The Data Is Tricky To Parse, But Online Charter VLACS Seems To Work For Students

Dec 23, 2014

Pauline Landrigan (left) and Lisa Kent demonstrate what it's like to be a teacher for VLACS
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

This is the second of two stories about  New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, (VLACS) New Hampshire’s statewide online charter school. To read the first, click here.

Pauline Landrigan, an English teacher with VLACS, is touching base with one of her students, Siri Condike.

“Are you going to be together with family in a couple of days?” asks Landrigan.

“No actually I’m going to be working,” Condike responds.

Indeed, at the very moment of the question Condike is working. Condike is connecting to this appointment from her job in retail, surrounded by shelves full of folded designer jeans.

“[VLACS is] super flexible, I love it,” she explains over a program similar to skype, “As you can see I’m having a call from the Hollister back room at the mall, which is kind of amazing to me.”

But here’s the question: how much learning can you do from the back room of a Hollister?

VLACS has grown by leaps and bounds since it opened in 2008, and now New Hampshire has a higher percentage of its students taking online classes than in any state except for Florida. But while VLACS is certainly a popular alternative to traditional classes or homeschooling, just how good of an education they are getting is harder to show.

CEO Steve Kossakoski explains that the data the school does have suggests they are doing a good job. “Every single year, our test scores have been at or above the state averages in Math and Language arts and so-forth,” he says.

This is true, but there’s a caveat. The vast majority of VLACS students – around 12,000 of them – are part-timers who aren’t accounted for in those standardized tests. Only a few dozen full-time students represent the school in the statewide test, called the NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program).

And this means there’s the chance of what’s called a selection bias: are more of those full-timers super-motivated, wanting-to-learn-at-all-cost type students?

The school responds that 88 percent of all of VLACS enrollees complete their courses with passing grades, and they’re all held to the same standards as the students who were taking the NECAP. “Since we’re doing the same thing with our full-time students as with our part time students, we believe that can generalize to the rest of the population,” says Kossakoski.

There are other data that generally support this conclusion. His students outperform their peers in AP tests, and in courses they take to get college credits. So, while there is no standardized testing data that encompasses all of the part-time students, the data show at least some of them are doing quite well.

Best Way To Fund An Online School?

And all of this comes with a smaller price tag: the school is entirely funded by the state’s adequacy payment, slightly more than $5,000 dollars per student. That’s less than half of the average cost the state’s schools pay to educate their students.

And unlike public schools, VLACS only gets that money when kids learn their “competencies,” which is to say, pass their unit exams.

“In a traditional setting a student is in a seat for 180 days and that student qualifies for full funding,” Kossakoski explains, “For us if a student is in that seat for 180 days and meets 50 percent of the competencies, we’re going to get 50 percent of the funding.”

This, for some raises a red flag.

If a school is getting paid based on how many students pass, isn’t the natural incentive to ensure that more students pass?

“Well, that’s rife with problems,” says Sam Abrams, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University who studies online k-12 schools, “Because it gives the virtual school administrators the incentive to lower the bar.”

But others actually recommend using the VLACS funding formula. That’s because at many online schools, especially for-profit ones, the problem is not that they let too many kids pass.

“A lot of virtual charter schools have a high-dropout rate,” notes Michael Griffith with the Education Commission for the States.

Griffith says if we’re worried that funding based on passing grades will lead to setting up diploma-mills, the same can be said of traditional schools, which have been under extreme pressure to reduce their dropout rates.

“You could set up a diploma-mill type system in a brick-and-mortar school if you wanted to, but those tend to be monitored by the school district and you want to hold them to certain standards, you just need to be sure you’re doing the same thing with virtual charters,” he says.

All Online Schools Are Not Created Equal

As for those standards, following a review of the school’s practices in 2012 the state department of education reviewed VLACS and renewed its charter.

The renewal came with a series of glowing commendations.

Outside experts, when they hear how VLACS works, tend to be impressed.

“All of the things that they’re doing are meeting with what we know from the research, and in all honesty are fairly consistent with the kinds of things that you see classroom teachers wanting to do if they had the time,” says Michael Barbour, a professor at Sacred Heart University, and studies best practices in k-12 online education.

Taking online classes at VLACS doesn’t just mean reading and filling out multiple choice bubbles. Students do all sorts of different assignments, oral quizzes, and have regular check-ins with the teachers.

Like Pauline Landrigan, talking to Siri Condike on her break at Hollister.

“Do you have any questions for that narrative you’re about to submit for your final?” Landrigan asks, after giving Condike feedback on a quiz that she struggled with. Condike responds that she has already sent in her final draft, before the two disconnect.

VLACS aims to keep expanding this model to more students. There are a bevy of initiatives that Kossakoski says will be rolled out in the coming months and years: a marriage of online classes and experiential learning, adult education for folks looking to get their GED and a partnership with Southern New Hampshire University so high school students can get cheap college credits.

It’s an ambitious agenda, but in light of what they’ve already built in just a few years, VLACS may not an organization you want to bet against.