If you were feeling badly about the poor beleaguered cyber schools that took a drubbing earlier this week (from both a report suggesting they are no more effective than a long nap and the many charter fans who piled on to excoriate them), take heart. Someone did run to their defense. And an alleged journalist paved the road so that the run would be easy.
The Wall Street Journal's Opinion Journal posted a five minute infomercial for the cybers, featuring Center for Education Reform Senior Fellow and President Emeritus Jeanne Allen. The Center for Education Reform is a full-on advocacy group for the charter school industry, used to float every imaginable argument in support of sweet, chartery goodness. Allen was there to blunt the impact of the study, and the WSJ host was there to help her do it.
"A small study on online charter schools is creating a big controversy," our hostess leads, suggesting that the study was neither large nor important, and suggesting that there is actually some sort of debate over the uselessness of cybers, and not just a whole lot folks from all across the ideological spectrum declaring that cyberschools are a big expensive waste of time.
Then we introduce Allen and lead with a question that is a softball in much the same way that Donald Trump is somewhat self-assured. Referring to the CREDO study, the host asks "Was this study conducted at Stanford or near Stanford--" with a chuckling delivery which suggests that somebody cribbed the study off the back of a cereal box and is just trying to make it sound important by attaching Stanford's name. "What exactly did the researchers study," she asks, in a tone that suggests she's pretty sure they studied newts under a full moon.
And so we are twenty seconds in, Allen hasn't even spoken yet, and we have already clearly conveyed to the audience that the study is some kind of over-inflated joke. That's some pretty awesome journalism, there!
Here comes Allen. She's stern, like she found out that somebody is stealing her kid's lunch money on the bus. She does a five-second history of CREDO and charters "who are helping, oh, about 2.5 million kids today" and that "oh about" is not searching for the answer but using the kind of sarcastic flourish with which readers of this blog are familiar.
But Allen says the report is important because every time somebody does "research" and or a "study" publishes "findings" that are negative (and kudos to Allen who manages to create the oral Airquotes of Mockery as well as anyone I've ever seen) it just scares policymakers and it makes folks confused. But how can we trust CREDO reports on charters to be valid, Allen asks, if they use these "experimental" techniques and data from states that (here Allen makes a pained face, like she hates to tell you, but you husband is kind of dumb and ugly) aren't very reliable.
The host steps in to feed another question about cyber clientele? Rural students? Homeschooled? "Who's taking advantage of" the cybers. I suppose she could mean "taking advantage" as in tricking the cyber schools into going to third base without so much as a promise of a class ring, but it seems clear she means it as in "who is getting the great benefits of these swell schools?" She is smirking and Allen is nodding as if to say, "Yes, just like we did it in practice."
Now Allen strings together a nonsense sentence about how that's a great question because the heart of whether the study is valid is who is using these schools. And, well, no. That's not what "valid" means here. But Allen plows on. Most cyber charter students "have had issues." They wouldn't be there unless they had a problem (and I can hear cyberschool folks saying, "Yeah, thanks, you can stop helping us now"). Some might have been bullied. "Many of them" (and I'm going to be careful to transcribe this because, well) "might be on the road because perhaps their involvement with a different effort." They might have been unsuccessful at academics, or they might have been too successful and turned to cybers for Big Challenges. Anyway, the heart of this, "personalization for our kids." We must kill the one size fits all world of public schools also zoning kids by zip codes and it's like the talking points are so jammed up in her mouth there's no room for the rest of the parts needed to build a sentence. Some of the cyberstudents might only be there a year while they're "getting over some kind of challenge or hump" and the study (she may have found her way back to the point, finally) did not take into account how long they were there, where they come from, how much progress they made over time, which, wait, no-- the CREDO study, which expressed everything in the admittedly bogus measure of "days of learning" was totally focused on how much growth the students showed over time, so she's kind of exactly, oh, you know, wrong.
But this big mean study damns the cybers and suggests they shouldn't be open, and in this we agree. That's certainly what the study suggests. Is she going to suggest some data that would prove the study wrong? Nope.
The host cuts off Allen's impotent sputtering to ask if there are better studies of online schools. You know, studies that prove what you want them to prove. Allen replies "Homina homina homina no." Allen does suggest that parents considering schools of choice look at the data, including the local data and the data the state supplies (she has already forgotten that state data gave her a bad attack of frowny face just two minutes ago). Also, interview teachers and administrators and other parents. Please, oh please, can I watch the process by which a parent tries to get access to a cybercharter teacher.
Allen gets in that of course states and authorizers have a responsibility to make sure charters don't suck, but "all the data out there is confusing" (she is very conflicted about the data, apparently). Education data is very difficult.
And the host cuts her off again to sum up-- "The answer seems to be don't look at this study, but the other studies may not be much better."
As damage control for the CREDO study, it was pretty weak. As an example of how journalists can avoid doing their jobs by letting PR flacks do their jobs unimpeded, it was aces.