New York City’s new teachers contract includes a surprising program that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently touted for rural schools in Mississippi.

The idea? Teaching by videoconference.

Fifteen Bronx high schools will pilot video-conferencing courses in an effort to expand access to advanced coursework, city officials said Thursday, a pilot program that will last at least three years.

With an assistant teacher on hand in the classroom, the courses will primarily be taught remotely by city educators from other schools and will focus on advanced coursework in foreign languages, electives, and AP classes. (Another element of the contract creates financial incentives for teachers to fill vacancies in the Bronx, though the virtual teaching pilot appears to assume that there could still be holes that need to be plugged.)

Teachers union officials had been discussing the virtual teaching idea for the past year, and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said it could help implement Mayor Bill de Blasio’s AP for All program, an effort to expand access to AP courses that he said could not be rolled out to all schools given current staffing levels.

“Hopefully it bears some real fruit so that we can do something more than a pilot,” Mulgrew said in an interview. “We just don’t have enough personnel” to fully staff AP for All, which is supposed to give all high school students access to at least five AP classes by 2021.

Education officials said that the program was not modeled on any other in the city. “Some NYC schools use blended learning models,” a spokesman for the department wrote in an email, “but there is no citywide pilot like this.”

There also isn’t much solid research backing online coursework, and some limited evidence suggests that it can actually harm student achievement even among academically advanced students. City officials could not immediately point to any research backing the approach, but an education department spokesman stressed that the virtual classes would not “replace or supplant in-classroom teachers” because the courses would be supplemental to those already offered.

“We’ll have more information on the pilot program when we launch in the spring, but hope to see increased participation and success in AP courses, advanced language courses, and elective courses at schools participating in the pilot,” the spokesman wrote in an email.

Trisha Arnold, a teacher at P.S. 204 in Brooklyn who was on the union’s negotiating committee, acknowledged that virtual learning “has yet to be a success story.”

Despite its track record, she added, “This is a way to take educators who have done nothing but innovate and look at this kind of crazy task of remote learning and figure out a way that we can hopefully make it work.”

Others were less optimistic.

 

The new contract agreement, which still needs to be ratified by UFT members, is scheduled to take effect in February.

Philissa Cramer and Reema Amin contributed.