Research Update: Preliminary Thoughts about Traditional Public School District Responses to Cyber Charter Schools

I have been out in the field during the last few weeks conducting interviews with school district administrators about how they perceive the online learning movement within public schools across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I haven’t fully analyzed the data yet, but I am definitely encountering interesting findings.

One major finding is that traditional public schools have “responded” (quotes because I don’t like the causal link here yet, and I am digging into this word a bit in my research) to the cyber charter movement in a few ways. One way is to create an online school in their own district, another is to join a coalition of traditional public schools creating an online school for these coalition members, a third is to ignore the movement completely, and a fourth is not to make online schools and convince their students that enrolling in the online movement is a bad idea (including giving them financial incentives to stay in district!).

Another interesting note is that, as institutional theorists often predict, the developments of these online schools have not come through a rational model where school districts take part in online learning because they think this model will yield a higher quality of academic outcomes for their students. That is not to say that decisions of individual actors are irrational because they are not; however, a major underpinning of the charter movement is that competition will cause rational responses to market forces that will in turn increase student achievement. Leaders respond to forces, but I think it is a stretch to say that competitive market forces have absolutely improved schooling outcomes on the aggregate.

Examples to reflect some of the statements I just made include some administrators creating have used fulltime online learning even though they think this type of learning is not the best option for their students (they create the schools for reasons such as resource dependency instead of improving academic outcomes), no clear data have shown me that the districts losing the most percentage of their students have been the first ones to embrace the online movement, and leaders have used online schooling for different purposes that fit the needs of the traditional brick and mortar school rather than for competitive purposes (such as putting expelled students in these schools so they don’t disrupt the traditional setting).

It seems like cyber charter schools have introduced the tool of online learning to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. How this tool gets used and if it is even used appropriately across the different types of schooling providers (charter or traditional public) is not yet clear to me. One thing that is clear, though, is that online schooling has been something on the minds of leaders across the Commonwealth. Though, how they use, value, and talk about this tool might not be how advocates of online schooling have predicted.

On “Why Ed Tech Is Not Transforming How Teachers Teach”

Teachers are not harnessing technology the way they should and this is hurting students. There are several reasons for it, but this is the trend throughout the United States. These are the main points in a recently published Education Week article called “Why Ed Tech Is Not Transforming How Teachers Teach.” While I agree with the claims for the most part and am intrigued by the examples author Benjamin Herold provides, I do have a few comments that help us think about the trend discussed in the article, mainly that we should be careful not to promote technology just for technology’s sake.

The author’s main claim comes in the second paragraph:

“…a mountain of evidence indicates that teachers have been painfully slow to transform the ways they teach, despite that massive influx of new technology into their classrooms. The student-centered, hands-on, personalized instruction envisioned by ed-tech proponents remains the exception to the rule.”

Herold then cites reputable sources and notable studies, mainly Professor Larry Cuban from Stanford who has built a career on researching and writing about the history of education, education policy, and about how schools have hardly used technology to change teaching. The Ed Week article cites several examples and basically says that teachers have not used technology because they are not trained properly and the process of changing is simply too hard for them to do:

“Researchers have identified numerous culprits, including teachers’ beliefs about what constitutes effective instruction, their lack of technology expertise, erratic training and support from administrators, and federal, state, and local policies that offer teachers neither the time nor the incentive to explore and experiment.”

I liked this article, it was interesting, and I agree with it for the most part. Yes, teachers have not used technology in the classroom to change their teaching going back to the days of the radio and the film projector.

However, one issue I had with this article is that I am not a fan of arguments that suggest that it is fruitful to use technology for technology’s sake. This article leaned in that direction. My point is that just because a shiny iPad is in a classroom, it does not mean the iPad always provides the best solution to considerations of pedagogy. An iPad very well could be used as a great resource, but we have to remember that technology is only a tool, it is not a teaching strategy. Take the example Mr. Herold provides in the article:

“On a warm May morning, 26 Mount Pleasant 11th graders were scattered around Ms. Howton’s room, sitting in groups of three or four. They were midway through a project-based unit on social-justice movements. Their goal: Produce independent research papers on topics of their choice, then collaboratively develop a multimedia presentation of their findings with classmates researching the same issue.

“After a brief welcome and introduction, the teens were on their own. The 15 iPads on a cart in the back of the room were quickly gobbled up.

“Nicole Collins, Courtney Norris, and Quincy Vaughn, all 17, went to work at a small table. Using iPads and a cloud-based tool called Google Slides, they collaborated in real time on their group presentation about injustices in the U.S. criminal-justice system.”

