Three years later, jury still out on Michigan’s cyber school expansion

From his Lansing office, Gov. Rick Snyder read aloud a book about a goldfish and its fishbowl neighbors. As he finished each page, he turned the book around to face his computer screen and smiled.

In homes across the state, 90 children enrolled in the Michigan Virtual Charter Academy were watching him from their computer screens.Education advocates, meanwhile, were watching in their own way, waiting to see what happened next.

It was March 2013, and a law allowing for the expansion of cyber charter schools – schools in which students study full-time at computers in their homes rather than in traditional classrooms – had just gone into effect.

“Our goal is student growth,” Snyder told media that day, “and we want to create whatever venue works best for them.”

Two and a half years later, it’s still unclear how well the expansion has worked.

Online charter enrollment has more than quadrupled since the law went into effect, demonstrating the allure of cyber schools for some Michigan students. But if improving student achievement was Snyder’s goal, many online charters are failing families of students in grades one through eight.

A Bridge Magazine analysis of student test score data reveals that most online charters in Michigan are under-performing in elementary and middle school compared with schools whose students come from similar economic backgrounds. Among four online charter schools offering elementary and middle school grade classes in Michigan, only one reached the state average for student test scores among economically similar schools.

More coverage: In one tech-heavy cyber school, a low-tech strategy spurs learning

High school is a different story: the four online charters that enroll high school students all exceeded state averages, with one scoring in the top 5 percent of all high schools.

The scores are based on Bridge’s 2014 Academic State Champs ranking system, which compares student test scores of schools with test scores at economically similar schools. Bridge determines economic similarity by comparing the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced- price lunch.

Enrollment in cyber schools exploded after the new law went into effect. Online charters grew from two (allowed as part of a pilot program) in 2012-13, to 10 last year, with total enrollment growing from 1,769 to 7,934, according to data kept by the state.

There’s potential for more growth; only 10 cyber charters were allowed to operate last year. Beginning this school year, the law allows up to 15 online charters. The law also allows a maximum of 2 percent of public K-12 students to be enrolled in cyber charters. That’s about 30,000 students.

Enrollment in Michigan’s virtual charter schools has more than quadrupled since the enrollment cap was raised. The roughly 8,000 students now enrolled full-time in online charter schools remains well under the 31,000 students that the law permits to be enrolled under the new cap.Source: Michigan Department of Education and Enrollment in Michigan’s virtual charter schools has more than quadrupled since the enrollment cap was raised. The roughly 8,000 students now enrolled full-time in online charter schools remains well under the 31,000 students that the law permits to be enrolled under the new cap.
Source: Michigan Department of Education and

Currently, about one-in-250 Michigan students is enrolled full-time at a cyber charter school, taking all of their classes online.

While cyber schools are attracting students, children in grades 1-8 aren’t doing as well academically as their peers in traditional brick-and-mortar buildings.

In Bridge’s 2014 Academic State Champs ranking, a score of 100 indicates a school’s students are performing at par with students in schools with a similar percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Only Michigan Connections Academy, based in Okemos, met that standard in elementary or middle school

Icademy Global, based in Zeeland, had the lowest scores for both elementary and middle school. Its elementary school score of 82.35 for 2013-14 ranks it in the bottom 2 percent of all elementaries in the state.

Enrollment and enrollment growth appear to bear no connection to test scores. For example, elementary students at the Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Academy, based in Manistee, had test scores that ranked the school in the bottom 20 percent of all elementaries in the state in 2013-14. Yet enrollment ballooned from 474 that year, to 2,008 the next year.

Michigan Virtual Charter Academy, based in Grand Rapids, had the largest enrollment among Michigan’s cyber charters in 2014-15, with 2,804 students. Its elementary school student test scores ranked in the bottom 30th percentile.

Michigan Connections’ elementary students, by contrast, ranked in the 53rd percentile.

Cyber charter high school students perform better, with all four schools that enrolled high school students ranking in the top half of high schools in the state. Michigan Connections’ high school led the way with a ranking in the top 5 percent.

Yet even at the high school level, there are reasons for concern. The ACT scores of juniors enrolled full-time in cyber charters were significantly lower than the scores of juniors statewide. Under 8 percent of cyber juniors earned scores that deemed them college and career ready in all subject areas, compared with about 18 percent statewide, in 2013-14.

High school juniors enrolled full-time in online charter schools fared significantly worse on the ACT than juniors on average across the state. SOURCE: Michigan Virtual University High school juniors enrolled full-time in online charter schools fared significantly worse on the ACT than juniors on average across the state.
SOURCE: Michigan Virtual University

While the academic data for Michigan cyber charters could be considered mixed, there’s less uncertainty nationally. The academic performance of students in full-time virtual schools across the U.S. is “utterly and unexplainably terrible,” said Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University and a national expert on cyber schools.

