Virtual Education School Choices for Michigan Students Increasing
Online alternatives geared at kids of all ages are growing, from web-only classes to brick-and-mortar options to for-profit charters. What's this change look like, and is it right for every child?
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This year, my 8-year-old niece said sayonara to her schoolhouse in favor of full-time cyber school. Instead of attending third grade at Lakewood Elementary in Ann Arbor, she logs onto the Virtual Learning Academy Consortium and completes her lessons in the living room.
"We basically set up a little student desk and chair right outside the kitchen where I can continue to do my baking," says my sister-in-law, Jen Von Buskirk, who does double duty as Ella's "learning coach" and proprietor of her home-based catering company, Jeni's Ugly Pies. "I go back and forth. There's some stuff she can do independently and other stuff I have to oversee."
Through VLAC, Ella received a laptop computer, printer and subsidized Internet access. She has a homeroom teacher who monitors her progress and attendance, and meets with her one-on-one each week through Skype or over the phone. Although VLAC estimates it takes students four to six hours to complete a day's schoolwork, Von Buskirk says they've streamlined it to two to four hours.
"With one-on-one attention, she just soaks everything up, and I'm not going to allow her to finish a subject unless she gets it," Von Buskirk says.
Ella's lessons are in line with Common Core State Standards and include reading, composition, phonics, science, math and more. One sample third grade social studies lesson covers the concept of the assembly line with a short animation featuring Tim and his robot friend Moby. Students are quizzed on the material and referred to optional further reading and activities. Ella is thriving academically in the online program, Von Buskirk says.
Ella is among an increasing number of Michigan students taking advantage of new options in online education. From high school students earning extra credits to homeschoolers more closely linked to brick-and-mortar buildings than ever before, it's virtually a new frontier.
The latest "Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning" report says Michigan ranked fifth in the United States in the number of online enrollments in 2011-12. More than 25,000 students participated in some form of online learning, with about 4,000 attending cyber school full-time. The majority of students participate in some form of blended learning, using online classes to supplement traditional school.
Online enrollments via GenNET, a consortium of districts operated by the Genesee Intermediate School District, numbered more than 16,000, up 39 percent from the previous year; Michigan Virtual School reported 19,822 online enrollments.
Those numbers will only rise, especially in light of legislation, passed in late 2012, that lifts the cap on the number of cyber schools allowed to operate in Michigan and the scope of students they serve.
Michigan has been at the forefront of online education since 2006, when it became the first state to require all students have an "online learning experience" in order to graduate.
Gov. Rick Snyder says he intends to keep Michigan on the leading edge of cyber choice with his "any time, any place, any way, any pace" philosophy on public education.
New legislation that goes into effect on March 31, 2013, raises the cap on the number of online charter schools allowed to operate in the state from two to 15, as well as the number of students they serve – up to 10,000 each. These new laws, combined with dizzying advances in technology, add up to big change – though some wonder if we're ready.
Greg Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University, has serious questions about the effectiveness of full-time online education.
In a report released July 18, 2012 by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Miron and his team analyzed students at K12 Inc., the nation's largest virtual school company.
The report, "Understanding and Improving Full-Time Virtual Schools," showed K12 students falling further behind in reading and math scores than students in brick-and-mortar schools. It also found virtual students are less likely to remain at their schools for the full year, and the schools have low graduation rates.
"Our research highlights a number of significant issues at K12 Inc. schools, and we recognize that these issues are also of concern at other full-time virtual schools," says Miron, an NEPC fellow. Miron is among critics of for-profit charter schools which, he says, aggressively recruit students who may not be a good fit for the rigors of a home-based online program.
"It's false advertisement. They're bringing in students, getting the money and they don't seem to be too concerned when students leave," Miron says.
K12 Inc., a publicly traded company, operates in Michigan as the Michigan Virtual Charter Academy through Grand Valley State University. Because the school is so new, Michigan was not included in Miron's study. Miron is currently doing an expanded national study on full-time virtual schools, which he expects to release this spring.
"We need a better understanding of how this new teaching and learning model can be most effective, so that full-time virtual schools can better serve students and the public school system as a whole."
K12 Inc. and another for-profit company, chartered by Ferris State University as Michigan Connections Academy, were allowed to enter Michigan three years ago as part of a pilot program.
Before student achievement data was available, the Michigan legislature passed Senate Bill 619 – now Public Act 129 of 2012, the state's new cyber school law – which raised the cap on the number of for-profit charters allowed to operate in the state.
"When you implement new school reforms, you test them," Miron says. "All the indicators were very negative, and yet the legislators lifted the cap contrary to all the evidence."
The Michigan Board of Education, including long-time board member Kathleen Straus, recommended against raising the cap. "It's too much too soon," Straus says.