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Audit slams Michigan oversight of remote learning as districts embrace it

Oxford online

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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