Helping At-Risk Teens through Online Learning

by James A. Bacon

More evidence that the virtual-school phenomenon is making inroads into traditional public education: An article in Educationnext profiles Performance Learning Center programs in Hampton and Richmond. Communities in Schools, an outside contractor, runs special programs geared to high school kids in danger of dropping out. Writes June Kronholz:

In a summary of its 2009–10 academic year, Virginia’s Communities in Schools reported that one-third of the students at its four PLCs were at least two years behind in academic credits when they arrived. They were a year or two older than their conventional-school peers and, in the previous year, averaged six suspensions and 24 absences each at their former schools.

The PLCs use NovaNET, an online curriculum marketed by Pearson Education Inc. The program tests a student at the end of each lesson, module and course. When a student doesn’t pass, the computer singles out the content he or she seemed not to understand, reteaches it and retests. Students progress at their own pace; they don’t get bored when the class moves too slowly or bewildered when it moves too fast.

The results? Kronholz again:

In 2009–10, the 432 youngsters who attended the four schools arrived with D averages in math, English, science, and social studies, and, except for math—which was still stuck in the basement—raised them to a C. But the averages include the 30 percent of kids who dropped out, switched to a GED program, or left for some other reason, probably lowering the grades.

Obviously, online teaching is no panacea for high school drop-outs, but it does provide educators an option. One big advantage: School districts can drop programs that don’t show results a lot easier than they can drop teachers who don’t deliver. The key is to establish objective metrics against which the contractors can be evaluated. The more competition and accountability we can inject into the system, the better.

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6 responses to “Helping At-Risk Teens through Online Learning”

  1. goes back to the question I asked before… what is the purpose of a teacher?

    and if an at-risk kid can learn and succeed without a teacher..then why can’t all kids?

    what’s the purpose of a teacher in a virtual learning environment?

    bonus question: how is all of this affecting home schooling?

  2. here’s the problem that we are evading while we blame teachers:

    ” U.S. Proficiency in Math and Reading Lags Behind That of Most Industrialized Nations, Endangering Long Term Economic Growth”

    ” Results from a new study of student achievement show that U.S. students rank 32nd among industrialized nations in proficiency in math and 17th in reading.
    The 32 percent of U.S. students who achieved proficiency in math compares to 75 percent of students in Shanghai, 58 percent in Korea, and 56 percent in Finland. Countries in which a majority – or near majority – of students performed at or above the proficiency level in math include Switzerland, Japan, Canada, and the Netherlands.
    Comparing students’ math achievement across states, the study finds the highest performing state to be Massachusetts, where 58 percent achieve proficiency. The states of Minnesota, Vermont, North Dakota, New Jersey, Kansas, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Montana are among the top ten performing states.”

    so where is Virginia ? virtual schools or not? About 30% of Virginia students graduate at a proficient level for math, science and language.

    guess which group achieves the “proficiency” level?

    guess which groups don’t?

    The top 1/3 in Va usually achieve it. The middle 1/3 don’t. These are not at-risk kids.

    When we say that the kids who are enrolled in Virtual Va can “pass” the SOLs – keep in mind that 2/3 who pass the SOLs don’t achieve proficiency levels comparable to the kids they are going to compete against for jobs in the world economy.

  3. Groveton Avatar

    In a shocker, I must say …

    LarryG gets it! I’d discount anything you read about statistics from China. When it comes to China, believe 1/2 of what you see and none of what you hear.

    However, the other countries are probably reporting accurate statistics.

    Jim Bacon seems (repeat for Jim’s edification: seems) to be saying that virtual learning is a way to reduce the cost of education. I disagree with that focus. Virtual learning should be seen as a way to improve the quality of education with only relatively minor increase in cost.

    If you want to reduce the cost of education, look to the administrators and bureaucrats. Look to pay for performance for teachers. Look to breaking the teachers’ union work rules (without targeting the total compensation, which (if anything), is too low). Be able to fire teachers without the need for ridiculous processes like New York’s “rubber room”.

    Another issue is teacher pensions. My understanding (which may be wrong) is that most teachers participate in a defined benefits pension plan funded by the government. If true, I think this is a problem.

    I often wonder whether the pension system for teachers is a good thing or a bad thing. My experience is that defined benefits pension plan encourage more bad behavior than good behavior. People who don’t really want to do the job stay on because they don’t get any pension unless they stay 20 years. Managers are hesitant to fire an underperforming employee with 15 years experience because they are “just 5 years” short of retirement.

    Don’t get me wrong – teachers are not paid enough, especially in Virginia. And a good pension is big part of the limited compensation teachers receive. I just wonder if a defined contribution program would be a better idea. The state could make substantial contributions. The contributions could rise year-over-year so that there is an incentive to stay. However, the “all or nothing” defined benefits plan seems sub-optimal, to say the least.

  4. here’s what is going to happen if you rate teachers on performance.

    the newest and least experienced teachers are going to get assigned the hardest kids to teach.

    right now the veteran teachers are “expected” to mentor the new teachers.

    How do you think they’re going to feel about sharing 10, 20 years worth of teaching experience with new teachers ..who are paid less and will replace them because they cost more and have defined benefit pensions?

    I still ask – what is the purpose of a teacher in high school in a virtual education world?

    bonus question – do you want an education system where teaching experience is a disadvantage and the system is going to entry level teachers who don’t cost as much?

    what about the proficiency issue? 1/3 of our kids are ranked as proficient… in a world where proficiency is required to compete for 21st century jobs.

    we keep talking about McDonnell “creating” jobs.

    I would submit that if you don’t have an 21st-century educated workforce that “creating” jobs is going to be a tough gig.

  5. Groveton Avatar

    “here’s what is going to happen if you rate teachers on performance.

    the newest and least experienced teachers are going to get assigned the hardest kids to teach.”.

    Translation: Government is incompetent.

    When a company hires a new salesman so they assign that salesman to largest, most complex or most difficult accounts?


    Why not?

    Because there is a management structure which ensures that decisions are made for the betterment of the whole company, not just some rat assed clique within the company.

    Otherwise, the company would lose business. And results would suffer. And the incompetent management would be replaced.


    And you want me to give more of my money to the government?

  6. Groveton write, “Jim Bacon seems (repeat for Jim’s edification: seems) to be saying that virtual learning is a way to reduce the cost of education. I disagree with that focus. Virtual learning should be seen as a way to improve the quality of education with only relatively minor increase in cost.”

    Actually, I don’t know if virtual learning reduces costs or not. I suspect that that it may in some circumstances, but that’s not why it intrigues me. Here’s what I think virtual education might do: (1) It might be a more effective way to teach certain topics than traditional classroom methods, (2) it might be an effective way to supplement traditional classroom teaching, (3) it might be a more effective way of teaching certain types of students whose learning styles do not work well in traditional classrooms and (4) it potentially creates competition in the hide-bound structure of higher education.

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