Eye on Education

Officials, Educators Question Whether Online Schools are Making the Grade

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Ohio has more students enrolled in full-time, online schools than most other states. (We teamed up with the Cleveland Plain Dealer) to write about online schools in Ohio last month.)

Now Reuters reports that “a backlash is building” among those who question online schools’ performance:

But the anger and skepticism elsewhere is striking, in part because some of it comes from people who have ardently supported opening the public school system to competition. ”There’s a sense that is a lot more mainstream now and we need to take a closer look at it,” said Michael Horn, an advocate of digital learning at Innosight Institute, a think tank focused on education policy. “I don’t think we need to put the brakes on completely, but we need tweaks to accountability models, which will slow growth.”

When StateImpact Ohio and the Plain Dealer looked at the performance of Ohio’s seven full-time, online schools, we found that as a group, those statewide online schools’ performance is roughly comparable to Ohio’s “Big 8″ urban school districts.

But online-school students attend postsecondary education at much lower rates.

And last year, none of the statewide online schools met value-added. That’s a measure that looks at if students made a year’s worth of academic progress in a year’s time, regardless of where they stood at the start of the year.

The Reuters reporters talked to leaders of the for-profit companies that manage some of Ohio’s largest online schools.

Ronald Packard is the chief executive officer of K12 Inc. K12 Inc. operates Ohio Virtual Academy,  which enrolls more than 10,000 students this year:

Packard… who earned about $5 million last year in salary and stock awards, dismisses critiques of online schools as “negative propaganda” put out by teachers unions, school boards and others with vested interests in the status quo.

“It’s like buggy-whip manufacturers saying, ‘Cars aren’t the solution,’ ” Packard said. Stepped-up regulation and delays in school authorizations are “just little obstacles in the road,” he said. “I’m extremely bullish.”

The CEO of Ohio’s third largest online school, Ohio Connections Academy, takes a different view. Ohio Connections Academy is operated by a unit of for-profit company Pearson. Reuters puts her in the camp of charter school operators who are “disappointed in their results:”

“Let’s not say everything is wonderful and this is all working great, because it’s obviously not,” said Barbara Dreyer, CEO of Connections Academy.

Connections has spent heavily to reduce class sizes, train teachers and revamp curriculum, but student scores have not risen significantly, Dreyer said. So her team is sorting through data to try to pinpoint why some kids flourish and others flounder online. “We really have to figure this out,” she said.



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