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January 25, 2013

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.

May 15, 2012

Searching for the reality of virtual schools

You’re probably reading this on a screen – whether a monitor, a phone, or a tablet – providing more evidence that digital content is ubiquitous. Likewise, its place in public education is not a matter of debate; it is inevitable. But school leaders and education policymakers do need to consider how to manage the influx of online learning opportunities in order to make sure students get their full benefit and not end up lost in cyberspace. The Center’s new report, “Searching for the reality of virtual schools,” examines what we do — and don’t — know about online learning in order to help do that.

We were prompted to create this report because K-12 online learning is growing so rapidly. Many players see opportunities in this burgeoning market and are pushing states and districts to expand their offerings of virtual courses and schools. They include the ed tech community; major education think tanks; school choice and home school advocates; and online learning providers, including several major software companies.

Yet there is little solid research on the impact of online courses or schools. In writing the report, we found a few examples of online learning having a positive effect, but most of what we were able to uncover is not encouraging–at least not yet. With the tremendous push occuring on behalf of online learning — it seems as if there is a new offering or piece of legislation every week — it’s time to step back and take a look at the data. Read the summary or the full report now in order to do that. — Rebecca St. Andrie

Filed under: online learning,technology — Tags: , — rstandrie @ 8:46 am

May 7, 2012

Invest in technology that works

Jay Mathews over at the Washington Post thinks that Online Courses May Make Graduation Too Easy. He may be right, he may be wrong, but as the Center’s report on credit recovery programs found, unfortunately, we just don’t know. There just isn’t any research out there to determine if providing online courses to students who are behind in the credits they need to graduate will improve their chances to earn a high school diploma. And right now, there is a push to expand such programs even though there is no evidence that they work.

The same can be said for other forms of online learning such as virtual charter schools. As the Center’s upcoming report on online learning will show, there is  little if any evidence that students are well served completing their education by sitting in front of a computer instead of inside a traditional classroom. While the rhetoric surrounding online learning sounds exciting and innovative, such as the prospect of students being able to work at their own pace or gaining “21st century skills,” we just don’t know if the actual impact matches the rhetoric.

One has to wonder: are students who have already fallen behind better served by working at their own pace? Will watching some lessons on a laptop create 21st century skills?

Policymakers should keep these questions in mind when considering expanding online learning in these times of extremely tight budgets. Certainly, technology can and should be used to enhance education. But blindly throwing money at anything technology-related is not the way to go in education, just as blindly investing in anything ‘dot com’ was not the way to go in the late 1990’s.

Policymakers should take a lesson from the irrational exuberance of the “dot com” craze and not go all-in in everything online learning. Instead, they should invest in those online learning tools that actually work. Doing so will both better serve students and taxpayers. – Jim Hull

May 3, 2012

Virginia Tech’s Math Emporium: Math in a mall

As a graduate of Virginia Tech, I was interested in the Washington Post’s story on online learning in its Math Emporium. I think the story points out some of the characteristics we’re discovering about online learning through our research.

Briefly, the Emporium works like this: In a large, renovated department store inside a mall, computers and terminals are set up on tables. By each monitor, there is a red plastic cup students can place on top if they are having problems. Students do not go to a traditional class; instead, they choose when to come and work through math lessons. Most of the classes offered are entry-level or remedial classes that require practice and repetition in order to grasp the concepts. Teaching assistants staff the Emporium at all times to help those having problems.

I didn’t go to the Math Emporium myself. It was created after I took my necessary math classes, and I was on a different math track as well. But the reports have been positive, if mixed: passing rates are higher, yet there is persistent concern from parents and some students about the lack of professors or set lecture times. But I think some of the points raised in the article add some key discussion points to any discussion of online learning:

  • From the little we know, blended models of online learning may work best. There is some alarming evidence that strictly online learning can let some students fall through the cracks, but blended learning has more stable results.
  • Some classes might work better than others. This article notes, for instance, that classes that need a lot of practice and repetition seem to work well in the Emporium.
  • We know more about college than we do about K-12 online learning. For instance, the often-cited Department of Education study on online learning drew most of its conclusions about postsecondary online learning. It only found 5 studies that met its research criteria on K-12 learning. Drawing any sort of conclusions about the best way to deliver K-12 online learning is hampered by a lack of reliable research and data.

Stay tuned for the Center’s upcoming backgrounder on online learning, which will outline more about what we know — or don’t know — about online learning. –Rebecca St. Andrie


Filed under: instruction,online learning,school organization,technology — Tags: , — rstandrie @ 2:50 pm

August 26, 2011

More research on rural schools

In the nation’s imagination, rural schools are usually typecast as homogenous, outdated, and identical.  In truth, there are an equal percentage of minority rural students as there are rural students period, around 20%.  As far as the antiquated myth goes, due to their distance from and limited access to many of the physical resources that urban and suburban areas enjoy (say teachers or advanced coursework), rural schools are often at the fore of digital learning initiatives. And perhaps the most misleading fallacy, rural schools are not identical.  Their virtues, as well as their challenges are site-specific.  Consider for example the disparate needs of effective ELL teachers in New Mexico versus Vermont, where the percentage ratio of rural minority students is 81.6: 2.6.   

Earlier this month, I blogged on the ease with which research entities overlook rural schools and the Department of Education’s highlighting of rural education for the month of August 2011.  In this entry, I’d like to discuss three papers dealing with rural schools, also released this month.  Though these reports have different angles on rural reform, four shared themes emerge: the need to build regional capacities and forge partnerships, attention to teacher recruitment and retention, flexibility in federally mandated reforms, and greater enrollment of rural students in post-secondary education.

In brief, the Center for American Progress’s (CAP) report, titled, Make Rural Schools a Priority, focuses on rural policy priorities for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  Transforming the Rural South, produced by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), relates the challenges of southern states where the largest percentage of underperforming rural schools are located.  And the Education Commission of the States (ECS) issued a summary document of recommendations generated from their first ever, National Summit on the Role of Education in Economic Development in Rural America, May 4th 2011.

Why is building regional capacities so important for rural school districts that take great pride in their unique communities and cultivate identity from surroundings?  SCORE calls on school districts to form regional partnerships and pool intellectual resources, which will thus enable them to go after philanthropic and federal grants to advance their own home-grown school reform efforts, otherwise out of reach. ECS recommends partnerships between school districts, institutions of higher education, local municipalities, and businesses to foster academic and career alignment and a college-going culture.

Such partnerships can also help teacher recruitment and retention, which is of grave concern, as the average rural teacher makes only 86 cents to the urban teacher’s dollar—pay allegedly appropriate for the lower costs of living, in housing that is often substandard.  Districts must partner with others to recruit highly effective teachers who can serve as content specialists across district lines.  Both CAP and ETS advise that pipelines be built to recruit teachers and administrators for sparsely populated districts lacking their own capacity to do so.  This infrastructure can start in the postsecondary setting, where teacher prep programs would expose candidates to actual teaching settings in rural communities, a dual strategy to promote effectiveness, and one reminiscent of those recently released by the National Council on Teaching Quality (NCTQ). 

In rural areas where teacher recruitment is an ever-present issue, turning around schools by way of firing the entire teaching staff is a deeply flawed solution.  This being one of the Obama administration’s four Race to the Top turnaround strategies, it stands to reason that rural school districts require more flexibility in implementing reforms.  There are countless reform efforts that rural schools would benefit from, not limited to those aforementioned, like better bandwidth and dual-credit high school classes. What’s most pressing of course is that these issues stay at the fore of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s mind, and think-tanks alike, beyond the month of August.—Juile McCabe

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