Sunday, September 12, 2010

Virtual Schools--The Picture is Mixed


The Evergreen Freedom Foundation has new project promoting on-line learning academies here in Washington State. Good for them, since it's something they've been talking about for years. It's interesting to me, though, because one of the state legislators I work closely with (a Republican, even) has been pretty critical of some of our virtual academies--he's essentially the opposite of this:
Some will ask how we can be sure they received a good education and didn’t just slack off and slide through? Because online programs are designed to prevent that. These students were held to high academic standards, subject to regular accountability, and—like all online public school students—had to prove mastery of content before they could move on. And ultimately, before they could move that tassel.
The trouble comes when you look at the state testing results for some of the online schools around the state, and it isn't a pretty picture. What do I mean?
  • Last year, on the 2009-2010 MSP results, and on the 23 tests that I looked at, no on-line school beat the state average in any test.
  • It's worse than that--in every single area but one, the difference between the state average and the on-line results is a double-digit number.
  • The worst internet school I looked at also seems to be the oldest: Federal Way Internet Academy. They had a 2% passing rate in 10th grade math--that means 1 out of every 50 10th graders got over the bar. They were 50% or more below the state average in reading and writing.
If this is the "fresh stream of water coming into a stagnant backwater", be wary of dysentary.

There's also the video that the EFF put out promoting their new on-line schooling efforts. It prominently features Tom Vander Ark, who deserves much of the credit? for founding the Federal Way Internet Academy when he was superintendent there. It has Steven Magi saying that "On-line programs are subject to more accountability than any other public school program", which is awfully counterintuitive and a point I look forward to them expanding on in the future. It takes them a full 4:47 of the 6 minute video to get around to slagging on the unions, which is remarkably restrained.

That said, I'll be one of the first to defend on-line schools. The story of Apolo Ohno has been told repeatedly, about how online school allowed him to become one of the best speed skaters in the history of the sport, but that's a great thing--the flexibility from the online program gave him the ability to become one of the all-time greats. For a lot of the small school districts that I work with here in Eastern Washington online schooling allows them to access courses that the kids wouldn't have any shot at taking otherwise. As a union guy I represent more than a few teachers who serve online academies, and they are some of the happiest teachers I know.

Where I chafe, though, is when supporters of online schools lead off with lousy state and national test scores as an argument for having their chosen ed reform. If you're going to measure me and my public school by those test scores (as the EFF has done with their school report cards), then you have to allow that same scrutiny on your online programs. They are an alternative--they are an alternative that we desperately need--but if you're going to go off the test scores, have the intellectual honesty to acknowledge that online schools at this time are failing in that metric. Paragraphs like this, for example:
There are some traditional schools and traditional teachers who do a wonderful job and graduate well-educated men and women. They should be commended and keep up the good work. But for the rest of the system, and for a lot of students and families, online education is a ray of hope on an otherwise overcast horizon.
If you go off the MSP and WASL results that's not a ray of hope--that's a fart that someone lit.

I also see district like Valley, near Chewelah, where they reported have 743 kids in May, and yet they don't have any test results to show for it. Why is that? It's the same for Columbia Virtual Academy of Orient.

For more information, check out Liv Finne of the Washington Policy Center here. A news story about online schools losing money, here. 5/17 on online schools from earlier this year, here. The big OSPI audit of online schools from last December, here.

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