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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May 18, 2022

Help us make #DLAC23 even better!

A chance to improve on what is already a pretty good conference.

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The Digital Learning Annual Conference has been running for four years, and we are on a mission to make #DLAC2023 the best one yet.

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Step 1: Get your ideas about how to be better!

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There is still time to join our Proof Points project. Our goal is to make a powerful case, based on compelling data, that digital learning is a successful option for students. Do you have data driven stories from your school or district? Our first phase for submissions closes this week and we would love to hear from you!

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May 16, 2022

GAO study suggests online school wars may be decreasing

Speaking of that GAO report, it was the focus on John’s blog entry this week – and I have to say I’m disappointed with several of the points that John makes below.  Tomorrow or the next day I’ll try and comment on several of the red herrings that John has below – but today I did want to touch on one of the items.

Below, John writes:

“The people who say companies should not be involved rarely show that they have thought through the implications of what it would mean to eliminate companies from education—because it would be a seismic change given that companies provide the building blocks throughout the entirety of our school system, from buses to books. Based on personal experience, I’ve also found that quite a few people who don’t like the idea of the profit motive linked to education often are very appreciative of the companies that they work with.”

There is a difference between not liking corporations involvement in education or not wanting education decisions being made based on a profit motive, and wanting to eliminate companies from education.  This sentiment is a red herring of the highest order!  Plain and simple!  The reality is that as long as there have been companies and a formal education system in the United States, those companies have found ways to make a profit in that education system.  Textbook publishers are a prime example.  The difference between this example and what exists too often in the United States is the abdication of public responsibility for education directly to corporations.

For example, about 15-18 years ago I was a part of a board that was handpicked by a corporation, who’s main purpose was to sign a contract with said corporation to run all aspects of the school in return for approximately 90% to 92% of the student FTE funding.  The corporation hired the principal, all of the teachers and staff, paid for their own proprietary learning management system and student information system, as well as their own online curriculum.  Basically, as the board – all of whom were chosen by the corporation – it was basically sole responsibility to hand control and operation of a public school over to a corporation.

The United States is the only country that I am aware of in the world where corporations can directly and/or indirectly operate public schools.  This shouldn’t really be that surprising, as John mentions another public good where this occurs – health care.  We have seen example after example in the US health care system of patients not receiving care because a for profit insurance company denied coverage.  How long is it before we reach a point in the United States where these for profit schools decide to not provide an education to this student or that student because of the cost?  The reality is that one of the reasons students who attend these for profit online schools perform so poorly compared to their brick-and-mortar counterparts is because the instructional decisions are based on the bottom line and not on the best interest of the students.  These for profit online schools tend to have a significantly higher student-teacher ratio – as more students per teacher maximizes profits (and is also likely one of the main contributing factors to the poor student performance).

The statement that those who support removing the corporate influence from education want to eliminate companies from education is disingenuous at best – designed purposefully to confuse the issue at worse.  The reality is corporations have always had a role in the education system.  What is different with so many for profit online schools is that if a district wants to end its contract with Coke as the exclusive vendor for their pop machines, it can.  If a district wants to end its contract with one of these for profit online schools, it has to shut down the entire school and start the whole process from scratch (as the corporation owns everything from the school name onward).

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GAO study suggests online school wars may be decreasing

BY JOHN WATSON

Last week’s post provided brief background on two decades of disputes about online charter schools, and suggested that the battles may be shifting. This post looks at one significant piece of evidence: the recent GAO report looking at online charter schools.

The genesis of this study in fact reflects the history of online school disputes. Back in 2018, U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Patty Murray (D-WA) “urged” the GAO to “examine troubling new findings on virtual charter schools,” citing low performance and the profits of some private companies.

(The Senators also brought up ECOT, a large online school in Ohio that was subsequently shut down by the state. The issue with fraudulent, criminal activity requires a separate analysis, because activities within the law and those that are clearly criminal can’t easily be combined in one blog post.)

The GAO recently released its study, and right on cue the Senators put out a press release saying “Brown, Murray Release GAO Report Highlighting Problems Associated with For-Profit Virtual Charter Schools.”

