Thursday, June 16, 2016

Can Cyber Schools Be Saved?

Say what else you like about them, but the charter school industry has a pretty keen sense of where its own vulnerabilities lie, and at the moment, there is no underbelly softer than the virtual charter sector-- what the rest of us call cyber-charters. Multiple studies have made it clear-- cyber charters do not deliver much of anything except giant truckloads of money to the people who operate them.

So we have this newly-released report, "A CALL TO ACTION TO IMPROVE THE QUALITY OF FULL-TIME VIRTUAL CHARTER PUBLIC SCHOOLS"-- yes, the call to action is so urgent that the report HAS TO YELL ITS NAME!!

The report was co-created by the National Alliance for Public [sic] Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and 50CAN. So we know that the report is not about examining the value or viability of cyber-charters-- this is going to be about figuring out which exercise program might build a six-pack on that soft underbelly and thereby decrease the vulnerability of the charter industry.

This is a double-problem. First, we know that cybers are not making their numbers and instead are having an "overwhelming negative impact" on students, suggesting that students would literally be better off playing video games for a year. On top of that, the majority of cybers are for-profit, so they're barely pretending that they're in this For The Children.

Now, I will say this in cybers' defense. First, their ineffectiveness is being measured with standardized test scores and bogus units like years or months of learning. Second, non-profit charters are just as capable of being money-grubbing profit engines as a for-profit charter-- they're just sneakier about it.

But let's take a look at the report and see what advice the charter industry family will offer to the black sheep of the family. Will it be tough love or a bug cuddle? The report is only sixteen pages long, but I have read it so that you don't have to. Here we go.

Fun Facts:

There are 135 cybers operating in twenty-three states plus DC, serving about 180,000 students. Last fall about 50.1 million students headed off to school, so that's about a third of 1% of all the students in the US.

Around 90,000 of those students are accounted for by the big three of cyber-schooling-- California, Ohio and Pennsylvania. One quarter of the cyber schools enroll about 80% of all cyber students. Put another way, about 80% of cyber students are enrolled in a school with over 1,000 students.

Cybers enroll far more white students and far fewer Hispanic students than public schools. They enroll more students in poverty, but fewer English Language Learners.

They are no more mobile than the general population of students, so the story about how cybers enroll students who are having a hard time because they've been moving all over the place-- that doesn't fly.

More Tough Love and Truth Talk

Well, this report isn't out to sugar-coat anything. As it moves into a section about results, the report lays out pretty bluntly some of the less-than-stellar outcomes of the cyber charters.

* Exceptionally weak academic results compared to bricks and mortar. They're going to go ahead and talk about "days of learning," which is baloney, but the bottom line remains the same.

* Cybers do worse than public schools in almost every state.

* Subgroups also do worse in cybers than in public schools.

* Students stay in cyber schools, on average, only about two years. In other words, virtually all virtual students vote against cybers with their virtual feet

* Cyber students are far more mobile after their cyber experience than before. Interesting and unexpected-- though if students are using cybers as schools of last resort, that might explain it. For that matter, if cyber students emerge from their cyber experience significantly behind their peers, that may lead to some school shopping as well.

Bottom line-- cyber charters are doing a lousy job. So what can we do?

Policy Options

First of all, the writers of the paper want to be doubly clear that they have always stood up for high standards for charter schools of all shapes and sizes. 

We believe that states should have clear minimum academic performance standards for charter schools in renewal. We also believe that states should have enforcement mechanisms in place to make sure that all charter schools, including full-time virtual charter schools, meet those minimums. There is no reason why a full-time virtual charter school shouldn’t be able to meet all the academic standards that other schools meet. Were such standards being properly enforced for all schools, it would certainly address some of the shortcomings we see in full-time virtual charter schools.

And-- well, okay. Read the fine print. That "in renewal" prepositional phrase is big, as in some states it turns out to mean "you can bring up our performance in a renewal year, but the rest of the time we want to be free to suck just as much as we feel like." This might also be a place to close the loop and note that the reason that Pennsylvania, Ohio and California might be such cyber charter breeding grounds is precisely because there's not much oversight. This would also be a great time to address the charter free marketeers who are (or were, back in the younger days of charter-choice cheerleading) certain that minimal regulation was needed because the marketplace and the invisible hand and the power of choice as exerted by parents would be all that anyone needed to keep charters in line.

In fact, the failure of virtual charters is a pretty glaring demonstration of how the free market does not create excellence in the education biz. But I don't think this paper is going to address that issue.

But it is oddly ironic that the above paragraph calls for more strictly enforced government standards. Let's get into the specific rules they have in mind.

First, in Big Letters in front of a Big Blue Box

Authorizers should close cyber schools (full time virtual charters) that chronically suck, which they could do now, without any law changes. "Get the hook. Kick their butts. Come on, guys. You're killing us."

Authorizing Structure

If you want to start a cyber school that draws students from across district lines, you should have a state-level authorizer. If you are a district that wants to start a cyber, you should only be able to get students from within the boundaries of your district. Maybe that state-level authorizer should be a state charter board.

