Education Empire Strikes Back

Courtney Williams's picture
Friday, November 4, 2011

For education reformers, this is the best of times. New technologies offer hope to many kids who just don't fit in traditional public schools, and improvement to many others who do.

But for some traditional educators, reform pressures make this the worst of times. So it's hardly surprising when the empire strikes back.

We saw an example of that last week, when the National Education Policy Center, an organization funded partly by teachers' unions and other groups opposed to school reform, released a policy brief titled "Online K-12 Schooling in the U.S.: Uncertain Private Ventures in Need of Public Regulation," by Gene Glass and Kevin Welner. It calls for more regulation of cyber schooling.

Cyber schools offer all or most of their course work online, typically for the convenience of students who have children of their own, jobs, health problems, or other issues that prevent them from attending a traditional public school. As of last year, there were about 200,000 students enrolled full-time in more than 200 K-12 virtual schools, most of them public charter schools.

Glass and Welner admit that major meta-analyses by four different research teams, summarizing 27 experimental and quasi-experimental studies, found that student learning in online courses was similar to or slightly better than in traditional classes, usually at comparable or somewhat lower costs. Yet they spend a mere page summarizing these findings and do not present any of their own - as if learning just doesn't matter.

The authors go on to spend eight pages expressing concern that private businesses run some cyber schools, and that cyber schooling might not be for everybody. These concerns seem divorced from the real world of education. For example, the authors are concerned that cyber schooling might not work for all kids, but apparently unconcerned that traditional public schools are failing the 25 percent of students who drop out, flunk out, or are pushed out - not to mention others who stay in school but face bullying or other difficulties.

We recently surveyed parents and students at Achievement House Cyber Charter School, a growing virtual school in Pennsylvania. (In the interest of full disclosure, one of us serves on the school's unpaid board.) A wide range of students attend the school, but many of them failed or endured bullying in traditional public schools. A fourth of the school's students (more than twice the state average) have diagnosed special education needs. And half enroll in the school reading below grade level.

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