On Tuesday, I described that the Politics Of K-12 Online Learning is a real thing and, unlike those that are trying to claim otherwise, is based on ideological grounds. On Wednesday, I described the neo-liberal and neo-conservative Ideologies of K-12 Online Learning. Today I want to look at some of the tactics that these neo-liberals and neo-conservatives use when advocating on behalf of their ideologically motivated support of K-12 online learning. Or rather, I want to examine how these ideological proponent react in the face of evidence against their cause…
As I see if, there are really three main strategies that I have seen employed on a regular basis and I’ll use some recent examples of negative items to illustrate each of these tactics. The three tactics are:
- Claim methodological issues or that the finding is an irregularity.
- Jump on one small error or omission, while ignoring the overall focus on the piece.
- Ridicule your opponent, change the focus of the story, or duck the issue altogether.
To examine these tactics I will use the following pieces of negative attention:
- National Education Policy Center’s (NEPC) report Online K-12 Schooling in the US: Uncertain Private Ventures in Need of Public Regulation
- The Nation‘s article on “How Online Learning Companies Bought America’s Schools“
- The Wall Street Journal‘s article on “My Teacher Is an App“
- the I-News Network and Education News Colorado 10-month investigation on online K-12 schools in Colorado
Let’s look at the first negative piece: the NEPC’s report Online K-12 Schooling in the US: Uncertain Private Ventures in Need of Public Regulation. The main message from this report is that there is little evidence to support the effectiveness of full-time K-12 online learning and that we need more regulation in this area to ensure that those with ideological motivations don’t take advantage of the situation for their own greed. The report cites several recent examinations of full-time K-12 online learning performance in Minnesota and Colorado as evidence of the lack of research supporting this form of online learning.
Now, let’s examine some responses to that piece:
- Union policy shop wants to stop learning online
- “Unregulated” online learning providers?
- Do Virtual Schools Need Regulation?
The first of these three responses (i.e., Union policy shop wants to stop learning online) is a blog entry by Tom Vander Ark, where he refers to the NEPC as a “union policy shop” and the report as a “hit piece.” He begins by providing a slanted summary of the report, and then begins the duck and cover routine (i.e., tactic #3). He writes things like: “Then they get to the point—they hate full time virtual schools.” or “The report raises a ridiculous set of concerns” or “there are (OMG!) for-profit companies involved in online learning.” And then he cites his own resume and why he supports his position. At no point does he really address any of the specific issues raised by the authors of this report, and he basically skirts the main message.
The second of these responses (i.e., “Unregulated” online learning providers?) is a blog entry written by Bruce Friend. In the NEPC report, the authors end with four specific areas of concern – in addition to the overall message that we should be cautious about throwing open the doors to this unproven form of educational delivery. One of those four areas was concerns over the authentication of the source of students’ work. Now I’ll be honest with you, I disagree with the NEPC authors that this is any more of a concern in the online environment than it is in the face-to-face environment. But with that disagreement, I don’t lose sight of the overall message of the NEPC report. Friend on the other hand, uses this invalid NEPC concern as a reason why the report should be discredited (i.e., tactic #2).
The third response (i.e., Do Virtual Schools Need Regulation?) on the NEPC report is a blog entry from Rob Darrow. Of the three entries, I’ll admit that Rob does the best job of summarizing what the report actually says (even copying and pasting the goals directly from the report). Rob’s tact in attempting to discredit this report is to attack the methodology of the report. Rob provides a laundry list of articles and reports that he feels the authors should have cited as a way to essentially discredit the comprehensiveness of the NEPC authors’ coverage of the research in our field. What he is trying to say is that the NEPC report should be viewed in suspect terms because they, in his opinion, overlooked all of this other research.
Moving on to our second negative piece: The Nation‘s article on “How Online Learning Companies Bought America’s Schools.” This article provides a list of who’s who in this ideological warfare to privatize America’s public schools through the use of online learning. While I will acknowledge that some of the claims of conspiracy theories that the author makes may be stretching it a bit, the main purpose of the article is to highlight how a group of ideologically like-minded individuals, that all seem to be closely connected, are largely responsible for what appears to be a mass movement. There are two good examples of the neo-liberal/neo-conservative response to this article.
- The Nation’s Online Learning Omission / The Nation’s Online Learning Omission
- The Nation Hit Piece Had Little to do With What’s Good For Students
The first response (i.e., The Nation’s Online Learning Omission / The Nation’s Online Learning Omission) is a blog entry by Bill Tucker that was posted on different two blogs. Tucker’s blog entry provides what he sees as the summary and motivation of The Nation‘s article, and then points to the fact that the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is a public institution (even though the mentions of the FLVS in the original article were focused on historical events or the infamous Florida Tax Watch report). Essentially, Tucker points what he feels is specific omission that the author has made in an attempt to discredit his work (i.e., tactic #2), and then goes on a tangent about the success of the FLVS, Standford’s Online School for the Gifted, and the North Carolina Virtual Public School (i.e., tactic #3).
