TX College, Career Readiness: Role Virtual Learning Plays

The following is part three of a three-part summary of Texas 2036 Senior Vice President of Policy and Advocacy John Hryhorchuk’s testimony to the Texas Commission on Virtual Education on June 29, 2022.

Established by House Bill 3643 (87R), the Texas Commission on Virtual Education is charged with developing and making recommendations regarding the delivery of virtual education in the public school system and state funding for virtual education under the Foundation School Program.

Consisting of 13 appointed members, the commission meets once a month to review the state of virtual education in Texas and recommend statutory changes regarding the delivery and funding of virtual education. The Commission is taking a broad look at the past and current uses of virtual education in Texas and the innovative ways it’s being used in other states, including options like self-paced, competency-based, and blended learning.

Texas 2036 Senior Vice President of Policy and Advocacy John Hryhorchuk was invited to provide testimony on the current workforce challenges in Texas and how virtual education can be leveraged to improve college and career readiness in high school.

Policy Advisor Madison Yandell breaks down the testimony below. Read part I and part II.

Areas of Opportunity

Virtual education can be leveraged to increase college and career readiness through Texas 2036’s three-pronged approach: 

  • Better prepare students for college with increased access to rigorous coursework;
  • Ensure more students receive workforce training and credentials in high school; and
  • Align dual credit and community college toward workforce needs.

Better Prepare Students for College with Increased Access to Rigorous Coursework

Huge gaps in course access exist depending on where a student lives in the state, particularly if the student lives in a rural community. Only 15% of 8th graders in rural districts take Algebra I, compared to 32% in suburban districts and 27% in urban districts. Frequently, it isn’t offered at smaller schools due to economies of scale. 

Similarly, only 15% of 11th and 12th graders in rural districts take at least one AP/IB exam compared to about 30% in suburban districts and urban districts. And when comparing the number of AP courses offered, suburban and urban students generally have access to 4–5 times more AP courses than rural peers.

Virtual education provides the opportunity to expand rigorous course offerings to all students no matter where they live. The state should address the financial and regulatory barriers that prevent students from being able to take courses offered online or in another district. 

Ensuring More Students Receive Workforce Training and Credentials in High School 

Although the state’s graduation rate has reached 90%, our pipeline has alarming leaks. Just over 60% of students are graduating college or career ready, and less than 30% are attaining a postsecondary credential within six years of high school graduation. 

These leaks have consequences: Texas ranks last among peer states in postsecondary credential attainment. This is despite the influx of migrants who have much higher rates — meaning this number actually looks worse for native Texans.

Fortunately, the virtual education commission can play a major role in helping drive the completion of postsecondary credentials — in particular, workforce credentials of value — into our high school by leveraging virtual learning opportunities.

Short-term credentials offer the opportunity to dramatically increase the number of Texans with workforce training that immediately leads to good-paying jobs without the need for a four-year degree. Some Texas community colleges are already offering short-term credential opportunities at low costs with great early results.

For example, the Google Coursera IT Support Professional Certification can be completed in six months and is offered at community colleges like Alamo College for $179. This certification leads to jobs like a computer user support specialist, which has an entry-level wage of $30,000 and a median wage of $50,000.

Austin Community College offers courses to prepare students for the CompTIA A+ and Network+ Certifications that can be completed in six months for less than $1,000 and leads to jobs with entry-level wages of $46,000 and median wages of $71,000.

Many short-term credentials can be offered virtually and finished entirely in high school allowing students to graduate ready for good jobs. As part of HB 3767, the state is building a credential library to better track options and outcomes allowing schools to tailor programs to their communities.

Better integrating workforce credentials into high school will allow students to graduate ready to earn economically competitive wages.

Credentials aren’t the only option. There are other workforce training programs that can be embedded into high school, such as apprenticeships, that prepare students for middle skill jobs and jobs of the future.

Compared to peer states, Texas lags in offering apprenticeships, a method of skills development valued by employers. Indiana, California and Washington have over three times Texas’ rate of apprentices in their workforce.

We need to think about how we can efficiently get students workforce training while they are in high school. 

How does virtual education play into this?

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution that has been identified. Instead, districts should be encouraged to innovate with new learning models — things like self-paced or competency-based learning — or different class calendars. And regulatory barriers that get in the way of this innovation should be minimized or removed.

Providers and practitioners have identified various issues across the regulatory systems that restrict innovation and should be evaluated by this commission.

For example, if a virtual provider wants to offer high-quality online computer science courses to campuses that do not have a computer science teacher, the district does not receive Career and Technical Education, or CTE, funding for the virtually proctored course as they would if the course was taught in person by the teacher of record.

We have the ability to foster this environment of innovation because of our state’s continued commitment to a robust and meaningful accountability system. Along with assessment, the accountability system provides the guardrails for data-driven innovation and ensures public transparency during this process. Maintaining STAAR and the A-F system empowers families to make informed decisions and ensures failing models are identified. 

Aligning Dual Credit and Community College Toward Workforce Needs

Our state has a large and persistent gap between academic dual credit and CTE dual credit. Enrollment in academic dual credit has risen to over 160,000 students while CTE dual credit has stagnated at less than 30,000 students annually.

And while this challenge is largely an issue for the Community College Finance Commission, it’s important to highlight that the barriers that exist for CTE dual credit often revolve around the inability to hire teachers for these courses. Expended virtual learning can and should be linked to expanded career CTE coursework in our high schools.

Pathway to Aligned Workforce Reforms in 2023

The efforts of the virtual education commission, the Tri-Agency Initiative, and the Commission on Community College Finance can all tie seamlessly together as we approach the next session. This requires that we organize around the common goals and strategies, with virtual learning remaining a component of meeting our long-term workforce needs.

We can secure maximum returns on state investments by institutionalizing tech-supported, high-quality, and workforce-aligned opportunities in every Texas community for generations to come.