Tough Times on virtual learning?

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Back at the start of December, I blogged on the need for both an open door to online learning and also a greater focus on accountability for those who would operate in that space.

Understanding the quality of the choices in the marketplace will have to be informed by more than giddy passion about the promise of virtual learning. A cursory look at the research done on virtual learning suggests that there has been to date more energy than light on the impact of VL on sustained student achievement. …We are just at the start of the virtual learning movement, and there is so much promise in the short term regarding access to high-quality content, targeted instruction, peer tutoring and resulting stronger socialization around academics (rather than who’s cool and who’s not). …

The fault lines around how best to teach kids how to read, conceptual understanding, and what should be in the standards and curriculum are all important topics well into a virtual future.

And politics will come. It is unavoidable. The NY Times was to run an expose by Stephanie Saul, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has spent much of her career at the Times on the pharmaceutical industry and fertility treatments, on the well-known digital learning company K12. Many in the school choice movement see the article as a likely hatchet job…

All I can say to school reformers who support digital learning is: Such articles and such scrutiny are going to come. It is inevitable and ultimately it is good.


Ms. Saul’s piece on online learning – or really on one company involved in the online space, K12 Inc. – came out five days after my blog.  The title of her piece was provocative — Profits and Questions at Online Charter Schools – though not nearly as provocative as the url of the article (which may suggest that it was the original title): “Online Schools Score Better on Wall Street Than in Classrooms.”

It’s important simply because it’s an long investigative piece in the New York Times.  And while I am going to stick with my take that criticism is a good thing because it helps you improve, the article has been roundly criticized with good reason.

Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation is right to lament Saul’s failure

to interview, for example, the student with disabilities who can work at his own pace or the student in a rural state who would never have had access to AP physics or Mandarin Chinese if it weren’t for online options. Instead, Saul dismisses the benefits that virtual education holds for so many students.

The article does interview Ronald Packard, the CEO of K12 Inc., but the rest of the quotes are from opponents of the school.  I get that you need to interview unions folks and superintendents for a full picture, but when the scholar you approach for a comment compares the company and digital learning to “what the banks did with home mortgages” and when Saul herself suggests that the company is acting like “military contractors [that] have capitalized on Pentagon spending,” well, it’s just not credible. Consider just how un-journalistic the tone is in these sentences:

With K12 estimating the market for its schools as high as $15 billion, the company’s manifest destiny is to expand across the United States. Its newest conquest is Tennessee, where the company got legislative approval last May… [my italics]

Other problems with the piece are:

1) The article draws conclusions from an investigation of one company and applies them broadly to digital learning.  As Burke notes:

Rocketship Academy, a blended learning school that leverages online learning in combination with the traditional classroom. Out of 3,000 low-income schools in California, Rocketship is the fifth-highest-performing.Rocketship’s performance is consistent with findings released in 2010 by the U.S. Department of Education. In a meta-analysis of more than 1,000 empirical studies on virtual learning, it found that “online learning has been modestly more effective, on average, than the traditional face-to-face instruction with which it has been compared.”


There are also public virtual schools, including the rightly much-applauded Florida’s Virtual School, which have demonstrated records of success and also provide lessons for the kind of accountability that states like Pennsylvania, which Saul’s focuses on, should insist upon.

2) Saul is clearly unfamiliar with the field she is writing about.  After citing upcoming research from Western Michigan University and the National Education Policy Center to the effect that

only a third of K12’s schools achieved adequate yearly progress, the measurement mandated by federal No Child Left Behind legislation

Saul quotes a school official from Memphis Public Schools to support her point that children need academic and social skills.  The problem is that

According to Superintendent Kriner Cash, only about 16% of Memphis City Schools made its ‘Adequate Yearly Progress,’ or AYP. He said about 50 schools made improvements but it wasn’t enough.

A FoxMemphis news segment, Memphis City Schools Fall Short on Progress Report, notes the same.



Then there is the section of the article where Saul seeks to taint K12 Inc., and the entire digital learning space, with the scarlet letter of lobbying.  Taking the Pennsylvania state auditor’s criticism of K12’s use of funds on advertising and lobbying without questioning, Saul shows either naivete or a lack of curiosity surprising because of her profession when she writes that charter schools and digital learning entities

have formed a lobbying juggernaut in state capitals.  In Pennsylvania, the company has spent $681,000 on lobbying since 2007.

