As I mentioned on several of my social media sites, yesterday I testified before the Michigan House of Representatives Education Committee on Senate Bill 619. The bill is designed to remove all restrictions related to cyber charter schooling in the State of Michigan. Below is my testimony.
Good morning. I appear before you today to question the wisdom of enacting Senate Bill 619. In her 2006 review of K-12 distance education literature, Boise State University professor Kerry Rice wrote that “a paucity of research exists when examining high school students enrolled in virtual schools, and the research base is smaller still when the population of students is further narrowed to the elementary grades.” I can tell you – based on my own research in the field over the past decade – that little has changed.
The limited research available mainly compares the performance of students in online environments against students enrolled in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. While this research has often found that online students do as well as or better than students enrolled in face-to-face classrooms, the research has also suffered from methodological limitations that have included unrepresentative samples in favor of the online students and a failure to control for other variables likely to influence student learning (and thus the outcome of the study). This research has also been hampered by issues of student selectivity. For example, researchers Margaret Haughey and Bill Muirhead described the typical online student represented in the literature as a highly motivated, self-directed, self-disciplined, independent learner who could read and write well, and who also had a strong interest in or ability with technology. Not exactly the characteristics of an average student, but consistent with descriptions by numerous other researchers.
It should also be noted that none of this comparative research included full-time online students. One of the few sources of data available on full-time online learning are legislative audits from a small number of states. For example, a 2006 audit in Colorado found full-time online students performed lower in math, reading and writing; and the difference was even larger in the higher grades. A 2011 investigative report in Colorado recently found that over the past four years full-time online students continued to score between 14 and 26 percent lower. While Colorado reports three graduates for each student that has dropped out, full-time online schools in that state report three dropouts for each graduate.
Similar results were reported in Minnesota, where the audit found full-time online students dropped out much more frequently. That audit also indicated full-time online students had significantly lower proficiency in math, but performed at a level similar to face-to-face students in reading. These mixed outcomes were also present in Wisconsin, where full-time online students performed better in reading, but generally lower in math. Simply put, based on the limited data that we have available to us, there is no evidence full-time online students perform any better than their face-to-face counterparts. In fact, the data thus far leads the independent observer to conclude that full-time online learning is actually detrimental to student success.
Proponents of cyber charter schools will argue these schools often enroll a higher percentage of at-risk students. Each of these legislative audits spoke to that issue. While the Minnesota audit found that full-time online schools did enroll a smaller percentage of gifted and talented students, it also reported the percentages of special education students and students eligible for free or reduced lunch were basically the same. The Wisconsin audit actually revealed that from 2002 to 2008 there were 75 percent fewer students receiving special education services in their cyber charter schools. The 2006 and 2011 Colorado data indicated few differences in the proportion of students attending cyber charter schools based on all of the State’s definitions encompassing characteristics of at-risk students.
Proponents also often argue that students need to be engaged in full-time online learning for longer than a single school year in order to experience its benefits. Again, the longitudinal data from Colorado has shown that, on average, there is a decrease in the percentage of students’ achieving proficiency the longer they are enrolled in full-time online learning.
When the cyber charter school legislative was first passed in Michigan, it limited the number of online schools and the number of students each school could enroll. This allowed for the controlled growth of these programs and, if this body permits those limitations to stay in place, will also allow for independent analysis of students’ performance in this new and largely unexamined form of educational delivery. This kind of managed growth has actually been shown to be quite successful in other jurisdictions. For example, from 2004 to 2006 Branson Online School – the third largest in Colorado with over 1000 students – had between 27 and 34 percent fewer students proficient in math, between 10 and 15 percent fewer students proficient in writing, and between 3 and 9 percent fewer students proficient in reading. Recognizing it had grown beyond its capability to adequately serve its students, the leadership right-sized the school. Presently, Branson has approximately 500 students, but also reported in 2011 a higher percentage of students achieving proficiency in reading, and only 6 percent fewer students proficient in math (an improvement of almost 25 percent from their 2006 score). This self-imposed managed growth exhibited by Branson was built into the original cyber charter school legislation here in Michigan. It would be a shame to remove it.
In addition to my written statement and fielding questions from eight or nine of the committee members, I also provided the committee with the following hand-out.
Research into K-12 Online Learning
Most research comparing student performance between online and face-to-face environments has found little difference in that performance. However, much of this research has been methodologically flawed or used samples that were skewed in favor of the online students.
Study Finding Problem Bigbie & McCarroll (2000) Florida- >50% of students got A- only 7% failed Between 25% and 50% of students had dropped out over the previous two-year period Cavanaugh (2001) Meta-analysis of 16 studies- small positive effect size in favor of online Studies varied in distance education format and amount of actual “distance” instruction Cavanaugh et al. (2004) Meta-analysis of 14 studies- small negative effect size for online students Stated decreased performance was due to wider range of students in online learning Cavanaugh et al. (2005) Florida- online better Online students were more academically motivated and naturally higher achieving students McLeod et al. (2005) Florida- online better in algebra Online class had a much higher dropout rate Means et al. (2009) Meta-analysis of 5 studies- small positive effect size in favor of online Caution is required in generalizing to the K–12 population because the results are derived for the most part from studies in other settings
None of this research included any full-time online students!
