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Listen Tuesdays at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on 90.5 WKAR-FMAccording to the Kids Count report of April 2018, 56% of third graders in Michigan are not proficient in English Language Arts. At the same time, some new public school teachers in Michigan are leaving the classroom because they do not earn enough money for a decent living. Virtual and charter schools are on the rise in Michigan. And in some communities there are breakthroughs in raising better readers.Covering education in Michigan is complex, but WKAR is committed to reporting on the problems, searching for solutions, and holding leaders accountable.Listen for Making The Grade in Michigan with WKAR education reporter Kevin Lavery every Tuesday at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on 90.5 WKAR-FM's Morning Edition.

Study: Virtual Schools Growing in MI Despite Poor Outcomes

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Kevin Lavery
Michigan Virtual works with school districts across the state to supplement their curricula with online courses.

The concept of “going to school” usually involves hundreds of students congregating under the same roof, studying just feet away from each other. These days, a growing number of students are trying an alternative: virtual classes.  Online education has found fertile political soil in Michigan. However, new research suggests virtual schools run virtually unchecked, while delivering poor results.

In 2006, Michigan made education history. The Great Lakes State became the first in the country to require every student to take part in at least one online experience before graduation. It was a decision made with an eye towards the future, just on the eve of the smartphone revolution.

“Learning in an online environment is something that we know today they’re going to have to be proficient in as they pursue their post-secondary careers and the world of work,” says Michigan Virtual president and CEO Jamey Fitzpatrick.

Michigan Virtual is what’s known as a “supplemental provider.”  It offers course work in partnership with local school districts.  In most cases, the courses are offered to help students recover lost credit Michigan Virtual is an underwriter of WKAR.

The demand for digital skills in the workplace isn’t slowing down any time soon.  But a sizeable number of students aren’t rising to the bar. In a new study, Michigan Virtual found that during the 2016 school year, one-quarter of the 101,000 students enrolled in virtual classes failed to pass a single one.

“We have large numbers of kids taking a boatload of online courses and never experience success,” says Michigan Virtual vice-president Joe Freidhoff.  “Online courses tend to have a lot more text in them, and students who aren’t reading at grade level can really struggle to keep up with the volume that they need to complete a semester. If I’m taking my online course and I go home and I’ve got no Internet access...what can I do?”

The data has caught the attention of analysts who give the online learning industry a failing grade.

“What’s striking is that the performance is very poor across all indicators that we track, but at the same time, it’s growing rather quickly,” says Western Michigan University professor Gary Miron.

Miron says Michigan has the third highest number of for-profit virtual schools in the nation, after California and Florida.  He’s the co-author of a new National Education Policy Center study that concludes lax oversight of corporate-run schools is resulting in disproportionately high student-teacher ratios and dismal graduation rates.

Heather Ballien is the superintendent of Great Lakes Cyber Academy in Okemos.  It contracts with Connections Education, one of the largest for-profit education management organizations in the U.S. 

Ballien thinks such findings paint cyber schools with a broad brush.  She stands behind her own record.

“We graduated 56 percent of students on time last year,” Ballien explains.  “When I started the school year, only 36 percent of the students were on track to be graduating on time. That’s a pretty good indicator of success. I more than exceeded what was expected of me at the beginning of the year.”

Still, researcher Gary Miron says Michigan should put the brakes on virtual schools until a new model can be crafted; one that wrestles control away from corporate influence and insists on accountability.

“We need a moratorium right now; we have to stop,” asserts Miron.  “No more growth for the schools; no more schools. The schools that are performing extremely poorly, we have to take sound steps to dismantle them.”

But Miron isn’t ready to dismantle the whole virtual industry.  He asserts that with some re-thinking, blended schools – those that combine online and face-to-face learning – will be the future of education. 


Kevin Lavery is a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things considered.
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