Virtual School Meanderings

May 20, 2022

How well do online schools serve students?

Earlier this week I posted John’s commentary on on the recent GAO report, and outlined an area where I felt John discussed an issue that I felt was just a red herring (see GAO study suggests online school wars may be decreasing).  Usually, John and I agree on most things.  We come to a similar position in VERY different routes often times, but our end point is usually in the same general area.  If you read the entry earlier this week you’ll note that wasn’t the case.  It also isn’t the case today.

This week John decided to address the issue of student performance in online schools, and he couldn’t have missed the mark more…

John summarizes the debate around this issue with four points – but he leaves out some critical aspects of that summary that I’ve added in red to help readers.

  • Advocates use state average metrics like proficiency tests and graduation rates to argue traditional brick-and-mortar schools are failing our students and that policymakers should open the education system up for free market alternatives like online schools.
  • Critics point to those same state proficiency tests and graduation rates, which often have since 2006 consistently shown online charter schools performing below state averages.
  • Online school advocates respond that their student population is not captured by those same state averages they used to originally argue that the system was broken.
  • Critics up the ante by citing academic studies that say they are comparing similar groups of students and still showing lower performance on state assessments and in some cases, graduation rates.
  • Advocates respond that their students are still not being captured accurately because those studies almost never account for student mobility, while ignoring that the reality of that mobility means that when the online school fails the students the student ends up back in the brick-and-mortar cohort that is being compared (often further behind then they were when they originally left for the online school).
  • The reality from the published literature has been that state audits, investigative journalists, independent researchers, even charter school organizations have all been consistent in their findings; with only the corporations that support these online schools  and bodies funded by the online school advocates finding anything different.

The problem is that John (and the Walton-funded Department of Educational Reform at the University of Arkansas) ignore is why the research has consistently found for basically two decades that students who attend full-time online schools underperform those who remain in brick-and-mortar settings – even when those online schools serve a population of students with fewer markers of being at-risk.

The reality is that more than two thirds of the full-time online students in the United States attend an online school that is directly or indirectly run by a for-profit corporation.  In fact, the populations of students included in the research in many cases exclusively come from online schools that is directly or indirectly run by a for-profit corporation.

What are some of the things that we know about these schools that might account for the consistent poor student outcomes (beyond the excuses that advocates serve up)?

  1. The student-teacher ratio in online schools run directly or indirectly by for-profit corporations is higher than other online schools and much higher than brick-and-mortar schools.
  2. In several states the online schools run directly or indirectly by for-profit corporations have successfully argued that because their instructional model relies upon asynchronous instruction that the online course content, because it was designed by highly qualified teachers, should meet the state requirement of the student being taught by a highly qualified teacher.  This means that there is an even higher student-highly qualified teacher ratio in these online schools than the official student-teacher ratio.
  3. In online schools run directly or indirectly by for-profit corporations the instructional model demands that the learning coach (which is often a parent/guardian or other family member) perform the primary instructional role for the student.
  4. While there is much hype about personalized learning and individualized instruction, the method of delivery and the asynchronous content in online schools run directly or indirectly by for-profit corporations is the same for all students.  The only customization that occurs is how much the student has to complete, which is decided by the AI in the system after the student completes a standardized assessment (similar to the ones that online school advocates complained about above).
  5. The role of the teacher in many online schools run directly or indirectly by for-profit corporations is that of a grader for things that their learning management system is unable to grade and an on-demand tutor.
  6. In most online schools run directly or indirectly by for-profit corporations the online course content and the standardized assessments focus solely upon the state standards, and fail to include some of the broader goals that brick-and-mortar educators routinely include.

You’ll note that I have used the phrase online schools run directly or indirectly by for-profit corporations above – and I have done so purposefully.  While we can point to specific things that we know about these online schools run directly or indirectly by for-profit corporations and say that is the reason their students perform so poorly in the research.  For example, a much higher student-teacher ratio would mean that the teacher has less time to spend facilitating learning for each student, which is likely to lead to lower student performance in any environment.  The real question for us critics (and I do hate to suggest that I’m in John’s critic column and he’s in the online school advocate columns, but with these recent entries he has been intentionally or unintentionally schilling on their behalf), what is the motivation for online schools run directly or indirectly by for-profit corporations that led to this six realities?

Did the online schools run directly or indirectly by for-profit corporations decide on a higher student-teacher ratio because it was a better instructional model?  Did online schools run directly or indirectly by for-profit corporations decide to have fewer highly qualified teachers for direct instruction because they felt that the students would learn more effectively with online content created by highly qualified teachers?  Did online schools run directly or indirectly by for-profit corporations decide to have a parent/guardian or other family member play the primary instructional role because they felt it would help the student learn better?  And so on…

Or did the online schools run directly or indirectly by for-profit corporations because it would maximize the amount of profit that could be made per student?

For all of the smoke and mirrors that online school advocates will try to use to distract you (e.g., state assessments are flawed, the research doesn’t compare similar groups, studies don’t account for the distance online students have to travel to take the assessments, there is a failure to account for student mobility, etc.), the truth is that this issue is the same one that is at the root of this poisonous tree.  The way that corporations make a profit is to maximize the margin between the cost to produce the widget and what they can sell that widget for.

