Thursday, February 26, 2015

Schools Are Racing to Adopt Digital Tools Without Solid Evidence that they Boost Student Achievement

At all levels from kindergarten to twelfth grade, American schools are making huge investments in digital education – with proponents often touting digital tools as a way to close achievement gaps and improve learning opportunities for economically and academically disadvantaged students. Digital instruction – using computers, netbooks, or handheld devices – is rapidly spreading in classrooms and supplemental areas of instruction. Big money is in play: One estimate values the U.S. school market for education software and digital content at nearly $8 billion. Advances in technology allow digital tools to offer the promise of broad access at low cost, competing with face-to-face methods of instruction for shrinking funds. But with schools inundated with new digital tools, little attention has been paid to whether teachers, parents, and students are putting them to effective use.

Who Decides?
Schools themselves often are not the ones who decide to purchase digital devices and software. In Texas, for example, the Texas Education Agency typically makes decisions about technology purchases and also determines the level of funding available for making effective use of the new purchases. In Los Angeles Unified School District, a contract to facilitate the largest-ever distribution of computing devices to public school students was beset by problems, including an incomplete curriculum software package purchased at considerable expense. As was the case in Los Angeles, school-level staff members are seldom consulted about the technologies they really need or are prepared to use, yet principals and teachers are left to grapple with the practical challenges. Often with little support, they have to figure out how to get the right digital tools to appropriate groups of students, how to integrate electronic formats into the regular curriculum, and how to use tools and programs effectively to improve the performance of students who are lagging in academic achievement. Needless to say, the problems are not always readily resolved.

Research on the Impact of Digital Tools
Digital educational tools used well can be an important asset for American schools, but the modest research accomplished to date suggests that the deployment of digital tools can exacerbate achievement gaps and create a new kind of digital divide in which inadequately resourced schools serving students from lower-income families cannot take full advantage of the new technological potential. Some studies of digital instruction have found no significant effects on student learning, while others suggest positive effects when these tools are deployed in favorable circumstances. Relevant favorable factors include regular interaction between teachers and students, real-time data feedback for teachers, and consistent access to the new technology by all students.
Our recent work and the limited evidence accumulated by various scholars show that there is enormous variability in how digital instructional programs are rolled out, accessed, and supported both during and outside of the regular school day. The quality of educational programming using these tools depends on a lot more than the technologies and software purchased by a state or local educational agency. But, unfortunately, initial purchases are often not followed up by the gathering of transparent, accountable evidence about how the new platforms are used and to what effect. Educators are expending substantial resources and instructional time on the deployment of digital educational tools, and we need to know much more about the supports and training needed to get good academic results.

We have studied tutoring programs in large urban school districts that are conducted outside of regular school hours. Our research examined differences in both implementation and impact between providers of supplemental educational services using digital tools and those not relying on digital tools at all. Using a standardized observation instrument, we were able to examine the quality of instruction in both non-digital and digital tutorial settings. For instance, digital sessions were relatively lacking in – and did little to improve – intellectual rigor and advanced thinking skills. Often the questions presented to students were simply “digitized worksheets” that did not require students to actually use technology to apply, evaluate, or create concepts. In general, our analyses found that digital tools do not regularly add value to instruction, even when the technology is readily accessible and working well (which often is not the case). In addition, drawing upon large samples of student test score data, we also estimated impact of these tutoring services on student achievement.

Human Instructors are Crucial
From our own and others’ research, we know that the role of the instructor is vital for quality education. Tellingly, when the supplemental educational service providers we studied combined face-to-face tutoring with the use of online software, tutors were able to reword problems for particular students. Students who got such face-to-face digitally supported instruction realized significantly larger gains in math compared to those tutored entirely using only software.

In our study, English language learners and students with disabilities were significantly less likely than other students to benefit from the optimal combination of personal interaction and online programs. These students face major educational challenges, yet they were subjected to less effective forms of online tutoring.
More generally, our field research illuminates the challenges involved in making new digital educational tools work well for all students. As digital programming continues to expand in classrooms and associated school services, we urgently need rigorous, independent evaluations to better inform federal, state and local decisions – especially when it comes to using digital formats to help disabled and underprivileged students who have the most to gain, and lose, in the new learning environment.

