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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.


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. ...