Virtual School Meanderings

July 17, 2017

EDTECH537 – Commentary Entry: The Problem With the Media Coverage of K-12 Online Learning

As I mentioned in the Week 4 entry for my EDTECH537 – Blogging In The Classroom course earlier this morning, I wanted to post a sample of a commentary entry.

For a while now, I have been bothered by the way that the media has taken to reporting on issues of importance – a balanced approach.  For whatever reason, in the past decade or so, journalists have taken to whatever issue they were covering by attempting to present a balanced position of the issue – regardless of whether the issue was actually balanced or not.  We’ve seen some folks that watch the media talk about this in recent month (see here and here), often using climate change as one of the main example (e.g., 97% of scientist agree on one position, but the other 3% get half of the airtime in every single piece).  This is not new – for example, check out this academic paper from 2007 that outlines the nature of climate change media coverage.

As someone who is regularly interviewed by the media for news items related to K-12 distance, online, and/or blended learning, I often read the articles that eventually appear with my quote(s) in them with interest to see how the journalist presented the issue.  And I am always struck by the pattern that emerges…  Basically, the regular format is that you have some expert – like myself – that talks about the unrealized potential, and the fact that the research shows that these programs often do incredibly poorly compared to the traditional brick-and-mortar learning.  You often have some legislator or policy person or traditional brick-and-mortar personnel that is advising caution, maybe even complaining to some extent about the situation – but never to the level that is being called for by the academic.  Countering these positions, you have some combination of an online school official (or someone connected with the online program), a parent of an online student, and/or an online student themselves.  Invariably these three individuals are lauding the online program as being some kind of saviour for them and students like them.  The fact that they are the exception to the rule, the one student that does succeed when the other nine fail, is never mentioned and is seemingly irrelevant.  What the reader is left with is the impression that these online schools/programs can be great things, and it is only those egghead academics and other, traditional school folks that want to continue to shackle the children to their desks in some kind of failed system.

I got the bee in my bonnet about this issue after reading the piece below.  Note that I have colour-coded the format above, and I use those colours to help illustrate my point below.

States Struggle With Oversight of Online Charter Schools

As enrollment in online charter schools explodes, states are struggling to keep up and to put in place regulations ensuring students get a real education and cyber schools get the right amount of funding.

May 26, 2017, at 5:01 p.m.

Celiah Aker poses at her desk at home

Celiah Aker poses at her desk at home, Monday, Feb. 6, 2017, in Medina, Ohio. Aker is in ninth grade and it is her fifth year at Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) , an online school. As enrollment in online charter schools exploded in recent years, states have struggled to catch up with oversight to ensure that the students taking classes at home via computers get a real education and the “cyber schools” receive the proper amount of public funding. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS


COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — As U.S. children flock to virtual charter schools, states are struggling to catch up and develop rules to make sure the students get a real education and schools get the right funding.

The future of virtual schools is part of the larger school-choice debate seeing renewed attention since the installation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, an online charter investor and advocate who sees them as a valuable option for students.

While some perform well, the sector has been plagued by accounts of low standards, mismanagement, and inflated participation counts at schools that are reimbursed based on the number of enrolled students. Ohio’s largest online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, this month lost the latest round of its battle over $60 million the state says is owed for enrollment that cannot be justified.

Findings of underperformance at e-schools have been so prevalent that even supporters have called for policymakers to intervene.

“There’s overwhelming consensus that these schools are performing terribly poor and yet, you know, nothing’s happening,” said Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University professor who researches online charters for the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado and believes such schools can work, but not under the current model.

Nationwide, enrollment in virtual schools has tripled over the past decade, and some 278,000 students as young as kindergarteners were enrolled in 58 full-time online schools across 34 states for the 2015-16 school year, according to data from the policy center. Other groups’ estimates put virtual enrollment even higher. Half the virtual schools are charters and the rest are district-run, but charters have most of the students.

The schools’ supporters say they fill a gap by meeting the needs of nontraditional students — those with challenging schedules, severe health issues, troubles with focus or bullying, or who are working or traveling or parenting children of their own.

Ninth-grader Celiah Aker, 14, is an honors student who has attended the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow since the fifth grade.

“I wanted the flexibility to do other things, instead of just school,” Aker said. “I have a lot of friends who are in regular public school, and they always get bombarded with so many hours of homework. I get to hang with my family and go to sports events and go and do my dance classes.”

Nowhere have regulators’ struggles been on display more than Ohio, which ranks among the states with the most students enrolled in virtual charters. The state had broader charter-school rules but didn’t outline many specific e-school standards or enrollment limits for them until more than a decade after ECOT opened.

