson, who plans to study architecture, agreed. “He understands in the real world why we’re learning this.”
Senior Anna Martin, whose college plans include majoring in meteorology, doesn’t mind watching lectures on a video. “If we don’t understand the video, we have a teacher,” she said, motioning at Azeem, a certified physics teacher who knows the topic, but isn’t certified to teach Advanced Placement.
Azeem said the program is unique in offering multiple opportunities for students to get help, in person, online or via text. Still, the rural nature of the school creates limitations. Some students don’t have Internet access or computers at home. And the school does not have a physics lab.
“We need equipment,” Azeem said.
Dolan of the Global Teaching Project said they are attempting to create a model that can be “scaled readily” and, right now, will cost nothing for school districts.
Related: Why one Mississippi district ditched textbooks for laptops
For now, the project is funded by grant money and donations that are made to the consortium, but Dolan eventually hopes to make a profit. The most expensive aspect of the course so far has been filming lectures and paying for post-production of videos, which have cost between $100,000 and $150,000. The program also pays college students from the University of Virginia and Yale who act as tutors and meet students in person during a two-week summer program in Mississippi.
While staff at the Global Teaching Project would like to see students succeed on the AP exams, they also want to “build a community of achievement in rural Mississippi” that encourages students to “revise their notion of themselves and ambition for themselves.” Next year, the group hopes to offer additional AP courses to the participating schools in Mississippi, and is speaking with other districts around the country about expanding.
Holmes County Central High School principal Charles Lacy said the experience is teaching students that “it’s ok to be smart and work hard.” Lacy said he sees online and distance learning as the future when it comes to providing more opportunity for students in areas like Holmes, which doesn’t have certified AP teachers.
“It certainly is my hope that this is the pilot for what will be the model in years to come,” Lacy said.
Superintendent Meeks said providing a high-quality option for students to take Advanced Placement classes could be a game-changer not just for schools in the Mississippi Delta, but for underprivileged schools nationwide.
“If it can succeed in Holmes County … it could succeed in any situation where children are in poverty and where [there is] a lack of resources,” Meeks said.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.