“And that’s for the schools we have data,” said Miron, one of the authors of an annual report on the performance of virtual schools published by the National Education Policy Center. “A high proportion don’t have data,” because they’re new or because they have too few students per grade to be counted in state-level data.

Nonetheless, Miron is an advocate of online learning, teaching an online course. But he says he is concerned about accountability in full-time virtual charter schools nationally, a field that is dominated by for-profit companies.

“Basically, they’re doing what you’re supposed to do as for-profit company: reducing cost and lobbying to increase prices for the products,” Miron said. “It’s an unregulated field.”

In Michigan, at least 94 percent of cyber charter students were enrolled last year in schools operated by one of the two largest national cyber school providers, K-12 Inc.

Cyber academies receive the same per-pupil foundation grant as other brick-and-mortar public schools in Michigan, roughly $7,200, even though virtual schools do not have the building and maintenance costs of traditional schools.

“The money we don’t have to pay for a new boiler, we invest in curriculum,” said Bryan Klochack, principal for Michigan Connections Academy, and former principal at Marshall High School.

Online charters also spend more money on marketing than traditional schools to attract students. A 2012 USA Today report found that cyber school providers were purchasing ads on Nickelodeon and The Cartoon Network.

How much companies spend on marketing wouldn’t be an issue if the schools were performing well academically, said John Austin, president of the Michigan State Board of Education, who opposed the 2012 expansion of cyber schools.

Among students enrolled in full-time cyber schools in Michigan, 44 percent of classes ended in either a failure or a withdrawal without credit, according to an analysis by Michigan Virtual University, a private, nonprofit set up by the state in 1998 to offer online courses to Michigan students.

Austin draws a distinction between online courses that are a graduation requirement in Michigan high schools and full-time cyber charter schools. About 320,000 students in the state took some kind of online course last year, most as a supplement to their traditional classwork.

Expanding the cap on cyber charters before knowing how well the two operating cyber charters were performing was “a huge mistake.” Austin said. “For a lot of kids, online-only learning is not helping.”

Karen McPhee, senior education advisor to Gov. Snyder, did not return an email request for comment. Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, an organization that advocated for cyber school expansion in 2012, also did not return requests for comment.

Lessons for traditional schools

Andrei Nichols, interim head of school at Michigan Virtual Charter Academy, said critics are asking the wrong questions. Instead of focusing on how much money cyber charters spend on marketing, education leaders should ask why so many students want to leave their traditional school building.

“If a family is in a position where they can go to their local brick and mortar school and it meets their needs, by all means do it,” Nichols said. “But there are families … who traditional schools are failing who want another option.”

Online schools aren’t a good fit for a lot of families. The families whose children succeed in online schools are families who are involved in their student’s learning, Nichols said. Teachers at his cyber school spend a lot of time on the telephone with parents, discussing how the students are doing.

“The virtual world would not work without family involvement. Let’s be frank, you can’t leave an 11-year-old at the table and expect them to do their work,” Nichols said. “The virtual world (sees) the challenges of the brick and mortar world: attendance and kids coming in below grade level. That’s why we need all the interventions we have.”

That, Nichols said, may be a lesson that traditional schools could learn from cyber schools, where teachers and administrators must have a high level of contact with students and parents if the students are going to succeed.

“When parents are involved in the learning process, good things do happen.” Nichols said. “If you were to take that parental involvement in the virtual world and recreate it in brick and mortar schools, we could be put out of business.”

