Virtual School Meanderings

May 27, 2022

The shifting digital learning policy battles

This is a good example about how John and I often divergent in our approaches, but generally end up in the same space.  If you’ve been following along, you’ve seen my points of disagreement related to the second entry (see GAO study suggests online school wars) and third entry (see How well do online schools serve students?) that John posted.  But as I read this final entry, I can agree upon most of what John writes.  For example, John summarizes his points in the series as:

  • There has been a long history of disputes centered on the full-time online charter schools that operate now in about 35 states. [Agreed.]
  • Those disputes have often dominated online learning views, policies, and media attention, even though pre-pandemic the number of students attending such schools was always below 500,000, or about 1% of all students nationwide. [Agreed – but it is less about the overall number or proportion and more about what it represents.  Education is the last public purse that hasn’t been completely privatized in the United States.  The vast majority of full-time online students are enrollment in schools that are directly or indirectly run by corporations.  Corporations and bottom line thinking run health care, they run the prison system…  While corporate-run online schools only account for 1% of all students, they must be considered in the larger context of corporate-run brick-and-mortar charter schools; as well as the movement for voucher programs (all of which serve to privatize public education).]
  • However, the disputes appear to be waning, as seen in the recent GAO report, among other points of evidence. [I’m not sure on this one.  The GAO has a good history, generally speaking, of trying to present information in as neutral a way as possible (not just in education, but in all matters).  Their goal isn’t to create or support or further a political or ideological agenda, and that is basically all they have done here.]
  • Arguments about academic performance in online charter schools may be decreasing to the level of background that has been present with physical charter schools as well as mainstream schools. This level of attention is important to some policymakers, researchers, and some reporters, but mostly at the margins. (Although to be clear, for students and families at those margins, as in a state considering whether to allow or restrict online schools, these remain very important issues.) [I would agree that they are decreasing, but I think it has less to do with policymakers, researchers, and reporters having a more nuanced understanding or conversation about the topic.  I think it is largely due to the fact that for much of the last two years online schooling in all forms have been a necessity.  I’m against privatized medicine, but if I’m having a heart attack I want someone to take me to the hospital regardless of its for profit status.]
  • Digital learning advocates in mainstream districts, including those in supplemental programs and hybrid schools, are concerned about policies which will limit their growth and/or reduce their funding. [I agree, but I think that this represent the same kind of small proportion that John was discussing above.]
  • Parent attitudes shifted during the pandemic, towards greater acceptance of online learning. [This is probably the one we disagree on the most.  I think for each parent who gained a greater acceptance for online learning during the pandemic, you have at least one – maybe more – who based on the experiences they had or their own misguided political allegiances have an even greater dislike or distrust of it than before the pandemic (when they were likely simply uninformed or ambivalent).] 
  • Overall, the digital learning policy disputes are now more likely to combine the interests of the various digital learning players (full-time, supplemental, mainstream, charter, hybrid), than to divide them. [This is another one where I don’t have enough information or evidence to agree or disagree…  But I sure hope not.  One of the ways that the corporate interests have come to dominant the full-time online learning market this far is because they have been good at latching their wagon onto the combined interests of other, more legitimate rationale for online/digital learning.  I would hate to see that pattern continue – but this is American afterall – where the almighty buck is more powerful than anything else in society, so I don’t hold out much hope.]

As you can see, we agree on most points, and with the exception of maybe one or two, even areas where there is some disagreement the ground to cover is small.  Now there are a couple of points where we clearly see the world differently – much of which I attribute to our different nationalities (personally).

Anyway…

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The shifting digital learning policy battles

BY JOHN WATSON

Recent posts have looked at how the online school wars seem to be waning, first giving some general background, then looking at the recent GAO report, and finally looking at a recent study that addresses concerns about student outcomes. This final post of this series reviews the evidence to suggest that perhaps the fault lines of digital learning policy battles are shifting.

There are four main issues that suggest that the lines are shifting, and help explain why.
1. Now that many more districts have their own online or hybrid schools, they and their supporters recognize that laws and regulations originally considered for online charter schools now may restrict district programs as well.For example, many states fund online charter school students at lower levels than mainstream district, onsite students. Recently, we’ve seen efforts to reduce or restrict funding for online students in states such as South Carolina , Michigan, and elsewhere, regardless of whether those students are in charter schools or mainstream districts. Similarly, educators who are concerned about an over-reliance on state assessment scores or graduation rates seem to have more sympathy for all schools that are working with students facing a variety of challenges—whether they are online or onsite, and whether they are charter or mainstream.

 2. It’s increasingly clear that the percentage of students/families who want full time online is small—even after the pandemic.

The number of students enrolled in statewide online schools went up during the pandemic by about 75%. This is a substantial number, but it doesn’t come close to some of the predictions—or concerns—that huge numbers of students would shift to online schools. Possibly the percentage of students in some states who elect for a full-time online school may climb to 3-4%–but it seems unlikely to get much higher in the foreseeable future. The percentage of students nationwide in online schools is likely to remain in the range of 1.5-3%. Therefore, the regulations intended to limit growth of online schools seem less important.

3. Many districts are running hybrid schools, and some of these districts may prefer that full-time online students choose charter schools. Many hybrid schools are called “online, “virtual,”, or similar, but relatively few districts are in fact running 100% online schools. A few of these districts are saying, mostly for the first time and usually privately, that perhaps both the students and the district are better off if a small percentage of students leave the district for an online school. Running a school for 1-2% of the students in a district is hard and, often, inefficient—except perhaps for the largest districts.

4. After emergency remote learning many more teachers, school leaders, and parents recognize that a small percentage of students flourish in the online learning environment for a variety of reasonsIt’s no longer possible to suggest that online learning is being driven solely by a few profit-hungry companies, at least not without acknowledging that the online schools are meeting real demand. Again, the number of students seeking online schools remains small, but there is increased understanding that the demand is real.

In summary
This series of four posts has covered a lot of ground, so I will close with a quick summary:

  • There has been a long history of disputes centered on the full-time online charter schools that operate now in about 35 states.
  • Those disputes have often dominated online learning views, policies, and media attention, even though pre-pandemic the number of students attending such schools was always below 500,000, or about 1% of all students nationwide.
  • However, the disputes appear to be waning, as seen in the recent GAO report, among other points of evidence.
  • Arguments about academic performance in online charter schools may be decreasing to the level of background that has been present with physical charter schools as well as mainstream schools. This level of attention is important to some policymakers, researchers, and some reporters, but mostly at the margins. (Although to be clear, for students and families at those margins, as in a state considering whether to allow or restrict online schools, these remain very important issues.)
  • Digital learning advocates in mainstream districts, including those in supplemental programs and hybrid schools, are concerned about policies which will limit their growth and/or reduce their funding.
  • Parent attitudes shifted during the pandemic, towards greater acceptance of online learning.
  • Overall, the digital learning policy disputes are now more likely to combine the interests of the various digital learning players (full-time, supplemental, mainstream, charter, hybrid), than to divide them.

If the hypothesis presented in these posts is accurate and plays out, it is likely to be significantly beneficial to digital learning as a whole. Although the policy debates and occasional bad press have ostensibly been about a specific subset of online learning (or individual schools), the negativity has had a larger influence across much of the field. If that attitude shifts towards greater acceptance of all types of digital learning, that will represent a win for students everywhere.

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