Virtual School Meanderings

April 7, 2014

AERA 2014 – Full-Time Virtual Schools: Enrollment, Student Characteristics, and Performance

This is the twenty-first session – and first one for Monday – that I am blogging from the 2014 annual meeting of the American Education Research Association (AERA) in Philadelphia.  This session was a part of a symposium that was described as:

Virtual Schools in the United States 2014: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence

In the past decade, virtual education has moved quickly to the top of the K-12 public education reform agenda. Though little is known about the efficacy of online education generally or about individual approaches specifically, states are moving quickly to expand taxpayer-funded virtual education programs. The main purpose of this session is to understand the specificities of today’s virtual school movement as it moves from novelty to mainstream. Drawing from a rich array of theoretical perspectives and content disciplines, we will examine the performance of full-time, publicly funded K-12 virtual schools, describe the policy issues raised by the available evidence, assess the research evidence that bears on K-12 virtual teaching and learning, and offer research-based recommendations to help guide policymaking.

The actual session is described in the online program as:

Full-Time Virtual Schools: Enrollment, Student Characteristics, and Performance
Gary J. Miron, Western Michigan University; Brian Horvitz, Western Michigan University; Charisse Atibagos Gulosino, University of Memphis

Full-time virtual K-12 schools, also known as cyber schools or online schools, are schools that deliver all curriculum and instruction via the Internet and electronic communication, usually with students at home and teachers at a remote location, and usually with everyone participating at different times (Means, B. e al., 2010). Although increasing numbers of parents and students are choosing this option, little is known about virtual schooling in general, and very little about full-time virtual schools in particular (Watson et al., 2011, 2012). For example, information has not been available on such basic questions as the number of virtual elementary and secondary schools operating, the number of students enrolled in them, and the rate at which they have expanded. Moreover, despite a dearth of research evidence useful in shaping policy, many states have adopted legislation permitting full-time virtual schools or removing the caps that once limited their growth (SREB, 2013).

The primary goal of our study is to describe the education landscape of all full-time virtual schools in the U.S. for which data are available for the 2012-13 academic year and to provide an estimate of their growth. We raise three research questions. They include: (1) How many full-time virtual schools operate in the U.S.? How many students do they enroll? (2) What are the demographic characteristics of students enrolled in full-time virtual schools? Within individual states, how do demographic data differ for students enrolled in virtual schools and those enrolled in brick-and-mortar schools? (3) How do full-time virtual schools perform in terms of student achievement relative to other public schools?

Our study is based on publicly available data, collected, audited, and warehoused by public authorities. The scope of the study is limited to full-time, public elementary and secondary virtual public schools serving U.S. students. This includes virtual schools operated by for-profit Education Management Organizations (EMOs) as well as virtual schools operated by states or districts. Private virtual schools are excluded. Also excluded are schools offering a combination of full-time virtual programs and blended programs, unless it is possible to separate data for the full-time virtual school component. The primary sources for total enrollment and school performance data are state-level datasets, Common Core of Data (CCD), and school report cards for the 2012-13 school year. Aggregated data reflect weighted averages based on enrollment. That is, averages have been calculated so that the influence of any given school on the aggregated average is proportional to its enrollment. Comparisons are made to norms for all public schools in the United States.

The results of our comparisons using AYP, state ratings and on-time graduation rates suggest that virtual schools are not performing as well as brick-and-mortar schools. The two themes that run through our findings are: (1) the inadequacies of state data and accountability systems on virtual schools; (2) the insufficiency of state policies and authorizing practices to design new outcome measures appropriate to the unique characteristics of full-time virtual schools.

For those that aren’t aware, this session was based on the National Education Policy Center’s report Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2014: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence, and Gary’s section was Section III.

Gary began by providing some background into the study, the fact that it is in its second year, and some of the methodology for his specific section.  Based on their data collection, they were able to identify 338 full-time virtual schools that were serving 243,000.  61% of these were charter schools, and they accounted for 85% of the enrollment in full-time virtual schooling.  44% of the full-time virtual schools were run by for-profit EMOs, and this represented 80% of the full-time virtual school students.  For-profit EMOs had an average of 1,230 students, while those operated by non-profit EMOs or no EMO enrolled an average of 470 and 362 students respectively.  Gary stressed the fact that the data is poor in many respects.

Gary also underscored the fact that based on their data have more White students, fewer minority students, fewer free and reduced lunch students, fewer special education students, and fewer English language learners as compared to the national averages.  This was consistent with the findings that Gary had in 2013, and in the examination of solely K12, Inc. data that he completed in the past.  Gary did not that the K12, Inc. proportion of special education students (~10%) was higher than the full-time virtual school average (~7%).

