Virtual School Meanderings

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!

AERA 2014 – Beyond the Rhetoric: Examining the Economic Rationales and the Evidence-Based

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

Many current education reforms are touted as having the potential to substantially enhance student achievement at scale and, thereby, contribute to the nation’s economic competitiveness. This symposium will offer a critical examination of the economic rationale, as well as the claims for two salient reforms: (i) data-driven improvement and accountability; and (ii) on-line, virtual schooling. Presenters will demonstrate that, contrary to the assertions of proponents, the evidence-base for these reforms is quite narrow and the prospects for success are much dimmer than promised. The symposium highlights the fact that policy makers’ desire “to do something” often leads to a rush to implementation built on an over-interpretation of the existing evidence — or even a willful misreading of that evidence.

I wasn’t able to attend this session because it conflicted with the special education and cyber charter session.  But I did want to highlight the three sessions in this symposium.  The first session in this room was:

Will Contemporary Reform Strategies Provide the International Economic Progress and Educational Equity Gains They Promise?
William J. Mathis, University of Colorado – Boulder

1. Purpose – Since the 1983 Nation at Risk report, the most prominent educational reform strategy has been top-down, test-based, accountability accompanied by punitive consequences and frequently including various forms of privatization. The primary rationale for this approach, according to President Obama, is to make the nation economically competitive in a twenty-first century world. A second claimed benefit is the achievement of educational equity. By separating test scores by wealth and racial groups, a light will be cast on the nation’s educational disparities which will, in turn, have the salutary effect of forcing remediation of the inequities.

The purpose of this paper is to examine whether these education reform strategies produce or hold promise of producing these economic and social benefits.

2. Perspectives / Theoretical Framework – The primary determinants of national economic growth are first established through the economics literature. Then, these elements are compared to the focus of various education reform strategies. In terms of social equity, the primary approach is to explore whether the achievement gap has closed, stayed the same, or widened during the time frame of the reforms.

3. Modes of Inquiry – The methods are correlational and descriptive. The work of various labor economists is examined with a particular emphasis on current and projected job requirements in terms of types, levels and skills. The effects of education standards (and their relative difficulty) are reviewed in both a national and international context. Funding equity and adequacy are examined as relates to the identified break-out groups of interest with a focus on whether achievement gaps are opening, closing or staying about the same.

4. Data sources – World Economic Forum international economic criteria, international rankings of this data, National Assessment scores across groups and over time, National Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, identified skills for the twenty—first century, the Common Core State Standards content, and national testing consortia test specifications (to the degree they are available) are the primary data sources employed.

5. Results – Preliminary evidence indicates that contemporary reforms have led to a narrowed essentialist curriculum, a relative neglect of the broader purposes of education, the relative omission of soft skills, a failure to close the achievement gap, negligible gains from privatization efforts, a lack of relationship between achievement and difficulty of standards, and only a weak relationship between test scores and international economic competitiveness.

5. Significance of the Study – If the contemporary test-based accountability reform strategies advance national workforce and economic needs while also advancing democratic and equity goals, then we can conclude that this reform strategy is sound. If the indicators do not align or have not moved in the desired direction, then scholars, practitioners and policy-makers must more closely examine the efficacy of these reforms and whether they should be continued.

The second session in the room was:

Data-Driven Improvement and Accountability
Andrew Hargreaves, Boston College; Henry I. Braun, Boston College

This presentation offers a critical examination of data-driven improvement and accountability (DDIA): the policies and practices concerning the use of data to inform school improvement strategies and to provide information for accountability. DDIA can lead either to greater quality and equity, or to deterioration of services and distraction from core purposes. Hargreaves and Braun (2013) address the focal question: What factors and forces can lead DDIA to generate more positive and fewer negative outcomes in relation to both improvement and accountability?

Although educational accountability is meant to contribute to improved student learning, there are often tensions and even conflicts between improvement and accountability. Drawing on data from business and sports, as well as education, the presentation identifies five key factors that influence the success or failure of DDIA systems in public education:

(i) The nature and scope of the data employed by the improvement and accountability systems;
(ii) The types of indicators used to track progress or to make comparisons among schools and districts;
(iii) The interactions between the improvement and accountability systems;
(iv) The kinds of consequences attached to high and low performance and how those consequences are distributed;
(v) The culture and context of data use .

