Virtual Schools Virtually Worthless

A long-time supporter of charter schools, the Walton Family Foundation, has issued a damning report regarding online charter 'cyber' schools. These are the same 'virtual charters' Senator Jerry Tillman demanded be opened here in North Carolina. K12-Inc opened the N.C. Virtual Academy, and Pearson opened the N.C. Connections Academy. Both have seen substantial loss of students since opening last fall. Emphasis below is mine.

For the second time in three months, the Walton Family Foundation—which has spent more than $1 billion to create a quarter of the nation’s 6,700 public charter schools—has announced that all online public school instruction, via cyber charter schools, is a colossal disaster for most K-12 students.

“If virtual charters were grouped together and ranked as a single school district, it would be the ninth largest in the country and among the worst performing,” co-wrote Walton’s Marc Sternberg and Marc Holley, respectively the foundation’s director of educational giving and its evaluation unit director, in a recent Education Week commentary. “Online education must be reimagined. Ignoring the problem—or worse, replicating failures—serves nobody.”

In the three reports released late last year, the Foundation said that in the online charter schools they previously supported students were "barely learning the basics."

“The majority of online charter students had far weaker academic growth in both math and reading compared to their traditional public school peers,” their experts’ press release said, after noting that kindergarten-through-high school students need to be in classrooms with live teachers, not occasional faces on computer screens. “To conceptualize this shortfall, it would equate to a student losing 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math, based on a 180-day school year.”

These failing online charter schools exist all across the country and are costing taxpayers about $1.2 BILLION a year.

Does the Foundation call for an end to online charter schools? A moratorium on their approval? With such a dismal report, and from their own researchers, one would think so. But no, they are not. The Foundation's plan is to examine such schools more intently before awarding them grants. Oh. And to "urge policymakers to make changes, too....urging state charter regulators to “create new accountability systems… rethink their expectations and policies, and test novel policy arrangements.” The group that started out not wanting government interference with education and parental choice now wants the government to step in and rein in the Frankenstein they created. But only this Frankenstein. Virtual charters, they seem to say, need government oversight, but the rest of the charter industry, not so much. After all, people are making money off this.

The Foundation made itself very clear:

State regulators “must take action if schools are failing students,” the foundation’s Sternberg and Holley wrote, but then drew the line on where they don’t want government interference. “To be clear, our comments about online charter schools are not an indictment of instructional technology or online learning more generally, nor how these stand to help create more high-quality educational options.”

In other words, as state legislatures, which are the primary overseers of education policy, convene across the country, Walton is giving lawmakers a green light to go after online charters—just not the rest of the burgeoning industry that’s also dominated by corporate franchises with other failed experiments. That highly political response begs the policy question of why lawmakers and education policymakers should stop there, as what has emerged as the charter school industry since the 1990s is not what lawmakers envisioned when they were sanctioned as local experiments in public education.

..While the cyber school industry wants the public and policymakers to discuss these schools as if they are similar to traditional classrooms with teachers supervising students, the reality is anything but. They are corporate-run franchises, called “education management organizations” in Wall Street’s parlance, that rely on delivering the same instruction to large volumes of student to profit.

The Center’s report discussed what it said “can be cause for concern,” calling them “suspicions” but not facts. It noted two-thirds of online charters “contract with for-profit education management organizations (EMO), raising suspicions that schools will skimp on quality to maximize profits.” It said government regulators “often raise concerns about the quality of teachers…

But then it said states were sufficiently responding to the industry’s problems. Exhibit A was K12. “States have taken action to sever ties with for-­profit providers, such as K12 Inc., due to perceived resource mismanagement and poor performance... In the 2010-2011 school year, only 27.7 percent of K12 Inc.­‐operated schools across the nation met the Adequate Yearly Progress standard.”

Admiting there are problems before the regulators show up is an old lobbying strategy. The Center’s report said some states were taking a serious look at online charters and praised them for responding cautiously; that is, without alarm that multi-millions are being spent on public schools that are failing two out of three students.

“We saw no direct cuts to online charter school funding, but determined that there are plenty of new regulations that affect online charter school revenues,” CRPE said, offering examples. “Colorado changed the way it counts online students, from enrollment once per year to monthly counts, which reduced overall allocations. Florida recently started funding online charter schools based on course completion, effectively reducing overall online charter school funding.”

When confronting the for-profit industry’s biggest fear—a moratorium, which Illinois enacted—the example was framed as a reaction by an outlier state. “This is one of the few instances where a state issued an all‐out ban on opening new schools for several years in order to ensure that existing laws and administrative rules reflect the unique characteristics of online charter schools.”

Perhaps it is time to review the virtual charter school program created by NCGA Republicans. Perhaps it is time for a moratorium: no new students until there are drastic improvements in student learning. Perhaps it is time to pay these schools differently: instead of giving them a year's worth of student funding right at the beginning of the year, fund them quarterly, or even monthly, first ascertaining that the students the school claims to have are actually still in attendance and making academic progress.

North Carolina cannot lure business to locate here with a state full of poorly educated students. As we go into the Information Age, and a time of demand for expertise in math and science, we won't even be able to supply employees to the businesses already here if we allow this to continue.

You can read the entire article here.



Good. We need to alert the

Good. We need to alert the public that the education of our youth is at jeopardy and their tax dollars are being wasted.

You need to get your facts

You need to get your facts straight. I'm a parent of a student in a virtual charter and I'm a teacher. If you want to know the real truth and the details you have left out, go to the source. I taught in a brick and mortar for 11 years and I can truly say I am giving my students more in the virtual world than I ever could in the traditional setting. I'm seeing more growth and happier students.