Now the school is locked in a protracted legal battle with the state over how it tracks students’ hours, a dispute that traces to before the state had any online charter regulations on the books. A hearing officer recently recommended the state education board take action to collect millions from the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow due to undocumented enrollment.

Jeremy Aker, Celiah’s dad, said implications that ECOT students are chronically absent and the school is undeserving of state assistance are discouraging for his daughter.

“You were a 4.0 student during the 2015-2016 school year, in the National Honor Society, and because you didn’t sit logged into a screen for 5 hours a day, we’re actually going to call you truant and we want our money back,” he said.

Finding the balance has also tripped up other states.

In Colorado, where an Education Week investigation found only a quarter of the students at one online school were using the software on a typical day, recent Democratic legislative proposals to have the state certify authorizers of cyber schools and study data have fizzled without a full vote.

A lack of uniform attendance tracking also muddied the development of virtual schools in Oklahoma earlier this decade. One charter school, Epic, was referred to state fraud investigators for issues including how it counted students — though nothing came of the review. In 2015, legislators overhauled the law requiring closure of poor-performing charters, instituting a more rigorous application process and stepping up requirements for sponsors. Epic’s performance rankings are now high. Republican Gov. Frank Keating is speaking at Epic’s graduation next month.

States have been slow to respond to red flags, in part because lobbying by for-profit operators and other supporters hampered legislative proposals aimed at improving accountability, Miron said.

DeVos was herself a major donor to those efforts before becoming education secretary. What influence her appointment will have on states’ efforts to regulate charter schools is not yet clear. The department didn’t respond to interview requests.

In Ohio, state records show ECOT founder William Lager has donated about $765,000 to state-level campaigns. Nationwide, charter school owners, operators and advocacy groups have donated almost $89 million to state-level campaigns over the past decade, according to data collected by the nonprofit Institute for Money in State Politics.

A report last summer from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the nonprofit 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now called for policymakers and school authorizers to intervene to address problems with online charters.

“Left unchecked, these problems have the potential to overshadow the positive impacts this model currently has for some students,” the report said.


Find the reporters on Twitter at and

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

In case you are wondering…

  • 127 words
  • 63 words
  • 264 words, plus a big, sympathetic picture

Basically, the feel good stuff – that has no basis of fact beyond the experience of that one student and that one parent – is being used to prop up an entire industry that has 278,000 students (according to the article itself).  Not only is it used to prop up the industry, but it that content actually gets about 50% more content than the expert that has been looking at the topic for over a decade and the group that is urging some form of caution (and that’s not even counting the picture that accompanies the news item).  For someone who doesn’t know much about the issue, the article does a reasonable job on presenting the facts or details (basically all the stuff I left in black).  But these statements of fact, when contrasted by those individuals in the know (i.e., the expert and the cautionary group vs. the student and parent) it does leave a very different impression.  And it is an incorrect impression.

What the reporter should have done was to include comments from three or four parents and/or students that enrolled in an online program and then felt completely isolated, had no one communicate with them, and eventually dropped out to return to the traditional brick-and-mortar system further behind than what they were to begin with.  Add that to this piece, along with the expert and the cautionary group, then you might have a news item that was truly reflective of the current situation.


  1. Michael:
    You’ve given me an opportunity to use this post for an illustration of accessibility. Wish I could attach a screen shot of an app (Color Blindness SimulateCorrect). It illustrates how just using color doesn’t work for someone who has color blindness. Given your choice of colors, I can tell that you’ve selected some text, but there’s no differentiation between the colors. A simple solution to this would be to use a different font and different color. But, without that, just using color means a segment of the population misses the message. (Data puts color blindness at about 8% of males and less than 1% of females).

    This is an issue cited by OCR as an accessibility problem. And, it’s one that is easy to avoid.

    Thanks for providing a great opportunity to illustrate another issue for your students.


    Comment by onlinelearningevangelist — July 18, 2017 @ 6:48 am | Reply

    • Ray, this is great feedback – and something I would never have considered myself. I’ve made some changes to the format above to see if this is a better model. Let me know what you think?

      Comment by Michael Barbour — July 18, 2017 @ 9:41 am | Reply

  2. That works. Though I don’t like underlining in general that’s more stylistic on my part. But you’ve effectively addressed the difference so it’s not just color used to differentiate content. in online courses or websites the problem is often manifest in a direction like: s”elect the red button for A and the green button for B” — rather than the red triangle and the green square.

    Comment by onlinelearningevangelist — July 18, 2017 @ 9:57 am | Reply

  3. […] Commentary Entry: The Problem With the Media Coverage of K-12 Online Learning […]

    Pingback by EDTECH537 – End Of Course | Virtual School Meanderings — August 14, 2017 @ 8:01 am | Reply

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