Virtual School Meanderings

January 11, 2012

How Do For Profit Online Schools Fare? Examining The Responses

I referenced this in the Virtual Schooling In The News entry this past Saturday, but I wanted to highlight it again.

How are students at privately run virtual schools performing?
There were 43% more students learning online at virtual schools managed by private companies in 2011 than in 2010. However, a report being published today says such schools have not outperformed traditional public schools and charter schools on standardized tests. The National Education Policy Center found that 27% of privately managed virtual schools achieved Adequate Yearly Progress, compared with about 52% of traditional schools. The New York Times (tiered subscription model) (1/6)

Note that since the article is in their subscription model, I have copied and pasted it below as well.

I have to be honest and say that I find this all too amusing, given the neo-liberal and neo-conservative proponents of K-12 online learning are always talking about accountability and quality and student performance.  I suspect they’ll claim this study – like all of the other studies that don’t go in their favour – are bias and methodologically flawed; probably even calling The New York Times article itself a hit piece and generating some kind of top ten list featuring parents and students.  It all reminds me of a couple of blog entries that Brian @ CLRN posted a few weeks back: CA Charter School Association says, “Close CA Virtual Academy @ Kern” and Parent Group says, “We Love Bad Charter Schools” – so much for quality and accountability (see also Another View: Data can bedevilcharter schools)…

While I want to delve into the actual results, I’ll leave that for another day when I have some more time on my hands (and fewer academic writing obligations).  But I did want to take a quick look at some of the typical response that we see to this kind of piece.  As a reminder, the report basically says that, using AYP data

  • 48.2% of charter schools run by for-profit companies made AYP
  • 27.4% of cyber charter schools run by for-profit companies made AYP
  • 56.4% of charter schools run by non-profit organizations made AYP

The first types of response that we often see is the claim that cyber charter schools typically deal with a higher percentage of at-risk students, and that is why their performance is so far off.  For example:

“The study’s results may reflect the kinds of students flocking to online public schools—such as those who have fallen behind in high school—more than the quality of instruction, said Susan Patrick, president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a nonprofit advocacy and research group in Vienna, Virginia.  “The kids enrolling in online schools needed something other than the traditional system,” Patrick said in a phone interview.

From Educational Management Organizations: The Rest of the Story

I guess there are two things to consider here, the first is the actual claim and the second is the relevance.  In looking at the actual claim, I can tell you that at least one national cyber charter company that I have partnered on for a couple of grant proposals in the past reports that their cyber charter schools at-risk student population enrollment, including their special education enrollment, are at statewide averages in almost every state that they operate.  Further, as I noted in my testimony on Michigan Senate Bill 619:

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.

Aside from these questionable claims – at least questionable based on the existing data – the bigger question for me is the relevance of a statement about enrolling a higher percentage of at-risk students.  Basically, so what?  If the premise of the argument is that we need to close traditional public schools because they are failing the students, and then divert these students to charter schools and cyber charter schools as a solution, by extension doesn’t that mean that charter schooling and cyber charter schooling should address the achievement deficit?  I mean you don’t hear these same people arguing to keep traditional public schools open and opposing converting them into for profit charter schools because the student body has a high percentage of at-risk students.  I’m saying that the notion is a red herring designed to provide an excuse for these programs in the face of the same kinds of failures to address these students’ needs that they experienced in the public school.

Similarly, if you look at the second typical response that you see to these kinds of stories you’ll note the following kinds of comments:

Jeff Kwitowski from K¹² said, “We reiterated our commitment to performance and accountability but also agreed with Sec. Duncan that the AYP metric is flawed and unfairly labels schools as “failing.”

From Educational Management Organizations: The Rest of the Story

Jeff Kwitowski, spokesman for the company, based in Herndon, Va., said using the adequate yearly progress standard to judge virtual schools is unfair. “It’s not a reliable measure. The secretary of education has said that the AYP measure under (No Child Left Behind) is broken and unfairly labels schools as failing.”

From Virtual Charters Lag Behind Other Schools’ Performance, Report Says

Now I’m not here to argue in favour of AYP as a valid measure.  In fact, the authors that these people are all responding to state in the very first bullet point related to student performance that “AYP provides a crude indicator of the extent to which schools are meeting state standards.”  Again, I’m concerned with the relevance of such a statement.  If AYP is a bad measure, why is it an acceptable measure to use when determining that it is okay to closed a traditional public school or convert that traditional public school into a charter school run by a for-profit company?  Why is AYP an acceptable measure to use when arguing in favour of lessening restrictions on full-time cyber charter school in a state?  And if AYP is an acceptable measure to use when making these arguments, why isn’t it an acceptable measure to use when judging how these for-profit charter schools or these cyber charter schools are doing?  Quite dishonest if you ask me!

April 6, 2010

Problem With Cyber Charter Schools – PA & NJ Edition

Last week I wrote the first in what will probably be an on-going topic – as it is a topic that I am particularly interesting (see Problem With Cyber Charter Schools – Part One).