The problem for those who want to ignite these battles, however, is the GAO report is actually very measured and deliberate. It highlights issues associated with online school policies, and in many cases presents the same arguments that online school advocates have been making for years. The Senators’ press release isn’t factually wrong because these are issues “associated” with online schools, but the report calls for improvement of state systems mostly—and doesn’t suggest restricting the online schools themselves.

First, three main points:

  •  Online “charter schools had significantly lower proficiency rates on states tests compared to other school types.”
  • …”a smaller proportion of virtual school students participated in state tests.”
  • “Virtual schools may pose increased financial risks due to challenges measuring attendance and—for charter schools, specifically—contracts with management organizations.”

Aside from the “contracts with management organizations” phrase, none of this is new or surprising.

Why is the finding regarding lower proficiency rates not especially concerning?

“Because we used school-level data, our analysis did not account for certain student-level characteristics that can affect proficiency, such as a student’s academic performance before attending a virtual charter school or student mobility. For example, some virtual charter schools serve students who are academically behind grade level, which in turn may contribute to their lower performance on state assessments.”

The study goes on to explain that the researchers looked at other studies that reviewed individual student data, and that these studies did show lower student achievement. But these are not new studies, and only one of the previous studies controlled for student mobility.

(A future blog post is going to look at student outcomes in online schools more closely, discussing these studies. For now, let’s just say that the GAO report, by its own admission, did not break any new ground on this topic.)

The point regarding online students taking state assessments at lower rates seems to me to be the least noteworthy. The reasons are obvious. Even as the report goes to great length to explain those reasons, it’s clear that when you require students who mostly learn from home, to show up somewhere to take a test that has no impact on their grades, quite a few aren’t going to bother, especially given that some students would have to travel considerable distances. I understand that this raises concerns, and the GAO does recommend that the US Department of Education examine this issue. Depending on whether the federal DOE or individual states take any actions, this could go well or poorly for online schools:

  • Well, if states implement remote state assessment options, or
  • Poorly, if states increase the accountability hit for low participation rates while still requiring onsite tests.

The third point in the GAO summary is the most interesting, as it delves into attendance, funding, and related issues. It’s here that the report is most aligned with online school advocates who have long been saying that states need to create better data, funding, and accountability systems. This section goes on for many pages, but two key points are:

  1. Attendance accounting varies by state; systems and data requirement are cumbersome; and no state has figured out how to count online attendance accurately.
  2. “…the virtual environment makes it more difficult to monitor student attendance and the extent to which instructional services are being provided to students. As a result, there is increased risk that attendance numbers for virtual schools are inaccurate, which translates to an increased risk that virtual schools may receive more or less funding than they should.”

The for-profit company angle
As noted earlier in this post, the original request by two Senators for the GAO to conduct this study noted concerns about “profits” and “for-profit” companies.

There’s no question that some people dislike the presence of for-profit companies in education. Often the feeling is that private companies should not be involved in the provision of a social good such as education. This also is a topic that deserves to be addressed at length elsewhere, other than to note here that the US education system is heavily tied to companies (as is another public good, health care.) The people who say companies should not be involved rarely show that they have thought through the implications of what it would mean to eliminate companies from education—because it would be a seismic change given that companies provide the building blocks throughout the entirety of our school system, from buses to books. Based on personal experience, I’ve also found that quite a few people who don’t like the idea of the profit motive linked to education often are very appreciative of the companies that they work with. It’s like the public attitude towards Congress—polls show widespread dissatisfaction with Congress, but also that most people like their own US House Representative (which is why re-election rates are high.)

It’s also the case, however, that the most egregious examples of illegal activity in online learning have been tied to for-profit companies. These bad actors, such as A3, have given the private sector role in education a bad name.

Here again, the GAO report doesn’t add much. It first makes some deep-in-the-weeds points suggesting that schools tied to management organizations (for-profit or non-profit) may have issues with federal and state reporting. It then goes on to make a concise statement:

“According to Education officials, these risks are amplified when the management organizations are for-profit because their interest in profits may outweigh the school’s interest in complying with federal program requirements and providing high-quality educational services to students.”

