Virtual uncertainty

The state’s first all-online public school in Greenfield struggles to boost student achievement

TWO YEARS AGO, the Greenfield school district launched the state’s first all-online public school with the promise of leading Massachusetts into 21st century education. The school set out to tap the power of digital learning to provide quality instruction to students across the state who, for reasons ranging from chronic health conditions and schoolyard bullying to accelerated academic standing, were not well served by traditional school settings.

But scores at the Massachusetts Virtual Academy that measure students’ growth on the MCAS exams have been among the lowest in the state, raising questions about whether the school is living up to its promise. State officials say the results lend added urgency to pending legislation that would provide more accountability and oversight for virtual schools.

The legislation comes as states and districts across the country are moving to rein in virtual schools, which have experienced explosive growth in recent years. Reuters reported last month that state officials in Maine, New Jersey, and North Carolina have refused to allow any new virtual schools to open this year because of concerns about student performance and turnover at existing virtual schools, and funding models that seem designed more to benefit for-profit virtual school providers than students. Tennessee’s education commissioner called test scores at that state’s virtual academy “unacceptable,” and an audit of Pennsylvania virtual schools suggested that virtual schools there have been overpaid more than $100 million.

Earlier this year CommonWealth took an in-depth look at the growing world of online education in K-12 schools, including the new Greenfield venture. Virtual learning encompasses everything from the use of computers to complement in-school instruction, which most experts think will account for the lion’s share of online learning, to all-online schools, in which students do all their work from home, logging on to a computer to receive assignments and complete assessments as well as to engage with teachers.

It is the all-online schools like Greenfield’s, most of which are run by big for-profit companies that contract with school districts, that are drawing the most scrutiny. “I think there are some legitimate questions right now being raised about the performance of students in many of these full virtual schools,” says Michael Horn, co-author with Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen of Disrupting Class, a book arguing that online learning will profoundly change the way American schools operate.

The Greenfield virtual school, which opened in 2010, now has almost 500 students enrolled in kindergarten through 10th grade. On the 2011 MCAS exam, its students had among the lowest rates of growth in math and English scores of any school in the state. When Greenfield schools superintendent Susan Hollins appeared last spring before the state board of education and was asked about the low scores, she dismissed any significance to first-year results, according to minutes from the state board’s May 2012 meeting.

But on the second year of growth scores, which were released this fall, students at the Massachusetts Virtual Academy continued to show weak gains. Student growth scores measure how much progress students make over the course of a year, regardless of the level they start at. The median growth score percentile for Greenfield virtual school students was 29 for English and 25 for math, meaning that the median student performed worse than about three-quarters of similar students statewide.

“The scores are alarming,” said Mitchell Chester, the state education commissioner. “They’re not confidence inspiring in the least.” But Chester says he continues to believe that online schools have a valuable role to play for the small number of students who can’t be well served in a traditional school setting.  “I don’t want to condemn virtual schools writ large on that basis,” he said of the Greenfield school scores.

Chester says the scores underline, however, why he and state Board of Education members have called for new legislation to give the state a role in the authorization and oversight of virtual schools. Although the Greenfield school enrolls students from across the state, the only oversight of the school comes from the Greenfield school system, whose school committee launched the virtual school under the terms of a 2010 education reform bill that allows districts to open “innovation schools,” which operate with more autonomy over staffing, curriculum, and scheduling than standard schools.

State education officials and leaders of the Legislature’s education committee are pushing a bill that would require authorization by the state board to open a virtual school in Massachusetts. The measure would cap the number of virtual schools at 10 and would limit total enrollment at such schools to no more than 2 percent of all public school students in the state. “We have a statewide school for which there is no defined state role for ensuring the quality of what’s being offered,” Chester says of the current situation with Greenfield.  

Because of concerns about disruption to the students at the Greenfield virtual school, the bill grandfathers in the school as one of the state’s 10 virtual schools as long as it meets a list of 37 authorizing criteria, including documenting procedures for training and evaluation of teachers, and for providing support to students to help them successfully complete courses. Under the bill, the Greenfield virtual school would receive authorization for three to five years, and then be subject to state review in order to receive continued authorization.

Officials in the Greenfield district themselves seem to be helping make the case for greater state oversight and accountability. Although Greenfield is collecting more than $2 million in public funding from the school districts across the state that send students to the virtual school, leaders of the Greenfield district refused to discuss the operations of the school or address concerns about its low student growth scores. Hollins, the district superintendent, did not respond to a request for an interview, and John Lund, the chairman of the Greenfield School Committee, did not return a phone message about the virtual school.

Greenfield Mayor William Martin, who serves as a member of the school committee, offers a mixed assessment of the experience to date. “I think it’s a concern that the scores are not elevating,” he says. “But I don’t believe that this is the time to say these are the final results and we should abandon the program.”

Martin is concerned, however, that regardless of any improvements in student achievement, the financing structure now in place for the school doesn’t seem to be sustainable. The Greenfield school department has a contract with K12 Inc., a for-profit company with $735 million in revenues, to run the virtual school for the city. Hollins told the state board of education in May that the school costs about $6,500 per student to operate, but state law only requires sending districts to  reimburse Greenfield $5,000 for every student from their district who is enrolled in the school. K12 is currently absorbing the difference, but Martin doubts the company will agree to such an arrangement “indefinitely.”  

A K12 spokeswoman did not return a call about the Greenfield school. The company has been battered by lengthy investigative stories in The New York Times  and the Washington Post raising questions about student performance in the full-time online schools. The company is facing a shareholder lawsuit, filed in January, alleging that its stock traded at artificially high prices based on public misrepresentations of student achievement. The company’s stock fell earlier this week to a new one-year low after a Wells Fargo analyst downgraded the stock following questions about the performance of K12’s Colorado Virtual Academy.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

The bill to reform the system for authorizing virtual schools in Massachusetts was passed by the House before the Legislature ended its formal sessions in July. It can still be passed by the Senate during the final months of the year in an informal session as long as no member objects to the bill. State Rep. Alice Peisch, the co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education, says she’s still hopeful that it will receive Senate approval this year.

“I think the bill strikes the right balance between promoting innovation while putting in place mechanisms that ensure accountability and high standards,” says Peisch.