Focus                                                  Pages 11-12


Setting a High Bar for

Teachers’ Online Enrollment



One of our ongoing responsibilities as school administrators is to review and approve teacher requests for graduate course work. In most school districts, because teachers receive substantial pay increases for completing graduate-level work, school districts should closely scrutinize these requests before they approve them.

With a rapid increase in the number of teachers taking courses online, our districts should be creating and enforcing high standards for graduate-course approval. We need to ensure we get what we are paying for — teachers enrolling in quality professional learning experiences that have a direct connection to measurable student learning outcomes.

Unfortunately, I learned this has not always been the case for the online courses that were approved in my school district. My examination of what had been transpiring in the 2008-09 school year contributes to my advice to other school systems.

Verify the quality of online courses before you approve them. In the spring of 2009, while reviewing numerous teacher requests for graduate-course approval for the summer term, I noticed several teachers from the same school requested approval for the same six online courses. The cost of each course was $124 for three graduate credits. Although the requests were somewhat suspect, they were approved because of their bona fide course titles and the course descriptions that accompanied them.

After receiving more than twice the number of requests from teachers at the same school for the same six online courses for the following term, I decided to enroll in all six courses myself to see why they were so popular.

While the online course registration process took me slightly over an hour to complete, the required assignments for each course took me less than one hour. After completing all six courses for a passing grade in less than six hours, I understood why these classes were so attractive.

In the absence of any meaningful professional learning, at a rate of earning one graduate credit every 20 minutes, these online courses provided teachers with an easy, low-cost way to advance on our salary schedule in an incredibly short period of time. Although this practice was limited to one school and lasted only one semester, it was necessary to stop the “gravy train” before it gained momentum.

I immediately undertook a review of our school district’s policies and procedures in connection with the approval of online courses.

Review and update policies and procedures to reflect high standards for the approval of online courses. I discovered our existing administrative procedures for the approval of graduate courses had not been updated since 1977 (pre-dating the Internet). In the absence of any existing written guidelines, I was able to draw from my own experiences with legitimate online courses that I had completed at the graduate level. In doing so, I noted my online courses shared these elements:

Weekly online interaction among class participants who logged in to a chat room that simulated a regular classroom experience. These weekly online meetings were led by the course instructor;

  • Weekly posted assignments that were graded;
  • Graded midterm and final exams and/or graded midterm and final projects; and
  • Online providers were regionally accredited and published their internal standards for awarding graduate credit for online courses.

Share revised rules with colleagues and the local teachers’ association. These elements were included as standards for approval in the draft administrative procedures I shared with the superintendent, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and professional learning, and the president of our local teachers’ association, and they now serve as requirements for administrative approval.

Because we had existing procedures in place, our only obligation was to bargain with the teachers’ association over the impact of implementing these changes, not the changes themselves. Due to an ongoing collaboration, the teachers’ association embraced the revised policy.

Establish procedures for course approval that link professional learning to measurable student outcomes. In addition, as part of the approval process for online study, we required teachers to support each request for graduate course approval with the following: (a) a copy of the teacher’s approved individual professional development plan; (b) a list of the courses he or she currently teaches; (c) the syllabus for each course in which the teacher plans to enroll; and (d) a written explanation of how the content of the graduate course the teacher wishes to take is connected to the content of the courses he or she teaches.

We now have a more reliable set of criteria to ensure that teachers enroll in quality professional learning experiences at the graduate level that have a direct connection to measurable student learning outcomes in their classrooms.

Robert Harris is assistant superintendent for human resources in the Lexington Public Schools in Lexington, Mass. E-mail: rharris@sch.ci.lexington.ma.us. Twitter: @rharris_Bob


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