Who's reaping the profits?

Follow the money. K-12 Inc. and Pearson are making millions.


The measure of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. - FDR

Who is reaping the profits in

Who is reaping the profits in the brick and mortar school? The textbook company. There is no difference.

Not here in NC

The state legislature has cut funding for textbooks (deeply) for several successive years, to the point where the older books still being used are falling apart.

But in answer to your "get your facts straight" observation above, we have been following K-12's corporate behavior for years here at BlueNC. While I don't expect a new member to our site to spend hours studying up on previous posts to this site, it might be worth spending a little time doing so. We've looked at this company from all angles, including their legal troubles in other states that deal with fraudulent reporting of student performance, not to mention reporting of students that don't even exist.

All that said, I don't doubt your satisfaction with the process. But that doesn't mean we (as a state) can afford to defund our brick and mortar public school system and funnel those dollars into a new distance learning paradigm. Even if K-12 didn't have some serious performance issues.

No, as a state we cannot

No, as a state we cannot afford to defund our brick and mortar public school system, but we cannot afford to not offer the virtual learning option. This option is saving the lives of many of our students. Having a special needs child and teaching students in the brick and mortar for years, I have seen where NC is lacking in the ability to give these students what they need. They need this option! The state needs to understand that all students cannot learn in the traditional setting. Should they take money away from the traditional setting? No, but at the same time, we cannot let these kids down. I saw too many kids fall through the cracks that needed the virtual option. Maybe NC needs to have their own platform for virtual education and then k12 might not be needed. I do not claim to know all the facts and figures but I do know what our kids need and providing the virtual option is an option this state cannot take from our parents and students.

Another view on virtual charters

I've worked in the higher ed field for almost two decades.

I can see using individual online courses for students that need or want some types of topics that aren't available in their local schools - a language, math, or other type of advanced or college prep course that isn't offered there. All ranges of education, from kindergarten through graduate work, have been successfully using individual telecourses or online offerings since the 1950s.

The entrance of the private sector into this realm is much more recent; we've only seen this phenomena in the past decade or so. The thinking here is that the cost of physical space and volume of students can make the education experience more efficient. How it really plays out in real life is quite different.

Consider this one blog post where a teacher explains her experiences teaching in a virtual charter.

For most of last year I was Lead Teacher at the school, which required me to attend national staff meetings each week. At first the marketing focus of the conversations turned my stomach, and then it made me furious. In my experience, the conversation was never about how our students were struggling, how we could support those who were trying to learn the English Language, how we could support those who were homeless or how we could support those with special needs. It was never about how we could support our teachers. It seemed to me like the focus was often about enrollment, about data, about numbers of students who had not taken the proper number of tests, about ranking schools and ranking teachers. And there was marketing: how to get more children enrolled, how to reach more families, how to be sure they were pre-registered for next year, how to get Facebook pages and other marketing information "pushed out" to students.

So, how does this work for the students?

The majority of the students at the school were lacking credits needed for graduation. Most of them could not afford another failure, not in terms of credits and not in terms of emotional well-being, yet, as I wrote this in early December, nearly 80 percent of our students were failing their classes. At that time there were 303 students (12 percent of the school) enrolled in special education programs - and 259 of them were failing while 17 had no grade at all. Eighty-two percent of the 9th graders were failing. This kind of failure is in no way limited to this school; it is system-wide, reigning throughout the virtual-school world, explicitly true for K12, Inc. and its national network of online schools.

Granted, this is one teacher's experience. But it doesn't surprise me. Time after time, when the focus is on the volume of students and "efficiency" in using online courses, you see the same results - students can't keep focused because the teacher can't give each one of them the kind of attention they need to succeed. K-12 students are still growing and maturing and many just don't have the ability to keep themselves motivated - even in higher ed, successful online classes generally have at most twenty or thirty students. A virtual charter might have 300 students taking classes all at once.

Home schooling advocates tout virtual charters as a more politically palatable alternative. However, one key part of the K-12 experience - the social interactions that help students mature - is missing from virtual charters, making them another option to keep kids isolated from interacting with the outside world and limiting their experiences in dealing with people that are different from themselves.

Some tout virtual charters as a way to lessen the costs and increase efficiency for teaching special needs students. Often, however, these students aren't going to have the stable technology and home environment that would help them succeed in an online course offering.

The North Carolina legislature is buying the hype around virtual charters and, yet again, short-changing our students.

What virtual education depends on

1. Tax dollars - lots of them.
2. Actual students doing the actual work - I'm not sure how that is verified.
3. Reliable, low cost, high speed broadband. That does not exist in many places in North Carolina.
4. A computer in the household. Again, many families don't have or can't afford.
5. Someone to monitor the student's participation - meaning that someone is not in the workforce.
6. An organization whose goal is to teach students, not reap profits.

I work from home, so I understand full well the challenges of the virtual workplace. I have to discipline myself to get my work done, instead of succumbing to the many distractions of chores or whatever else gets in the way of my working. Most of the time I'm successful, but occasionally there is something else that gets in the way. I can't imagine how a 6th grader responds to those challenges. I also miss the professional and social office interactions that help get work done, and for which video conferencing is a poor substitute.

And on these for-profit companies. K-12's basic financials are transparent, because it is a publicly traded company. Nathaniel Davis, the CEO, makes over $5 million a year, and three other executives make over $1 million each. Pearson, the other leader in virtual education, is a privately held London-based company, so their financials are a mystery.


The measure of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. - FDR