Virtual School Meanderings

April 21, 2016

News from the NEPC: Virtual and Blended Learning Schools Continue to Struggle and to Grow

From yesterday’s inbox…

Increasing numbers opting for online and blended learning schools despite evidence of poor performance
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Virtual and Blended Learning Schools Continue to Struggle and to Grow

Key Takeaway: Increasing numbers opting for online and blended learning schools despite evidence of poor performance
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BOULDER, CO (April 20, 2016) – The fourth edition of the National Education Policy Center’s annual report on online and blended learning schools provides a detailed overview and inventory of full-time virtual and blended learning schools, also called hybrid schools. Little rigorous research has examined the inner workings of these schools, but evidence indicates that students differ from those in traditional public schools, and that school outcomes are consistently below traditional public schools. Nevertheless, enrollment growth has continued, assisted by vigorous advertising campaigns, corporate lobbying, and favorable legislation.

Gary Miron, professor of evaluation, measurement, and research at Western Michigan University, and Charisse Gulosino, assistant professor of leadership and policy studies at the University of Memphis, are the authors of this year’s Virtual Schools Report 2016: Directory and Performance Review. This report provides a detailed census of full-time virtual and blended schools, including student demographics, state-specific school performance ratings, and a comparison of virtual school outcomes with state norms.

The scope of this study covers charter and district-operated virtual schools and blended learning schools. Miron notes that “large private education management organizations dominate the full-time virtual sector and they are increasing their market share in the blended school sector.” Districts are opening their own virtual and blended learning schools, although these are typically smaller and with limited enrollment relative to charter-operated virtual and blended schools.

“Measures of school performance consistently show virtual school outcomes that lag significantly behind those of traditional brick-and-mortar schools,” said Gulosino. “While this finding did not surprise us, given past research with similar findings, we were surprised to find that blended schools tended to score similar or lower on performance measures than virtual schools.”

The authors conclude that, given the rapid growth of virtual and blended schools and their relatively poor outcomes on widely used accountability measures, several recommendations should be followed:

  • Policymakers should slow or stop the growth in the number of virtual schools and blended schools and the size of their enrollments until the reasons for their relatively poor performance have been identified and addressed. States should place their first priority on understanding why virtual schools and blended schools perform weakly under a college- and career-ready accountability system and how their performance can be improved before undertaking any measures to expand these relatively new models of schooling.
  • Oversight authorities should hold virtual schools and blended schools to the same standards as other publicly funded schools, if they fail to improve performance.
  • Policymakers should require virtual schools and blended schools to devote more resources to instruction, particularly by specifying a maximum ratio of students to teachers.
  • State agencies should ensure that virtual schools and blended schools fully report data related to the population of students they serve and the teachers they employ.
  • State and federal policymakers should promote efforts to design new outcome measures appropriate to the unique characteristics of full-time virtual schools and blended schools. Passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) represents an opportunity for those states with a growing virtual and blended school sector to improve upon their accountability systems for reporting data on school performance measures.
  • Policymakers and other stakeholders should support more research to identify which policy options—especially those impacting funding and accountability mechanisms—are most likely to promote successful virtual schools and blended schools. More research is also needed to increase understanding of the inner workings of virtual and blended schools, including such factors as the curriculum and the nature of student-teacher interactions. Such research should help identify and remedy features that are negatively affecting student learning.

Find Virtual Schools Report 2016: Directory and Performance Review, by Gary Miron and Charisse Gulosino, on the web at:

This research brief was made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice:

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at:

Copyright © 2016 National Education Policy Center. All rights reserved.

March 8, 2016

News: Ohio’s Troubled Online Learning Project Investigated

A colleague passed this along…

eCampus News



Some education advocates allege that funds for an online education clearinghouse were improperly allocated

The Ohio inspector general is investigating a troubled joint project by Ohio State University and the state Board of Higher Education to create a clearinghouse of online learning materials.

State lawmakers mandated the project during the administration of former Gov. Ted Strickland.

An Ohio State spokesman confirmed that the university is “aware of the investigation” and is cooperating.

State Department of Higher Education spokesman Jeff Robinson would say only, “If there is something that the IG finds troubling in regard to the clearinghouse that was established under the previous administration, we would certainly support their review.”

ProgressOhio, a liberal advocacy group, has contended for months that after Republican John Kasich became governor, the project funneled millions to companies owned by William Lager, a major donor to Republican politicians and founder of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow online charter school.