For online schools run directly or indirectly by for-profit corporations the widget is the student, and the corporation makes profit by maximizing the margin between the cost to education the student and the funding they get from that students FTE.  So what happens is that instructional decisions get made based on maximizing the margin and not based on what is sound educational principles.

Is the modality of full-time online schools to blame for that, of course not.  But the reality is that online school advocates fail to call out what is the vast majority of their industry.  Again, two thirds or more of students attending full-time online schools attend one that is run directly or indirectly by a for profit corporation.  This isn’t a case of a few bad apples…  It essentially IS the the entire bushel!

 

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How well do online schools serve students?

BY JOHN WATSON

The first post in this series suggested that the online learning policy disputes are shifting, and gave some background. The second post looked at the recent GAO report and suggested that the report findings, and the response to the report, are evidence of this shift. This post looks further at one element of the online charter school disputes—the question of how well these schools serve students.

Arguments about how well online schools serve students have taken place in academic reportsthe media, and political arenas. Before we get into the details of these arguments, it’s important to note that similar arguments occur over physical charter schools and traditional schools and districts. The fact that such disputes over educational outcomes have long preceded online schools—and show no signs of lessening—suggests two interpretations. First, no new study or set of studies is going to settle the argument. Second, the disputes over online schools—if they are indeed waning—may be settling into the background noise of disagreements over educational policy. By “background noise” I mean that these arguments take place consistently, but they have impact only at the margins.

(That’s not to say that the margins are unimportant. About 20 states significantly limit or outright don’t allow online schools operating statewide, and these academic arguments have some impact on whether those states will expand online learning opportunities. But even there, the discussions about academic outcomes often take a back seat to issues related to funding and the overall structure of public education in each state.)

In broad and simplistic terms, the disputes about academic outcomes in online charter schools have centered on a few themes.

  • Critics point to state proficiency tests and graduation rates, which often show online charter schools performing below state averages.
  • Online school advocates respond that their student population is not captured by state averages.
  • Critics up the ante by citing academic studies that say they are comparing similar groups of students and still showing lower performance on state assessments and in some cases, graduation rates.
  • Advocates respond that their students are still not being captured accurately because those studies almost never account for student mobility.

Hence the standoff. Having much more to say on this topic requires spending many hours studying these reports, which means that most discussions go no deeper than these points.

The GAO report detailed in the previous post looks at this issue and provides a valuable synopsis—although without some background knowledge, the significance of its statements may not be clear. From the report:

“…together these nine studies consistently find virtual charter students have lower scores on state standardized assessments compared to brick-and-mortar students. All of the studies found a statistically significant effect in math proficiency and most found a statistically significant effect in reading. All of the studies selected controlled for prior student achievement and one study controlled for student mobility. One study examined virtual charter schools across 17 states and the District of Columbia. Seven studies examined virtual charter schools in a single state, including three studies that examined virtual charter students in Ohio. One study used an anonymous state.”

I would change just two words in that paragraph. Where the report says “and one study controlled for student mobility,” I would say “but just one study controlled for student mobility.” In other words, in the GAOs exhaustive research, it found one study that controlled for the variable that online learning advocates believe is most important.

Well, the critics might say, it’s still a study that says the advocates are wrong! Yes, but now the advocates have their own response. A recently published working paper from the University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions—published but not yet peer reviewed—makes the case that online school studies are not taking into account issues related to the negative aspects of why many students have chosen to switch to an online school. The abstract:

“Program evaluations that measure the effects of online charter schools on student achievement will be biased if they fail to account for unobserved differences between online students and students in the comparison group. There are theoretical and empirical reasons to believe that students who enroll in online schools disproportionately face challenges that are not accounted for in administrative data. This paper investigates some of the negative factors that motivate parents to enroll in online schools. We combine data from an online charter school survey—that asked why parents decided to enroll in online schooling—with three years of achievement and demographic data. We find that students whose parents indicated they selected online schools for negative reasons made statistically significantly lower ELA gains, even after controlling for prior achievement, race, gender, free lunch status, and special education status. We conclude that other observational analyses of online charter schools, such as CREDO (2015), will be biased and unreliable if they fail to properly control for reasons students select those schools.”

In fact, elsewhere the paper makes clear that the authors aren’t saying that studies are unreliable if they don’t control for these issues, but that such studies like CREDO are unreliable for this reason.

“the CREDO study cannot control for factors associated with why some students might enroll in an online charter school as opposed to traditional brick-and-mortar district or charter options. There are theoretical and empirical reasons to believe that students drawn to online charter schools are more likely to have pre-existing, unobserved educational challenges. Those who rely on CREDO results may believe controlling for prior achievement accounts for the challenges associated with enrolling in online education. But if students drawn to online schools have systemically lower rates of test score growth, controlling for prior test score levels will be inadequate to parse out the independent effect of online schooling on academic growth.”

Is this recent study dispositive? Of course not. Critics will rightly point out that it’s not yet peer reviewed, as a start, and in any case in a field as complex as education one must look at the body of evidence, not a single study. But to my knowledge this is the first university-affiliated study on the topic of online student characteristics, and if the findings hold over time and through additional studies, online charter school advocates will have a stronger argument to add to their contention that online learning critics don’t understand the students that these schools serve.

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