New report shows limited progress towards accountability, transparency for virtual schools

Online learning options have surged over recent years, with more than 500 full-time virtual schools and 140 blended schools enrolling more than 300,000 students combined across the nation, including Michigan, K-12 online learning is clearly picking up speed.

The report, Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2017, produced by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, examines virtual schools and blended schools, their impact on education and provides recommendations for policymakers.

The authors of the 2017 report found that limited progress has been made towards creating sound virtual education policies since the last inclusive report in 2015. They also found an alarming lack of trustworthy research to support virtual schools’ practices or to justify ongoing calls for continued expansion.

Authors of the report recommend that policymakers press for accountability, transparency and high standards to accommodate the rapid growth of virtual schools. They should also dedicate funding for independent, third party research to assess the quality of virtual learning programs.

They also urge policymakers and education leaders to:

  • Establish evidence-based cost formulas and accountability structures to govern virtual schools;
  • Address issues related to virtual instruction quality and draft legislation that measures and creates guidelines for online courses and programs;
  • Ensure an adequate number of high-quality teachers in virtual learning environments and develop guidelines for appropriate teacher-student ratios;
  • Examine the quality of principals in virtual schools and determine their impact on teacher quality and professional development; and
  • Create guidelines that prevent virtual schools from putting profits ahead of student performance.

The report also found a number of alarming statistics about virtual schools:

  • During the 2015-16 school year, virtual schools’ on-time graduation rates were 43.4 percent and blended schools on-time graduation rates were 43.1 percent, compared with 82.3 percent for all schools nationally.
  • Additionally, the student-to-teacher ratio at virtual schools (34 students per teacher) was more than double that of public schools (16 students per teacher).
  • These schools also enroll fewer minority students and low-income students when compared to public schools.

Although a significant amount of virtual school legislation was introduced during the 2015 and 2016 legislative sessions, limited progress was made towards regulating virtual schools. Today, there are few, if any, established cost formulas or accountability structures in place that govern virtual schools. There has also been little continued progress in addressing issues related to virtual instruction quality and creating legislation that regulates online courses and programs.

Obtaining more data and third party, independent research is critical to ensuring all students have access to the best online learning options and cutting-edge education programs. Before policymakers allow the continued expansion of virtual schools, more comprehensive research is needed to address key questions regarding virtual school regulations, funding and overall performance.

Find the report on the Great Lakes Center website:

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Online Schools Continue to Fall Behind

Online school outcomes continue to be consistently below traditional public schools. This, according to the 4th Annual Virtual Schools Report published by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) and funded by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

NEPC 2016Even though this finding has been well known for some time, these schools continue to expand:

With key providers vigorously lobbying legislatures and national organizations promoting school choice, virtual schooling now has a firm foothold: 30 states and the District of Columbia allow full-time virtual schools and blended schools to operate, and even more states allow, or in some cases require, one or more courses to be delivered online to district public school students.

…our findings indicate for-profit EMOs continue to dominate and increased their market share from 2012- 13 and again from 2013-14.

Not all online schools are alike:

Our findings indicate that district operated virtual schools and blended schools, as well as virtual schools and blended schools operated by nonprofit EMOs, or no EMO at all, are more likely to perform better.

The problem is the lack of transparency. And as a result:

There is not a single positive sign from the empirical evidence presented here. Given this picture, continued expansion seems unwise. More research is needed; and to enable such research, state oversight agencies need to require more, and better refined, data.

The study’s recommendations:

  • Slow or stop the growth  of virtual schools;
  • Specify and enforce sanctions for virtual schools  if they fail to improve performance;
  • Require virtual schools and blended schools to devote more resources
    to instruction, particularly by specifying a maximum ratio of students to teachers;
  • Ensure that virtual schools fully report data related to students and teachers;
  • Design new outcome measures;
  • More research to identify funding and accountability mechanisms.

Read the report.

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On-line School Michigan Educational Partnerships Costs Districts Millions

Like many public schools, Ithaca Public Schools thought they saw a way to compete with on-line charter schools, and make some easy money in the process. Instead, they created a $1 million budget hole.

2016-02-29_11-20-43As reported in Mt. Pleasant’s Morning Sun, Ithaca hired an on-line school to create a cyber school of their own.

[Ithaca Schools hired] Alma-based Michigan Educational Partnerships to run the district’s iSchool, paying 90 percent of per-pupil funding to the company, or about $900,000 of the $1 million the district is now required to pay back.

This doesn’t include the legal fees the district has incurred and will continue to rack up as it attempts to avoid these payments or collect them from MEP.

All of this resulted from the Michigan Department of Education’s determination that the district couldn’t offer these classes, as they had “insufficient teacher and student interaction.”

Ithaca’s not alone. Vasser Public Schools made the same mistake.