Another Lager company, IQ Innovations, was hired to develop the clearinghouse, called the Distance Learning Center. ProgressOhio presented its findings at a news conference.

Neil Clark, spokesman for ECOT, said, “We are unaware of any investigation,” and he dismissed ProgressOhio’s claims as recycled and without merit.

Employees of the project said a Lager-connected supervisor retaliated against them after they complained that IQ Innovations wasn’t meeting its obligations and that its online learning platform wasn’t working well. The supervisor, John D. Conley, Jr., once worked briefly as a consultant to Lager.

The employees complained under Ohio State’s whistleblower-protection policy in 2014, and the university’s Office of University Compliance and Integrity said that the employees “conveyed credible information that they faced significant retaliation after questioning the performance of IQ.” But because the office isn’t authorized to question employees of what is now called the Board of Higher Education, it could not “draw conclusions” about the whistleblowers’ complaints.

After that report, Ohio State’s Office of Human Resources investigated. That office did question board employees, but Conley, the chief target of the complaints, had left the board and refused to answer questions. That investigation found insufficient evidence to substantiate the complaints.

The online learning clearinghouse originated as part of Democrat Strickland’s first budget in 2007. It was to be a one-stop resource for digital education tools, curricula and other resources for Ohio K-12 schools. Strickland’s appointed higher-education chancellor, Eric Fingerhut, hired a company called Blackboard to develop the platform but canceled that contract in November 2010.

After Kasich took office in 2011, he replaced Fingerhut with Republican Jim Petro. Petro chose Lager’s IQ Innovations, which had been the second-place bidder, to take over the project.

Emails among employees indicate problems: ProgressOhio Executive Director Sandy Theis displayed emails from employees and from companies that wanted to create digital materials for the system. A December 2013 email from one board employee complained that iLearn, one part of the clearinghouse, contained no textbooks and that no publishers were under contract to provide any. The employee said that “many bugs remain to be fixed” in the system.

An email from an official of Pearson, an online content publisher, said his company was ready to deliver material but could get no information from IQ Innovations about how to participate.

By the time the board decided not to enter into another contract with IQ Innovations, under new Chancellor John Carey in 2014, the company was paid $1.2 million for “enhancements” to fix problems with its platform, plus a $1.6 million share of a $6 million grant to develop e-textbooks. Taxpayers paid millions more to support the project between 2011 and 2015.

The platform will be phased out at the end of this school year.

About the Author:

Reporter Randy Ludlow contributed to this story.

©2016 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio). Visit The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Original article is available at

February 22, 2016

News: Ohio Charter School Scandal Grows as Kasich Ascends National Stage

As I did last week, I wanted to pass along some interesting news that came across my electronic desk from the cyber charter world…

Ohio Charter School Scandal Grows as Kasich Ascends National Stage

Ohio state education officials are now admitting that Ohio has almost ten times as many failing charter schools as the state initially claimed.

This revelation comes as Ohio tries to hang onto a $71 million federal charter school grant in the wake of scandals over misleading the grant application reviewers and breaking state law by altering charter school performance statistics. That was the largest grant award by the U.S. Department of Education last year.

Ohio newspapers and the Center for Media and Democracy reported last October that the Ohio Department of Education’s claims about the excellence of the state’s charter-school system were intentionally misleading.

In the state’s July 2015 grant application, education officials reported that in the 2012-13 school year Ohio had no “poor performing” charters, even though about a third of the schools didn’t meet any of the standards on state report cards and 60 percent earned D’s or F’s on a measure of how students perform on state tests.

The grant application also said an automatic-closure law would shut down any failing charter schools without disclosing that the law will not be in effect for several years.

Meanwhile, it turns out that then-Ohio charter school chief David Hansen, who drafted the grant application, also rigged charter school sponsor evaluations to improve their ratings. Hansen resigned July 18, two days after submitting the grant request to the feds and several days after admitting he broke the law by excluding failing grades for some charter schools in the evaluations.

Hansen’s wife, Beth Hansen, is Ohio Governor John Kasich’s former chief of staff and the manager of Kasich’s newly surging presidential campaign. She left her government post for the campaign in the midst of the scandal as the pre-primary season was beginning. Kasich has not been asked about the charter school failures in the national debates.

In the latest news, Ohio’s Department of Education now says there were actually 57 poor-performing charter schools in the state in the 2013-14 school year, not six.