In terms of looking at student performance, Gary and his team looked at the state’s performance rating, which factors in many issues.  Interestingly, only 33.76% of full-time virtual schools had an acceptable rating by their state.  Independent full-time virtual schools (i.e., district-based programs) were much more likely to achieve the state’s acceptable rating than their for-profit counterparts.

Gary concluded with highlighting the recommendations from the NEPC report.


April 6, 2014

AERA 2014 – Legal Responsibility for Special Education in Cyber Charter Schools

This is the twentieth session – and last for Sunday –  that I am blogging from the 2014 annual meeting of the American Education Research Association (AERA) in Philadelphia. This session was a part of a roundtable session entitled “Charter School Management: Cyber Schools and Performance.”  The actual session is described in the online program as:

Legal Responsibility for Special Education in Cyber Charter Schools
Regina R. Umpstead, Central Michigan University, Robert Andersen, Cooley Law School, Bruce Wells Umpstead, BrightBytes

[No abstract provided in the online system]

In this study, Regina and Bruce (at least they were the two presenters present) studied cyber charter school legal responsibilities with regards to special education in California, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.  The project was something that they were asked to investigate based on a request from the Michigan Department of Education – and Regina mentioned some involvement of the Center for Online Learning and Students with Disabilities  at the University of Kansas.

Bruce began his portion by describing the cyber charter landscape in each of the states that was studied – actually, he spoke to both the cyber school (i.e., full-time) and virtual school (i.e., supplemental) landscape.  For the purpose of the study, cyber charter schools were full-time online schools that operated through primarily online means.

Regina then shifted the focus back to students with disabilities, and began by highlighting the different laws (see my notes on AERA 2014 – A Legal Framework for Special Education and Charter Schools for the complete list).  She underscored the notion of services being provided in the least resistant environment, which parents want to argue as the home but many cyber schools argue is the online environment.  This could form many of the next round of legal battles.

Bruce then focused on Michigan and mentioned that Michigan was the first cyber charter school in the United States was in the state in 1999, when Noah Webster created a dial-up system that targeted a home schooling audience.  This program was shut down by the legislature in reaction to a law suit that, according to Bruce, “went no where.”  He then outlined the special education law, where the state was the most interesting in their opinions – because by state law there is a requirement that both the local education authority (LEA) (i.e., the cyber charter school) and the district of the student’s residence are required to provide special education service.  Apparently, this is a bit contentious within the state and the State has refused to publish their legal brief.

In California, cyber charters are also considered LEAs.  But it is the State Department of Education that decides upon funding.

In Illinois, most of the cyber charters are authorized by local school districts.  One of the issues is that the district of residence is expected to provide funding for services.  Regina indicated that cyber charter laws in Illinois enumerate a list of state education laws that they have to comply with, which are only a select few of the education laws that all traditional public schools have to abide by.  Even more interesting was the fact that state special education laws were not included in the list that cyber charter schools have to comply with (although they would still have to comply with federal laws).

In Ohio, the district of residence is responsible for special education.  However, when a student enrolls in a cyber charter school the responsibilities for special education transfers solely to the cyber charter school.

In Pennsylvania, cyber charters are exempted from education law in most areas.  However, they are considered LEAs for the purposes of special education.

Regina indicated that Texas was an interesting model for cyber charters and special education – and one that might be seen as a model for other states.  The use of a statewide network provided a model that removes the notion or conflict of district of residence that occurs in many states.

From my reading (or listening), it appears that the greatest tensions appear to be source of funding and whether it is the district of residence or the cyber charter or both that provide special education services.

AERA 2014 – Have Cyber Charters Reinvented Personal Management?

This is the nineteenth session – and first for Sunday –  that I am blogging from the 2014 annual meeting of the American Education Research Association (AERA) in Philadelphia. This session was a part of a roundtable session entitled “Charter School Management: Cyber Schools and Performance.”  The actual  session is described in the online program as:

Have Cyber Charters Reinvented Personal Management?
Robert A. Maranto, University of Arkansas, Dennis Beck, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville

Teacher quality is a key and typically underemphasized determinant of student learning. Cyber charter schools have the potential to reinvent teacher personnel management, in part by removing teaching from the constraints of time and place and in part by systematically substituting technology for labor. But have cyber charter schools done this? We interviewed Pennsylvania cyber charter CEOs (response rate = 50%) and conducted a national survey of 189 cyber charter leaders (18% response rate, n = 34). Results indicate that, just as most brick and mortar charter schools have proven to be incremental rather than “disruptive” innovators, so too have cyber charters, save arguably in the matter of teacher mentoring. Possible barriers to innovation are discussed.

Bob began by providing some of the background to the nature of cyber charter schools, in particularly how the diffused nature of the organization affects personnel. The study itself was based on interviews with 8 of the 15 cyber charter CEOs in Pennsylvania, as well as surveys of teachers from two of those cyber charter schools. They also conducted an e-mail survey of the cyber charter CEOs nationally (which yielded 34 responses or 18%).