You know, it almost seems as is this rule is designed to keep public school districts from horning in on the cyber charter biz. Which is definitely a thing that happens in some places (like PA) where a district gets tired of watching all that charter money going out the door, and so they set up something in house. It can start as a funds-retainer, but can easily be tweaked into a fund-raiser. But then public school tax dollars would just go to public schools

Also, they'd like to cap the fees charged by authorizers, because that takes money away from the charter. They also suggest, and this is a good point, that if you're making big bucks from authorizing Cyber Baloney High School, you will be reluctant to shut CBHS down no matter how much they stink.

Enrollment Criteria 

This is so special, I'm just going to quote it directly:

We recommend that states study the establishment of criteria for enrollment in full-time virtual charter schools based on factors proven necessary for student success.

We love open enrollment. We really do. And we would hate to introduce the idea of openly creaming students. But that's what we're going to suggest. Because not everybody is a good fit for cyber school.

While I don't applaud any allegedly public school advocating creaming, I  get their point. In Pennsylvania, we have the common issue of a student who doesn't like to get up in the morning, doesn't like to come to school, doesn't like to do work, and doesn't have much self-motivation-- that student, that entirely human and recognizable student, saying "I'm just going to cyber school." As the report notes, students lacking in self-motivation or involved parents are unlikely to do well with a cyber-school setting. So not admitting them to cyber school in the first place would definitely save everyone-- the charter, the student, the parents, and the public school to which the student will return after failing for a year-- some time and trouble.

But it is a slippery slope. "Willing to get up and do work" is certainly a factor proven necessary for student success. But so is being highly intelligent and wealthy. At what point will we draw the Picking and Choosing line?

Also, this would be a good place to address cyber charter marketing, which is not exactly calibrated to filter out the less likely-to-succeed portion of the market. Instead we get pitches along the lines of "Would you rather play basketball all day than do stupid English assignments."

And this would also be a good place to discuss another question-- if the cyber school requires heavily involved parents and self-motivated, independent students, exactly how much of a public school-- or any kind of school-- is it? It's a school in the same way that a pot luck for which all the guests must bring dishes is a restaurant. Kind of, but not really.

Enrollment Levels

Basically, the point here is that a cyber school should prove it can succeed with a few students before it starts cramming them in at ridiculous levels (e.g. Ohio Virtual Academy with over 10K students, or Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow with over 15K).

Accountability for Performance

Authorizers should contract with cyber charters for particular outcomes and the cyber should be closed if it doesn't make its numbers. Isn't that already a thing, you ask? Come visit Pennsylvania or Ohio, I reply. It's theoretically sort of a thing, but practically speaking, not so much.

Funding Levels Based on Cost

Damn! This is tough, tough love. I've often used PA as an example, because opening a cyber charter here is like printing money. Our laws inspire Producers-level misbehavior, because what the cyber receives has nothing to do with its actual costs-- they just get the per-capita costs for the sending school. If my district sends you a cyber student, we'll also give you about $10K. You, cyber school, will give that students a $400 computer and access to 1/400th of a teacher. In short, if you can't clear an easy $5-6K on that student, you aren't trying very hard; this report suggests it's more like $3-4K. Either way, it's a hell of a markup. (And that's before we get to the fun wrinkle where you, as a cyber school, can test the student, declare she has a learning disability of some sort, and get an extra several thousand for her.)

Many many many people have suggested that it makes way more sense for cybers to get paid based on what their service actually costs to provide. For these charter organizations to suggest it is pretty special.

Performance Based Funding

Well, here's an interesting new wrinkle. You've heard about competency-based education. Here's the flip side of it.

In CBE, Chris gets to advance to the next unit when Chris passes the test or assessment or performance task. So how about we do the funding so that Chris's successful completion of a module is also how the school gets paid.

This is, of course, a budgeting nightmare. It is also a huge incentive for the school to help Chris cheat. This may not be such a good idea.

Their Conclusion

We think cyber charters are swell, but if they don't get their damn act together and stop making the rest of us look bad, we will personally hand the government a paddle and hold its coat while it spanks cyber charters into oblivion.

My Conclusion

Impressively brutal, though the charter organizations involved manage to ignore all of the implications for the charter industry as a whole. They would like all of these problems to be strictly cyber problems. They aren't.

Most notable is total and abject failure of the invisible hand of the free market to successfully manage the cyber charter biz, and the brick-and-mortar folks to call for the fat hand of government interference to get in the game and shape up those cyberites.

That said, they're not entirely wrong. I will never call for the complete destruction and end of cyber charters-- I personally know families that have been hugely helped by cybers in a way that brick and mortar schools could not have helped-- but there is no denying that the cyber charter business is mostly a disaster that is stealing money from taxpayers and years from children's educations. Someone had better slap a leash on them, and soon.

1 comment:

  1. What I don't understand is how cyber schools can even pretend to be able to provide services that serve the needs of special ed or ELL students.