Who Is In Charge

Online students lag state averages

Two new studies point to a contradiction about full-time online schools – student academic performance is lower than that of students statewide but parents and students are positive about the online experience.

Laura Johnson works on a computer between classes at Florence High School in this <em>EdNews</em> file photo. Johnson moved to an online school but was back to a traditional school within a year.

“The majority of students and parents surveyed believe that online learning is a better fit for them than a brick and mortar school; however, many students continue to perform poorly academically in online, despite greater satisfaction,” according to a new report on full-time online programs by the Colorado Department of Education.

The report, “Characteristics of Colorado’s Online Students,” and a second study are to be presented to the State Board of Education Wednesday. The second report, “A Study of Online Learning: Perspectives of Online Learners and Educators,” was done for the department by researchers at the University of Colorado Denver and surveyed student, parent and staff attitudes about online education.

Full-time online education has boomed in Colorado. The CDE study reports the number of online schools increased from nine to 35 between 2003 and 2011 and that enrollment grew from 3,248 students to 16,464. A little more than half of those students are in high school.

As schools have grown, so have worries about quality. A 2011 investigation by Education News Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network found issues with student mobility, lagging achievement and lax oversight in the online system.

During the 2012 legislative session, some Democratic lawmakers considered legislation on the subject but no significant bills were introduced because of the press of other business and because of the reported lack of interest by House Republican leaders. The Nov. 6 election put Democrats back in control of both the House and Senate.

One 2012 measure, House Bill 12-1124, ordered a broad study of all types of digital learning. That privately-funded project is being done by the Colorado Children’s Campaign for the state and is due to the legislature by Jan. 31.

The state report presented to state board members was done because “as the number of students attending online schools has grown and changed over the years, interest and questions about online schools from policymakers, media, and the general public has been piqued. This study sets out to answer some of these questions,” according to the report summary.

Key findings of state report

  • Early reading proficiency is crucial for online students, but online schools were less successful than all schools at identifying struggling readers up to grade 3.
  • A larger percentage of ninth-graders new to online schools were non-proficient compared to all ninth-grade students.
  • Online students are more mobile, and student movement between online schools is related to poor academic performance and a higher dropout rate.
  • The online school graduation rate in 2010-11 was 22.5 percent compared to the state rate of 74 percent. The online dropout rate was 13 percent compared to about 3 percent statewide.
  • Many students who chose online schools were dissatisfied with their schools and transferred because of school culture and communication problems.
  • While the majority of parents and high school students surveyed believed online learning was a better fit, academic performance lags.

CDE Recommendations

  • Online schools should more accurately evaluate and diagnose younger students’ reading levels.
  • Schools need to modify programs and services to meet changing demographic needs.
  • Excessive movement between schools should be avoided, and when transfers are necessary it’s best that students move to a long-term situation.
  • Push-out policies by schools and districts should be discouraged.
  • Parents and students need to be better informed about the realities of attending online schools.
  • The state needs to consider different funding systems for both online and traditional schools to better accommodate student mobility and competency-based, rather than seat time-based, learning.

Highlights of the UCD study

Researchers surveyed K-12 parents and grade 9-12 students and interviewed staff at a dozen online schools. Some 1,247 students and 1,982 parents responded. Both parents and students expressed high levels of dissatisfaction with traditional schools and high levels of absenteeism at those schools.

Student interest in online education is motivated by choice of classes, the desire to graduate early and by problems at previous schools, including falling behind in classes and needing to make up credits.

Parents said they liked the choice of online classes, had concerns about the environments at traditional schools and saw online as an alternative to home-schooling.

According to the report, online staff members who were interviewed recommended, among other things, more professional development for online staff and consideration of an alternative accountability system for online schools.

Online school stats

From 2003 to 2011, the number of online schools increased from nine to 35.

This school year, 47 districts offer a full-time online education option, including multi-district and single-district programs.

Pupil enrollment in online schools increased from 3,248 students to 16,464 between 2003 and 2011, with the largest growth in high school students.

Online students have become more like the overall student population but are still 61.3 percent white compared to 56.1 percent in the overall population, as of 2011. The percentage of free and reduced lunch students is also slightly behind the overall percentage statewide.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: