Audit slams Michigan oversight of remote learning as districts embrace it

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As districts throughout Michigan prepare to offer online-only instruction, an audit has found the state Department of Education did a poor job ensuring the programs were effective. (Shutterstock image)

As hundreds of thousands of Michigan schoolchildren gear up for “all virtual” classes amid the coronavirus pandemic, an audit released Thursday found the state can’t guarantee their effectiveness.

The report from the Michigan Office of the Auditor General sharply criticized the state’s handling of existing online courses, saying education officials don’t have enough information on student performance and attendance of virtual classes.

Without changes, auditors said there is a “potential negative impact that the absence of a well-developed evaluation strategy could have on advancing the achievement of virtual learners in traditional public schools.”

The audit examined state online instruction well before the coronavirus pandemic, but its release comes as many school districts statewide have decided to offer remote instruction only for health reasons.

The audit was seized upon by critics of those plans including Senate Education Chair Lana Theis, R-Brighton, who has pushed for legislation that would require districts to offer in-person instruction.

A Michigan Department of Education spokesperson and others cautioned that the online programs about to be offered differ vastly from the virtual courses that auditors said they could not properly judge.

Those programs, dating to the 2015-16 school year, were limited to courses offered to students in grades 6-12 and students are allowed to take two only online courses a semester. 

This fall, online classes will cover all courses — English, science, reading, math — and be run by the same teachers that lead the bricks-and-mortar classrooms in the district where most students attend.

“They are working very hard that the instruction will be high quality and students are engaged and learning,” said Martin Ackley, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Education.

The auditor’s report focused on virtual courses, not entire programs centered on distance learning. An audit report on the state’s all-online cyberschools is expected later this year.

Although the latest audit focused largely on the Education Department’s oversight, it also raised questions about the virtual courses that are offered by many school districts.

The audit found 20 of 26 districts it sampled had at least five teachers who lacked proper certifications in subjects or grade levels they were teaching online. It also found the state didn’t have enough documentation to prove whether 14 percent of “virtual learners” had met state graduation requirements.

Craig Thiel, research director at the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan who has focused on education, said it was a highly critical report. 

“We don’t know the effectiveness of it because we don’t have an evaluation system,” Thiel said, summarizing what he felt the report concluded.

MDE officials pushed back on some of the findings, saying the Legislature had not required them to establish a “virtual learning evaluation program.”

Ackley said the department agreed with some findings, including ones that were critical of data collection, but he pushed back on insinuations that the programs themselves were insufficient.

“Just because the audit says we don’t have a system to evaluate [virtual programs] doesn’t mean [they’re] not high quality,” he said.

The audit follows a surge in students taking virtual classes, nearly tripling in a decade to more than 100,000 last year. 

Michigan Virtual, a nonprofit set up with state assistance, offers virtual courses and has measured the successes and failures of students. More than 120,000 students took at least one virtual course and of those from traditional schools, 65 percent passed the courses.

But the data also show that 23 percent didn’t pass any of their courses.

“You’re going to see it can work,” said Joe Freidhoff, vice president of Michigan Virtual. But he noted there are other data points, like those who did not pass, that suggest there are still big challenges.

What Michigan auditors found was that the state would have a hard time making that call with the evaluation tools they have.

“They may have the tools,” said Kelly Miller, state relations officer for the auditor general’s office. “But they’re not sufficient.”

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Comments

Duh
Thu, 08/13/2020 - 9:20pm

Online teaching definitely needs improvement, but in-person teaching is not the solution in a pandemic.

Idk
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 4:13pm

Given the nature of this virus it sure is a lot better than online.

I KNOW
Sun, 08/16/2020 - 2:12pm

WRONG, that's ONLY true if you don't care about curbing deaths OR helping to improve the economy.

Anonymous
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 4:50am

Online classes provide excellent training for what will more likely be the future of learning. Ironically all the materials are available for review so it easily debunks the notion of teachers "indoctrinating" students with politics, unless you don't believe in things like science and prefer teaching things like creationism in its place.

Anonymous
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 9:01am

What a crazy article. Now is not the time for perfection.
These are not normal times. Nothing is perfect. Our new normal is going to be insane for a while.
I just want kids to be safe not only my own. It should be in person for those that need it and remote for those who want it allowing distancing for those who need to be in school.
The bigger question should be how this pandemic has exposed all the cracks in how unstable our social infrastructure is on both the Federal and State level.