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John Miller
Thu, 10/22/2015 - 10:26am
Several problems with this article. I wish some of the pro-cyber people had been willing to comment, because the sources you have for this are laughably biased. Gary Miron is not "a national expert on cyber schools." He's a national expert on OPPOSING cyber schools. His research is funded by groups that get their money from the teachers unions. He's paid to come up with reasons why cubers and charters are bad. Same with John Austin. His job is to do the bidding of the teachers' unions, and he does it well. Instead of citing these "experts" as being supposedly unbiased, you owed it to your readers to point out their biases. Second, the methodology you're using to evaluate these cyber schools is silly. You're taking a high school junior who might only have been enrolled at his cyber charter for a year or two, and you're using his ACT score to evaluate how good that school is. That's ridiculous. It's the same as this: If I were somehow able to get into Harvard today and took a calculus test, I would fail it miserably. Yet you would use my grade as a gauge of how well Harvard teaches calculus, because I was a Harvard student when I took the test. You can't evaluate a cyber school using one of these snapshot-in-time measures. The only way to properly evaluate ANY new school is by looking at growth assessments. If you have a student who enrolls in a cyber charter as a junior, evaluate him at the beginning of the year and the end of the year, and see how much academic growth he's experienced. That's the only way to evaluate how well the school is doing. Yet you'd rather do it based on his ACT score. Unbelievable. You do point out in the story that there's been a tremendous growth in cyber charter enrollment since the cap was lifted. That alone tells you how hungry parents have been for this educational option. A cyber school isn't for everyone, but it is the right choice for some - kids who have been bullied in their brick-and-mortar school, elite athletes or dancers who need the flexibility it provides, etc. Yet somehow, parents aren't important in Bridge's world. Of all the data points you've explored, here's one I'll add to the mix: Number of cyber school parents quoted in Bridge's article about the effectiveness of cyber schools: Zero.
John Miller
Thu, 10/22/2015 - 10:50am
I stand sort-of corrected on not contacting any parents. I just saw the connecting story, in which you did quote one parent. It would have been nice to see a parent quote in this story, too (in case this is the only story people read), but kudos for contacting one parent for the other story.
Ron French
Thu, 10/22/2015 - 12:04pm
hi John, thanks for reading and commenting. Forgive my typos, I'm away from my office and typing on my phone. I'll try to address your concerns one at a time. We too would have loved to have comments from supporters, but the folks we reached out to didn't respond. I do feel Mr Nichols offers a good defense of cyber schools. He was very open with us. Second regarding growth measurements, that would be great and would' be a good follow-up. I'm curious whether you also feel the high school scores that are above average are also snapshots and should be ignored? Lastly, there are no parents in this article but there is in the adjoining article I hope you get a chance to read. Thanks again for reading
John Miller
Thu, 10/22/2015 - 2:56pm
Thank you for responding, Ron. Yes, a snapshot that shows good performance at a cyber school is just as irrelevant as a snapshot that shows bad performance. The fact is, the way you chose to analyze the effectiveness of cyber charters is totally flawed. Totally. Measuring growth isn't "a good follow-up" - it's the only accurate way to measure the effectiveness of a new school. I'd like to see anyone defend the idea that analyzing the ACT scores of students who have been in a three-year-old school will tell us anything. Even if every student had scored a 36, your analysis would be just as flawed.
Gene Markel
Thu, 10/22/2015 - 10:50am
The Cyber World has connected us and at the same time isolated us. You cannot connect socially in the true sense digitally, yet there are cyber bullies just like real bullies.
Thu, 10/22/2015 - 2:05pm
Isn't the reason that some students make use of alternate educational choices because traditional just didn't work for what ever reason? Why would should we expect them to compare with the average traditional student (which they aren't)? If we concede that it's the state responsibility to provide opportunity for education can we really believe it's the state's responsibility that they actually learn material? Good luck. Isn't that the parent's job? Rather than giving (or trying to give) every student the same meaningless high school degree, maybe we'd be better off giving certification as to what level a student has actually achieved as the Europeans and others do?
Thu, 10/22/2015 - 2:16pm
John Miller makes an excellent point that Bridge (and the news outlets you partner with) have ignored in the past, and will probably continue to ignore. The appropriate way to assess school quality, for ANY school, is by student growth on a statistically standardized, multi-grade assessment. We should not be comparing schools with significant numbers of poorly-performing students by using MEAP/M-STEP test scores, nor by the school's percentile rank across the state. Bridge would do our state a much greater service if they stressed this issue, and researched and tried to popularize a reasonable method for measuring student growth in every publicly-funded school in the state. The old MEAP and new M-STEP tests are given only once per school year, and are only designed to measure if a student is below, at, or up to one year above grade level for their age. Both these tests are completely useless to assess students who are more than one year behind or ahead of their age-mates. Michigan needs to implement a consistent, multi-leveled way to measure what a student knows about English/ELA, math, science and social studies when they enroll in each taxpayer-funded school or at the start of each school year, and how much they know at the end of their time in a given teacher's classroom (for the student growth component of teacher evaluation) or in the school. If you look at just MEAP/M-STEP scores, what they show is that the majority of the kids in charters, cyber schools, and urban schools are (still?) performing below grade level. Most students who move from their "neighborhood" public schools to other publicly-funded schools do so because there's a problem. And most of the time