Maybe that’s enough for the concerned Senators to run with, but to me it’s a weak statement for two reasons. First, the qualifier “according to Education officials” takes the place of any solid evidence. In a court of law, this would be called “hearsay evidence,” which is usually inadmissible. Second, the word “may” softens that statement immeasurably, making it almost worthless, particularly in a study that goes into great detail in other areas.

The bottom line is that, as noted above, some people don’t like for-profit companies involved in education, and some do (or don’t care.) My argument isn’t going to change the views of those who don’t like companies being involved with education, and the GAO report isn’t going to change the views of those who don’t care.

Why this study suggests that the online school wars may be shifting
Circling back to my original premise—why does this study suggest a shift in online learning policy disputes? Two reasons:

First, much of the report spotlights inadequacies of state systems, not individual schools or online learning per se. Further, these are the same inadequacies that online school advocates have raised for many years—and some of them hit online and hybrid schools that are operated by districts for their own students.

Second, this report has largely been met by…no response at all. The Sherrod Brown press release seems to have tried to appear outraged and then the staffers realized there wasn’t much to be outraged about. The report created hardly any ripples across my various news feeds.

Of course, there have been a few major, distracting (and sad) events in the weeks since the report was released. A major war, high inflation, and seemingly common random shootings will push an education report off the headlines. But still, it feels like this report has received much less attention than it might have a few years ago, and that suggests that the online charter disputes may be waning—with something else taking their place.

More on that as this series continues next week.

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May 12, 2022

DLAC is BACK! 🌟

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Digital Learning Annual Conference

Austin, TX in 2023

The Digital Learning Annual Conference is BACK! We are thrilled to announce the registration opening for DLAC 2023 with prices at the same rates as prior years (no inflation here)!! We are well on our way to making the fifth annual conference the best year yet —  a conference you won’t want to miss!

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Call for proposals coming soon!
The heart and soul of DLAC is made up of all the amazing individuals and teams who share your stories, lead the discussions, and ask the hard questions at DLAC. This year we are opening the Call for Proposals in a phased approach to ensure our agenda is well rounded and robust. Keep an eye out for details on the first phase for your chance of getting on the agenda early!

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To all who have been asking about sponsoring and exhibiting–we hear you and we’re excited to have you join DLAC 2023! A special email regarding Sponsor and Exhibitor registration will go out in a few weeks – so keep your eye out!

Questions? Email us today at DLAC@evergreenedgroup.com

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May 11, 2022

Announcing the Proof Points Project – Share Student Outcomes!

Note this opportunity for K-12 online and blended learning programs to participate.

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Announcing the Proof Points Project – Share Student Outcomes!

Thank you for joining us at the Digital Learning Annual Conference in Atlanta or Online!  As many of you discussed at DLAC, digital learning educators and school administrators know emergency remote learning to be very different from established online, hybrid, and blended learning programs. Policymakers, parents, the public, and even many educators still struggle to discern the difference between remote instruction and well-designed online learning. We believe that data-driven student success stories can help to make this distinction.

To this end, the Digital Learning Collaborative (DLC) and Future of School are excited to announce the Proof Points Project, which aims to identify and gather data-driven examples of success in online, hybrid, and blended schools across the country. Our goal is to make a powerful case, based on compelling data, that digital learning is a successful option for students.

We encourage you to submit your stories to Proof Points. Student outcomes data might include any of the following:

  • Graduation rates
  • State test scores or report cards
  • MAP or AP scores
  • Studies conducted by universities or other research organizations
  • Post-secondary readiness
  • Other externally validated measures.

The profiles will not include any individual student information (PII) as we’re seeking only program- or school-level data.

Submit Your Data!
If your program, school, or district has gathered, analyzed, and used data to further your online programs, we would love to have you submit that information to Proof Points. The first phase of the Proof Points Project is open to submissions now through May 19.

If you have any questions, please reach out to DLC@evergreenedgroup.com.

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