Patricia Burch is committed to improving quality and equitable access in public education. The focus of her current research is how the policies and practices of various sectors, in particular business and education, intersect in low-income communities. As an educator, parent and citizen, Burch is interested in building an informed and respectful dialogue to counter commercialism of public schools.

The Forum on the Future of Public Education strives to bring the best empirical evidence to policymakers and the public. The Forum draws on a network of premier scholars to create, interpret, and disseminate credible information on key questions facing P-20 education.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Upcoming Event: Restoring the Promise of Higher Education

Join us on Thursday, March 5, for two public events that are part of the 2015 Cline Symposium, “Restoring the Promise of Higher Education. The Cline Symposium is a major campus-wide event that draws an audience of nearly 200 students, faculty, and distinguished alumni from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to discuss significant issues affecting the governance and welfare of democratic societies. The Cline Symposium is made possible by a gift from Richard G. and Carole J. Cline and is one of the most visible annual events on the University of Illinois campus.  Since its inception in 1995 it has attracted a number of world-renowned speakers and some of the most distinguished alumni and friends of UIUC’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  

This year’s focus is the current state of higher education in the United States. Earning a college diploma was once heralded as the key to upward mobility and greater economic opportunities for many Americans. But the U.S. system of higher education that used to help level the playing field now exacerbates social and political inequalities. Today, despite the fact that many more people are attempting to go to college than in the past, there are some indicators that access to a 4-year degree for lower-income individuals is no longer expanding. A series of political and public policy changes have transformed the higher education system from a vital pathway of opportunity to a major source of social stratification. The Spring 2015 Cline Symposium aims to understand why these changes have occurred, and explore ways to promote equal opportunity while maintaining high academic quality at all institutions.

This year’s symposium features two public events that are open to all interested students, faculty, and community members. We would like to invite you to attend both of them, and to pass word along to anyone else who might be interested in attending:

Roundtable Discussion and Public Forum“Is Higher Education Still The Great Equalizer?”
3:00-4:30pm     Illini Union – Room 314A

Professor Scott Althaus (Chair), Depts. of Political Science and Communication, UIUC
Professor Suzanne Mettler, Dept. of Government, Cornell University
Professor Denice Hood, Dept. of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership, UIUC
Professor Christopher Lubienski, Dept. of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership, UIUC
Professor Lorenzo Baber, Dept. of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership, UIUC
Mr. Ryan Croke, Former Chief of Staff to Governor Quinn
Keynote Address“How the Politics of Higher Education Is Undermining the American Dream”
7:30-9:00pm     Illini Union – Room 314A

Suzanne Mettler, Clinton Rossiter Professor of American Institutions in the Government Department at Cornell University.

Professor Mettler’s research and teaching interests include public policy (including social welfare, tax, health, and education policies), American political development, political behaviorcivic engagement, and inequality.Copies of her book Degrees of Inequality: How Higher Education Politics Sabotaged the American Dreamwill be available for purchase at this event and there will be a book signing after the keynote.

More details on these events can be found in the attached flyer and at I hope you will be able to join us on March 5.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On Virtual Charter Schools: Research, Legislation, Policies, and Litigation

Last week the state of North Carolina expanded the use virtual education within the state.  The State Board of Education approved its first fulltime degree granting virtual charter schoolsTwo virtual charter school were approved; North Carolina Virtual Academy which is affiliated with K12, Inc., and North Carolina Connections Academy.  North Carolina is not new to virtual schooling; the current virtual instruction is supplementary and non-degree granting.   The expansion does not comes as a surprise considering that in April 2014, the North Carolina Assembly received a virtual charter school study to assist in making the determination whether to expand the state’s virtual charter school policy.  North Carolina is not the only state that has action related to virtual charter schools.  Over the past year, I have been following the world of virtual charter schools and there has been a great deal of activity including litigation and legislation.  Below I will provide an overview of some of the activity.  

