23 Nov 2016

Steer clear of private online schools, US experts warn

10:20 am on 23 November 2016

US education experts are warning against government plans to let private companies set up online schools in New Zealand.

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Photo: 123RF

The academics say private online schools in the United States have abysmal education results and are cash-cows for the companies that own them.

The government has proposed allowing the schools in a bill currently before the Education and Science Select Committee.

If passed unchanged, the bill would let state schools, tertiary institutions and private entities set up Communities of Online Learning (Cools) that could provide full-time education or instruction in particular subjects.

The Post Primary Teachers Association is opposed to the plan and this week it brought education Professor Gary Miron from Western Michigan University in the United States to New Zealand.

Prof Miron said he would meet Education Minister Hekia Parata and MPs on the education and science select committee to discuss online schools.

He said private online schools in the US had a very bad record.

"In our country that new provider option meant that a whole bunch of private providers could come in and they have developed a model that is conducive to profit, not to serving students," he said.

Prof Miron said the schools' results were "shockingly terrible".

"One recent study from Stanford University has reinforced our earlier findings, they find that the students lose on average 180 days of instruction per year. Our school year is 180 to 185 school days depending on the state, so the kids are on average learning nothing," he said.

"The student attrition rates are very high so there's a very high churn and these private providers then they get competitive and they recruit many students who are not ready to benefit from that type of learning."

Prof Miron said online learning was important, but it should be run by existing schools and not by new operators.

"There's a good system in place for holding the schools accountable even as they unfold and develop new online and blended learning models," he said.

'Cash cow'

Another North American, Michael Barbour from Touro University in California, was also sounding warning bells about private online schools.

Dr Barbour said he had visited New Zealand several times and was still involved with online learning in this country.

He had made a written submission to the select committee and said full-time online education had not gone well in the US and Canada.

"These full-time online programmes have really abysmal success rates, retention rates.

"And at least in the US, where so many of them are being run by these for-profit corporations, really they've become a cash cow for these companies while providing a sub-standard quality of education."

Dr Barbour said the poor performance of online schools could not be blamed on their students because they tended to enrol about the same percentage of low-performing or at-risk students as regular schools, and in many cases they had fewer such students and more who were regarded as gifted.

He said the bill's requirement that the minister approve any online schools was not sufficient protection, and once the schools were in place they were very difficult to shut down.

Education Minister Hekia Parata said online schools would supplement regular schools, not replace them and she did not expect many students would be enrolled in full-time online education.

But the president of the Post Primary Teachers Association, Angela Roberts, said it wanted the minister to ditch the online proposal altogether and start again by consulting with teachers and principals.

Claire Amos, deputy principal of Hobsonville Point Secondary School, said she understood people's nervousness about the proposal, but there was an assumption that the worst-case scenarios would happen.

"People are very quick to presume it means isolated teenagers in their bedrooms learning online or they think it's the absolute privatisation of education," she said.

"Those things are very real fears that need to be addressed, but I think they are only a very small part of a whole lot of opportunities that exist with the idea of Communities of Online Learning."

Ms Amos said the key was to ensure registered teachers were leading the way with online learning.

She said schools needed to find new ways of ensuring learning was relevant, personalised and responsive, and online schools could help with that.