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Online School Students Falling Behind

The Detroit Free Press reports that “Students attending online charter schools nationwide are lagging far behind peers who attend traditional brick-and-mortar schools, according to groundbreaking research.”


The National Study of Online Charter Schools looked at achievement data for online charter students in 17 states and the District of Columbia, finding that cyber students had the equivalent of 72 fewer days of learning in reading and 180 fewer days in math. The study is the most comprehensive look at online charters to date.

This study is different in that the reaction lacks the usual prevarication among on-line school advocates:

Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said in a statement that the results are “deeply troubling.”

The story made special mention of Michigan on-line schools, known as “Cyber Charter” schools:

The last time the state released a top-to-bottom ranking of schools — based largely on test scores — Michigan Virtual Charter Academy was ranked at the 3rd percentile, meaning 97% of the schools in the state performed better. Michigan Connections Academy was ranked at the 26th percentile.

Read the story on the Free Press website.

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Executive Salaries at K12, Still in the Millions After Lost Bonuses

Executive salaries at K12, Inc. more than doubled over the last 5 years, and would have tripled if K12’s stock price hadn’t dropped. As reported by Morningstar, K12’s former CEO, Ron Packard continued to draw one of the companies highest 2014 salaries, over $4 million. It’s current CEO took a pay cut, from $9.5 million to $4.3, due almost certainly to lost bonuses based on K12’s falling stock price.


See the details here.

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2015 NEP Study Shows Cyber Schools Still Failing

For a third straight year, the National Education Policy Center has concluded that cyber schools continue to fail its students. Virtual Schools in the US, 2015, reviews research related to online education performance:

The authors find that even as research on virtual schooling has increased, there is still little high-quality evidence that justifies ongoing calls for the expansion of virtual schools.

It also examined finance, governance, instructional program and teacher quality offered by these corporations:

Based on an analysis of legislative development across all states, the authors find that troubling issues continue to outpace informed policy.

NEP 2015Among the findings:

  • In 2013-14, of the 285 virtual schools that were rated by state performance measures, only 41 percent were deemed “academically acceptable.”
  • In 2011-12, virtual charter schools scored 22 percentage points lower on AYP than bricks-and-mortar public schools.
  • The on-time graduation rate for virtual school students in 2013-14 was barely half the national average.
  • The average student-to-teacher ratio is twice that of the nation’s public schools.
  •  Little progress has been made toward the development of requirements for the preparation, certification, and licensure of online teachers.
  • Virtual schools serve significantly fewer minority students, fewer lower income students, and fewer students with disabilities than traditional public schools.
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K-12 Continues its March to Monetize Pubic Schools

The Nation reports that the K12 juggernaut to cash in on public schools has caught the attention of Wall Street, and is due in large part to its huge lobbying expenditures:

Indeed, K12 Inc.’s spectacular growth over the years stems largely from the extraordinary amount the company spends on lobbying, as well as on marketing and advertising, with promises in some areas that enrollment comes with a free computer. USA Today found that the company spent $21.5 million on advertising in the first eight months of 2012. The company sponsors billboards, radio advertisements, and spots on children’s cable television.

Nation 2014

It has accomplished this on a national scale due to its sponsorship of ALEC:

K12 Inc.’s lobbyists helped author model legislation to develop sweeping voucher laws through the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that provides state lawmakers with template legislation.

Wall Street is interested even in the face of overwhelming evidence that on-line schools fail at unsustainable rates:

The rising revenues of K12 Inc. have been matched by poor performance. In the 2010-2011 school year, only 27.7 percent of K12 Inc.-operated schools met the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standard, far below the 52 percent average of brick and mortar public schools. An investigation in Colorado, where K12 Inc. has been ejected from several school districts, found that nearly half of online students left within a year, and when those students returned to brick and mortar schools, they were further behind academically than when they started. Similar investigations in Florida and Ohio found K12 Inc. teachers instructing classes without certification and instructing online classes of over 250 students.

In several states, K12 Inc.-operated virtual charter schools have faced a backlash because of poor performance and high drop-out rates. In July, Tennessee’s education commissioner announced the closure of the Tennessee Virtual Academy, K12 Inc.’s affiliate school, at the end of the 2014-2015 school year because of the charter’s failure to score above the state’s lowest level of academic achievement. Last month, Pennsylvania’s Agora Cyber Charter School, the largest school managed by K12 Inc., voted to consider ending its relationship with the company after revelations that the school allegedly manipulated attendance sheets and performance data in an attempt to conceal incredibly high rates of student turnover.

Still, despite wave after wave of negative press, K12 Inc. figures as a solid investment opportunity to many. Baird Equity Research, in a giddy note to investors this year about the potential growth of K12 Inc., noted, “capturing just two million (3.5%) of the addressable market yields a market opportunity of approximately $12 billion …

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