the future of advocacy

For Betsy DeVos and her former advocacy group, the future of education means ‘personalization,’ including virtual schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

When Betsy DeVos returned to the advocacy group she used to lead last week, she told attendees to push for systems where students could attend any kind of school.

Traditional, charter, religious, and virtual schools should be options for students, the education secretary argued, as should “an educational setting yet to be developed.”

“Our current framework is a closed system that relies on one-size-fits-all solutions,” DeVos said. “We need an open system that envelops choices and embraces the future.”

This vision was clear throughout the American Federation for Children summit: that schools need to be reinvented with an emphasis on technology. And throughout the gathering, exclusively online schools were a key part of that vision — even though some supporters acknowledge existing virtual schools have not produced strong academic outcomes to date.

Advocates say that online schools have the potential to harness “personalized learning,” a term that generally means using technology to provide an education tailored to each student’s needs.

“The end game … is personalized learning,” said Kevin Chavous, a board member and executive counsel at AFC, in response to a question about virtual schools. “We are going to get to this place where as opposed to every child being shepherded into a schoolhouse where they sit in a classroom and where a teacher stands and delivers, and then they regurgitate back … those days are not going to be the future.”

This belief in personalized learning dovetails with the focus at another recent conference of education reformers, the New Schools Venture Fund summit. But AFC’s emphasis on exclusively virtual schools appears distinct, and comes as online charter schools have endured a wave of negative press and research studies.

In addition to advocating for school vouchers, DeVos has also long backed virtual schools, a small but swiftly growing sector of schools.

For-profit virtual school companies are tightly connected to AFC. The two largest such groups, K12 and Connections Academy, were among the chief sponsors of the conference. Chavous is a K12 board member, and John Kirtley of AFC praised the company, saying, “They’re doing great things in digital learning.”

And although the research evidence for blended or personalized learning models is mixed, the handful of studies of fully virtual schools point to a clearer verdict: students in such schools perform dramatically worse on standardized tests relative to similar students in traditional schools, according to a study of thousands of virtual charter school students in 18 states.

Advocates acknowledged that the research to date has shown that cyber-charter schools have produced dismal test score results, but said that they are good fits for some students and are improving over time.

Chavous did not dispute the negative research findings, but suggested that students who remained in virtual schools for several years saw academic gains. (The widely cited national study of online charter schools did not examine this question, but did show that about 75 percent of students had left their online school within four years.)

K12 as an organization has challenged the recent research, saying it does not sufficiently control for differences between students in virtual schools and those in brick and mortar ones, a point some outside researchers say is a real limitation of existing studies.

Robert Enlow of the group EdChoice described the research on virtual schools as “not great, at the moment,” but pointed out that studies rely on test scores, a limited measure in his view. (EdChoice is a funder of Chalkbeat.) Enlow said that he had seen evidence that online schools could improve life outcomes for students in a presentation from K12.

The results from research and negative press have led some charter school advocacy groups to argue for stricter regulation of online charter schools. EdChoice and AFC did not join this push and K12 rejected the recommendations out of hand.

“The device of making a school virtual — I think we need to preserve the tool,” said Derrell Bradford of the 50-state Campaign for Achievement Now, or 50CAN, which was part of the statement calling for tighter oversight. “At some point, someone’s going to figure out a way to do virtual well.”

Graph from the National Education Policy Center.

hot off the presses

A silver medal for Detroit pre-K. Now where are the kids?

PHOTO: Getty Images

Detroit has earned a silver rating, the second-highest possible, in a national ranking of urban preschool programs published Wednesday. But the report by the advocacy group CityHealth also says that too few eligible 4-year-olds are enrolled.

CityHealth, a foundation-funded organization that rates America’s largest urban centers based on their public policies, looked at how big cities stack up in offering preschool programs in a report published Wednesday.

Researchers at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University conducted the study and compiled the report.

Following standards set by the largest state-funded pre-K organization, the Great Start Readiness Program, Detroit requires teachers in state preschool to have at least a bachelor’s degree, limits class sizes, and requires health screenings of children.

Those are some of the hallmarks of a high-quality program, according to CityHealth.

Only eight of the 40 cities whose policies were reviewed earned a silver rating, and only five earned the top gold rating. A handful of cities — Indianapolis and Phoenix, Arizona, among them — were far behind, with low enrollment and few or none of CityHealth’s model policies in place.

Still, the gap in Detroit’s pre-K system is a big one. The city has far fewer pre-K seats than it reportedly needs. That’s the case in many of America’s largest cities, according to CityHealth. In nearly half of the cities studied, pre-K programs reached less than one-third of the cities’ pre-schoolers.

The lack of preschool slots is one reason advocates from Michigan’s largest cities are pushing lawmakers to put early childhood on the agenda in Lansing. And it’s part of why Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has gotten behind the idea of a expanded pre-K system for Detroit.

Read the full report here:

School Funding 101

Report: Michigan has biggest school funding decline in nation

How’s this for a grim school funding statistic: A new report out Wednesday says total revenue for Michigan schools declined 30 percent from 2002 to 2015 — the largest decline for any state over the past quarter century.

The statistic, adjusted for inflation, is among findings of a report by researchers at Michigan State University that reviews school funding and recommends how the state can improve.

“Michigan has tried to improve schools on the cheap, focusing on more accountability and school choice,” wrote David Arsen, lead author and professor of education policy. “To make those policies effective, they have to be matched with adequate funding. We have been kidding ourselves to think we can move forward while cutting funding for schools.”

Co-authors are Tanner Delpier and Jesse Nagel, MSU doctoral students.

Here are a few of the highlights in the report — which is aimed at spurring public discussion of how to improve school funding in the state. The data were adjusted for inflation:

  • Dead last: Where Michigan ranks in total education revenue growth since the mid-90s, when the state’s current school funding formula was developed.
  • 60 percent: How much funding for at-risk students has declined since 2001.
  • 22 percent: How much per-pupil revenue declined from 2002 to 2015.

 The report comes about a year after the bipartisan School Finance Research Collaborative released a comprehensive set of recommendations for fixing the school funding system in Michigan. The MSU report provides a review of that report and adopts many of its recommendations.

It also comes after a December lame-duck legislative session in Michigan that ended with lawmakers voting to shift some funding from the state School Aid Fund to other priorities, such as road repairs and environmental cleanups.

Officials from the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, a group that represents educators in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties, said the MSU report should be a wake-up call for lawmakers. They said it confirms that Michigan’s K-12 funding is in crisis.

“Lawmakers need to stop hiding behind talking points that claim they are investing in our schools when the reality is our funding hasn’t even kept up with the rate of inflation, let alone the increased cost of the services we are being asked to provide our students,” said George Heitsch, president of the alliance and superintendent of Farmington Public Schools. “When you see the numbers from this report showing the drastic funding cuts that have been forced on our schools in recent years, it should be no wonder why our state ranks at the bottom in reading and math proficiency. This simply has to change because our students deserve better.”

Read the full report for more information and recommendations: