PLEASANT HILL -- Charter schools and online learning could help turn around underperforming campuses such as Clayton Valley High School in Concord, an education reform advocate said Friday.

Lance Izumi, who is an author and senior director for education at the Pacific Research Institute public policy think tank, said many school districts throughout the state and country are failing to adequately prepare students to be competitive with students around the world.

"In a recent survey, three quarters of Americans surveyed said that college is important to achieving success in life," he said during a Contra Costa Taxpayers Association luncheon in Pleasant Hill. "However, less than half believed that their local high school was doing an excellent or good job at preparing students for college."

Of Clayton Valley 11th-graders who took the Early Assessment Program examination last year, only 29 percent were college-ready in English and barely one out of 10 met that goal for math, he said.

"On a whole set of indicators," he said, "from California's state exams to the CSU college-readiness exams to international comparisons, many students here in Contra Costa County are having real achievement issues."

Although Izumi said he did not want to wade into the Clayton Valley charter conversion controversy, he urged local school board trustees -- such as those in the Mt. Diablo district -- not to hinder charter efforts.


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Similarly, Izumi said government regulations, bureaucratic intransigence and union contracts have impeded the expansion of online education, which could benefit many students. In recent years, three types of online education programs have emerged, he said.

One incorporates interactive computer software in traditional classrooms. Another, called the "blended" or "hybrid" model, combines online learning with classroom instruction. Finally, "virtual" schools are made up entirely of online lessons.

"The reason online learning is so important for all of us to understand is not only because it looks like it is the wave of the future," he said. "It is also important because the early evidence shows that it improves the achievement of students."

Izumi described several online programs such as one used by the Rocketship Charter School in San Jose, which has achieved great success with a student population that is 93 percent Hispanic. He also referred to an autistic seventh-grader in Santa Cruz, who found that online lessons through the California Virtual Academy met his needs better than classroom teachers, because the computer programs adapted to his learning level.

"Ultimately, what we need to do to improve the performance of our schools is to increase competition in the education marketplace," Izumi said. "Online education and virtual schools, charter schools, tuition tax credits and vouchers -- all these different mechanisms would put pressure on the current public school system to improve."

Some in the audience praised Izumi's ideas, while others were skeptical. Jim Hunt, a Walnut Creek resident who teaches engineering at UC Berkeley, said most of the faculty there doubts the effectiveness of online learning, which the university system is exploring.

"It's far more expensive to run an online course than a lecture-based course," Hunt said. "There's also an advantage to having students in a classroom, even if you are uncomfortable. If you hide behind a computer, you don't ever have that social interaction, which is what you have to do after you graduate."

Pleasant Hill resident Rene Maher, on the other hand, said Izumi's comments gave her hope.

"It's fun to learn when it's on a computer," she said. "The whole point of education is engaging the student. We're in an education crisis. If these children don't get educated, we're really out of luck."

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More information about Lance Izumi's speech, including a video, is in the On Assignment blog at www.ibabuzz.com/onassignment