Katie Poindexter's picture

My Students Are Not Virtual Twins

Last month, CREDO, Mathematica, and CRPE released a study on online charter schools. Read full report here. Using a “virtual twin” matching approach, comparisons were made between brick and mortar and virtual students’ academic achievement. Because the virtual twin underperformed the brick and mortar student, it was assumed that virtual education students are learning far below their brick and mortar peers. However, the study didn’t compare apples to apples.

The students in the matching process were matched by race/ethnicity, gender, English proficiency, lunch status, special education status and grade level. The philosophy that academic performance is comparable for students with identical demographics is faulty. If I made the assumption that every 6th grade, general education, white male, on free and reduced lunch that entered my classroom learned the same way, received my lesson the same way, and performed the same way, I would do my students a huge disservice. Each of my students is an individual with unique needs, and their own reasons for choosing virtual education. In addition, two critical factors of many that were not considered in this comparison were the reasons why the students left their school and the students’ performance over time. Looking at these important factors, one can see that the virtual twin is hardly a twin at all.

All of my families have a story, a reason they chose virtual education. John* is a great learner, but easily distracted. Jane* is an Olympic hopeful and trains 40+ hours a week. Kyle* has a 45 minute bus ride to and from school every day. What all of my families have in common is that they left their previous school environment for the same reason: “it did not work for them.”

Quite often, by the time a student has left his school and enrolled in our virtual school, he is already significantly behind his peers. Unfortunately, this study only reports score averages for on grade level state testing. What we do not see in this report is the growth students make on a consistent basis. The traditional classroom’s large class sizes, various distractions, and lack of individualization are just a few of the factors that have kept students from reaching their full potential. These same factors are things the virtual setting addresses well. With our smaller ratio, students enjoy freedom, flexibility and support to not only move at their own pace, but to receive the individualized attention needed to make remarkable gains.

Before coming to our school last year, Kayla* was in a traditional reading classroom of 35 students. Kayla’s teacher realized that her comprehension level was well below her peers. With a large class and limited time, the teacher was unable to give Kayla the individualized attention

she needed to make significant improvements in her reading skills. By the end of the year Kayla was two grade levels behind in reading. The next year Kayla enrolled in the Virginia Virtual Academy. In this online setting, Kayla was able to dedicate more time to reading comprehension in addition to attending weekly, individualized remedial sessions with me. By the end of the year Kayla had made tremendous growth and was on grade level for reading. These gains would not have been possible for Kayla with the limitations of her previous brick and mortar school setting. For me, watching students that were not successful in the classroom thrive in the virtual setting are the most inspirational and rewarding moments in my teaching career.

For some of my students, measurable growth takes longer than a single year to achieve. This study does not consider student performance over time. Studies have shown that the longer a student stays with K12 the better they perform. In a report published by K12, students enrolled three or more years in grades 3-8 achieved higher proficiency in math (14 percentage points) and reading (19 percentage points) compared to students enrolled less than one year.

Jennifer Schultze's picture

Socialization in Online Schools

As a mother of five and a teacher for 16 years -- seven of that being an online educator -- I have seen how important social lives are to the development and growth of students.  In fact, one of the most common questions that I’m asked as a teacher in an online school is: “Do your students have social lives?”

My answer to that is a resounding YES!

There is a common misconception that students enrolled in online school programs lack socialization opportunities. However, many people are shocked to see the amazing opportunities we offer students in both face-to-face and online settings that completely debunk that myth.

Last year, as a music teacher at Wyoming Virtual Academy (WYVA) I had an incredible opportunity to meet with about 35 students from around the state at the University of Wyoming where we got to explore instruments from Bali, Indonesia. Students learned directly from a ‘Gamelan Orchestra Master’ which was fantastic.   Not only did students learn and have fun, but they also got to meet others around the state who loved music as much as they did!

Many people are also interested to learn that WYVA has a ski club which I lead. We meet several times a year, help students learn how to ski, cover safety skills as well as survival skills in winter weather, and just have fun spending time with each other. 

Other WYVA activities that I’ve been a part of or led over the year include:

  • Delivering Valentines cards and cookies to the local Veterans Home
  • Christmas caroling at the nursing home in town
  • WYVA Pumpkin Carving Contest
  • School field trips to the Oregon Trail, Fort Laramie, Battle of the Little Big Horn and other areas around the state
  • Visits to the State Capitol to meet the Governor
  • Back to School picnic with students, parents, and teachers from around the state
  • 5k Run for School event simultaneously done in 15 different cities around Wyoming
  • Field Trip to the local law enforcement building
  • Study time and pizza for final exams
  • Visit to local Fish Hatchery and Cattle Ranch
  • Celebrate the Arts Day and WYVA Talent Show – hosted online
  • Weekly Music Club online meetings
  • National Honors Society 



Ana Berry's picture

Giving Thanks as an Online Educator

I was recently speaking with fellow Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy (LAVCA) colleagues about hobbies and I couldn’t help but marvel at the differences among us – the things that put a spark in our eyes. One teacher enjoyed hunting, another trained for marathons, while I enjoy painting.