K-12 online learning research has been skewed towards a selective student in general.
Study Sample Kozma et al. (1998) vast majority of online students were planning to attend a four-year college Espinoza et al. (1999) students enrolled are mostly college bound Haughey & Muirhead (1999) preferred characteristics include the highly motivated, self-directed, self-disciplined, independent learner who could read and write well, and who also had a strong interest in or ability with technology Roblyer & Elbaum (2000) only students with a high need to control and structure their own learning may choose distance formats freely Clark et al. (2002) online students were highly motivated, high achieving, self-directed and/or who liked to work independently Mills (2003) typical online student was an A or B student Watkins (2005) 45% of the students who participated in online learning in Michigan were either advanced placement or academically advanced
Full-Time Online Learning Data
State of Colorado – 2006 Online Education Performance Audit
- “Online student scores in math, reading, and writing have been lower than scores for students statewide over the last three years.”
- “The difference in performance between online students and all students statewide is larger in higher grades.”
- “Our analysis of Colorado Student Assessment Program results and repeater, attrition, and dropout rates indicate that online schools may not be providing sufficiently for the needs of their students.”
State of Colorado – iNews Network Investigation (2011)
Using DOE data for 10,500 students enrolled in the 10 largest online schools from 2008-10.
- “Half of the online students wind up leaving within a year. When they do, they’re often further behind academically then when they started.”
- “Online schools produce three times as many dropouts as they do graduates. One of every eight online students drops out of school permanently – a rate four times the state average.”
- “Online student scores on statewide achievement tests are consistently 14 to 26 percentage points below state averages for reading, writing and math over the past four years.”
State of Wisconsin – Legislative Audit of Virtual Charter Schools (2010)
- “In all three years [i.e., 2005-06, 2006-07, and 2007-08] virtual charter school pupils in all grade levels [i.e., grades 3-10] had higher median scores on the reading section of the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination than the statewide median.”
- “Virtual charter school pupils’ median scores on the mathematics section of the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination were almost always lower than statewide medians during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 school years. However, in the 2007-08 school year, virtual charter school pupils in grades 4 through 7 had higher median scores,” approximately the same median scores in grades 8 through 9, and lower median scores in grade 10.
- “Because of the relative newness of virtual charter schools and their substantial growth since inception, readily available information on the performance of virtual charter school pupils would be of value to parents, school districts, legislators, and other policymakers.”
State of Minnesota – 2011 K-12 Online Learning Legislative Audit
- “Full-time online students dropped out much more frequently.”
- “Compared with all students statewide, full-time online students had significantly lower proficiency rates on the math MCA-II but similar proficiency rates in reading.”
- “During both years [i.e., 2008-09 and 2009-10], full-time online students enrolled in grades 4 through 8 made about half as much progress in math, on average, as other students in the same grade.”
Bigbie, C., & McCarroll, W. (2000). The Florida high school evaluation 1999-2000 report. Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University.
Cavanaugh, C. (2001). The effectiveness of interactive distance education technologies in K-12 learning: A meta-analysis. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 7(1), 73-88.
Cavanaugh, C., Gillan, K. J., Bosnick, J., Hess, M., & Scott, H. (2005). Succeeding at the gateway: Secondary algebra learning in the virtual school. Jacksonville, FL: University of North Florida.
Cavanaugh, C., Gillan, K. J., Kromrey, J., Hess, M., & Blomeyer, R. (2004). The effects of distance education on K–12 student outcomes: A meta-analysis. Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates. Retrieved from http://www.ncrel.org/tech/distance/k12distance.pdf
Espinoza, C., Dove, T., Zucker, A., & Kozma, R. (1999). An evaluation of the Virtual High School after two years in operation. Arlington, VA: SRI International. Retrieved from http://ctl.sri.com/publications/downloads/evalvhs2yrs.pdf
Haughey, M., & Muirhead, W. (1999). On-line learning: Best practices for Alberta school jurisdictions. Edmonton, AB: Government of Alberta. Retrieved from http://www.phrd.ab.ca/technology/best_practices/on-line-learning.pdf
Kozma, R., Zucker, A., & Espinoza, C. (1998). An evaluation of the Virtual High School after one year in operation. Arlington, VA: SRI International. Retrieved from http://ctl.sri.com/publications/downloads/evalvhs1yr.pdf
McLeod, S., Hughes, J. E., Brown, R., Choi, J., & Maeda, Y. (2005). Algebra achievement in virtual and traditional schools. Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates.
Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones K. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Mills, S. (2003). Implementing Online Secondary Education: An Evaluation of a Virtual High School. In C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2003 (pp. 444-451). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
Roblyer, M. D., & Elbaum, B. (2000). Virtual learning? Research on virtual high schools Learning & Leading with Technology, 27(4), 58-61.
Watkins, T. (2005). Exploring e-learning reforms for Michigan: The new educational (r)evolution. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20051208000848/http://www.coe.wayne.edu/e-learningReport.pdf