Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Cyber Schools Slammed by Charters (Again)

The Thomas Fordham Foundation releases a report today looking at cyber charters in Ohio, and the cover of the report signals pretty clearly where we're headed.

Ouchies! Stock Photo Lad is clearly not prepared to sing the joyous praises of his virtual school, and that bored and contemptuous face pretty much sets the tone for the report (presumably he is a cyber charter student, and not someone who has just tried to read the report).

We should note right up front that Fordham has skin in this game; they have several bricks-and-mortar charters of their own in Ohio. And the bricks-and-mortar wing of the charter school industry has been getting pretty rough with their cyber-siblings lately. So, let's see how they made out this time.

The report strikes a pair of notes over and over again-- e-learning can be awesome, but cyber schools, not so much. Right off the bat, in the foreward, we get this:

To be certain, the Internet has opened a new frontier of possibilities for America’s K–12 students. Much less sure, however, is whether these new opportunities are actually improving achievement, especially for the types of students who enroll in virtual schools.

So what did Dr. Ahn find? We can cut to the chase, because although the report is fifty-five pages long, the actual meat is pretty short and sweet.

Dr. Ahn used Ohio education department data from 2009-2013 covering K-12 students. By breaking down the data, the following findings emerged.

* Cyber-schools are largely centered around the urban areas, where (the report notes) there are plenty of perfectly good bricks-and-mortar charters. That's an interesting data point; here in PA, cybers take advantage of areas where there is little brick-and-mortar competition, as well as hammering the urban areas.

* Cybers have far more poor and low-achieving students. Cyber students are more likely to have repeated or failed courses before their cyber-enrollment. Also, fewer gifted students are in cyber-school.

* When students sign up for cyber-math, it is most frequently remedial or low-level math.

* Even when you perform some fancy statistical corrections, cyber students do worse than bricks-and-mortar students. That's in keeping with the CREDO study that showed that cyber school worked about as well as taking a year-long nap. Ahn would also like you to know that BaM charter students did better than public school students. By a little bit. If your only measure is a single standardized test.

None of the findings of this charter marketing cyber school report should be surprising. While cyber schools can be extraordinarily effective for students who face particular challenges, they are also immensely popular as schools of last resort for students who just aren't into the whole school thing. But cyber schooling can require more self-discipline, more self-direction, more initiative than a traditional setting, as well as parents who are involved and supportive (but not so supportive that they "help" the cyber student get the work done).

Dr. Ahn offers four recommendations to the state of Ohio.

First, e-schools are aimed directly at and often used by "challenging student populations." Ahn suggests that cybers really ought to develop a plan for addressing the needs of the students they are most likely to have.

Second, if e-schools can't figure out how to do that, then maybe they should be used more "strategically," to serve the students they are better suited for. In other words, if they can't serve a portion of the market, then maybe those customers should be sent to a different sort of vendor (cough cough bricks and mortar charters cough cough).

Third, move to a more blended model in which cyber students are only online part time and sit in a classroom the rest.

Fourth, "harness the potential of e-schools to better understand how students learn online." So, I don't know-- use cyber charter students as guinea pigs?

Modern charters are busy not just throwing cyber charters under the bus, but are loading up the bus with big slabs of concrete and driving it back and forth over the cyber bodies. There are two main reasons.

First of all, the cybers are making all charters look bad. As this report notes, the cyber results are put in with all charter results and therefor make the charter sector look bad. "We have got to shut them down," say the meat world charters, "because this is why we can't have nice things."

Second, while charters mostly compete with public schools for students, cybers represent a pre-selected group of charter customers who aren't shopping in bricks-and-mortar land, but are also not happy with public schools. Cyber students are perfect target customers that B&M charters can poach without worrying about violating any charter school bro code.

So this report is kind of like having Ford do a report on the safety of Yugos. But there are charts and graphs and conclusions that sort of match what we already know. There are some charts, many words and pages here, many drawn up by the Department of Redundancy Department, but the bottom line is clear enough. Ohio cyber schools aren't doing a very good job, and some folks you should try bricks and mortar charters instead.


  1. Mike Petrilli, the guy running the show over at Fordham, has also been critical of other aspects of the charter school/school privatization industry. In response to his public voicing of these concerns, Petrilli has gotten slammed back by charter school operators, who otherwise had been Petrilli's allies.

    Petrilli weighed in on the controversy of self-dealing that is rampant in the charter school industry, where charter executives are in charge of charter school orgs that are technically non-profit, but they nevertheless contract out services to for-profit companies for which those executives (or their relative(s)) are the sole or partial owners. That’s a lot MORE money on top of a charter school executive's already excessive salary.

    Petrilli also condemned the problem of nepotism, where multiple family members of a charter school CEO (or some other charter school higher-up) are each hired at six-figure salaries.

    What's interesting is the charter school industry's response to Mike Petrilli’s expressions of dismay at these phenomena — and at the outrageous charter school executive compensation in general. The otherwise enthusiastically pro-charter Petrilli warns his charter buddies that, when the public gets wind of them, these corrupt practices will damage the charter school industry's brand with the general public, without which the charter industry will fail to survive, or at least expand.

    Petrilli’s words of caution are below, and, as Petrilli relates, they were met with severe blowback from “tone-deaf” (Petrilli’s words) charter school executives kvetching back,

    “None of your business, Mike! Or anyone else’s business!!”:


    - - - - - - - - -


    “Charter schools also need to be equally aware about what leaders receive in compensation, and how this will be perceived in the larger community, which leads me to the recent story in the Dayton Daily News. That paper ran a story on the compensation paid to a family running a charter management organization that serves about 2,000 kids in seven Ohio charters.

    “The paper reported that ...

    " ‘Tax records obtained by the Daily News show CEO Pammer-Satow received a base pay of $168,466 in 2010 along with a $60,000 bonus and other compensation valued at $25,573. Her husband, COO Clinton Satow, received a base pay of$126,000, bonus of $45,000 and $14,000 in other compensation. Other members of the family are also employed by the management company in various capacities.'

    “The Dayton Daily News reporter called me and asked for my reaction about ‘a couple making over $400,000 a year’ to run seven charter schools?

    “I said, ‘That’s tough to defend.’ I also went on to comment, ‘At a minimum they (those high-paid charter executives) are politically tone-deaf to the realities of perception out in the community.’

    “My comments have upset some in Ohio’s charter community who argue that as the schools perform decently, why should I or anyone else care what the leaders are paid?

    “My reaction to this question is that charter schools are only viable as long as they receive political support. As such, do stories about families paying themselves more than $400,000 a year in public tax dollars to run a handful of charters hurt support for charter schools?

    “I think they do, but I’d value receiving comments back from readers. Should we care how much money charter leaders make?”

    1. The link seems to be to someone at Fordham named Terry Ryan, not Mike Petrilli.