In April 2014, the NCAA announced that it will no longer accept coursework from 24 virtual charter schools.  All 24 schools are affiliated with K12, Inc., a large for-profit provider of online learning.  The NCAA provided notice that other schools managed by K12, Inc. will continue to have coursework under extensive evaluation.  The NCAA’s action will have a significant impact of the decisions of student athletes to use virtual schooling as a means of obtaining additional credits, credit recovery, or supplementary courses.  

In May 2013, Illinois state legislators passed a law requiring a one year moratorium on new online virtual charter schools within the state.[i]  The law also required that the Illinois Charter School Commission submit a report with recommendations regarding virtual charter schools.  The Commission issued a report in February 2014 that recommended significant modifications to the Illinois law and administrative rules.  Furthermore, the commission recommended an extension on the moratorium through 2016 or until new guidance is in place, whichever is sooner, to allow for the development of guidelines.   In August 2014, Illinois House Bill 3937 was enacted extending the moratorium until December 31, 2016.[ii]

During the 2014-2015 school year, the State of Maine opened their first virtual charter school.  The Maine Connections Academy’s opening did not approach without controversy.  Tensions were raised as local school districts received tuition bills from the virtual school.  Local school officials argued for changes in the way virtual schools are funded.  As it stands, Maine’s law requires that the local school districts, where the virtual school student resides, forward the per-pupil allocation to the public charter school.[iii]

In September 2014, Minnesota district court dismissed a case involving causes of action brought under the False Claims Act (FCA) and the Minnesota False Claims Act (MFCA).  In United States of America, et al. v. Minnesota Transitions Charter Schools [iv] Plaintiffs brought actions on behalf of the United States and the State of Minnesota alleged that the Defendants, Minnesota Transition Charter School and MN Virtual High School, knowingly submitted false documents and records to “receive and seek funding in which it was not entitled from the United States and the State of Minnesota."[v]  Specifically, the Plaintiffs alleged that the Defendants dropped truant students from the “enrollment for non-attendance shortly before state testing to prevent them from negatively impacting test results.”[vi]  After the testing, the Defendants reenrolled the truant students.  The compliant further alleged that the Defendants submitted fraudulent information on IEPs, requiring all student IEPs to have one hour of direct and one hour of indirect student contact a week regardless of the time that was actually spent.[vii]  The case was dismissed for various reasons. 

In April 2014, the New Mexico Attorney General, Gary King, issued an opinion stating that the New Mexico Virtual Academy in Farmington, NM was violating state law.  The New Mexico Virtual Academy is a public charter school that has an agreement with K12, Inc., as their provider of virtual learning.  The New Mexico Schools Act prohibits a for-profit entity from operating a charter school.  The Act states that “a charter school is a public school that may contract with a school district or other party for provision of financial management, food services, transportation, facilities, education-related services or other services.  The governing body shall not contract with a for-profit entity for the management of the charter school.”[viii]  K12, Inc., is a for-profit entity. 
In November 2013, the Virtual Community School of Ohio (VCSO) made history when it entered into a resolution agreement with the United States Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (OCR).  OCR found Section 504 and Title II violations and the school agreed to address the issues as a part of an agreement.  The resolution agreement requires VCSO to make several corrective actions.  

In Tennessee, a virtual school might be closing after the 2014-2015 school year.  In July 2014, Tennessee Education Commissioner, Kevin Huffman, with statutory authority, announced that the Tennessee Virtual Academy would close at the end of the 2014-2015 school year due to academic performance.  In order to prevent the closure, the Tennessee Virtual Academy test scores must show drastic gains.   The relevant test scores will not be available until June 2015, therefore the schools fate is still up in the air.  The leaders of the Tennessee Virtual Academy have put measures in place to attempt to improve scores, including a new mentor program.

