Over objections of state schools superintendent Marilyn Howard, Idaho’s Board of Education has inked a second component of a computerized-instruction program from PLATO Learning Inc., of Bloomington, Minn. The total package is worth nearly $22 million.

On July 15, PLATO Learning snagged a new contract worth $5.03 million to provide Idaho public schools with a computerized program that will help struggling students pass the state’s mandatory high school graduation test. In January, Idaho signed a $16.8 million contract with PLATO Learning to provide software and support for Idaho’s statewide computerized student information system.

Through the agreement, PLATO Learning will provide K-12 language arts, mathematics, and reading curriculum aligned to the Idaho Achievement Standards and Idaho Student Achievement Test (ISAT). The system will be known as the Idaho PLATO Learning Network. The technology-based program will allow each school district in the state to import individual student scores from the ISAT exam. The program will then identify a personalized learning path that prescribes appropriate curriculum to remediate or advance skills. This program also provides standards-based educational curriculum for independent study, subject-matter remediation or acceleration, and project-based activities to promote higher order thinking and metacognitive skills, the company said.

“This project implementation gives Idaho school districts additional tools to help students achieve,” said State Board Executive Director Gary Stivers. “Districts have asked for this type of service to supplement instruction. This contract provides a consistent curriculum aligned to our state test and standards. We are excited to take the lead as a state to put powerful, custom resources directly in the hands of our students, teachers, and parents with the end goal of improving student performance.”

Districts will have the option to use the PLATO Learning system, and the purchase of the software will be funded via federal dollars through the State Board of Education, the company said. The delivery of the curriculum can accommodate each district’s technology infrastructure for local area networks, client-hosted web, or web delivery via the ISIMS (Idaho Student Information Management System) data center.

Said John Murray, chairman, president, and CEO of PLATO Learning: “Idaho is a forward-looking state whose education officials and policy makers are taking a proactive approach to meeting accountability mandates and ensuring that each student and teacher has access to the resources and data needed to drive instructional decisions and impact student success.”

But Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Howard opposed the program. As the state board was concluding the deal, Howard’s chief deputy, Robert West, renewed the state superintendent’s objections to relying on the computerized study program as the primary means of helping students fill in the knowledge gaps that had prevented them from passing the ISAT, which will be mandatory for graduation next year.

The PLATO system can help but is not the full solution for remedial education, West said.

“It takes the skills of a teacher, however supplemented by computer-aided instruction, to understand the teaching and learning needs presented by students facing academic difficulties,” West said.

Idaho is the first state in the nation to sign a contract with PLATO Learning for a computer-based curriculum spanning kindergarten through 12th grade, officials said. Idaho also is the only state that permits teacher certification solely on the basis of passing a computerized test.

Not all Idaho educators share the misgivings of the state superintendent’s office about the new program.

Teresa Fabricius, the testing coordinator for Idaho’s Fruitland School District, called the program invaluable. Her district contracted on its own three years ago for the program on a limited basis, and the state deal will provide dramatically expanded access, she said. Forty-three other Idaho school districts are in the same situation.

Because the program is individualized and self-paced, Fabricius said, it has not only helped those who have had problems learning in traditional classroom settings but also those gifted students who become bored because they have progressed much more rapidly than the rest of their classes.

“We have seen students graduate who I don’t believe would have been able to graduate had they not gained access to this program,” Fabricius said.

Under the terms of the January agreement, PLATO Learning will provide software and support for a new student information management system. That agreement was funded in part by a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.

The software will be used for ISIMS–a system designed in part to help teachers create lesson plans and review students’ disciplinary history, attendance records, and grades. Eventually, the network will connect all the schools to provide data for parents, teachers, students, administrators, lawmakers, and the public, officials said.

A pilot project is scheduled to start in August, and all Idaho public schools are scheduled to have the software by the 2006-2007 school year.

A publicly held company since 1992, PLATO Learning posted a $3.2 million loss on $32.3 million in revenue during the February-April quarter this year, the second straight quarterly loss.

Its stock closed up 23 cents a share at $8.74 on the Nasdaq stock exchange on July 15.

Links:

PLATO Learning Inc.
http://www.plato.com

Idaho State Board of Education
http://www.idahoboardofed.org

Idaho Department of Education
http://www.sde.state.id.us/dept/