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November 17, 2011


This is a completely confusing post that has nothing to do with a heading related to lobbying, which is barely mentioned in the narrative.

Moreover, the facts are wrong. No charter in NY has ever been allowed to be "for-profit." They are incorporated as non-profit education corporations governed by a board of trustees. In the past, a non-profit charter school could contract with a for-profit management company to run the school. The most recent charter law prohibits charter schools from contracting with for-profits for management of the school, but they can still use for-profit vendors to provide services, just like traditional district schools.

This post also conflates online learning with for-profit issues. Not all online learning is run by for-profit companies and there is extraordinary variation in what online learning means; it includes taking a single class online at a traditional school to learning from home from a virtual school. So cherry picking a couple of studies doesn't really illuminate this issue. These kind of generalizations really don't serve the debate well.

Gideon, The Nation piece gives many details about lobbying, so I'd encourage you to read that if you are interested. I don't know of any large studies showing that online learning improves achievement over traditional classrooms in the same subject; the studies Fang cites are widely recognized. If you have other sources I or my readers should check out, please do post them.


There are clearly bad actors in the field. And, I share your concerns about transparency and improper incentives, not just for private corporations, but also for traditional districts and administrators that are often tasked with oversight responsibilities. But Gideon is right in pointing out that we should distinguish among both providers and types of programs.

One of the better and very accessible summaries of research/evidence on these issues can be found in the just-published Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning, starting on page 40. http://www.kpk12.com

Essentially, studies that only compare virtual learning with traditional instruction, though, like those that compare charter schools with traditional public schools, mask many of the most interesting questions about virtual education. Marianne Bakia, senior education researcher at SRI International and one of the authors of the 2009 Department of Education meta-analysis on this subject, appropriately cautions that to be useful, research needs to be specific as to “what works for whom, what implementation practices matter, and why.”

I'm not an expert in this field and don't know the research well, but red flags go up when I see only a few studies limited to a few states cited. The US Department of Education has a 2010 report: Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. The conclusion: "The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction."

I'm no fan of the corporate influence on education (e.g., the textbook industry's stranglehold on curriculum). However, whether we like it or not, I think technology is going to have a disruptive influence on education, just as it has had on every other sector of society. It's astonishing that schools have managed to remain so static for so long, especially as our expectations for them have risen. Given your recent nuanced critique of the motivations of philanthropists in education reform, I'm surprised to see what looks like a simplistic conflating of online learning and for-profit issues. For example, charter schools are in fact not for-profit, though they may hire for-profit companies, just as traditional district schools hire for-profit companies. Where's the outrage over districts that hire for-profit transportation companies or staff developers rather than do it themselves. Certainly there are lots of companies looking at education technology as a good place to make some profit, but we should be focused on the efficacy and value of the educational technology, not where it's coming from.

Nice post, Dana -- a great supplement to the Nation piece.

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