Its July grant application claimed there were only six.

Conversely, the state said there were 93 “high-performing charter schools” in July and now it says there are just 59.

These performance statistics are for 290 brick-and-mortar charter schools and still do not include online charters (which Hansen omitted).

These numbers were included in a January 29 letter to the federal regulators who put a hold on Ohio’s charter-school grant amid the concerns. The 20-page letter is signed by interim state superintendent Lonny J. Rivera, and was the state’s third response to questions from federal regulators since the review was opened.

Part of the reason Ohio won the grant in the first place was a glowing endorsement from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA)—an organization that had previously referred to the charter system in Ohio as “broken.”

But NACSA rethought that assessment as it signed a $40,000-a-year agreement with the Ohio Department of Education to lend assistance to the state’s charter school authorizers. The deal was brokered by former NACSA senior executive and lobbyist Hansen before he resigned as head of the Ohio Office of Quality School Choice.

During his time as NACSA’s top lobbyist, Hansen represented the organization at meetings of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), touting “high quality” charters. That’s the post he took after he left the “Buckeye Institute” and before Kasich put him in charge of charters for the state of Ohio.

Hansen previously led the Buckeye Institute, an Ohio “think tank” that is part of the controversial “State Policy Network” (SPN). SPN special interest groups amplify ALEC’s lobbying agenda, which includes numerous bills to siphon money from traditional public schools to charters and for-profit enterprises. It should be no surprise that a virtual school corporation, K12, sits on ALEC’s corporate board and has co-chaired its education task force where corporate lobbyists and special interest groups vote as equals with state legislators on bills, behind closed doors at posh resorts with fancy private parties. Before Hansen became Kasich’s point person on charters, NACSA sent Hansen to ALEC to advance its charter school agenda there.

Cleveland’s Plain Dealer reported last June that Hansen intentionally left F grades for online charter schools out of academic evaluations of charter school oversight agencies. Those F grades for schools run by major Republican donors would have dragged down the rating of the oversight agencies.

One of the largest such agencies in the state is the Ohio Council of Community Schools, which collects about $1.5 million in sponsor fees a year from students attending Ohio Virtual Academy and the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy (OHDLA), an online school run by a company owned by David Brennan, a big Republican campaign donor in Ohio.

Ohio has hoped to use the $71 million in federal aid to give grants of up to $700,000 to applicants seeking to open new charter schools. That’s nearly a million dollar giveaway per charter to experiments, which have often failed, while traditional public schools are facing budget cuts that hurt school children and their learning environment.

But, as CMD revealed in its “Charter School Black Hole” report last October, out of the 88 Ohio charter schools created by planning and implementation grants under the Charter School Program between 2008 and 2013, at least 15 closed within a few years and another seven never opened at all. These charters received more than $4 million in federal taxpayer money.

Despite this track record and despite the false and deceptive claims the state made in its application for more federal tax dollars for charters , Ohio landed the biggest one-year grant in the 2015 competition for federal funding, $32.6 million, with more planned in the coming years.

Since 2004, Ohio has been granted more than $195 million in American tax dollars by the U.S. Department of Education under the Charter School Program for State Educational Agencies (CSP-SEA). That’s part of the more than $3.7 billion CMD has documented that the federal government has spent fueling the charter school industry over the past few decades.

Lisa Graves, CMD’s Executive Director, contributed research to this story.

Dustin Beilke

Dustin Beilke is a freelance writer from Madison, WI. He has written for a number of publications, including Newsday,, The Nation, PRWatchThe Progressive, In These Times, Mother Jones, The Capital Times, and The Onion.

See more at:


February 4, 2016

Education Week Commentary – Walton Family Foundation: We Must Rethink Online Learning

You know that it is bad when even the Walton Family Foundation is knocking this free market, neo-liberal education reform.

Published Online: January 26, 2016
Published in Print: January 27, 2016, as Walton Family Foundation: Rethink Virtual Charters


Walton Family Foundation: We Must Rethink Online Learning

By its very definition, innovation will always lead to some failed starts. And when that innovation involves educating children, it’s especially important to learn from mistakes and adjust quickly.

The Walton Family Foundation has invested more than $385 million in creating new charter schools over more than two decades to seed educational innovation and improve U.S. education at scale. The foundation has allocated a small fraction of that investment—about $550,000—to virtual charter schools, which teach full-time students exclusively online.