In the second response (i.e., The Nation Hit Piece Had Little to do With What’s Good For Students), Tom Vander Ark uses his blog to do what Vander Ark does best. He again refers to this negative piece as a “hit” piece, incorrectly describing it as a piece that was “condemning anyone promoting innovation in education” and saying that he wasn’t “even going to link to it because they embarrassed themselves.” Then in true slapstick fashion, provides a “Top Ten List” of things they got wrong – which is another veiled attempt to ridicule the article (i.e., tactic #3). The list itself has little to do with the article’s main point that a small group of well financed, well connected individuals are largely responsible for efforts to use online learning as a way to impose an ideological agenda on the American education system.
The third negative piece that I wanted to look at was The Wall Street Journal‘s article on “My Teacher Is an App.” This article does a pretty good job of setting the stage for what full-time online learning might look like (both from the student’s standpoint if you were watching them to what is actually happening online with their descriptions of different levels of teacher interaction and involvement), accurately describing the current state of practice of full-time K-12 online learning, when questioning the results from these programs by looking at some of the recent evidence that has found students in these cyber charter schools performing at lower levels than their brick-and-mortar counterparts (but giving column inches to those involved in the practice to justify and talk away these negative findings)… Overall a fairly reasonable and balanced piece – at least in my opinion. However, not everyone saw it like me.
- WSJ Picks Problems, Misses the Promise of Learning Online
- “My Teacher is an App” Thoughts about the article
The first response (i.e., WSJ Picks Problems, Misses the Promise of Learning Online) is a blog entry written by Tom Vander Ark. His response follows the usual pattern, as he accuses the authors of focusing on the negative realities instead of the future promise – basically a strategy that says ignore what is actually happening and focus on what could happen. Then he reverts to another list (only top eight this time – maybe David Letterman’s people called and complained about his usage of the “Top Ten”). If you examine the list, you’ll see examples like: “The article points to lower math scores and less progress for full time online students. I’m afraid this is just not an accurate comparison. Like charter schools, the longer students stay in online schools the better they do.” (i.e., tactic #2). The research that Vander Ark is pointing to is not an accurate comparison either because the longer a charter school (and the same can be said about an online charter school) is around the more effective they become at weeding out lower performing students (which raises the charter school’s overall performance, and because those lower performing students return to their traditional public schools it further lowers their comparative performance). I will acknowledge that the research the article cites is probably not an apples to apples comparison, the research Vander Ark is pointing to is also not an apples to apples comparison. There are several other platitude statements in his list, but none that actually have the support in research. For example, Vander Ark writes “They call the Florida Virtual history course a video game and suggest kids breeze through it. Conspiracy Code is an innovative game-based approach to both English and history that engages students and build persistence but is certainly no less rigorous than a traditional course.” However, there has yet to be an published, independent research on student performance using that game. Vander Ark concludes his blog entry with a list of six things that the author missed. This list includes similar unsupported statements. For example, the third item is that “Online is accountable.” If you’ve been following the news coming out of Virgina this week (see Will Virginia’s first virtual school report separate test results?), there is little accountability built into many system (also, look at the main point of the NEPC report above).
In the second response (i.e., “My Teacher is an App” Thoughts about the article), another blog entry, Rob Darrow provides a response to both The Wall Street Journal article and a blog entry written by Will Richardson. Similar to the earlier entry above, Rob relies upon the tactics of questioning methodology (i.e., tactic #2), while failing to consider the methodological limitations of some of the research he cites himself. For example, in responding to a statement above graduation rates and what can be done about the low numbers in some jurisdictions, Rob writes “Online or blended learning can do this and research has shown this.” The link simply takes you to a main links page on Rob’s consulting website that on face value contains no research. If you cared to stick around and explore a bit, the links on the side provide alphabetical lists of articles reports and other literature – some research-based, others not – that you can scroll through. Not sure exactly what research Rob intends for us to look at, but I can guarantee the casual reader would have no idea where to begin (hell, I’m considered an expert in this area, I didn’t know where to begin). As another example, in response to a comment about the amount and quality of teacher interaction, Rob concludes his point by writing “Online teachers in many cases interact more with students individually online than they do face-to-face. (As one example, see Lowes et al, 2007).” First, notice the qualifier that “in many cases” – which of course opens the door for the statement “but in many other cases…” Second, the research that Rob cites is a single study into a four week professor development course for teachers at six different schools in three different states. Are we to assume that teachers from six schools in three different states will have the same experience as 16 year olds or 12 year olds of 8 year olds? Finally, in another one of Rob’s responses related to student performance, he writes:
Most students who enroll in full time online charter schools do so because they have either been pushed out (behavior, attendance or credit deficiency issues) or become disenchanted by traditional public schools. (See: Zimmer et al, 2009). The challenge for any school other than traditional public schools is the same: how to erase past negative educational experiences to promote a love of learning and how to promote longevity of attendance. The current reality is that many students enroll in charter or online charter schools for a year or less and then move to a different school – sometimes another charter, sometimes another traditional school and sometimes just drop out.
