Virtual School Meanderings

February 2, 2015

Tribune Opinion: Struggling Online School Model Raises Serious Questions

A colleague sent me this last week.  While it was written about Colorado, I think it could (and maybe should) be written by every editorial board in the United States!

Tribune Opinion: Struggling online school model raises serious questions

The creative power of the Internet has changed a lot of things.

However, it’s not clear how much that power has altered the fundamentals of providing children with a first-class education. Beginning in the late 1990s, some educators began to see the Internet as a new way to teach kids. It could allow students to learn at their own pace and offer a second chance for students who struggled in traditional classroom settings.

A number of charter schools sprung up around the state. Students left their traditional schools and signed up for online learning. So many students sought out this new approach that traditional school districts began offering their own online schools. Greeley-Evans School District 6, for example, launched Engage Online Academy in 2011. Charter schools Hope Online Academy and GOAL Academy also serve students in Weld County.

Online schools — in districts across the state — have attracted more than 16,000 students. That all sounds great. But there is a problem.

The schools don’t appear to be working.

» Fewer than 50 percent of high school students at Hope and Goal graduate within seven years.

» Nearly 40 percent of Colorado’s online schools either closed last year, or received one of the state’s two lowest accreditation ratings.

» Only 34 percent of the online schools are classified as “performance” schools, the state’s highest accreditation rating. About 70 percent of non-online schools received that accreditation rating this year.

» Many online schools have incredibly poor teacher student-teacher ratios. For example, of the state’s Top 25 highest student-to-teacher ratios, 20 belong to online schools.

Worse still, the online schools actually make it more difficult for traditional schools to deliver on their mandate to prepare kids for the 21st century. Online schools pull more than $100 million per year away from their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

We understand that many online schools face challenging demographics that make teaching more difficult. But so do traditional schools. While these challenges help explain some failings, they don’t excuse them. And it’s worth noting that many brick-and-mortar schools in District 6 perform well, despite the demographic challenges they face.

Newspapers know better than most the challenges that come with adapting a legacy business model to the opportunities of the Internet age. And, it’s fair to say that online education has a role to play in the future.

But the current model for Internet-based schools in K-12 education doesn’t seem to work. What that tells us is that the fundamentals remain crucial. Teachers matter. Time in a classroom matters. And resources matter. So far, the evidence suggests many online schools in Colorado have failed to develop a model that delivers on these fundamentals.

We’re not ready to give up on online education. But we think it bears watching. If these struggling schools can’t show real improvement quickly, it may be time to think again about what we expect from technology.

— The Tribune Editorial Board

March 23, 2012

The Future of Colorado Digital Learning: Crafting a Policy Roadmap for Reform

This item showed up in my inbox yesterday.

Thursday Churn: Online roadmap
Education News Colorado
… by the institute and the Donnell-Kay Foundation and featuring Susan Patrick, CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning or iNACOL.

The item actually refers to a report that was recently released, that came out of an event that I criticized a little in this space (see Colorado Summit on Blended/Hybrid Learning).  You can read the full report here and listen to a podcast about it here.

The news item or press release highlights three of the nine recommendations.  Those who follow this space will note that it was just yesterday that I posted notice of a review I authored that criticized a similar ideological report that provided ten steps for better governance on the digital learning front (see News from the NEPC; Freer Rein for Online Learning Programs? Review Finds No Evidence To Support Unrestricted Expansion).  The three recommendations or areas highlighted in the press release are:

  • Funding: Colorado’s student enrollment count system should allot funding based on multiple attendance count dates. The state currently uses a single fall count date to distribute funding per-pupil, which has prompted concerns as students transfer back and forth between schools. “Such a change addresses funding equity concerns … and provides greater incentive for schools to serve students at risk of dropping out,” the report states.
  • Mastery vs. seat time: Secondary students should earn course credits by demonstrating mastery of knowledge, primarily through end-of-course exams, and “seat time should be eliminated as defined criteria for determining whether a student earns academic course credit.” Students should have multiple opportunities throughout the year to take the exams.
  • Online providers: Individual online course providers should be rewarded based on a system of performance-based funding, “providing the final installment of state dollars when a student successfully completes a course.” A significant share of student funds, as much as 50 percent, should be withheld until a student has successfully completed course requirements.

Now I have to be honest and say that without reading the full report, on face value the first and third items are reasonable items.  In fact, the funding model that has been in place for K-12 distance education in British Columbia (a model that I admire a great deal) has used the first suggestion (i.e., funding apportioned based on milestones throughout the students online studies) for some time.  I also agree that the third item, providing up to 50% of the FTE only if the student successfully completes the course, is also a useful measure for online programs, as it prevents much of the motive to get the students in and happy up until count day and then not having to be too concerned after that.  It should also force these programs, which are supposed to be alternatives to failing schools or for failing students, to actually improve their levels of student performance – as the independent research right now suggests that they are no better, and often times worse, than having the student remain in their traditional brick-and-mortar environment.