We remain strong believers in creating educational options and opportunities. We have provided startup dollars to about a quarter of the charter schools in the United States, all with the goal of creating opportunity for high-needs students, and we recently committed to investing another $1 billion over the next five years to expand access to high-quality educational choices. In recent years, we have hoped that online charter schools could provide a lifeline for some students. But while we were enthusiastic about supporting online education entrepreneurs, our first priority is always making sure that students are served well.



Measuring impact is fundamental to responsible philanthropy. It is a responsibility we take seriously. The Walton Family Foundation spends about $10 million annually underwriting the nation’s best researchers to investigate questions that will help us make smarter funding decisions to benefit high-needs students, develop promising new technologies and methods to fuel student learning, and help parents, educators, and policymakers improve outcomes for children.

As the largest private funder of charter schools and as strong believers in making fact-based decisions, we wanted to see the hard evidence on virtual charters: What would a dependable measure of the impact of these schools show about their students’ academic growth? We funded three research studies—by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (or CREDO), at Stanford University; the Center on Reinventing Public Education, at the University of Washington; and Mathematica Policy Research—to investigate this question. As with all of our research dollars, we committed to funding these research teams regardless of what their investigations revealed.

The results are, in a word, sobering. The CREDO study found that over the course of a school year, the students in virtual charters learned the equivalent of 180 fewer days in math and 72 fewer days in reading than their peers in traditional charter schools, on average.

This is stark evidence that most online charters have a negative impact on students’ academic achievement. The results are particularly significant because of the reach and scope of online charters: They currently enroll some 200,000 children in 200 schools operating across 26 states. If virtual charters were grouped together and ranked as a single school district, it would be the ninth-largest in the country and among the worst-performing.

“As states think about the future of online education, they should rethink their expectations and policies and test novel policy arrangements.”

Funders, educators, policymakers, and parents cannot in good conscience ignore the fact that students are falling a full year behind their peers in math and nearly half a school year in reading, annually. For operators and authorizers of these schools to do nothing would constitute nothing short of educational malpractice.

As a result of these findings, we at the foundation will ask new, more rigorous questions of online charter operators when we review their funding proposals, in order to expose whether applicants are addressing the problems this research identified. In particular, we want to know: Are the operators suggesting innovative solutions to improve the quality of online learning? There is no magic formula here, but it is clear that what exists doesn’t create the academic opportunities children need. Going forward, we’ll probe deeply on applicants’ answers to the following questions:

What does the proposed instructional program look like? Just as it is important in traditional brick-and-mortar schools for students to spend time with teachers, virtual schools must provide plenty of time for students to learn and interact in live, synchronous ways with their teachers. In today’s online charters, students typically have less instructional time with their teachers in a whole week than students in brick-and-mortar schools have in a day. We don’t presume to know what the best pedagogical approach is for all children, but clearly this formula needs to change.

What are the proposed teacher-student ratios? Today’s online schools have much larger ratios than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. It’s unclear what the right balance is, but it seems clear that schools must facilitate interactions between students and teachers.


What are the expectations of parents? Virtual schools must help students learn without requiring parents to be constantly present and monitoring progress. Parents, of course, must be involved in their children’s education, but schools can’t abdicate their responsibility in this equation. Virtual charter educational providers should be thinking through the right role for parents and how schools will meet their own educational remits.

We urge policymakers to make changes, too. Charter authorizers—government-sanctioned bodies responsible for reviewing and approving charter operators—must take action if schools are failing students. And the oversight of educational practice applies to authorizers, as well as to schools and educators. Authorizers should be graded on the performance of their portfolios: If schools fail students, authorizers must take action. If they don’t, authorizers themselves should be put out of business.

Going forward, authorizers should create new accountability systems to ensure that no school fails, month after month and year after year. The review process must include observation of instruction and close review of student and parent expectations. We think a shorter review cycle, rather than waiting years, might catch problems earlier.

As states think about the future of online education, they should rethink their expectations and policies and test novel policy arrangements. For example, one policy that we think has potential would tie funding to performance. Four states—Florida, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Utah—are currently testing performance-based funding systems. Perhaps we’ll discover that providing virtual schools funding only after students demonstrate mastery is the right way to hold these publicly funded schools accountable.

That said, with this approach, it would be important to guard against perverse incentives that could arise. For example, policymakers would need to make sure that schools weren’t pushing out or otherwise neglecting students who are so far behind that getting them to pass required courses or summative assessments would appear extremely resource-intensive.