We are all uniquely different.Our conversation made me think about our students at LAVCA and all of their differences. We serve so many uniquely brilliant students throughout the many K12 partner schools…there are artists, athletes, academics. As an educator, it is such a treat to get to know my students year after year and uncover their talents.

During the month of November, teachers have a habit of asking students what they are thankful for, which are then used to fill turkey feathers with their thankful thoughts. Most are thankful for family and friends. Some are thankful for chocolate and weekends. Others will put their favorite sports teams on all the feathers. If we were to ask some teachers what they are thankful for, I am sure we might get similar answers as well.

I’m thankful to teach in a virtual school that values the diverse learning needs of students.

I’m thankful that students are able to work at different times during the day so they can also explore other creative outlets and uncover passions.

I’m thankful that we have a curriculum that helps students modify their learning so they can move quickly or slow down to truly comprehend a topic.

I’m thankful for the flexibility that allows for frequent social outings, virtual student clubs, and virtual story times.

However, if I had to sum it all up into one, what I am most thankful for is that our virtual schools give students the opportunities to be uniquely brilliant in their own special ways.

Mary Gifford's picture

Examining Policy Recommendations for Online Charter Schools

The three- volume Online Charter School Study (October 2015) prepared by Mathematica, the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) provides the country’s most in-depth and systemic look into full-time public virtual charter schools. The report is a starting point with respect to the need for more and better analysis of student performance in virtual charter schools. For instance, the study demonstrates a high mobility rate and the unique nature of students within this sector of public schools, however the student matching process did not take into account the length of enrollment, reason for enrollment, effect of mobility, or persistence over time. With additional relevant data, the study can inform the next round of research.

The study also makes conclusions that affirm what leaders in virtual schools have known for more than a decade. It confirms that virtual charter school students are eligible for free/reduced price lunch at a higher rate than traditional students (48 percent compared to 39 percent). The study also demonstrates that students in virtual charters had lower than average test scores prior to enrolling in the virtual school. In fact, one-third fewer virtual charter students are in the top-scoring decile than traditional students and there are 40 percent more virtual charter students in the bottom decile.

Decades of research show the effects of income on student performance, and there is an emerging body of research showing prior state assessment performance is a strong predictor of future performance. While these conclusions are sobering for those of us who got into education to positively impact student performance, they demonstrate that students are disproportionately academically at-risk prior to enrolling in virtual charter schools.  In fact, academic struggles are one of the main reasons why parents choose to transfer their children to these schools.

The policy volume of the study, written by CRPE, offers several recommendations that are somewhat disconnected from the other volumes of the report. For instance, the CREDO volume on student performance concludes that “network” virtual charter schools managed mostly by private “for-profit” providers do not perform worse, on average, than non-network schools, yet the recommendation is to further regulate these providers, absent evidence related to student outcomes.

Perhaps the biggest disconnect between the volumes of the study is on student engagement. The Mathematica volume discusses in great detail the importance and challenges of student engagement in the virtual charter school model. This is not news to teachers or leaders within these schools who have been developing instructional strategies, technological tools, and support structures to improve student engagement. We had hoped the volume would include constructive policy recommendations in this area. Instead, it proposes a more crude approach:  screening enrollments to ensure students are the right “fit” before allowing them access to public virtual charter schools.

Lauren Weber's picture

Preparing to Dig into the Data

Now that school has begun and we are well into the first quarter, it’s time for teachers to start asking ourselves, are our students learning? It seems like a pretty simple and straight forward question, but it actually requires a lot of data analysis to truly and honestly answer this question.

Teachers at K12 schools across the country have really taken the initiative to delve deeper into our student’s progress. We do not simply rely on a student’s overall score at the end of each quarter to decide if the student is meeting their academic potential. We start much earlier than this. First, we construct well thought out interim assessments that align with our state standards and content objectives. These assessments can be given multiple times a year or semester. After students take these assessments, we spend days analyzing the results.

We meet with our department teams and go over our findings and we ask ourselves some very important questions. We analyze why a student missed a certain question or did not grasp a certain standard or objective. Was it the way the concept was taught? Is there a better way I can re-teach this to the student?  Why did the student or students fail to master this standard or objective? These are just a few of the questions we ask ourselves in these sessions that we dedicate to data analysis.

After we analyze our data and spend time on self-reflection, we then identify ways we can increase academic achievement and student mastery of standards and objectives, especially for our at-risk students. Some of these ways are incorporating small group sessions and 1 on 1 help sessions that target certain standards that the students struggled with. These small group sessions or one-on-one's require teachers to rethink our teaching process. Maybe the initial way we taught the idea or concept was fantastic for some students, but not ideal for others. During these smaller sessions, outside of regular class, is a time when teachers can differentiate our instruction and focus on meeting the needs of these individual students. We then track the student’s progress and meet with them regularly to analyze their growth, consistently asking ourselves along the way if there is something else we can try or do to improve their academic success.

Implementing data driven instruction in our schools has been monumental to our growth and success. Pass rates are growing, student engagement is on the rise, and family involvement is increasing. Learning Coaches are so supportive and encouraging when teachers reach out to them and offer extra supports for their students. By looping in Learning Coaches and sharing the progress that we have tracked and monitored with these additional sessions, we are seeing a strengthened partnership between Learning Coach, student, and teacher that is essential for online success.