In 2014, the State of Virginia enacted two new bills that impact virtual charter schools within the state.  Virginia House Bill 1086 requires local school boards to provide free and appropriate special education to students with disabilities that attend full-time virtual school.[ix]  The local school board, where the student resides, is released from the obligation of providing special education to the student attending fulltime virtual schools.  The residing school board should transfer the state and federal funds to the virtual school local school board.[x]  Virginia House Bill 1115 permits the Virginia Department of Education to contract with one or more local school boards that have created online courses to establish the Virtual Virginia program.  The Virtual Virginia program will allow courses to be available to all students throughout the State of Virginia. 

Oklahoma Firefighters Pension & Retirement System v. K12, Inc. et al [xi] is a securities class action pending in Virginia.  The class action was brought on the behalf of investors against K12, Inc.  The class action was filed only six months after another investors’ class action was settled.[xii]  The pending class action alleges that K12, Inc. violated Sections 10(b) and 20(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, more specifically that K12, Inc.’s omission and misstatements regarding student enrollment and growth prospects for fiscal year 2014, “caused  a staggering 38.4% drop in the price of K12 common stock and significant investor losses on the last day of the ClassPeriod.”  This case is still pending. 

Although there is limited empirical research related to virtual charter schools, in 2014, several studies were released.   In March 2014, The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) issued a report regarding virtual schools.  The report pointed out numerous concerns and made various recommendations.  The NEPC report sparked a response from employees of K12, Inc., stating that the NEPC report had many inadequacies and many of their recommendations were already in place.  In March 2014, the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities with the findings of a 2013 survey of state special education directors. The Online Center concluded its report indicated that even though state policies related to virtual schooling are fairly new, “the survey findings highlight the diverse knowledge base, beliefs, levels of policy development and data collection around online learning across the states.”  In September 2014, Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) released on study pointing out the positives of virtual charter schools.  The National Education Policy Center did a review of the PEPG study.

As support for school choice continues, and the number of students attending virtual schools continue to grow, it is important that education professionals, no matter if they support or oppose virtual schools, be aware of the news, research, legislation, policies and litigation related to virtual schools.  It is very important to keep abreast of these actions to have the knowledge base necessary to help inform policy, make decisions, and plan for the future implications of virtual schooling.  This article only provides limited details and an overview of some to this past year’s actions.  There continues to be a push for virtual schooling and states are attempting to put laws and policies in place to create, monitor, and regulate virtual schools.  Although empirical research related to virtual charter schools is scarce, there appears to be researchers who have taken an interest in the further development of this research area. Virtual schooling is fairly new, therefore only time will tell us the true impact this movement. 

by Tiffany Puckett

Tiffany Puckett is the Associate Director of the Forum on the Future of Public Education. She is a Ph.D. student in Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is interested in education law, school finance, policy development, implementation and compliance.

The Forum on the Future of Public Education strives to bring the best empirical evidence to policymakers and the public. The Forum draws on a network of premier scholars to create, interpret, and disseminate credible information on key questions facing P-20 education.

[i]           H.B. 3937, 98th Gen. Assem., Reg. Sess. (IL. 2014).
[ii]          Public Act 98-0016, 105 ILCS 5/27A-5.
[iii]         Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. tit 20-A, Chapter  112
[iv]         United States of America, et al. v. Minnesota Transitions Charter Schools, 2014 U.S. Dist. Lexis 137164 (D. Minn. 2014).  
[v]          Id at 2.
[vi]         Id. at 4.
[vii]        Id
[viii]       NMSA 1978, § 22-8B-4.
[ix]         H.B. 1086,  Gen. Assem., Reg. Sess. (VA. 2014).
[x]          H.B. 1114,  Gen. Assem., Reg. Sess. (VA. 2014).
[xi]         Oklahoma Firefighters Pension & Retirement System v. K12, Inc. et al, 2014cv00108 (ED. Va. 2014) 
[xii]         On July 25, 2013, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandra Division approved a settlement in the class action, David Hoppaugh, Individually and On Behalf of all Others Similarly Situated v. K12 Inc., Ronald J. Packard and Harry T. Hawks, 1:12-cv-00103-CMH-IDD.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Free community college? Study the details

Cross Posted from the Salt Lake Tribune

On Jan. 9, President Obama outlined a plan to make "community colleges free for responsible students across America." Inspired by new policies underway in Tennessee and Chicago, the White House proposal calls for the federal government to pay three quarters of students' tuition and would require states to kick in the remaining quarter.

