Virtual School Meanderings

March 30, 2021

NEPC – Curmudgucation: Are These Lessons to Learn from Cyberschools?

As someone who is regularly referred to as a curmudgeon, I’m a little envious of the name of this blog.  Either way, I missed this when it was first posted.

Curmudgucation: Are These Lessons to Learn from Cyberschools?

At this stage of the game, there’s no reason to keep imagining that cyberschools are a viable option for education on any sort of scale. There’s a small group of students with specialized needs that they can serve well, but mostly they’ve failed big time. But they are also excellent money-makers, and so we periodically find folks trying to rehabilitate the cyberschool image. Here comes another such attempt.

Where did this one come from?

North Carolina-based Public Impact is yet another reform group dedicated to advocacy for charter schools etc. It has all the usual features. For instance, the jargon-soaked product line:

Using our unmatched thought leadership and experience with charter schools, turnarounds, and innovations for great teachers and principals, school design, funding, technology, parent support, community engagement and data analysis to help states, localities, districts, charter organizations, funders, and nonprofits choose the right strategies for dramatic improvements.

And the leadership which, you will be shocked to learn, involves a minimum of actual educators. Co-President Bryan Hassel is a big-time consultant and “recognized expert” (recognized by who, one wonders) on charters and turnarounds and funding systems and writing pieces for Education Next and EdWeek. His Co-President is Emily Hassel, who provides thought leadership and oversight. They’re both Pahara-Aspen Education Fellows, which puts them in the company of many other charter and reformster folks. Lucy Steiner is the senior vp for “educator excellence and implementation services,” and she has some actual classroom background– she taught English from 1993-1996.

Like most such groups, Public Impact likes to crank out “reports” that serve as slickly packaged advocacy for one reform thing or another. Two of their folk have just whipped together such a report for Bluum. Sigh. Yes, I know, but it’s important to mark all the wheels within wheels if for no other reason than A) it’s important to grasp just how many people are employed in the modern reformster biz and B) later, when these groups and people turn up again, you want to remember what they’ve been up to before.

Okay. I’m sure we’ll get to the report eventually.

So Bluum. This Idaho-based is a “non-profit organization committed to ensuring Idaho’s children reach their fullest potential by cultivating great leaders and innovative schools.” Its 2016 990 form lists that mission, though it includes some more specific work. “Bluum assists the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation determine where to make education investments that will result in the growth of high performing seats in Idaho.” (I will never not find the image of a high-performing seat” not funny.) Then they monitor the results. The Albertsons are Idaho grocery millionaires with an interest in education causes.

Blum’s CEO is Terry Ryan, who previously worked for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Ohio.

Bluum partners with Teach for America, NWEA. National School Choice Week, the PIE Network, and Education Cities, to name a few. And they are the project lead on the consortium that landed a big, juicy federal CSP grant to expand charters (that’s the program that turns out to have wasted at least a billion dollars).

Just so we’re clear– this report did not come from a place of unbiased inquiry. It came from a place of committed marketing.

So who wrote it?

The report was created by two of Public Impact’s people. Daniela Doyle is the vp for policy and management research; she’s a Teach for America product. Izzi Hernandez-Cruz is a consultant who spent two years as an AmeriCorps teacher.

Can we talk about the report now?

Sure. “Meeting the Potential of a Virtual Education: Lessons from Operators Making Online Schooling Work” is the report. The idea here is, “Sure, lots of virtual schools have turned out to be a bust, and yes, we read the CREDO report that absolutely lambasted cyberschools, and yes, we are aware of massive scams like the ECOT mess in Ohio where the school fleeced the state by collecting money for phantom students. Nevertheless…”

But after more than two decades, we have developed a strong sense of the challenges that virtual operators face, as well as strategies to address those challenges. Moreover, a handful of online schools are demonstrating that success is possible.

So we’re going to rebrand “failure” as “challenge.” Boy, that would have been nice back when charter advocates were hammering away at “failing” public schools. The report will look at two schools, which is a small handful, but okay. One is the Idaho Distance Learning Academy and the other is New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy Charter School. By looking at two schools, the report hopes to unveil the secrets “for other online operators and policymakers who are eager to make virtual school success the rule, rather than the exception.”