George Hagenauer
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 11:44am

While people are focused as they should be on the quality of on line instruction- a question I have is how d owe supervise stay at home teens who are at the age prime for unwanted pregnancies , gang recruitment and drug issues. And don't take this as an argument for only reopening schools- I think the virus is going to make that totally chaotic if it happens (especially since we can seem to keep the overall infection rate in the community down) but it is one more factor that we need to consider as we restart schooling in whatever format in the next few weeks.

water2Wine
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 11:57am

The on-line learning programs offered by the Michigan Public Schools have never been effective. But they are free.

Craig Oldham
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 12:15pm

Of course the auditor(s) have concerns!!!!!!! Who wouldn't? We've NEVER been here. I say, so what, at this point? Those folks should/can work on getting in line what they feel they need to "check" on schools and develop a model, but schools MUST move on as best they can NOW! I spent 37 years in a HS, the majority with one district AND that district has a very thorough system in place for evaluating & choosing curriculum offered to kids (and yes I get it that some districts may not, but I'm betting they do). Is every district100% ready for on line learning if that is what a local board approves? NO, but those local districts WILL NOT be responsible for student, teacher and ultimately community infection increase & even death! This pandemic is real.

Paul Jordan
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 1:26pm

This report should be no surprise.
During the Engler administration, the same folks who worked to privatize for-profit in-person instruction eagerly jumped on the band wagon to promote for-profit on-line instruction. It should be obvious that the purpose of for-profit education (of any variety) is profit, NOT education. For the promoters, on-line instruction is successful if it makes a profit whether or not anyone learns anything.
On-line instruction is great because you don't need a big capital investment in buildings, and you don't need many teachers because only a fraction of students that you enroll will actually do school work. In effect, these 'schools' can pack the classrooms with little or no consequences for not actually delivering the education for which they're getting paid.

middle of the mit
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 3:31pm

This audit seems as though it is comparing apples to oranges. At least that is what the article says here;

A Michigan Department of Education spokesperson and others cautioned that the online programs about to be offered differ vastly from the virtual courses that auditors said they could not properly judge.

Those programs, dating to the 2015-16 school year, were limited to courses offered to students in grades 6-12 and students are allowed to take two only online courses a semester.
---------------------------------------------------------------

And I would like to know just how many schools were participating in this distanced learning before the pandemic and what types of schools. It would seem hard to judge a system that has just been put in place during an emergency to one that has been in place for years with prior planning, but it seems as though that is what happened, and we don't know which plan was the bad one, because they mixed them all together.

Ahhh here it is!

The audit follows a surge in students taking virtual classes, nearly tripling in a decade to more than 100,000 last year.
Michigan Virtual, a nonprofit set up with state assistance, offers virtual courses and has measured the successes and failures of students. More than 120,000 students took at least one virtual course and of those from traditional schools, 65 percent passed the courses.

But the data also show that 23 percent didn’t pass any of their courses.

“You’re going to see it can work,” said Joe Freidhoff, vice president of Michigan Virtual. But he noted there are other data points, like those who did not pass, that suggest there are still big challenges.
-----------------------------------------------------------

Using data from a private school to judge what will happen in public schools. But LOOK! There was private industry trying to get virtual education for over 20 years!

Why don't they care about socialization?

And why can't we try it during a pandemic?

J. Duncan
Sat, 08/15/2020 - 9:00am

This article is a little confusing. As I understand it, the 49-page audit report concerns already-established virtual education provided to Michigan students, not the fiasco that occurred last spring or the impending disaster of "virtual learning" that is now upon us. As a veteran educator new to virtual learning - and completely unprepared/untrained to do it - I feel that I'm not going to worry about state oversight on the education I provide for my students during the pandemic. As all Michigan schools are required to do, our school has created a "Covid-19 Preparedness and Response Plan" that will guide us through this time. I trust in that, in our leadership, and in my own commitment to student learning/well-being to help me provide my students with an adequate education. We are all doing the best we can under the circumstances and limitations that now confront us. We don't need the spectre of state oversight hovering in the background telling us everything we're doing is inadequate. It's bad enough in "normal" times; right now it's intolerable.

