Closing The Achievement Gap, Online: Part II

School districts paying big money for online programs

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OdysseyWare, Traveling in Style
Teachers and administrators can sit inside couches in this coach bus and watch a sales rep demonstrate OdysseyWare on a big-screen TV. Photo:Neena Satija
Public school, online
Romel McKay, 18, takes International Studies on a computer at Pathways To Technology Magnet School. Photo:Uma Ramiah
School districts paying big money for online programs
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School districts paying big money for online programs

As public schools struggle to close the achievement gap, states and federal governments are dangling money in front of districts to encourage them to give failing students an option to take courses online. It’s creating big business for dozens of for-profit companies that provide the softwares, but education experts worry it’s not the best option for kids. The Connecticut Mirror’s Neena Satija reports in the second part of Closing the Achievement Gap online. (Click here for Part I).

Connecticut has promised nearly $40 million to its worst-performing school districts if they make certain reforms. For Michael Swaine, that means more business. Swaine is New England sales representative for the Arizona-based company OdysseyWare, which provides online curriculum for over a hundred middle and high school courses.

 “I have probably close to 40 districts in the state using OdysseyWare actively right now," Swaine said. "It’s been a tidal wave…so it’s pretty cool. Makes me feel good.”

E-learning programs are almost certain to be part of the reforms districts have to put in place in order to get some of that $40 million. They’re being used all over the country for what’s called online credit recovery, which means students can retake courses they’ve failed in the classroom online. It’s big business in an online learning industry that’s estimated to be worth $5.4 billion just for K-12 schools. The industry includes private companies like OdysseyWare and big, publicly-traded companies like Pearson Education.

But Gene Glass, a professor of education at the University of Colorado in Boulder, says calls online learning "a rip-off of the public.”

Glass has done extensive research on the growth of e-learning, and he’s concerned about the growing number of for-profit companies that are providing courses to public school kids, especially public companies.  

“These companies are responsible to their shareholders," he said. "So they’re going to cut corners and they’re going to squeeze profits out, and it’s the shareholders that are going to benefit, not necessarily the kids or the parents.”

In many states, online learning is required in public schools, and some students even attend high school online full-time. Here in Connecticut, the state passed a law in 2010 requiring struggling districts to have online credit recovery programs. Districts now spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on these programs. But the State Department of Education doesn’t track any of them and it isn’t monitoring how they’re being used.

Karen Kaplan was the department’s educational technology director back when Connecticut passed its law about online learning. Kaplan said she had just started to monitor e-learning in schools before she left her position in August 2010.

“Some districts had kids come in at a prescribed time, there was a teacher with them…those kids did well," she recalled. "Districts where they just put the kids in front of it and said ‘do it whenever you have time at home,’ they didn’t succeed in as high numbers.” Kaplan's position is now vacant, and she said that after she left, "no one followed up, I'm afraid."

Nor has anyone followed up on a program called Connecticut Virtual Learning, which the state actually created in 2007 as an option for school districts who wanted online courses. The program started with $850,000 and was initially offered for free, but since it hasn’t gotten any more funding, districts now pay $295 per student per course. That’s more expensive than something like OdysseyWare, since a $700 license for that program can be used for several different kids. But unlike OdysseyWare, Connecticut Virtual Learning requires students to interact with a state-certified teacher online.

“There are costs to all kinds of things," said Gretchen Hayden, who is director of Connecticut Virtual Learning. "And the one cost that I don’t think we can really put a numeric value on is student success and outcomes.”

90 percent of the students who use Connecticut Virtual Learning pass the course, and about a third of them earn A’s. Compare that to the Pathways to Technology Magnet School in Hartford, which spent $20,000 on a program from PLATO Learning, which is based in Minnesota. Only 40 percent of students pass those courses, which they can work on at home or in a computer lab with limited supervision. On a recent weekday after school in the computer lab, senior Romel McKay was taking an international studies course.

“It’s kinda easier. I like it better than sitting in class," said McKay of his experiencing with the PLATO course. Asked if he thought he was getting the same level of instruction as he would in the classroom, he answered, “No, I don’t think so. But I still find it easier to work on your own.”

Pathways is renewing all of its licenses for PLATO Learning next year. Meanwhile, only a few hundred students in the whole state have taken Connecticut Virtual Learning programs since they were first offered in 2008, and the program doesn’t have a marketing budget. State representative Gary Holder-Winfield said that when the state passed its law about online learning in 2010, legislators expected most districts would use Connecticut Virtual Learning.

 “It makes sense that you would use them," he said. "We didn’t go as far as to make it specific in the law, which perhaps we should have, but I think that was the intention.”

Holder-Winfield said that in Connecticut, the concern about the privatization of public education has focused largely on who should be running charter schools. But this was another area he hadn’t really been aware of, and he’s concerned districts are taking shortcuts by giving struggling kids a computer instead of real extra support.

“If we’re going to talk about privatization of schools, we need to be talking about these online entities," he said. "Making life easier is not necessarily making sure that the students are getting the type of education that they should get.”

Companies that provide e-learning software say it’s not their fault. At a meeting over lunch in Putnam High School, OdysseyWare’s Michael Swaine told administrators that the software isn’t meant to replace teachers.  In fact, Swaine told them, it could help save teacher jobs.  How? Because districts lose state funding every time a student drops out.  Swaine’s pitch? Buy our software, and get those students back to finish up their coursework online.

“Some districts are actually making money with this based on what they're actually doing," he explained. "Districts are getting paid per student, so if we could save a student from dropping out, we can bring that money back into the district."

Putnam was impressed. They’re not happy with the program they use for online credit recovery now, which is called NovaNET. The district bought thousand-dollar licenses for NovaNET from the corporate education giant Pearson. In hindsight, administrators say, they shouldn’t have locked themselves into a three-year contract. But now that the contract’s up, they can try something new. Still, in most cases, the only person supervising students using OdysseyWare will be a paraprofessional, not a teacher with expertise in the subject.

“It would be ideal to have a teacher doing summer school with these kids," said Mary Finnegan-Little, a school counselor at Putnam High. But unfortunately, you know, that’s not the world we’re living in right now.”

By the end of the meeting, Putnam was sold. They expect to start training sessions for OdysseyWare this summer. Michael Swaine estimates he’s sold 1500 OdysseyWare licenses in Connecticut so far. At $700 a license, that means the state brought in over a million dollars in business this year. For WNPR, I’m Neena Satija.

Read more in the Connecticut Mirror at ctmirror.org.