It’s an intriguing research model. Reminds me of Grace Jones– no, not that one, but the woman who was one of the oldest persons in the UK, who always swore that the secret of long life was drinking whiskey. And yet, oddly, scientists never started recommending that everyone drink whiskey daily, perhaps because really small samples don’t yield significant results, and the singular of “data” is not “anecdote.”

No, not this Grace Jones

 

We get a quick sidebar on each school. VLACS turns out to be not just a cybercharter, but a cybercharter that is built around competency based education. It has 400 full time students and 13,000 part-time ones, and the report doesn’t really explain that part-time thing, but I am familiar with both homeschoolers and very small private schools that depend on cyberschool to plug some gaps in their programs, so perhaps that is also going on here. Also, VLACS does adult ed, so that’s probably part of it. I-DEA enrolls about 700 full timers. Those are not large numbers; here in PA, 14 cyberschool enroll over 35,000 students.

The profiles note that both schools enroll fewer students of color than the state, and VLACS is also behind the state on low-income students. So it’s not entirely clear if their brags about greater testing success than the rest of the state are valid, but the report is just going to go with it. The superiority of these two schools is going to be a premise of the report, not a hypothesis to be tested. The report offers a whole sidebar about how hard it is to define success, acknowledges that hardly anyone knows how to do it, and then just shrugs its shoulders and says, “Well, we’ll just go with test scores, then.”

So what are the lessons that we are supposed to learn from these two schools?

Lesson 1: Strong Teaching Drives Student Success

The report notes that both schools “take painstaking measures” to select teachers “with a track record of success” and give them training, as well as expecting high expectations. VLACS takes almost four months to bring newbies up to speed, starts them out with four or five students, and gets them up to a “full caseload.” I-DEA doesn’t hire new teachers based on the belief that you have to know what good teaching looks like in a classroom before you can do it in a cyberenvironment, which– well, is that not admitting that cyberschools are a kind of weak imitation of “real” school?

At any rate, the actual lesson here seems to be “be careful who you hire, and make sure you train them.” This does not strike me as a particularly profound insight.

Lesson 2: Personal Connections Are Key

Cyber-connections lack the level of personal connection that is critical to K-12 education (both I-DEA and VLACS are high schools). VLACS tries to bridge the gap with advisors, who “connect” with students at least once a week and provide families with monthly progress reports. This is…. not impressive. Also not impressive is this story of a “common occurrence” at the annual live in person graduation ceremony from the VLACS chief:

Students will often come up to me and ask if the woman standing on the other side of the room is their advisor. When I say ‘yes,’ I have often watched them approach one another and embrace, even though it’s the first time they’ve met in person.

So, students don’t actual meet their main human connection with the school until graduation (and again– is the “live” graduation not an acknowledgement that cyber contact is not really good enough), where they probably won’t even recognize the person on sight. That seems… sad.

I-DEA staff all work from one of three actual buildings “which improves staff accountability and fosters connection that facilitate collaboration and support,” so I guess I-DEA recognizes that human beings work together best when they are physically together in the same space. I mean, what does it say about your faith in the virtual classroom model when you won’t use it to run your actual organization?

Side Note on Visuals

This very pretty report includes lots and lots of nice photos. Despite the fact that the report indicates that these two schools are whiter than the student population of the state (and let me remind you that we’re talking about Idaho and New Hampshire here), the photos in the report are very heavy on people of color. Trying to compensate?

Lesson 3: Student Learning Must Be the Center of School Design

There’s a huge issue in virtual learning, and this report isn’t going to address it. In any technology-based education system, we’re going to have a steroid-infused version of the tension present in all education– the tension between what we need to measure and what we can most easily measure. Both of these schools are leaning into the Personalized [sic] Learning, which means there are a variety of other factors and issues involved here. But this report seems to make the classic error of conflating personalized learning with personalized pacing. The CBE and personalized [sic] learning discussion will have to wait for another day if we’re ever to get through this. Suffice it to say that none of the major issues are addressed by the report.

Lesson 4: Schools Set High Expectations for Students and Families

These two schools want you to know that they are not Easy A credit recovery programs, and I certainly applaud that. But what high expectations seems to translate to here is the ability to push out families that aren’t up to snuff. VLACS even has a 28-day trial period during which students may be dropped for cyber-truancy. The ability to weed out low-performing students is very useful in keeping those numbers up.

Recommendations

The report ends with some suggestions for “virtual operators.”

