The future is still the future?

Honestly, I’m not a Luddite. But sometimes I feel like I’m playing one here at CPE.

Last year we examined what was known — or more accurately what was not known — about online courses and cyberschools, and their overall impact on student learning. The report, Searching for the Reality of Virtual Schools, found that despite some very exciting things happening in online education, the overall impact of virtual courses and schools on elementary and secondary students is either undocumented or bleak.  We also found that the fault is mostly with inadequate monitoring systems for students working online, with the result that many of them appeared to be dropping in and out of the cyberworld unnoticed and often untaught.

Recent news from Pennsylvania isn’t making us any more hopeful. Earlier this week, an independent education news service in Philadelphia reported on allegations by former employees that a major virtual charter school provider, K12 Inc.

“aggressively recruited children who were ill-suited for the company’s model of online education. They say the schools then manipulated enrollment, attendance, and performance data to maximize tax-subsidized, per-pupil funding.”

K12 operates the Agora cyber charter which enrolls 8,000 of the state’s 32,000 full-time cyber students.  In addition to actively seeking students who are most likely to do poorly online, the former K12 employees further described the company’s practice of skirting attendance requirements while continuing to bill the state for students who are clearly not participating in the instruction.

The charges are part of a class action suit filed by investors in K12 which reported $522 million earnings in 2011. According to the article, most of K12’s revenue was generated by managing public virtual charter schools.  While the investors have their reasons to be unhappy, the real victims here, of course, are the students.

Then yesterday, the Pennsylvania Department of Education released recalculated AYP numbers for all charter schools in the state. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the recalculations were called for after it was revealed that AYP requirements for charter schools were more lenient than those for traditional public schools. The new numbers show that 43 charters met AYP, down from 77 under the former rules.

Of particular interest was that not one — zero — virtual charter schools made AYP.  As we reported last year, Stanford University researchers had earlier looked at Pennsylvania virtual charter schools over the period 2007 and 2010. They found that they consistently performed worse in terms of student gains than the traditional public school the students would have otherwise attended. Obviously, nothing has changed.

A now legendary 1955 documentary heralded the approach of a new technological age, proclaiming that “the future is now.”  I have seen how technology is transforming classrooms for the better, especially when blended with face-to-face instruction with a teacher. But for the idea there will be a brave new cyber world of schooling, the future still seems to be in the future.

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