How good (or bad) are virtual schools?

K12 Inc.‘s virtual schools aren’t performing well, concludes a National Education Policy Center (NEPC) analysis by Gary Miron and Jessica Urschel. Only 28 percent of the for-profit company’s schools made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in 2010-11, compared to 52 percent of schools nationwide. K12 students were less likely to score at the “proficient” level on state tests. The on-time graduation rate for K12 high school students was 49 percent, compared to 79 percent at schools in the same states.

NEPC uses  “badly flawed measures of school performance,” counters Matthew Chingos of Brookings on Education Next.

. . . the measures of “performance” it employs are based primarily on outcomes such as test scores that may reveal more about student background than about the quality of the school, and on inappropriate comparisons between virtual schools and all schools in the same state. What parents and policymakers need to know about a school is how much its students learn relative to what they would have learned at the school they would otherwise have attended.

Comparing virtual schools to all schools in the state ignores the possibility that ” families are most likely to choose the virtual option when their traditional options are unsatisfactory,” Chingos writes.

I’d guess that virtual schools attract a disproportionate number of students who are bored, restless and unsuccessful at traditional schools. These students are likely to be unsuccessful at virtual schools too since online learning requires self discipline (or close parental supervision).

States should “slow or put a moratorium on the growth of full-time virtual schools,” the NEPC report urges.

Policymakers and parents need reliable data to evaluate virtual schools’ quality, Chingos counters.  ”It is simply not possible to make these sorts of decisions with the data in the NEPC report.”

How Americans would cut school budgets

If you had to balance a public school budget, would you lay off teachers, cut pay or raise taxes? Who’d go first if layoffs were essential? How Americans Would Slim Down Public Education reports on a Fordham survey.

If their own school district were facing a serious deficit, 48 percent said the best approach would be “to cut costs by dramatically changing how it does business,” rather than raise taxes or wait out the downturn. How?

Shrink the administration. A broad majority (69 percent) supports “reducing the number of district level administrators to the bare minimum” as a good way to save money because “it means cutting bureaucracy without hurting classrooms.”

Freeze salaries to save jobs. Nearly six in ten (58 percent) say freezing salaries for one year for all district employees is a good way to save money “because the district can avoid laying off people.”

If teachers must be laid off, base it on their effectiveness, not years of service. About three in four (74 percent) say that those with poor performance should be “laid off first and those with excellent performance protected”; only 18 percent would have “newcomers laid off first and veteran teachers protected.”

In addition, there was broad support for closing schools and merging districts, raising class sizes in non-core subjects such as art, music, and physical education and replacing expensive special ed programs.

However, respondents rejected shortening the school year and shrinking the non-teaching staff.

They split on charging fees for after-school sports and extracurricular activities, using blended learning (a mix of Internet and classroom instruction), and “virtual” schools.

Here’s part of the survey.

 

 

New York Times vs. virtual schools

Online Schools Score Better on Wall Street Than in Classrooms, writes the New York Times, singling out K12, a for-profit that started by providing curriculum to homeschoolers and now runs charter schools (and works with school districts).

Despite lower operating costs, the online companies collect nearly as much taxpayer money in some states as brick-and-mortar charter schools. In Pennsylvania, about 30,000 students are enrolled in online schools at an average cost of about $10,000 per student. The state auditor general, Jack Wagner, said that is double or more what it costs the companies to educate those children online.

K12 recruiters “fail to filter out students who are not suited for the program, which requires strong parental commitment and self-motivated students, company staffers tell the Times.

If a charter screened out high-risk students, surely the Times would be indignant.

Only a third of K12′s schools achieve “adequate yearly progress,” according to a forthcoming study by researchers at Western Michigan University and the National Education Policy Center, the story adds.

Well, they do take high-risk students.

The story is part of “a series of hit pieces” targeting innovative private companies, charges Tom Vander Ark. Meanwhile, as the Times “maliciously savages sector leaders like K12 and Carnegie Learning, they are out marketing their own ‘state of the art learning management system’ called Epsilen,” he writes.

Vander Ark goes on to detail what’s wrong with the story.

Reporting on for-profit education often generates “more hysteria than analysis,”writes Rick Hess, who calls the Times story a “selectively sourced attack.”

