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Cyberschools: the 800-Pound Gorilla of School Choice!

 Weapons of Math Destruction (used w/ permission)

"Cyberschools are the 800-pound gorilla of the choice movement, although vouchers and charter schools get a lot more attention." 

The National Education Policy Center claims that online education should be regulated - heavily - and has even offered "model legislation" for states to use in reining in perceived problems.  

The report outlines what I feel to be some legitimate problems with cyberschools using state funds.  Boodles of tax money - to the tune of 70% of a standard public school education - should not go toward businesses that throw recordings out in place of instruction, give little-to-no teacher interaction, and provide few safeguards to ensure the students have mastered the material.  That's robbery.  Many taxpayers also don't want to see teaching farmed out to some call center in India, as has apparently happened in the past.

But overall, the report is somewhere between incomplete and shoddy.  It offers no distinction between the various education providers and their curriculum, and none between the vastly differing demographics of (1) homeschoolers, (2) traditional public schoolers who are making up credits, (3) public schoolers who use online instruction because they live in a remote location, (4) public schoolers who use online instruction during an ongoing medical problem that precludes school attendance, and (5) public school at home charter students.  Reading this "proposed policy" business, it seems that all data remotely having to do with sitting in front of a computer was thrown into an old Tupperware container, shaken up, and presented as a comprehensive analysis potato salad at the educational choices picnic.  No one is eating that.

The authors also don't answer any fundamental questions about online learning and what would most benefit the students who are likely to enroll in a cyberschool.  For example, the report throws in an oddball statistic: only 3% of black students graduate from these charter schools. What does that mean?  Were most of these students behind when they began online instruction?  Did they approach online learning as some sort of last resort?  Were they "pushed out" because of low test scores which would punish their old schools under NCLB?  Something BIG has to be going on to come up with such an extraordinarily low number and likely have more to do with the public schools these children likely came from than the online learning experience.  But without more information, that's simply a guess.

There are other tipoffs throughout the report that would point to bias, such as the worry about how much "intergroup contact" is needed for virtual schoolers to experience the "improved intergroup relations" that occur in your local public school. They're also quite worried about whether special needs students, who have wildly varying needs, should even be allowed to have online schooling as an option at all.  Just you nevermind the nature of a given person's special need and/or the supports that would be available to that student in conjunction with an online learning program.

This is the sort of thing that passes for unbiased policy positions in the education world.


  1. My kids are taking a few online classes right now. Not. Happy.

    Son called me at 11pm from out of town after realizing all of the work he did last week had been deleted in a system upgrade. He is unable to re-upload it before the deadline. I am going to have to fight to prevent them from docking his grades for this two week period.

    It seems there is more bureaucracy than teaching.

  2. That is some *serious* stuff when you're talking about high school credits, Andrea. I don't know whether I would be more panicked or angry about the timing of the system upgrade. Bah, couldn't it have waited until Thanksgiving break??

    If your son is at fault on this one, I do get how stuff like this happens. My two ps high-schoolers needed a ride to school this morning. They missed the bus because their father (who is in charge right now, remember) runs the ship a bit differently than I do and figures if you want to be treated like an adult, you'd best set your alarm and he sure won't even remind you that there is school today.

    Well, he will for the 11-year-old, and help get him out the door on time as well. But Elf is still relatively new to the process. NOT the 18- and 16-year-olds. They have been in "the system" long enough and are old enough that they should have gotten to the bus stop on time themselves.

    D had them do his nasty work of taking out the trash in exchange for a ride. It is a nasty work, because my almost 4-year-old still is not using the toilet. Bleckkkk.

  3. I was confused at first and thought you meant super-schools, which is what some governments are trying to bring in out here. This means one gigantic high school that serves many more suburbs than the current 2 or 3 high schools in the same area. I don't like the idea.
    I also don't like the cyber schools you are writing about. There's so much potential for things to go wrong, for instance the badly timed system upgrade that lost a student's hard work, (Ahermitt above). In this instance, constant saving of completed work to a usb stick might have helped, but who is to know when an upgrade will happen? Unless they give prior warning....

  4. Oo, "superschools" sound like a particularly HORRID idea. Imagine, compounding all the trials and troubles of high school! I imagine that a "superschool" would be able to offer very specialised classes that smaller scattered schools would not. In fact, now that my children go to the newly-built high school in the district, many of the teachers ferry back and forth between the schools. This means if you want, say, level 5 honours Spanish, it must be taken during a certain hour of the day. Well, that means you can't have this OTHER class...

    These things happen in larger schools, to be sure, but they are particularly problematic in our huuuuge building of a high school. Actually located in the middle of cow fields and a tiny country church. Ought to take pics sometime.


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