First, do the same stuff that makes bricks-and-mortar schools successful, because, as you may have already noticed, nothing in the four lessons is exclusive to a virtual school. An interesting specific they offer is don’t take on too large a student caseload. Not for the first time, I’m wondering what the audience for this report is supposed to be. Because in Pennsylvania, one of the biggest cyberschool states, operators are looking at some of this and are saying, “Are you nuts? More students means bigger payday. And these small class sizes that these guys have? Forget that! Ka-ching!”

Identify what is truly different. IOW, figure out how to communicate through this very limiting medium. But use the “unique opportunities online schooling offers.” This translates into an argument for personalized [sic] learning.

I do like this next one– “Innovate, don’t just automate.” And this: technology “can also lead to inappropriate automation.” But I’m pretty sure they’re whistling into the wind here; the obvious financial incentives are lined up behind turning over as much of the process as possible to the software, which is far more attractive in cyberschooling because the computer infrastructure is already naturally in place.

Concluding thoughts

After asking legislators to loosen rules for cyberschool benefits, the writers offer some closing thoughts.

Much of the discussion of virtual charter schools tends to focus on their scandals or poor academic outcomes. And there is clearly ample evidence of both. Accordingly, policymakers have largely focused their energy on how best to regulate the sector as a way to protect students and taxpayers.

Boy, I wish that were so. But in PA, we just had yet another failed attempt to roll back some of the rules for our spectacularly lousy cyberschool sector (no PA cyber has ever earned a “passing” score). We still pay cybers 100% of the per-pupil rate for the sending district, which is not only a huge drain on local district finances, but it’s a huge incentive for bad actors who are guaranteed huge profits. Meanwhile, the legislature couldn’t even pass a rule telling cybers that they had to stop advertising that they were “free” and must instead acknowledge that they are paid for by taxpayers.

That work is certainly justified, and it is important. But so too is learning from the online operators who are getting it right. This report demonstrates that virtual success is absolutely possible. 

Well, no, not really, it doesn’t. It tries to draw some suggestions out of two very narrow and specific examples, crossed with what the authors believe are good practices for cyberschool. In fact, if this report had just been an article entitled “How We Think Cyber Charters Should Best Be Run” I wouldn’t have much beef with it, other than to point out that a huge number of cyber operators ought to take some of this advice but probably won’t.

These two schools also offer some confirmation of other old lessons, like small class sizes are better and it’s easier to teach when you don’t have to teach the students who won’t work and don’t want to be there. And there are many, many questions that remain unanswered– most especially, are these two schools really any more successful than any other schools.

So argue your points. Make your pitch. But I do wish we would stop trying to package these marketing pitches as “research.”

Incidentally, Grace Jones died just last month at the age of 112, having finally taken the title of the oldest person in the UK. 112 is not a bad run, and she was fit and active till the end. But I would still not recommend drinking whiskey every single day.

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. …

February 9, 2021

Stephen’s Web ~ OLDaily – February 05, 2021 / The Tests Are Lousy, So How Could the Scores Be Meaningful?

As I often point to Alfie’s work around learning loss, I also wanted to highlight this item that came through Stephen’s Web ~ OLDaily late last week.

The Tests Are Lousy, So How Could the Scores Be Meaningful?

Alfie KohnNational Education Policy Center, Feb 05, 2021

Alfie Kohn raises the question of what assessment signifies, exactly. Why, he asks, do we listen to misleading traffic reports or weather predictions? “Am I really so addicted to data that I prefer misleading information to none at all?” maybe – and this allows him to be more forgiving of teachers who applaud (or bemoan) standardized test scores even whent hey know the scores are largely meaningless. “But however understandable that impulse is,” he writes, “we have a duty to resist it, at least when it can do real harm.” Why? “First, because these tests measure what matters least about learning…. (and) Second, every time a study that relies on test scores as the primary dependent variable is published or cited, those tests gain further legitimacy.”

Web: [Direct Link] [This Post]

November 20, 2020

What’s Next for PreK-12 Funding? Austerity, Subsistence or Investment?

An item from the National Education Policy Center.

What’s Next for PreK-12 Funding? Austerity, Subsistence or Investment?

Thursday, November 19, 2020

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What’s Next for PreK-12 Funding? Austerity, Subsistence or Investment?