Sure, there are valid and sensible concerns about the role of for-profits in schooling. But aggressively recruiting clients and cutting corners to make a buck is the flip side of the things that for-profits are uniquely positioned to do well–which is to squeeze cost structures, find new efficiencies, and rapidly scale.

We need performance pay for online learning companies, writes Mike Petrillii, who sees a biased story that “landed a punch” on the issue of perverse incentives.

Clearly K12, and its well-paid CEO, Ron Packard, face strong incentives to boost enrollment at their schools. Unfortunately, states haven’t figured out a way to create similar incentives around quality. And that needs to change.

Fordham’s Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning includes Rick Hess on quality control, Paul Hill on funding and Bryan and Emily Hassel on teachers.  An upcoming analysis will examine “what high-quality fulltime online learning really costs.”

Virtual schooling is new and there are plenty of bugs to be worked out, including how much funding is fair, how to measure quality, how many students an online teacher-coach can handle and so forth.

 

Short-circuiting e-learning

Government red tape and inertia, coupled with union opposition, have limited K-12 students’ access to online learning argues Short-Circuited: The Challenges Facing the Online Learning Revolution in California, released by the Pacific Research Institute.

“Of all the states, one would expect that the impact of technology on the delivery of education services would be greatest in California, home to Silicon Valley, Facebook, EBay, and other tech companies – but that’s not the case,” said co-author Lance Izumi. “Irrational regulations burden online learning and virtual charter schools,” he said. In addition, teachers’ union contracts limit the use of online learning technologies to protect jobs.

The book urges deregulating “virtual” charter schools, allowing multiple charter school authorizers, lifting the cap on new charters and allowing star teachers in other states to teach California students online. In addition, the book calls for attaching portable funding to each student.

Socializing the virtual student

Virtual schools are adding socialization to the curriculum, reports Ed Week.

Students enrolled in Commonwealth Connections Academy, a cyber charter school based in Harrisburg, Pa., spend most of their days doing classwork on a home computer, devoid of up-close interactions with other students or teachers. But two or three times a week, a recreational vehicle converted into a science classroom parks in a different Pennsylvania neighborhood, and students from the school have a chance to get in-person lessons from their teachers and meet fellow students.

Equipped with computer workstations and microscopes, Internet connections, and interactive whiteboards both inside and outside the vehicle, the RV takes Commonwealth Connections’ lessons from cyberspace to face-to-face.

The school also offers clubs, field trips and service projects. Some virtual schools have organized proms.

The online education company K12 Inc. commissioned an independent study by Interactive Educational Systems Design Inc. The May 2009 report compared full-time, online students in grades 2, 4, and 6 with students in traditional schools.

. . . cyber students were rated significantly higher by both parents and students themselves in various areas of social skills, though teacher ratings for those students did not differ significantly from those for students in traditional public schools. Problem behaviors among online students, as rated by the parents, teachers, and students themselves, were either significantly lower or not significantly different when compared with national norms.

Homeschooling parents usually get their children involved in sports teams, church choirs, art classes or other activities. I suspect parents of cyber-students do the same.

Why education lacks R&D investment

New York raised the state charter school cap to improve its Race to the Top chances, “but the union-backed (Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver) also snuck in a provision banning high performing for-profit school managers,” writes Tom Vander Ark on Ed Reformer. The hostility to the private sector explains why there’s so little private R&D in education — and why “we’re 15 years behind on learning tools development compared to advances in other sectors.”

“Students at nine of 10 for-profit charters recently outperformed surrounding districts schools in math and reading on standardized tests,” the Wall Street Journal notes. But the for-profits won’t be able to open new schools under the bill.

In Oregon, there’s a move to eliminate virtual charter schools in favor of “one single, state government-run program,” writes Vander Ark.

In addition to squashing choice, these attacks reduce private investment in education. Fifteen years into online learning, students still slog through digital textbooks when they should have their choice of engaging and adaptive learning experiences. Next gen content will take investment, but why would companies like K12, Connections, KCDL, and Apex spend $50-100 million to produce second generation content when states continue to attack their basis of existence?

School of One: Toward the Killer App has more on developing technology to engage and educate students.