Bob provided a detailed background into the CEOs that responded – both the PA sample and the national sample.

There were five broad themes.

  1. Enthusiastic about lack of collective bargaining/tenure,
  2. Hiring for customer service was key,
  3. COEs didn’t prepare teachers for teaching online, so cyber schools had to mentor,
  4. The CEOs felt their biggest innovations were mentoring, evaluating, and holding accountable, and
  5. The CEOS felt their biggest barriers to innovation were “the ‘real’ school.

Further, while the national survey indicated that the majority of CEOs used merit pay, only a minority of CEOs in the PA sample used merit pay.

Another interesting finding from the teacher survey was that those that had traditional public school experience actually liked their cyber school experience better. They also felt that they were being fairly evaluated, and that those evaluations were more helpful and less intrusive.

Bob mentioned that one or two of the CEOs mentioned that relaxed teacher certification rules would allow cyber charters to become more innovative.

Almost all CEOs felt that the state’s evaluation system was not built for, and not necessarily fair, to cyber charter schools.

I’m sure if there were any critical issues that I missed or that Bob didn’t highlight, Dennis can raise them in the comments area.

I should note that Bob is a big supporter of school choice. He also comes from a political science, and not an education background. I mention that because in my earlier conversations with him at the conference, he asked if I had children and when I responded that I didn’t, he informed me that I knew “nothing about how education works then.” I thought that was kind of rich, that someone who has no background in education beyond being a student themselves and observing schooling from their children’s perspective is somehow more of an expert on education than someone that has three degrees and three certificates in education. But I have found that to be common from the neo-liberal perspective.

April 5, 2014

AERA 2014 – Parent and Student Perceptions of a Blended Learning Experience

This is the eighteenth session that I am blogging from the 2014 annual meeting of the American Education Research Association (AERA) in Philadelphia. This session was described as:

Parent and Student Perceptions of a Blended Learning Experience
Jason Paul Siko, Grand Valley State University; Michael Kristopher Barbour, Sacred Heart University

This study examined the perceptions of parents and students enrolled in their first blended learning class.  Online surveys at the end of the experience were administered.  Both the students and parents were initially excited about the experience, but the parents had some reservations about their child’s ability to perform.  Students admitted to falling behind in the course, but noted that the process served as a good learning experience for the future.  Both parents and students complained about the lack of communication from the teachers of the course.  Overall, the parents and students were grateful for the experience, and hoped that the course (which was a two-year course) would continue to be offered in a blended format in the future.

Since this was a session that I am involved in, I’ll just post the slides below.

AERA 2014 – Investigating Blended Learning: What Matters for Implementing a Digital Science Curriculum in an Urban District

This is the seventeenth session that I am blogging from the 2014 annual meeting of the American Education Research Association (AERA) in Philadelphia. This session was described as:

Investigating Blended Learning: What Matters for Implementing a Digital Science Curriculum in an Urban District
Virginia Walker Snodgrass Rangel, Rice University; Elizabeth R. Bell, Rice University; Carlos Monroy, Rice University; Jarrett Reid Whitaker, Rice University

Despite increasing use of digital content and technology in today’s classroom, research examining how technology is utilized in the classroom is limited. The purpose of this study is to examine the impact of a digital science curriculum, X-STEM, on student science achievement in 5th grade as well as to examine what other factors related to using a digital science curriculum (e.g., teacher training and attitudes, access to computers, etc.) are associated with student achievement. Using teacher survey data, learning analytics, and state achievement scores, this study will go beyond determining whether or not X-STEM is associated with greater student science achievement by examining factors within these classrooms that support or hinder the implementation of a digital science curriculum.

This research was based on a larger evaluation study of digital science curriculum that the folks at the Center for Digital Learning and Scholarship at Rice University.  The curriculum contains online content, with face-to-face labs and projects.

The study included 51 elementary schools in an urban area of Texas from the 2012-13 school year.  Data included teacher surveys, teacher focus groups, classroom observations, and the analytics from the curriculum.

In terms of the findings, the curriculum was used less than expected, and not necessarily in the expected or intended order.  one of the reasons for this was because teachers simply didn’t have the time to plan for it, as well as a lack of access to computers in their classroom.  In fact, the teachers often used the curriculum on an overhead projector or with the teacher printing out materials from the digital curriculum.  Basically, meaning that the environments were not actually blended environments – so the title of the session was more hopeful than reality.

The conclusions were a total reach.  Based on this single study in a single school year in a single urban district, there are few generalizable conclusions.  Yet this presenter had five detailed points that she tired to make the case for.  For anyone in the room critically looking at the data, and then sizing up the conclusions and recommendations, must have been cringing!

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