Anyway, this was an interesting series that the LeHigh Valley Live folks posted a couple of weeks or so ago:

The series is actually based on more detailed articles that were published by the LeHigh Valley Express-Times:

I say interesting for a number of reasons, but one is due to the location.  Cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania (and Ohio for that matter) when they were first created did suffer from many of the problems described in these articles (e.g., lack of oversight, fraud in terms of funding provided for students that didn’t actually attend the cyber charter school, lack of participation in state testing regimes, etc.).  While I believe in both instances (i.e., Pennsylvania and Ohio) that things have gotten much better, I do still believe that within the traditional public education community this early “Wild West” mentality gained them a reputation that they still haven’t been able to shake (and that has followed cyber charter schools to other jurisdictions).

It is also interesting because the main focus of these articles is Pennsylvania.  You see a doctoral student of mine, Abigail Hawkins, and I did a study a couple of years ago looking at what policies K-12 online learning programs had with regards to trial periods (i.e., that period of time a student can try out an online course, drop it and not be counted as being officially enrolled) and how they calculated successful completions.  Note that this study will be published in the American Journal of Distance Education sometime this month. One of the results of that study was a finding that in Pennsylvania the state required that cyber charter schools not have a trial period – that their enrollment data was kept in the same manner as a brick-and-mortar public school (i.e., beginning on the first day of school).  This was the only jurisdiction where this was done.  What this means is that comparisons of completion rates, school performance and student performance can be accurately made between the cyber charter schools and the brick-and-mortar schools in Pennsylvania – and only Pennsylvania – because you are comparing apples to apples.

So let’s do some very basic comparisons.  The Standard of education article lists that there was 1 cyber charter school making AYP, 3 cyber charter schools that were making progress towards meeting AYP, and 7 cyber charter schools not meeting AYP.  When you compare this statewide (and you can get that data here), you get the following:

Type of school Made AYP Making Progress Towards AYP Did Not Meet AYP Total
Cyber Charter Schools 1 (9.1%) 3 (27.3%) 7 (63.7%) 11
Brick-And-Mortar Schools 2290 (73.8%) 149 (4.8%) 665 (21.4%) 3104
Total 2291 (73.5%) 152 (4.9%) 672 (21.6%) 3115

The numbers don’t look particularly good for the cyber charter school community.  I should note that it would be a much better comparison is you could compare the overall student data – which I’ve never done for Pennsylvania – although it would make a nice dissertation project because of the whole apples to apples thing.

Now the argument can – and likely will be made as soon as I post this – that cyber charter schools cater to a different kind of student.  I’ve speculated as much in a recent article in the Journal of Distance Learning:

However, in this instance the literature may not provide a complete picture of the virtual school landscape. For example, in her opening remarks to the 2007 annual Virtual School Symposium, Susan Patrick explained that the two courses with the highest enrolment of online students in the United States were Algebra I and Algebra II. These mathematics courses are usually taken in the first year of high school, and many of the online students enrolled in these courses are taking the course for the second or third time. Watson et al. (2008) indicated that the largest growth in K–12 online learning enrolment is in the full-time cyber schools, and both Watson et al. and Klein (2006) indicate that many cyber schools have a higher percentage of students classified as ‘at-risk’. Rapp, Eckes, and Plurker (2006) described at-risk students as those who might otherwise drop out of traditional schools. Concerns or issues that students have with their teachers and courses (such as organisation, lessons, assignments, and grading) have the potential to create roadblocks to success. While the report Charter Schools in Eight States: Effects on Achievement, Attainment, Integration, and Competition reports that “virtual [cyber] charter middle schools lag substantially behind classroom-based charter middle schools” (Zimmer, 2009, pp. 40–41), it also cautions against drawing conclusions because many of those included in the comparison “may be students who are especially likely to have experienced an event producing a decline in their expected future achievement” (p. 41). These events cause the kind of roadblocks described by Rapp and her colleagues. (Barbour, 2009, 17-18)

The problem is that it is speculation.  For the most part, the only information we have about cyber charter schools is what the for profit companies that manage them are willing to share – and like any business model you share what presents you in the best light and you only share what you have to because you’re in a competitive business.

It was just a week or two ago that I was chatting with a colleague in the K-12 online learning community who indicated that he refuses to even mention cyber charter schools when he does presentations about K-12 online learning because in his opinion there had not been able publicly available, independent research and/or evaluations conducted on any of these for profit companies.  I can’t disagree.  The only evaluations I’m aware of were the Bracey (2004) and Ohanian (2004) ones; and neither of those were favourable towards the cyber charter school in question.

Unfortunately until that void begins to get filled with credible, reliable, independent research, there will continue to be questions about the effectiveness of and funding for this form of schooling.


Barbour, M. K. (2009). Today’s student and virtual schooling: The reality, the challenges, the promise… Journal of Distance Learning, 13(1), 5-25.

Bracey, G. W. (2004). Knowledge universe and virtual schools: Educational breakthrough or digital raid on the public treasury? Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University. Retrieved from

Ohanian, S. (2004). The K12 virtual primary school history curriculum: A participant’s-eye view. Tempe, AZ: Education Policy Studies Laboratory, Arizona State University. Retrieved from

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