A second review of NEPC report recommendations

In previous blog posts I commented on the NEPC Virtual Schools report here and here, and then on the recommendations with which I agree, here. Below I list the key recommendations with which I disagree.

1.      Policymakers should slow or stop growth of virtual schools until the reasons for their relatively poor performance have been identified and addressed.

Why I disagree: the accountability systems are not in place to accurately gauge whether or not what the authors call the “relatively poor performance” of online schools is, in fact, poor. Many students arrive at an online school behind in grade level. In their first year they may accomplish more than a year’s worth of academic progress, but still be assessed by the state as below proficient. The report discusses the deficiencies in state accountability systems, and then ignores its own findings and bases its recommendations on the results of proficiency-based assessments that it has shown to be insufficient.

2.      Given that some for-profit companies now enroll more than 10,000 students, policymakers should impose caps on student enrollment at schools run by such companies until evidence of satisfactory performance for a provider is available.

Why I disagree: if one is arguing that schools that are performing poorly should be shut or capped, should that argument not apply to all schools? Why does size of school or management organization matter? Why does for-profit status matter?

3.      Policymakers should slow or stop growth of virtual schools until there is research evidence on their performance that supports their expansion.

Why I disagree: The authors couch this recommendation in language meant to sound moderate: “we just need more evidence that it works!”

But elsewhere in the report, the authors themselves go into detail about how reporting structures and accountability systems are not up to the task of showing what works. Despite the fact that in all schools across the country, 25% of students do not graduate from high school on time, they suggest applying a higher standard just to online schools—many of which are attempting to remediate those very students who have fallen behind.

The “more evidence is needed” line is a method used by people who want to slow or stop change by redirecting the debate. For many years prior to being involved in online learning, I worked in environmental policy. I learned about the redirection trick from the organizations that were denying that problems existed due to acid rain, and then ozone depletion, and most recently climate change. The approach is always the same: “we are the reasonable people in this debate; once you show us enough evidence we will agree with you.”

But there’s never enough evidence for people who are opposed to something for ideological reasons. It’s true in climate change, and it’s true in online learning. While climate deniers say they need more evidence that the climate is changing, the planet warms. While people opposed to education reform say they need more evidence that online learning works, students languish in schools that are a poor fit for them, or drop out.