In return, states are expected to continue investments in higher education and adopt performance-based funding policies, and community colleges are expected to adopt evidence-based practices to improve student outcomes. Only students who enroll at least part-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, make progress toward their degree and are enrolled in a transferrable or high-demand program are eligible for the program.

For those of us who study and research community colleges, the significance of this announcement cannot be understated in terms of the (continued) federal emphasis on community colleges. Although we know very few details about the program and this is a complex policy proposal, let me provide some insight on the tradeoffs associated with this proposal.

The good: Research shows that students, particularly low-income students, are sensitive to the price of college. In theory, free community college would signal to all eligible high school students that college is accessible, and most parties agree that the price of college should not deter students from attending.

This proposal is also highly significant because it could fundamentally shift "universal" education in the United States from K-12 to K-14. The proposal would provide higher education to millions of low-income individuals who otherwise would not have accessed higher education.

There is also compelling economic evidence that suggests the majority of new jobs in the labor market will require at least some form of postsecondary credential, including applied certificates and associate's degrees that are predominantly offered by the nation's community colleges. A relatively modest federal investment (about $6 billion/year) could contribute to a more qualified labor force and result in substantial payoffs for the economy.

Finally, of all postsecondary education sectors, community colleges enroll the largest proportion of undergraduates in the United States (approximately 50 percent), yet their per-FTE expenditures are the lowest. This proposal would represent a significant shift in resource allocation so that fiscal resources are more equitable among institutions of higher education.

The bad: There is no shortage of critics of the president's proposal, including many conservatives who argue the proposal oversteps the federal role in higher education or is merely another federal entitlement program. The obvious political barrier is passing legislation in a recently elected Republican-controlled Congress that is unlikely to support a large federal program.

That aside, we should be concerned about the strings attached to the proposal for students, institutions, and states. For students, the eligibility criteria hardly make the proposal "universal," as many community college students enroll less than part-time or are enrolled in programs potentially excluded from the program. The proposal has the potential to create "haves" and "have-nots" among equally needy and qualified students.

There is also reason to be concerned about the unintended consequences for institutions, including many open-access four-year institutions that serve similar proportions of low-income students and whose students could equally benefit from this policy.

States might also be concerned about the strings attached to the program. Historically, states disinvest in higher education during economic downturns, so states may be very hesitant to commit to unsustainable state funding levels. More importantly, the proposal requires states to adopt performance-based funding (PBF) policies, and although many state legislatures are adopting or considering such policies, including in Utah, research does not yet suggest that state PBF policies significantly improve student outcomes and college completion.

Finally, there is a relevant efficiency argument. Because federal Pell Grants already provide aid to most low-income community college students (although that aid is inadequate to cover other college costs such as books and housing), this policy would potentially funnel money to middle- and upper-income community college students who could otherwise afford to pay for college.

The details: Overall, research shows that low-income students are significantly less likely to both enroll in and complete college, and policymakers need to find solutions to address the inequities embedded in the educational system. The notion of free community college is admirable and appealing, and Obama's proposal, although unlikely to be legislated during his presidency, has and will continue to generate desperately needed conversations and equitable funding policies and outcomes. However, we should be careful to quickly endorse this policy proposal until we know the full details of the proposal and carefully analyze the intended and unintended consequences on students, institutions, and states. 

Jason L. Taylor is an assistant professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Utah and a faculty affiliate at the Office of Community College Research and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The Forum on the Future of Public Education strives to bring the best empirical evidence to policymakers and the public. The Forum draws on a network of premier scholars to create, interpret, and disseminate credible information on key questions facing P-20 education.