the problem is that the traditional public school in their neighborhood hasn't, for whatever reason, taught them much. Consider a 4th grader who's reading and doing math at a 1st grade level when he signs up for a cyber-school who finishes 4th grade reading and doing math at a 3rd grade level. He or she has made 2 whole years of progress in just 1 academic year. But under the system we use now, that student will still show up on the M-Step as "Not Proficient", the same rating as if he had made no progress at all, although his score may be somewhat higher. That mis-judgement does the school, the teacher, the student and the student's family a grave dis-service and is profoundly unfair. Yes, the student is still behind where he or she "should" be. But the gap has closed significantly, and if that degree of progress can happen again, the student will catch up. But if the cyber school that produced this really remarkable gain is judged by statewide percentile rank of their scores or the proportion of their kids working at grade level, neither the student nor the school may get that chance. The critics of charter or on-line schools are very quick to claim that this is evidence that the charter or cyber-school model doesn't work, while longer-term studies like the CREDO run by Stanford University says that charter schools are especially good for low-performing urban students, and that these students perform better the longer they are in charter schools. It can easily take 3 to 5 years, even in excellent schools, for a student to make up the deficit when they enter kindergarten (or even pre-K) below grade level and learn little for the next few years. We need better assessments to be able to reward and expand the school models, the specific schools, and the individual classrooms where *most* students routinely grow in learning by at least 1 year or more per year of school.
Thu, 10/22/2015 - 10:14pm
I will say up front that I don't have firsthand knowledge of who the kids are that are enrolling in cyber schools, but it could be that these students were homeschooled before and now parents are using the cyber schools to support their schooling. That would somewhat explain the lack of a connection between achievement and enrollment. If you run a search for cyber schools and homeschooling together, you will see that there are plenty of cyber schools that market themselves that way. If former homeschoolers are now cyber school students, that is an increase to the state in terms of money spent on education for new students in the system. That would mean fewer resources for local neighborhood schools, not because students are leaving those schools, but because the resources are spread thinner.
Thu, 10/22/2015 - 10:21pm
When 44% of the courses end in failure or withdrawal without credit, that should be the headline. Imagine the criticism that a neighborhood school would receive if that were true. It would most likely be labeled a "failing school". If a cyber school is a for-profit enterprise, this kind of failure rate should not be tolerated. It implies enrolling lots students in order to take taxpayer money and run from accountability.
Fri, 10/23/2015 - 10:08am
This article looks at cyber charter schools, yet there are nearly ten times as many students receiving 100% cyber education from traditional public school districts (not charters). It would be more appropriate to look at CYBER education, not cyber CHARTER education. How are students doing in the 100% cyber education programs provided by traditional public school districts?
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 10/25/2015 - 12:27pm
If Anna is talking about VAM or Value Added Modeling, it just doesn't work. The idea of real assessment at the beginning and end of the year would be good. I agree with Matt too that we should do away with grades and allow students to move up or down according to ability and skills. I agree with Gary too that we should look at Cyber education more broadly. It works well with many home schooled students. Many of my best college students are home schooled. It's always about the parents. When parents are involved, students are most likely to succeed. However, I'm really concerned about online credit recovery programs that is allowing students to graduate, but are they really learning all they need to? Just graduating from high school means very little if the student doesn't have the skills to succeed.
Charles Richards
Sun, 10/25/2015 - 1:57pm
"The scores are based on Bridge’s 2014 Academic State Champs ranking system, which compares student test scores of schools with test scores at economically similar schools. Bridge determines economic similarity by comparing the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced- price lunch." An even better predictor of academic success is the percentage of parents with college degrees. That data used to be available from the NCES, I believe, but no longer are, probably because of "political correctness."
Dr. Richard Zeile
Sun, 10/25/2015 - 5:42pm
I serve on Michigan's State Board of Education, and while I advocate maximizing school choice for parents, an online program is not equivalent to a school. A school provides instruction and supervision while the online program delivers instruction only. That instructional half of the job needs to be funded, but if parents are providing the supervision, perhaps they ought to receive the other half of the state tuition grant. Online schools are like libraries. A kid could get himself a great education hanging out at the library, and no school should be without a library, but let us not mistake a part for the whole. Policy toward so-called cyber schools needs to take into account the fact that they are fundamentally different than the institution where teachers and students interact face to face.
Sandy Smith
Sat, 10/31/2015 - 3:23pm
My son graduated (valedictorian) from a virtual charter in Michigan in 2014, and my daughter is a junior in a different virtual charter. For us, the online option has worked well, allowing flexibility for involvement in music and sports, as well as dual enrollment, including Central Michigan University's Orchestra and an internship with one of our representatives in Lansing. Test scores do not give a clear picture of student growth in any school, especially given the variety of circumstances that result in students leaving their neighborhood public schools and enrolling in virtual charters. Virtual charters often enroll students who were struggling for some reason in the schools they previously attended. While online learning is not for every family, or every student, it's the right fit for some.