First thoughts on the NEPC report about online schools

It is a busy time for reports about online and blended learning, with the Christensen Institute’s new report on blended learning, and prior to that, the release of Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2013 by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado. Previous reports from NEPC have garnered quite a bit of media attention, and we expect this report to be cited and used in policy debates in state legislatures around the country as well. With that in mind we have been reading it closely, and plan to post several times on it instead of attempting to cover it all in one post. We believe that there is some valuable information in the report, and some of its recommendations are on target, but that the useful points are outweighed by the biases of the research and writing. That point is ironic, given how many words the authors devote to explaining the biases of other organizations in the field.

The NEPC report uses Keeping Pace fairly extensively, and it calls Keeping Pace “a useful resource for anyone interested in a descriptive overview of the growth of K-12 virtual education and the current K-12 virtual education landscape.” It goes on to contrast its reports to Keeping Pace by saying that unlike KP, NEPC reports “analyze the performance of full-time, publicly funded K-12 virtual schools; describe the policy issues raised by the available evidence; assesses the research evidence that bears on K-12 virtual teaching and learning; and offer research-based recommendations to help guide policymaking.” It also says that because Evergreen is an organization consulting to “the online education industry…It is not surprising, therefore, that its annual reports assume the value of virtual education and the desirability of its expansion.”

The NEPC authors, in this case, have reversed cause and effect. Evergreen doesn’t assume the value of online and blended learning because we work with organizations that offer such programs (including many public and non-profit schools, as I will explain below). We work in this field because we have seen the value of online and blended learning, and we believe that students will benefit from their expansion. Evergreen’s confidence in the value of online/blended learning is based on the organization’s 12 years in the field, and the collective decades of experience that Evergreen staff have in their careers as practitioners and critical friends. Keeping Pace was created at the request of a state education agency (Colorado Department of Education) and has grown as the field has evolved to become ever more complex for all stakeholders. But the report—and our work—have always remained focused on the interest of students.

The NEPC team has a clear bias against for-profit companies in education, demonstrated by the use of the word “profiteering” six times in the report. It also appears to believe that Evergreen consults primarily with for-profit companies, and that such companies are the main (or only) sponsors of Keeping Pace. But NEPC is wrong on both counts. Less than a quarter of Evergreen’s revenue comes from for-profit companies, while half comes from public schools and other public agencies. For Keeping Pace 2012, 8 of 14 sponsors were public or non-profit organizations; less than half of KP funding came from for-profit companies. Those proportions have been similar in all ten years of Keeping Pace reports.

Our most important area of consulting is, in fact, directly with schools, districts, and education agencies. In 2013 we are increasingly working with private and independent schools, which are non-profit organizations, but public agencies remain our largest set of clients.

I mention all this to point out where NEPC’s assumptions are factually incorrect. It is clear, however, that Evergreen and NEPC have different sets of assumptions and biases.

Here are some of our assumptions, beliefs, and biases:

  • Some students are well served by existing public schools and districts and some are not. We believe this because we see dropout rates from high schools and remediation rates at colleges, because we speak with students as part of our work, and because I and my Evergreen colleagues were all public school students ourselves.
  • There are dedicated, smart, hard working people in all sectors of education (public, non-profit, for-profit). There are also people in all of those sectors who would benefit students most by finding another line of work. We have written about this in a previous post.
  • While most fields that are doing good work could put additional funds to good use, we don’t believe that K-12 education’s main problems stem from lack of funding at a systemic level. There are certainly some valuable programs and schools that are not themselves funded at appropriate or necessary levels.
  • In too many school systems the needs of students are not consistently put first, as they should be. We have witnessed this personally in public schools, with decisions made based on political issues, the needs of teachers or administrators, and other reasons. We have also heard this from parents quite often, because they call us to ask about online school alternatives when they feel that the local brick-and-mortar school is not a good fit for their children.
  • Technology is not, and should not be, the central consideration in education. Online and blended schools use technology to change the instructional approach in ways that can benefit students. We have seen successful online and blended programs. We have spoken with many students who are incredibly grateful for their online or blended schools. Most of these are public schools.
  • Much of the research in education, and most of the ways in which it is used, are poor. As with medical research, the complexity of the system and variety of contributing factors, the prohibitive cost of conducting research, and the biases of researchers, media, and policymakers, combine to create a situation where our knowledge of educational practices and outcomes is weak. For an account of why medical research is poor, see our post about education research, or or These articles don’t draw a connection to education research, but the parallels seem clear.

In future posts I will address the strong points and the shortcomings that I see in the NEPC report. I have started with this post to address the response that I expect from some quarters, suggesting that Evergreen’s beliefs are due to our consulting with for-profit companies in education.

We put our clients and beliefs clearly on our website, so that anyone reading our reports or blogs can understand why we think as we do. We would love to see the same level of transparency from NEPC.