Greg Olszta
Sat, 08/15/2020 - 9:54am

Performance Reports of the Michigan Office of the Auditor General are essentially political documents. The Office of the Auditor General is an oversight arm of the Michigan Legislature. Though the staff of the Office of the Auditor General are themselves not political appointees and are usually neutral in regard to their data collection and review of documents and issuance of Findings, the Performance Reports are used by the majority parties of the Legislature to further their ideological agenda and to discredit the Michigan state agencies that have been reviewed. As the Michigan House and Senate have both been under the control of the Republican party for most of the last 30 years, the Performance Reports are often seized upon as justification for discrediting Michigan state agencies when under the control of the minority party. As the Michigan Department of Education is an anomaly in Michigan government--the State Board of Education members, under the Michigan State Constitution, are statewide elected officials and Democrats have been in the majority control of the eight-member State Board of Education in most of the last 30 years. The State Board of Education under Democratic leadership has frequently been a target of the Republican controlled Legislature when the State Superintendent (appointed by the State Board of Education) and the Michigan Department of Education (under the leadership of the State Superintendent) disagree on matters of ideology, policy and practice.

Thus, it is no surprise that this dated Performance Report: Virtual Learning in Traditional Public Schools, is released now, in the middle of a pandemic, and seized upon by Republican Legislative leadership as the Legislature is at odds with the Michigan Governor's Office and the Department of Education about the use of virtual learning tools to keep students and teachers safe. While the Republican Legislature has frequesntly used Performance Audits as blunt tools to demean the effectiveness of state departments, it has seldom, if ever, used them to justify increased funding for enhanced effectiveness and capacity for those departments to address the Findings identified.

It should be noted that Findings identified by the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) are not required to be based upon law or Administrative Rule. At times, Findings, even those identified as Material Findings, are based upon the opinion of OAG staff as to what may be viewed as "best practice" and not necessarily required by Rule or law. Also important to keep in mind is that this is not a Fiscal Audit and does not reflect upon the financial condition, use or misuse of funds by the Department of Education. Readers of the Performance Report are cautioned to view the document for what it is, both a tool for guiding recommended changes and practices, as well as a tool to be used as a bludgeon by Republican Legislative leaders toward discrediting the Democrat controlled Michigan Department of Education and the Office of the Governor.

Anna
Mon, 08/17/2020 - 10:25am

For 10 years now, I have advocated for virtual learning as an alternative to in-person instruction for students and families for whom a "traditional public school classroom" either isn't avalaibale or isn't appropriate. And for those past 10 years Michigan Virtual has been my gold standard for handling virtual learning well, with a great balance of rigour and individualization.

Virtual instruction, handled well, is both effective and less expensive than in-person classrooms for many school districts. This is especially true for small and rural districts with too few students to make AP, foreign language, and other specialized classes available in person. But too many districts, under pressure to increase graduation rates, have resorted to poor practices involving inexpensive, on-line credit recovery classes, with almost no oversight or district validation of student's mastery of the course content. Many of these poorly designed virtual courses assume that "time on-line" = "content knowledge", mostly without supervised or monitored testing. The audit correctly concludes that neither the state nor the school district can answer for the quality of classes that are administered in this way. Attendance does not equal learning, and neither does "time with the screen open". That's what this audit (and Michigan's usual M-STEP test results) tell us loudly and clearly.

But times now are not normal, especially for education. For a large percentage of Michigan students, the choice this fall will be between on-line classes or none. Bridge's headline for this article irresponsibly casts doubt on the entire array of available on-line instruction, making it even more likely that students and teachers will fail to adapt to this learning modality. Teachers who haven't spent their summer redesigning their classes for on-line delivery by mastering new-to-them tools for video editing and on-line meeting management (e.g. how to create break-out discussion groups), re-working their assignments and lesson plans to provide validated links to on-line references rather than sending students to (mostly closed) libraries or (inaccessible) textbooks, and ways to assess learning that can't be gamed by a kid with multiple open windows on their screen will fail. Teachers who assume that all their students either have mastered the previous years' curriculum content or have not learned anything new since schools closed down mid-March will fail. School districts that tolerate their teachers making these errors will fail in their primary goal of helping students to learn what they need to know to succeed.

The wide variation in circumstances among families during the pandemic lockdown is why teachers and parents really need the initial benchmark testing, and also standards-based testing at or near the end of the coming school year. Students who were behind before the shutdown are probably even more behind now. To offer all students appropriate education, teachers, parents, and school districts need to know what skills and knoweledge stiudents have mastered.