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With Joe Biden two months away from assuming the presidency, it’s goodbye to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and hello to a new administration. Now in full swing is the parlor game of guessing who the next education secretary will be. But to most educators and their students, what matters even more will be the way in which President-elect Biden and the Congress handle the economic tsunami of COVID-created declines of 10 to 20 percent in state tax revenue, coupled with rising expenses related to implementing safety measures, such as social distancing, while abruptly pivoting to remote learning, requiring new approaches and tools.

A recent NEPC policy memo lays out three possible scenarios for how Congress might handle the impending fiscal cliff faced by our nation’s schools:

  1. Austerity: Minimal federal assistance for schools. As a result, K-12 budgets are predicted to decrease by an average of 16 percent, roughly twice the decline experienced as a result of the 2008 Recession. Schools would lose thousands of teachers; class sizes, already higher than research recommends, would skyrocket; and children would receive less support coping with the trauma of illness and unemployment.
  2. Subsistence: A federal investment of $175 to $200 billion in PreK-12 education would be just enough to maintain the status quo of insufficiently and inequitably funded schools. Subsistence funding would not cover the additional costs incurred as a result of the pandemic, such as additional resources for remote learning, school meals for elevated number of children experiencing poverty as a result of pandemic-related job losses, reduced class size to maintain social distancing, cleaning and ventilation protocols designed to provide safe in-person instruction, mental health support to help students cope with the crisis, or extended school hours to compensate for learning loss. Because the pandemic has disproportionately affected low-income communities and people of color, subsistence funding would disproportionately harm Black, Native American, Latinx and low-income students.
  3. Investment: What if, instead of maintaining an unfair and inadequate status quo, policymakers picked this moment to make a New Deal-style investment that would at the same time lead to unprecedented improvements in education while infusing much-needed cash into the economy? The cost would be above and beyond the $200 billion needed for subsistence. But it would be a fraction of the $4.5 trillion set aside to bolster the financial markets through Treasury funding.

The authors of the policy memo, Frank AdamsonAllison Brown, and Kevin Welner, conclude:

The enormously expensive bailouts of airlines, financial markets, investors, and other elements of the economy are defended—and are arguably defensible—as necessary to prevent further pain that would be felt by “average Americans” if that larger economy collapses. But many of those average Americans are families with children in public schools. If policymakers choose to let those children sink, taking their futures down with them, then why bother bailing out the businesses that we hope will one day serve them and employ them?

More resources: To see how priorities can be changed to free up funding for research-based investments in education, try the new interactive game, FundEdInstead!

This newsletter is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice: http://www.greatlakescenter.org

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a university research center 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: http://nepc.colorado.edu

Copyright 2020 National Education Policy Center. All rights reserved.

November 18, 2020

NEPC Talks Education: Not So Fast: Critically Assessing Ed Tech During COVID-19

The latest podcast from the National Education Policy Center that is quite relevant for readers of this space.

NEPC Talks Education offers insightful programming on a variety of significant education policy and practice topics for educators, community members, policymakers, and anyone interested in education.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Publication Announcement

KEY TAKEAWAY:

NEPC Talks Education offers insightful programming on a variety of significant education policy and practice topics for educators, community members, policymakers, and anyone interested in education.

CONTACT:

William J. Mathis:

(802) 383-0058

wmathis@sover.net

Christopher Saldaña:

(303) 492-2566

christopher.saldana@colorado.edu

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BOULDER, CO (November 17, 2020) – In this month’s episode of the NEPC Talks Education podcast, NEPC Researcher Christopher Saldaña interviews Dr. Ben Williamson, a Chancellor’s fellow at the Centre for Research in Digital Education and the Edinburgh Futures Institute. Williamson’s research examines how digital technologies, science, and data intersect with education policy and governance. He is the author of Big Data in Education: The Digital Future of Learning, Policy and Practice and the co-author of Commercialisation and Privatisation in/of Education in the Context of Covid-19.

Saldaña and Williamson discuss why it is important for educational researchers and educational policymakers to view critically the implementation of educational technology (ed tech) in schools, especially as schools adopt more ed tech to cope with the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Williamson argues that although other fields, like media studies or digital sociology, have published studies showing the ill effects of technology on, for example, politics and discrimination, the field of education has yet to produce a critical mass of studies examining the potentially significant effect of ed tech on teaching and learning.

