Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Virtual schools aren't delivering the goods?

Here's another bit of information that virtual-school proponents -- and lawmakers who see virtual schools as a cheap way to deliver public education -- will ignore in their quest to dismantle traditional public schools. It seems that children enrolled in virtual schools don't perform well against children enrolled in real schools.

The number of students in virtual schools run by educational management organizations rose sharply last year, according to a new report being published Friday, and far fewer of them are proving proficient on standardized tests compared with their peers in other privately managed charter schools and in traditional public schools.

About 116,000 students were educated in 93 virtual schools — those where instruction is entirely or mainly provided over the Internet — run by private management companies in the 2010-11 school year, up 43 percent from the previous year, according to the report being published by the National Education Policy Center, a research center at the University of Colorado. About 27 percent of these schools achieved “adequate yearly progress,” the key federal standard set forth under the No Child Left Behind act to measure academic progress. By comparison, nearly 52 percent of all privately managed brick-and-mortar schools reached that goal, a figure comparable to all public schools nationally.

“There’s a pretty large gap between virtual and brick-and-mortar,” said Gary Miron, a professor of evaluation, measurement and research at Western Michigan University and a co-author of the study.

Of course, there are plenty of criticisms to throw at this study and its conclusions. For one thing, it was done at the University of Colorado, and lawmakers in South Carolina love to discount studies conducted at far-off universities, particularly when those studies draw conclusions that oppose lawmakers' goals. It's the same as discounting science, and math, and The Colbert Report: When faced with facts, our electeds produce their own facts.

And if that's not enough, the study was reported by the New York Times. 'Nough said.

For the rest of us, however, the study delivers some interesting information, as the Times article explained.

“E.M.O.’s” — educational management organizations, a term coined by Wall Street in the 1990s — now operate 35 percent of all charter schools, enrolling 42 percent of all charter school students, according to the report. “Charter schools are publicly funded and they are serving public school students,” Dr. Miron noted. “But they are increasingly privately owned and privately governed.”

Did you catch that? Charter schools, though funded by public dollars, are increasingly privately owned and privately governed. Translation: Rather than use public dollars to maximum efficiency in traditional public schools, we are shipping increasing amounts of public revenue into the profit margins of private companies and corporations who run charter schools and, while they're at it, virtual schools.

Some of the management companies are nonprofit organizations — the largest is the KIPP Foundation, with 28,261 students — while others are for-profit companies (K12 Inc. leads this sector, with 65,396). The report focuses on those that have full-service agreements to run schools, as opposed to vendors that offer ancillary services like curriculum development.

The number of schools — virtual as well as brick-and-mortar — managed by for-profit E.M.O.’s dropped 2 percent in 2010-11 from the previous year, but the number of students leaped 5 percent to 394,096. In the nonprofit sector, there was a 12 percent increase in the number of schools to 1,170 and a 62 percent increase in students to 384,067. Nonprofit E.M.O.’s have a better track record of academic success than for-profits, and smaller E.M.O.’s in general perform better than larger ones, at least defined by the federal standard of adequate yearly progress — a metric Dr. Miron called “very crude.”

Crude, indeed -- as educators in traditional public schools have been saying for a decade. But lawmakers didn't listen to them then, so it's fair to assume they won't listen to experts from the University of Colorado now.

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