Great social studies teachers have had their students complete projects like this without laptops or iPads for decades. Group work and the preparation of an essay or presentation is not an assignment that inherently lends itself to only iPads. In fact, in the example provided, perhaps genuine learning is even hindered by the tech because students often end up staring at screens and plugging away. This happened many times in my classroom when I gave students assignments to complete using technology. Furthermore – and this should drive the point home – in the context of a topic like social justice (which is what the class in the example is about), using technology may impede the type of learning we hope to promote because the goals of a class like this are to understand issues of social justice and community — goals best achieved by dialogue, empathy, and actively engaging with each other face to face through conversation.

Again, I agree with Mr. Herold’s main point and think it is important that teachers know how and when to use technology appropriately. But we need to define our goals for the technology and not just think of tech as an end; rather as a means. So, for example, if our goal in a math course is to personalize learning, help catch up students, and scaffold skills, then by all means yes, use a program like Khan Academy to teach a practice these skills. But we shouldn’t be too quick to call teacher behavior “painfully slow” and underperforming simply because they aren’t using technology. They are underperforming if they aren’t achieving their learning objectives and pedagogical goals. The article does dance around this point at times, but not enough attention is drawn to it throughout.

Chris Christie: How not to engage in a fruitful debate on educational reform

Check out the following clip.

Someone on his campaign staff should sit him down point by point and explain to him a few things.

One, his understanding of the history of the educational system is a bit off. We actually do not have the same system we had in the 1800s and the classroom is certainly not entirely teacher-centered anymore. The diversity of teachers’ strategies is great and different teachers use different techniques. There are many remnants of the old agrarian system seen far and wide for sure, but to act as if teaching now is identical to the way it was is a bit misleading. We have had the child-centered Progressive Movement (ironically, people with political leanings similar Christie called this movement inefficient and favored teacher-centered instruction). Then we had many calls for changes to curricula in realms of science in the 1950s and then the 1980s. This led to labs in the classroom and funding for research on innovative practices. The point is, to paint all teaching and all classrooms with a single brush stroke is not fair. Yes, some teachers in K-12 education stand in front of the classroom and lecture, but many do not and the system has evolved quite a bit in the last hundred years.

Two, teachers do not get 4-5 months off a year and work a lot more than the hours that children spend  in the classroom. When I taught high school I worked 6-7 days a week for 10 months of the year doing school related activities. I distinctly remember grading papers at my younger sister’s college graduation ceremony and then having to work as a landscaper that summer because my “fulltime salary for a part-time job” was not enough to cover those months while paying my college loans among other bills. If I had a family at the time I would have been screwed. I know Christie has an adversarial relationship with teacher unions, but he needs to get a grip when it comes to talking about teaching and teachers.

Three, the best educational systems in the world often do not have school choice programs and some have actually suffered when they have implemented one. The Guardian featured an interesting piece about this recently in their newspaper. Christie’s references to Newark and Camden are interesting, but a large body of research shows there is tremendous variation in charter school outcomes (just as the same is true for traditional public schools). The charter debate is certainly one I am on board for having, but my point is that the issue is not as straightforward as Christie makes it out to be.

Four, I think he and I would have an interesting conversation about trends of technology and what they mean to the classroom (considering that falls under the umbrella of my dissertation). Honestly, he is least off compared to the rest of the points on this post, but it is still a pretty shallow understanding on the issue. There are many more reasons than “teacher unions” as to why we are not using iPads in every classroom.

All of these points in mind, I should say, hey, he argues well and is good on his feet, so I should vote for him due to style not substance, right? Not so much. Christie tell your staffers to share with you a more accurate view of teaching and educational policy. Right now you are just spouting (grossly) politically colored rhetoric that is not pushing debates on educational reform forward.

Why all the attention?

On June 1 Michael Horn wrote an article (published in EducationNext) that explaines why charter schools get more attention for blended learning than traditional brick and mortar schools. He starts the piece off by saying:

“Public school districts began innovating with blended learning before most charter schools. According to surveys that Brian Bridges has conducted in multiple states, including California where blended learning is growing rapidly, more school districts utilize blended learning than do charter schools. And the pace of innovation with blended learning is picking up within school districts nationwide.”

This is an interesting topic to me because one of the issues I am studying for my dissertation is the relationship between technology-based charter schools and traditional public schools. (Side note: I should say here — and this might see itself as an interesting topic for another blog post– we always tend to ask how charter schools influence public schools and not the other way around, which is an important question too.)

Horn gives us two reasons. He says, one, the greater press for blended charter schools is because charter schools use blended learning to change their entire model and, two, because of their student outcomes.

The idea of this “radical change to the educational process” (Horn’s idea number one) is certainly a hook. Though I am less convinced by the outcomes argument simply because after providing this evidence Horn then gives examples of positive outcomes in traditional school models. To me this says that outcomes are not necessarily what drive press, something else does.