In general, we argue that over more than two decades, through accumulating statewide initiatives in DDIA and then in the successive Federal initiatives, DDIA in the U.S. has come to exert increasingly adverse effects on public education, because high-stakes and high-threat accountability, rather than improvement and accountability together, have become the prime drivers of educational change.

Contrary to the practices of countries with high performance on international assessments, and of high performing organizations in business and sports, DDIA in the U.S. has been skewed towards accountability over improvement. It has focused on what is easily measured rather than on what is educationally valued. The high-stakes, high-pressure environment of educational accountability, in which arbitrary numerical targets are hierarchically imposed, has led to extensive gaming and continuing disruptions of the system, with unacceptable consequences for the learning and achievement of the most disadvantaged students. Instead of being informed by the evidence, educators become driven to distraction by narrowly defined data that compel them to analyze grids, dashboards, and spreadsheets in order to bring about short-term improvements in results.

The presentation concludes with twelve recommendations for establishing more effective systems and processes of data-driven or evidence-informed improvement and accountability. The significance of the research presented is that, drawing on data and experiences from different sectors and different countries, it offers a credible and coherent prescription for resolving the tensions between improvement and accountability. These are most likely to be resolved when there is collaborative involvement in data collection and analysis, collective responsibility for improvement, and a consensus that the indicators involved in DDIA are accurate and fair. When these conditions are absent, improvement efforts and outcomes-based accountability can work at cross-purposes, to the detriment of all.

Hargreaves, A. & Braun, H. (2013). Data-driven Improvement and Accountability. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

And the third session in this symposium:

The Virtual Evidence Base for Virtual Education and the Implications for Policy
Jennifer K. Rice, University of Maryland; Luis Alberto Huerta, Teachers College, Columbia University

Over the past decade, virtual education has become a focal point among policy makers interested in expanding education choice options and improving the efficiency of public education. In particular, full-time virtual schools, also known as online schools or cyber schools, have attracted a great deal of attention. Proponents argue that the individually tailored nature of online curriculum has the potential to promote greater student achievement in comparison to traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Further, lower costs – primarily in the areas of instructional personnel and facilities – make virtual schools appealing from a fiscal resource perspective. Assumptions about the cost-effectiveness of virtual schools, coupled with their alignment with policies to expand school choice and the market incentives they present to for-profit companies, have fueled a fast-growing movement of virtual school expansion in the U.S. To date, 30 states and the District of Columbia allow full-time virtual schools to operate (Watson, et al. 2011) and estimates of student enrollment in virtual schools nationwide range between 200,000 to more than 250,000 (Molnar, et al. 2013). The majority of these students are enrolled in a small number of large for-profit EMOs.

This presentation will critically examine the extant evidence base for virtual education, and will discuss a number of key policy measures that should be considered as this education reform movement continues to unfold. While many states have adopted legislation that permits full-time virtual schools and increasing numbers of parents and students are choosing these options, little is known about the effectiveness of this approach to education. Existing evidence on the effectiveness of virtual education is mixed, and a recent U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis found that “few rigorous research studies of the effectiveness of online learning for K-12 students have been published” (Means, 2010, xiv).

Given the insufficient evidence to support online initiatives in elementary and secondary schools, scaling up virtual school reform presents significant implementation and accountability challenges (Molnar, et al. 2013). A continuing challenge for states will be to reconcile traditional funding mechanisms, governance structures, and accountability demands with the unique organiza¬tional models and instructional methods found in virtual schools. Drawing on recent reports and our own research on virtual charter schools, we consider relevant policy issues in the areas of finance and governance, instructional program quality, and high quality teachers. For each topic, we present the critical issues, common assumptions, and unanswered empirical questions. We conclude with a set of policy recommendations.

Barbara Means, et. al. (2010). Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development.

Molnar, A. (Ed.); Miron, G., Huerta, L., Cuban, L., Horvitz, B., Gulosino, C., Rice, J.K., & Shafer, S.R. (2013). Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2013:Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

Watson, J., Murin, A., Vashaw, L., Gemin, B., & Rapp, C. (2011). Keeping pace with K-12 online learning: A review of state-level policy and practice. Evergreen, CO: Evergreen Education Group.

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