The second recommendation is one that I am still unsure about.  While I understand and can get on side with the ability to accelerate or the need for additional time to complete the course for some students (and I fully agree that students should get more than one opportunity to show mastery on the exam), I am still leery of removing all seat time components.  I know that both as a high school student myself and as a university student, there were a lot of credits I could have earned if all I had to do was write the exam.  If the goal of an education is simply obtaining credits or simply passing a standardized exam, then seat time should not be the measure or the admissions ticket to being able to write that exam.  However, I still like to believe that the purpose of K-12 education (and higher education for that matter) is more than simply passing exams and obtaining credits.  I believe that there are skills that students learn that either can’t be tested or because they are too difficult or expense for the for profit corporations who are driving the testing industry in the United States to measure that are critical for students to gain, and that can only be gained by time, exposure and experience in a course.

I haven’t read the full report, and the fact that these are based on the Digital Learning Now guidelines leads me to believe that if I read the full report I would be more critical or its neo-liberal, corporate-driven motives.  But I’ll leave that for another day.

March 21, 2012

More Investigative Reporting On Cyber Charter Schooling

I’m not sure if I should be bothered or relieved that journalists seem to be the only ones able to provide any kind of independent study of the cyber charter school industry – as there has been very little in the way of systematic, independent research (with the exception of legislative audits/reports in a handful of states).

Overworked and Underpaid? Teacher Staffing at Colorado Virtual Academy

By Grace Hood

Screencap of the Colorado Virtual Academy homepage (

Enrollment for kids of all ages is booming at Colorado’s 22 full-time multi-district online schools. This year, about $30 million in taxpayer money is expected to go to the largest, Colorado Virtual Academy. The school is free and promotes a more individualized approach to coursework and virtual interaction with Colorado teachers.

But with an estimated 77 cents of every taxpayer dollar the school receives going to its for-profit management company, some former teachers say they were unable live up to the school’s promises. The news comes as Colorado legislators are preparing to introduce a bill that would increase accountability for the quickly expanding online programs.

Student Overload?

Online schooling is an attractive option for parents and students because schedules are flexible and kids can work from home. It’s those same qualities that attracted Casey Longo to Colorado Virtual Academy. The middle school English teacher was there for five years until the spring of 2011 when her contract wasn’t renewed. She says she felt overwhelmed by crushing workloads the first semester of many school years, which made it nearly impossible to give individualized attention to kids having problems.

“What I really need to do is get them on the phone, open my computer, open their computer and walk them through it,” she says. “That would take an hour plus. You can’t do that with 250 students. You can’t.”

A five-month investigation by KUNC shows Longo wasn’t alone. Records confirm workloads for middle school English teachers as high as 240 students during the first semester of the 2010-2011 school year and equally large numbers for some high school instructors. Other former teachers speaking off the record reported similar challenges.

To continue reading, click here…

December 20, 2011

Investigating Cyber Charter Schools – Colorado Edition

About a month ago, Burt Hubbard and Nancy Mitchell from the I-News Network and Education News Colorado posted a series of articles from their investigative reporting on the state of cyber charter schooling in Colorado entitled “Online K-12 Schools Failing Students but Keeping Tax Dollars.”

November 10, 2010

Colorado Online Teachers Of The Year Announced

inacolThis was posted in one of the iNACOL forums yesterday, but I was blogging about the 7th Annual MVU Online Learning Symposium.

Nov. 2, 2010 – News Release

Colorado Online Teachers of the Year Announced

The Colorado Department of Education today announced the Colorado 2010 Online Elementary and Secondary Teachers of the Year are Peggy Gillham Barnholt and Kristin Kipp, respectively.

Gillham Barnholt is an elementary special education teacher and the manager of special education programs at Colorado Connections Academy in Mapleton School District. A 32-year veteran teacher, Gillham Barnholt’s prior studies of professional learning communities helped her quickly step into a leadership role.

Colorado Connections Academy is a tuition-free public online school that serves students in grades K–12. Colorado Connections Academy provides students the flexibility to learn at home with curriculum that meets state education standards.

Colorado’s 2010 Online Secondary Teacher of the Year is Kristin Kipp. Kipp is a high school English teacher and instructional leader for Jeffco’s 21st Century Virtual Academy in Jefferson County School District. In her career at Jefferson County, she has taught eighth through twelfth grade English, been a department chair/instructional leader and served as an instructional coach teaching other teachers. For the past three years she has also been involved with Colorado Online Learning, teaching adjunct courses as well as serving as director of curriculum and instruction.
Jeffco 21st Century Virtual Academy is a tuition-free high school for students age 14 to 20. The school provides rigorous curriculum, which is also used by Jeffco high schools and aligned with state standards.

In her online courses, Kipp stresses three primary connections. First, students should be deeply connected to content, engaging critical thinking as they learn and practice skills. Second, students should be connected with their teacher. Students need to know that there is a caring teacher on the other end of the computer who will not allow them to settle for mediocrity. Finally, students should be connected with each other. Learning is rarely a solitary pursuit, even online. Students need to be interacting with each other to help their learning deepen and broaden.

The 2010 Colorado Online Teachers of the Year will be honored at the Colorado State Board of Education meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 3 at approximately 2:30 p.m. The meeting will take place at CDE, 201 E. Colfax Ave., State Board Room, in Denver.

For more information, contact Mark Stevens, 303-866-3898, or Megan McDermott, 303-866-2334, in the CDE Office of Communications. To sign up for the CDE e-mail news service, please visit

Congratulations to everyone involved!!!

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