With only giving these arguments there are two huge points that are under looked in Horn’s piece. Charter schools tend to advertise much more than traditional public schools (and hey, maybe that’s why we’ve heard so much more about them and their different models) and also they are a controversial policy idea that everyone is holding under the microscope. We tend not to hear about the happenings in the public school districts that have continually performed well because, frankly, high performing school districts finding ways to still be high performing doesn’t play well in the news cycle. We want to know what the charter schools are doing. Thenews cycle of “charter schools are different” feeds the beast providing unique stories that draw our attention because they are inherently different and are inherently talking points.

This is not to say that the attention on charter schools or public schools is necessarily a positive or negative finding. However, we have to remember that sometimes the most obvious and powerful institutions and norms are the ones that go unnoticed. It is interesting to me then that Horn gives these traditional school examples that seem effective an innovative at the same time. Food for thought. Maybe we will start talking about them more, but I am not so sure.

Cyber Charter Funding Battle

The word around the Pennsylvania educational policy world is that lawmakers are discussing the funding formula for cyber charter schools. Cyber charter schools are K-12 fulltime online schools that deliver all of their course content via the Internet. They are part of the charter school movement because they operate independently of the traditional public school districts (they are authorized by the Pennsylvania Department of Education), but are public schools because they receive per-pupil tuition fees from sending districts (the school the student left has to pay a tuition rate to the cyber charter that the student selects).

The hangup in Harrisburg is this funding mechanism. Right now different sending districts send different tuition rates to the cyber charter schools. The rate an individual school district sends gets calculated as an average tuition rate of the sending district. This means that a given cyber charter school may charge $12,000 per student coming from, say, district A and only $8,000 per student from district B because district A spends more money in its own district per student than district B.

This formula has led to much controversy and the proposal in Harrisburg from the Wolf Administration is to create a flat cyber charter school rate of about $6,000 per student. I was in a meeting with one of the budget officers a few weeks ago and he said they derived this rate from calculating the cost per student at high performing online schools run by traditional public schools. This official basically said that this is the rate they have seen that can work effectively and if the cyber charter schools do not like the rate they can pack their bags and leave the Commonwealth. They argue this change in formula would save schools districts more than $150 million.

To me, this is an interesting conversation and I will be watching it closely. The cyber charter schools have some strong lobbying in the legislature, especially since some of the operators in this state are nationwide for-profit companies that have experience in playing this game. I hope this doesn’t influence the legislature in a negative way but I worry it might.

Overall, it is my opinion that the current Wolf funding proposal seems logical and will help traditional public schools. However, I am not sure if anyone (outside of the cyber charter school operators) know how exactly the cyber charter schools are spending their money. To me this is critical in discussing this issue in the legislature.

It is clear to me based on conversations with traditional public schools districts that a funding reform ABSOLUTELY needs to happen. These districts are getting harmed with funding problems due to cyber charters that are impossible to solve because of how the funding mechanism works. For example, one superintendent told me that on average he only loses 3-4 students per grade to a cyber charter school. This means he is losing the salary of a teacher per grade, but cannot let go of a teacher because he isn’t losing an entire class worth of students. This leaves him with a choice: Really increase class size or cut in other areas. Economies of scale are causing this problem to be unworkable in the current inception of the policy design.

The proposed funding cap of $6,000 would help solve this issue, but again we should be looking at the cyber charter school end and see how costs get allocated there (information not publicly available – some policy organizations wrote a Freedom of Information Act request to get this information, but it hasn’t come yet). Perhaps other techniques like cyber charter school consolidation or payments directly from the PA Department of Education are warranted, but it is iimpossible to know until we know exactly how cyber charter schools work and how they spend their money.

We don’t have to have a single bullet answer to this, but we do need to have an honest discussion. Cyber charter schools should open up their books and we should all think about efficacy of students in both cyber charter schools and traditional public schools so we can make better funding choices.

DOE Releases Ed Tech Developer’s Guide

An interesting guide provided by the feds a few weeks ago:

It is a guide for Educational Technology developers on how they can make effective tech-based tools for schools. Not sure they do enough to talk about implementation, but this guide is handy nonetheless!

Ten opportunities for technology to transform teaching & learning

  1. Improving mastery of academic skills
  2. Developing skills to promote lifelong learning
  3. Increasing family engagement
  4. Planning for future education opportunities
  5. Designing effective assessments
  6. Improving educator professional development
  7. Improving educator productivity
  8. Making learning accessible to all students
  9. Closing opportunity gaps
  10. Closing achievement gaps