Texas AFT Testimony to the Senate Education Committee Regarding SB 1298 – Virtual Schools

San Antonio AllianceUncategorized

AFT has been deeply involved in policy discussions at the national level about distance education. Our basic contention is that educational quality, not financial gain, should guide where, when, and how distance education is employed. We oppose SB 1298 because it would exacerbate many of the concerns this committee heard about virtual schools in your October 8, 2012, hearing.

SB 1298 is a one-size-fits-all bill, that significantly expands the Texas Virtual School Network and requires school districts to provide full-time online courses in grades three through twelve, without regard to whether online instruction is the best instructional method for the individual student, and without regard to numerous studies that show students in virtual schools do worse than their demographic equivalents in actual classroom mortar settings. According to the fiscal note issued March 27, this bill would now open up the Texas Virtual School Network to private school students and home-school students at considerable cost to the state, with no correlation between the amount of Foundation School Program funding provided to vendors and the vendors’ actual cost of providing online services to students.

Despite the long, poor track record of virtual schools, the bill would appear to create an open-ended draw on the Foundation School Program for private virtual providers of courses, as if these courses cost just as much to provide as courses at a bricks-and-mortar public school. By expanding the definition of course providers to include private entities, SB 1298 is a potential bonanza for private virtual providers at public expense, without regard to the actual cost structure of the virtual provider’s operations, which can be expected to be much less than the costs of a bricks-and-mortar school with all its attendant infrastructure. Some experts estimate that the cost of an online course is less than a tenth of the cost of live classroom instruction. There’s a reason why stockholder statements and magazine articles rave about how profitable the business of virtual schooling is.

The bill leaves open many questions about exactly how virtual schools would operate:

  • ·The location of the coursework is not specified. Can students take the courses from home? If so, who will ensure that the student is doing the work?
  • ·If at school, who will monitor the student? How will the student be transported to school?
  • ·Will students be provided mentor or facilitators? What are their qualifications?
  • ·Will online lessons be live and interactive or recorded?
  • ·Will private providers be required to show the amount of funding spent on administration, marketing, and other fees?
  • ·Section 17 of the bill allows Texasstudents to enroll in state virtual school networks in other states. Who will ensure that the other state curriculum aligns with the TEKS?
  • ·The bill also instructs TEA to “continually monitor and evaluate the course provider,” but we have recently learned that TEA is unable to monitor even a small online program like the current pared-down version of the Student Success Initiative.

The study required in Section 29, “Study on School Network Capabilities,” would not examine the problems that some students have in gaining access to computer technology and bandwidth. At the October hearing, Troy Seagler with Gruver ISD testified that bandwidth access, especially for students in rural districts, is a problem. We also heard that student ethnicity in virtual schools does not reflect the demographics of this state. SB 1298 does not address the multiple infrastructure problems that must be addressed to allow all students equal access to instructional technology.

SB 1298 lacks several key safeguards that our members have identified to ensure that students using a virtual school network receive a high-quality education. These include:

(1) safeguards for ensuring data privacy;

(2) an open and transparent process for purchasing technology;

(3) requirements for professional development of teachers in the integration of technology;

(4) accountability mechanisms for technology providers; and

(5) processes for evaluating the effectiveness of digital programs and services.

A recent AFT survey of 200 distance-education practitioners in higher education has an important bearing on the issue of the appropriate proportion of online coursework at the secondary level. When asked what percentage of an undergraduate course of study ought to be taught via distance education, more than 70 percent of these practitioners said half or less of an undergraduate curriculum should be completed by way of distance education.

These responses came from distance-education practitioners who work with college students, not minors in grades three through twelve. These instructors know that, even at the higher-education level, a curriculum delivered entirely via distance learning tends to detract from educational quality. Face-to-face interaction with instructors and fellow students is a valuable part of education at any level. It is especially so for students in high school for whom social/emotional learning is a key ingredient in the recipe for college and career readiness.

A recent study conducted by the StanfordCenter for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that students in cybercharter schools scored significantly lower in both reading and mathematics than students in traditional schools and lower in mathematics than students in brick-and-mortar charter schools. The study also found that 100 percent of the eight cybercharter schools studied performed worse than their matched traditional schools. In every subgroup, cybercharter performance was significantly lower than the performance of students attending brick-and-mortar schools.
Hence we are very concerned about the educational costs of having students get all
or most of their high-school education online. We urge the committee to limit the amount of coursework that a student should be allowed to complete through electronic courses and limit the definition of course provider to school districts, education service centers, and open-enrollment charter schools. Dollars saved by moving students into online instruction do not outweigh potential educational costs.

Considering recent research that has examined low performance and poor financial practices of virtual schools, state law and district policy should be amended to ensure accountability and transparency for digital education providers so that the public has access to information about revenue and expenditures, student demographics, student achievement and staff qualifications. There should be a procedure to ensure effective oversight and, if warranted, a process for closure of virtual schools where attrition rates are high and achievement is low.

Online courses should be developed and taught by state-certified teachers who know the standards and requirements students are expected to meet. The state should develop a process to ensure that all virtual school teachers are certified and have received appropriate professional development for online instruction.

In light of all these considerations, we contend that the delivery of more than half of a high-school curriculum via electronic courses generally can be justified only in cases where students are in genuinely exceptional situations–for example, unable to attend “live” classes for reasons of ill health or disability, or unable to enroll in a needed course at their local high school.

It is relevant to note that the “virtual academy” programs operated in Texas by K12, Inc., which is often held up as a model for online education, have chalked up inferior performance ratings; at times K12’s virtual operation has risen to an academically unacceptable only because the rating was based on projected rather than actual student performance.

A July 2012 report from the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado reinforces concerns that students at K12 Inc., the nation’s largest virtual school company, are falling further behind in reading and math scores than students in brick-and-mortar schools. According to the analysis, these virtual schools students were also less likely to remain at their schools for the full year, and the schools have low graduation rates. “Our in-depth look into K12 Inc. raises enormous red flags,” said NEPC director Kevin Welner.

The report’s lead author, Dr. Gary Miron, said: “Our findings are clear. Children who enroll in a K12 Inc. cyberschool, who receive full-time instruction in front of a computer instead of in a classroom with a live teacher and other students, are more likely to fall behind in reading and math. These children are also more likely to move between schools or leave school altogether – and the cyberschool is less likely to meet federal education standards.”

Miron concluded: “Computer-assisted learning has tremendous potential. But at present our research shows that virtual schools such as those operated by K12 Inc. are not working effectively. States should not grow full-time virtual schools until they have evidence of success. Most immediately, we need to better understand why the performance of these schools suffers and how it can be improved.”

Student performance results from the NEPC study are clearly in line with the existing body of evidence, which includes state evaluations and audits of virtual schools in five states as well as the rigorous study of student learning in Pennsylvania virtual charter schools conducted by the CREDO center at Stanford, cited above. The CREDO study’s bottom line was that virtual-school students ended up with learning gains that were“significantly worse” than students in traditional charters and public schools.