Williamson argues that one reason for this lack of research might be because the ed tech industry benefits from influential and well-funded advocates who silence critics. For example, Williamson explains that the ed tech industry is a multi-sector, multibillion dollar industry that includes international technology firms such as Google, Microsoft and Apple, global intergovernmental organizations such as the OECD and UNESCO, major philanthropic foundations like the Gates Foundation, profit-seeking, grant-making entities such as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and educational content producers such as Pearson.

Dr. Williamson recommends that researchers examine the side effects associated with a growing ed tech sector and increased presence of technology in schools, including how this might exacerbate issues related to the digital divide and the privatization and commercialization of K-12 public schools. Williamson also encourages teachers unions to critically evaluate how the technology adopted by schools in which their members teach affects their ability to teach and their students’ ability to learn.

A new NEPC Talks Education podcast episode, hosted by NEPC Researcher Christopher Saldaña, will be released each month from September through May.

Don’t worry if you miss a month. All episodes are archived on the NEPC website and can be found here.

NEPC podcast episodes are also available on Apple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher, under the title NEPC Talks Education. Subscribe and follow!

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a university research center 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: http://nepc.colorado.edu

Copyright 2020 National Education Policy Center. All rights reserved.

November 13, 2020

“Curriculum Punishment.” What It Is and Why You Need To Know About It Now

An important item from the National Education Policy Center.

“Curriculum Punishment.” What It Is and Why You Need To Know About It Now

Thursday, November 12, 2020

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“Curriculum Punishment.” What It Is and Why You Need To Know About It Now

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NEPC Fellow H. Richard Milner IV has coined a new term for an old practice: “Curriculum punishment” describes a situation in which “students are harmed when they are not exposed to potentially transformative, racially just learning opportunities.” He reflected about this idea in his 2018 American Educational Research Association Brown Lecture. Milner is Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair of Education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education.

Here’s an example Milner provided earlier this year in a recap of his lecture that appeared in the peer-refereed journal Educational Researcher. Soon after school desegregation was implemented in Alabama, a Black educator (who was being interviewed by Milner) asked a White guidance counselor what he had done to try and help Black students in their district get admitted to college. The counselor replied that he had focused his efforts on “every major school in Alabama. And that’s Auburn and the University of Alabama.” As Milner notes, the counselor’s decision to ignore historically Black colleges and universities and attend only to segregated and historically White institutions, meant that Black students experienced curriculum punishment in that were never informed about HBCUs where they might have thrived. The counselor was functioning as a purveyor of curriculum in that he was teaching students about college access.

“Black students are punished for not being White,” Milner writes. “All students are punished for their counselor not being aware of historically Black colleges and universities and/or for having a counselor who does not see the value in exposing students to a learning opportunity that could benefit them.”

Milner shares another example offered by this same Black educator. He asked the educator if Black teachers in his district had, during the 1960s, led students in discussions of racist acts of violence against Black leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcom X. The educator replied that, although the community was deeply affected by such events, they did not address them in school “because we had a White superintendent, if you addressed it, that would have been your last day at that time.” For this same reason, the educator, who Milner refers to as Mr. Williams, also refrained from sharing his own experiences participating in non-violent marches and communicating with Dr. King.

“This form of curriculum punishment is prevalent currently in many schools as educators, due to structural and systemic barriers, may not address the killing of unarmed Black bodies,” Milner writes. “Thus, the point is not to criticize Mr. Williams or the other teachers who did not teach about the killings but to stress how curriculum punishment is a manifestation of systemic challenges that worked to maintain the status quo.”

Milner emphasizes the importance of preparing teachers to address race-related issues with their students. Otherwise, he fears, we will continue to see educators actually “boast about the fact that they do not, have not, and will not address race in their talk, curriculum practices, or work more broadly.”

“[C]urriculum punishment,” he concludes, “can result in emotional, psychological, social, and traumatic cognitive strain and dissonance among young people as they attempt to make sense of societal injustices.”

In this moment of crisis, as people of color suffer disproportionately from the coronavirus pandemic and violence perpetrated through the state, this concept of curriculum punishment is more relevant than ever to our nation’s educators and schools.

This newsletter is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice: http://www.greatlakescenter.org

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a university research center 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: http://nepc.colorado.edu

Copyright 2020 National Education Policy Center. All rights reserved.

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