Juggernaut?  It’s not my intention to defend lobbyists, but can Saul really be unaware that taxpayer funds go to teachers’ union lobbying and also that of the superintendents—and that these funds flow through private organizations?  If K12’s spending $170,000 a year on lobbying is offensive, then what about these numbers for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which she quotes throughout her article:

The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), an affiliate of the NEA, siphoned over $55 million out of its 191,000 members’ and 5,600  agency-fee payers’ wallets in 2010, with help from school districts who deduct the payments.A number of members and fee-payers would gladly keep their money, if given the choice. National Education Association (NEA) general counsel Robert Chanin acknowledged that fact: “It is well recognized that if you take away the mechanism of payroll deduction, you won’t collect a penny from these people.”

More than $2.5 million of that paid for political fundraising, a gubernatorial debate video, political calling, lobbying, and other political activity…

While dues cannot be used to directly fund candidates’ campaigns, unions also have PACs. Union war chests contributed more than $23 million to campaigns in 2009-2010 — much more than the often vilified natural gas industry. PACE, the PSEA’s political action committee, contributed $2.3 million to state election campaigns in 2009-2010, including $310,000 to Dan Onorato for  Governor.


Another example of Saul’s lack of understanding of the field is her broad and unfortunately uninformed assumptions about the kinds of students that may benefit from digital opportunities—suggesting that they are simply those kids with “strong parental commitment and self-motivated students.”

Then there is her lack of understanding of homeschoolers.  Citing critics who “argue that states are essentially subsidizing home schooling,” Saul is oblivious to the counter-argument made for decades by homeschoolers that they are the ones who have long subsidized public schools by paying for their kids’ education out of pocket even as they pay taxes for traditional public schools that their kids do not attend.

All that said, there is no reason to go overboard criticizing Saul’s intentions or lack of detailed knowledge with the subject matter.  That’s hardly rare in journalism these days, though it is equally clear that the Times‘ Sam Dillon is a far more experienced hand in the education space.  Saul’s piece is helpful when it underscores an issue that states interested in expanding digital learning have to get their arms around: How payments and incentives are structured to online vendors is crucial to ensuring accountability for recruitment and retention, as well as student achievement.

For example, Saul writes that

The constant cycle of enrollment and withdrawal, called the churn rate, appears to be a problem at many schools. Records Agora filed with Pennsylvania reveal that 2,688 students withdrew during the 2009-10 school year. At the same time, K12 continued to sign up new students. Enrollment at the end of the year — 4,890 — was 170 students more than at the beginning, obscuring the high number of withdrawals.

A 50 percent “churn” rate is unacceptable, and that Pennsylvania is not insisting on answers suggests that they need to improve their public policy.  And while Saul’s wrong on the kinds of students who may benefit from digital learning, we would be wise to listen to disgruntled K12 Inc. staff members when they

say problems begin with intense recruitment efforts that fail to filter out students who are not suited for the program[.]

As the Massachusetts legislature thinks through this issue, it has to pay special attention to the fee structure and timing.  Here the public model in Florida may provide important lessons in as much as there is no payment made to the Florida Virtual School until the student completes the course with a satisfactory grade.

Such a payment system would alleviate the pressures of some teachers at K12 who

questioned why some students who did no class work were allowed to remain on school rosters, potentially allowing the company to continue receiving public money for them.

Which still leaves the issue of accountability for performance.  Saul describes the experiences of two Tennessee families to underscore the observation that

[S]ome teachers said they were under pressure to pass students with marginal performance and attendance.

She also uses their experiences to ask if K12 Inc. is doing enough to ensure that the student is really doing the work.

Some teachers have complained that it can be difficult to determine whether students are actually doing the work, or getting help from their parents or others. “Virtual schools offer much greater opportunity for students to obtain credit for work they did not do themselves,” said a report in October from the National Education Policy Center, which receives financing from the National Education Association.

There are a number of options here, including more frequent online visual contact, periodic meetings, and requirements for testing to occur in public spaces with sign-ins.  These are precisely the topics of discussion that Massachusetts has to take on seriously as it decides how to exploit technology in a way that advances access to AP courses, specialized courses, customized individual learning, and full schooling online.

Also seen in Boston Globe Blogs and Education News.