What he is saying here is that the sample for these cyber charter schools are often skewed towards the lower end of the scale and straight-up comparisons aren’t a fair representation – essentially it is comparing apples and oranges. I don’t disagree with Rob here. But where is this concern for skewed sample when Rob is referring to the research that shows K-12 online learning is effective?
The final negative piece I wanted to use as an illustration is the I-News Network and Education News Colorado 10-month investigation on online K-12 schools in Colorado. Essentially, this was a comparison of student performance of these full-time K-12 online learning programs or cyber charter schools in the State of Colorado. The three-part series basically says that students in these cyber charter schools do not perform as well as students in the face-to-face environment (part two). The series also underscored the fact that these cyber charter schools often receive the funding for the student on the state’s count day, but the students regularly drop out of their online programs and return to their brick-and-mortar schools. However, the cyber charter schools still get to keep the money and the brick-and-mortar school is left having to educate a child that they didn’t get funding for (part one). Finally, that the state has little oversight or system of accountability for these cyber charter schools (part three). There are three responses to this series that I want to discuss:
- Colorado’s crummy policies lead to crummy virtual schools
- Moving away from a count date in Colorado
- Take Another Look at Colorado Online Results
The first response (i.e., Colorado’s crummy policies lead to crummy virtual schools) comes to us from a blog entry written by Michael Horn. As you can tell from the title of this entry, the first tactic that Michael uses is tactic #3. He ignores the fact that the corporation that are running these cyber charter schools are making profit from students that they aren’t providing any education to, and blames the Government (recall McChesney’s  description of the neo-liberal initiatives, “undermine the dead hand of the incompetent, bureaucratic and parasitic government, that can never do good”). Then he changes his strategy to address the unfavourable student comparison by stating, “As I’ve written numerous times, studying whether online learning is more or less effective than traditional learning is invariably asking the wrong question.” (i.e., tactic #2). The problem is that in the very next paragraph, he begins with “And just because many studies show that on average online and blended learning work better than does face-to-face learning.” The link is a blog entry, where Michael is extolling the value of blended and online learning because of a study that asked the wrong question of whether online learning is more or less effective than traditional learning, but got the right answer this time.
The second response (i.e., Moving away from a count date in Colorado) is a blog entry posted by the executive of one of the for-profit cyber charter companies. In this entry the corporate executive also ignores the fact that his company is making a lot of money by not servicing students that they are getting funded to service, and again blames the Government of Colorado and its policies (i.e., tactic #3). After spending some time blaming the Government, he then moves to the issue of student performance where he cites that:
- In 2010, COVA graduated 100% of students on time (in 4 years) who were enrolled in the school since their freshman year.
- COVA students showed strong academic growth scores based on widely used and nationally-recognized Scantron Performance Series Assessments. COVA students exceeded the Scantron national norm group in math and reading.
What these figures don’t count are students that removed themselves from the program during the COVA’s four week trial period, in which a student can drop out of the program and not be considered ever having enrolled (i.e., tactics #2). The one study out there that has examined these trial periods (and also completion definitions) found that K-12 online learning programs often use these trial periods as a way to weed out students who will be unsuccessful; sending them back to the brick-and-mortar schools to inflate their lower range scores.
The final response to this series (i.e., Take Another Look at Colorado Online Results) was a blog entry written by a staffer at Getting Smart (another initiative founded by Tom Vander Ark). This entry follows the same pattern as the other two: it begins by blaming the Government policy, but makes no mention of the legalize theft of educational tax dollars (i.e., tactic #3) and then cites methodologically limited research countering the series claims that students performed lower in these full-time K-12 online learning programs (i.e., tactic #2).
Now I could go on and pick just about any negative piece that has come out about K-12 online learning in the past three years and find examples of these three tactics in action. These are just some recent examples, and are by no means an exhaustive coverage of any of these four negative pieces. Early next week (i.e., Monday or Tuesday), I’ll conclude this discussion with some thoughts on my own position in light of this ideologically co-option of K-12 online learning, and its continued assault on public education.