News Reports Bash Virtual Schools, Ignore Reality

By James Wigderson

Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Besides the start of another football season, September means the return of students to schools. For many parents across the state, it means driving little Johnny or Jamal to the school drop off, reminding the kids to eat their jelly sandwiches before eating the dessert in their lunches, and remember to bring home their homework.

My son started at a new school this week. We attended an online orientation, took an online class to learn about his new school, made sure his password and email worked, and made sure the wi-fi connection at my parents’ house was working okay. The first day we logged on we learned about the expectations of each class and dived quickly into the homework.

For years we’ve struggled with my son in a traditional school setting. He learns a little bit differently than other kids his age. Some concepts come much faster to him while others are a little slower. It depends on the subject and how it’s taught to him. Then he gets frustrated and doesn’t do well at all. He doesn’t handle group study well, as it distracts him too much. He does not take tests well except when he’s given more time to complete the test without distractions or pressure. Assembly line education was letting him and his parents down.

On the other hand, my daughter seems to be thriving in a traditional school setting. The quiet, independent study of an online school would probably not help her education.

I love my children. But if they have taught me one thing as a parent, one size does not fit all.

Gannett newspapers recently did a series on public online charter schools, also known as virtual schools. The series made some claims about the virtual schools that would raise serious concerns if one was not familiar with how they work and the students that attend virtual schools.

Let’s begin by understanding what a virtual school is. It’s a school that uses the Internet as a tool and means of communication between teachers and students. Students log on, check for assignments or messages from their teachers, read the course materials, watch lectures from the teachers (live or recorded), do homework assignments, and take tests and quizzes, all online.

Whether the schools use curriculum that are privately developed or directed by a school district, these schools are public charter schools, run by public school districts in Wisconsin with public school teachers.

There are many advantages to an online school versus a traditional school. The flexible schedule allows students to work at their own pace to master a subject. If a student has a question, they can just email the teacher or participate in an online discussion. Online lectures can be replayed as often as necessary. Older students can even set their own schedules to accommodate a job and all the kids can factor in family schedules, church, community events and extra-curricular activities.

A few years ago I interviewed a hockey mom whose son was competitive enough to have a pretty intense travel schedule. Had that family been confined to the brick-and-mortar school, it was likely the child would either have had to abandon his hockey dreams or fail at school. But these schools are not merely for would-be Olympians.

For some parents, the online school is also a way to remove a child from dealing with bullying or disciplinary situations. In our own case, it’s a matter of allowing my son to attend a school without many of the distractions that seem to impede his academic progress while allowing him to work at his own pace.

Recent criticisms of virtual schools miss the point. One recent Gannett newspaper article was critical of the virtual schools because “attendance” could not be measured the same way at a virtual school as in a traditional school. Which begs the question, what is attendance at an online school?

My son was online on Labor Day learning about how to check his class work. Does that mean he was in attendance on a day when the school was technically closed? If he watches a lecture tonight for his math class, does that mean he was in attendance?

As the article points out, the schools do check participation levels. If a student is not adequately participating, the student is sent back to the traditional schools. For example, Gannet reported Waukesha Public Schools sent 92 students back to traditional schools last year.

The educational bureaucracy is slowly coming to the realization that online education is here to stay believe that simply add a laptop to the 19th century schoolhouse model and you have an online school. Change is hard; especially for those who are invested in the system.

The state Department of Instruction does not track the unique participation methods of online learning. Yet it attempts to apply the concept of mandatory attendance, an attempt of putting a square peg into a round hole that should have been left behind in kindergarten. Unfortunately, this is typical of much of the measuring of virtual schools that does not conform to the circumstances.

My wife and I are invested in our kids. Therein lies the difference.

For example, applying standardized testing to virtual schools misunderstands the student population. According to the Gannett report, only about a third of the virtual school students taking the statewide assessment tests had been enrolled in their schools for at least a year (compared to 86 percent statewide). That means the vast majority of the virtual school students tested, by which the schools are measured, are really being tested on the knowledge and skills learned in other schools. Yet the reporting of the test results are attached to the students’ new schools, reflecting poorly on the very school that may be rescuing these kids.

While State Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Tony Evers may feel that virtual schools can be judged by test scores under such circumstances, clearly the data does not reflect the effectiveness of the schools. The same is true with other traditional measures of performance when you consider that virtual schools are often an attempt by parents to turn students around academically after they’ve been failed by traditional schools.

That’s not an indictment of all traditional, brick and mortar schools. It is merely an acknowledgement that one size does not fit all children.

What would be needed is more tracking of student progress longitudinally to see if virtual schools are having the desired effect on student achievement. Certainly more study needs to be done on virtual schools’ and all public schools’ effectiveness, I know of no one arguing otherwise.

Unfortunately, judging virtual schools is often more about politics and the teachers unions than it is about allowing an educational option for parents. Because the unions are hostile to any education reform that could possibly involve teaching more students with less unionized teachers, the state teachers union actually sued to have the schools shut down only a few years ago. Thankfully, quick action by the legislature saved virtual schools, but that hasn’t prevented the teachers union from producing a report calling for a moratorium on new virtual school enrollment. A report cited by the Gannett article as a response to poor academic performance without acknowledgement that it was a union-funded study I might add.

It’s in the context of politics that we have to judge complaints by State Representative Steve Kestell, the unfortunate State Assembly chairman of the education committee, about money spent on making virtual schools more widely known to the public. Disregarding the amounts spent by other school districts across the state on advertising, the amount spent on advertising for virtual schools is a bargain when you consider that a virtual school student costs the taxpayers $5,747 per student, according to Gannett, while a traditional student costs taxpayers $13,020.

By one huge standard the schools are already a measured success, and that’s in parental satisfaction. An official state audit in 2010 showed 94 percent parental satisfaction with Wisconsin’s online charter schools. While Evers, Kestell, and the teachers unions are coming up with irrelevant objections to virtual schools, with that level of parental satisfaction it’s no wonder that Gannett can report a 25% growth in virtual school enrollment nationwide.

That’s a story certainly worth marketing.