Other funding reforms worth considering are tracking enrollments and providing associated student-based funding each month, rather than annually. This would help prevent students from being easily forgotten.

To be clear, our comments about online charter schools are not an indictment of instructional technology or online learning more generally, nor how these stand to help create more high-quality educational options. Nor is this the Walton Family Foundation abandoning its mission of creating more educational opportunities for American children. There are many examples of technology being used in conventional classrooms in ways that enhance learning. New blended learning models are showing promise, as is allowing students to customize learning through the use of online platforms.

But the data from this study do not lie: Online education must be reimagined. Ignoring the problem—or worse, replicating failures—serves nobody.

Vol. 35, Issue 19, Pages 24-25, 27

January 28, 2016

“National School Choice Week” Fueled by Major Right-Wing Funders and Corporate Lobby Groups

A good reminder for folks about this corporate-driven, privatization effort in public education.

“National School Choice Week” Fueled by Major Right-Wing Funders and Corporate Lobby Groups


Contact: Nikolina Lazic,

MADISON, WI — With 32 governors proclaiming this week “School Choice Week,” and more than 16,000 scheduled events listed on the promotional website, #NationalSchoolChoiceWeek has become a big deal, and not by accident.

Launched five years ago by the Gleason Family Foundation—which spent more than $4.3 million on the project in 2014—the week has grown rapidly through the backing of advocacy groups and deep pockets of funders focused on promoting charters, vouchers, and tax credits that aid private schools, including religious and for-profit ventures.

In federal and state budgets, “school choice” policies often divert or reduce Americans’ tax dollars available for traditional public schools that educate our most underserved students or for investment in sustainable and innovative community schools that are truly public.

Today, for example, the State Policy Network (SPN) is holding a “Tweet-up” to promote school “choice” and its fight “to limit government and advance market-friendly public policy at the state and local levels,” and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is using the week to pitch a “revolutionary” universal education savings account bill for Washington, DC, introduced by Senator Ted Cruz.

The Center for Media and Democracy, a watchdog group on corporate influence on public policy, is urging reporters to examine the interests behind the PR push on school choice.

“The National School Choice Week website’s Partners page provides a who’s-who gallery of Koch network groups, corporations, and billionaires promoting privatization,” said Lisa Graves, CMD’s Executive Director, adding: “although the week features many local events, it is backed by national entities, some of which are hostile to the idea of public schools and whose goals have included full privatization. No story about National School Choice Week is complete if it does not mention the special interests behind the choice agenda.”

NCSW’s website lists numerous partners, including the Walton Family Fund, ALEC, SPN, the Freedom Foundation, FreedomWorks, Cato Institute, Reason Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, the James Madison Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—many of which have ties to the Koch brothers’ political network. David Koch ran for Vice President in 1980 on a platform that included privatizing public schools, and his brother Charles started pushing school choice in the 1960s. Together they have funded an array of groups that spread that agenda.

For example, both SPN and ALEC have received financial support from the Koch funding network in addition to corporations. ALEC is a pay-to-play operation whose board includes K12, a for-profit “virtual” school company that has also sponsored SPN activities. At ALEC task force meetings, corporate lobbyists and special interest groups vote as equals with legislators on bills to expand charters, vouchers, and tax credits that serve the choice agenda—in addition to other bills that attack worker rights, environmental protections, and more. Koch Industries has been on ALEC’s board for decades and the Koch family fortune is one of the biggest funders of ALEC.

As CMD has documented, the charter school industry has been fueled by more than $3.6 billion from the federal government over the past two decades in addition to billions from states and from wealthy choice advocates like the billionaire Walton and DeVos families. This surge in cash has created a league of lobbyists urging legislators to send more tax dollars to this industry.

Here are some additional resources CMD has created about the school privatization effort:

CMD also notes that People for the American Way (PFAW) has published a useful, detailed report: “The Agenda of National School Choice Week: Don’t Be Blinded by the Bright Yellow Scarves.” Also, the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) has documented more than $200 million in fraud and waste by charter schools. Additionally, In the Public Interest (ITPI) also has resources on charter schools and school privatization, including polling. (CMD has worked with ITPI, CPD, and PFAW on issues.)

Dustin Beilke

Dustin Beilke is a freelance writer from Madison, WI. He has written for a number of publications, including Newsday,, The Nation, PRWatchThe Progressive, In These Times, Mother Jones, The Capital Times, and The Onion.

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