What K-12 Can Learn from For-Profit Higher Ed

(This post also appears on The Quick and the Ed.)

Good Education Week overview on the growth of for-profit virtual learning companies in K-12 education. Predictably, the article quotes a detractor focused on the tax status of those providing the courses:

“I haven’t seen anything in this industry that is special in terms of its pedagogy or its delivery,” said Alex Molnar, the director of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University in Tempe. “What benefit does a for-profit entity provide over and above what could be readily provided at a university extension?” he said. “Why wouldn’t you use a nonprofit publicly supported university that’s transparent and politically accountable?”

Well, I’m pretty sure that nonprofit university does not automatically equal accountable. And I’m certain it’s not a guarantee of quality. Just north of Molnar in Utah sits Brigham Young University, a fully accredited, national nonprofit university with a high school online independent study program so poorly regarded that its courses are no longer accepted by the NCAA for athletic eligibility.

The real issue is quality, not tax code. In higher education, we have seen innovative ideas to make college more accessible and affordable come from the for-profit sector. And, we’ve also seen a lot of abuse — all from institutions that are fully-accredited. Key to much of the abuse has been weak regulation and the difficulty of students to ascertain quality. But demonizing for-profits is the wrong approach. So is naively opening the doors to any provider. We need to focus on quality. And to truly meet the goal of improving student outcomes, we need to do it now.

While it’s difficult to assess the quality of any educational program, traditional or virtual, the issue is especially acute with K-12 virtual schooling. And, the problem with funding is that our current metrics are either ineffective — for instance, accreditation — or are not at all compatible with virtual learning — i.e., seat time and average daily attendance. So, we need something different. And, this gives us the opportunity to align our resource allocations to indicators that get as close as possible to what really matters: student learning.

At Virtual School Meanderings, a good discussion continues our earlier back-and-forth on how to ensure quality in K-12 virtual schooling. But, it’s an unfortunate comment on today’s education debate that my quest to align public funding with effectiveness is seen as a call for more bubble tests. I mention end-of-course tests, but also outline three additional ideas to move beyond the bubble, including looking at student performance in the next course level, a “trust-but-verify” option that could include audits of digitally captured student work, discussions, products, and actual performances, and for higher education providers, the “ticket out of remediation” which requires these providers to certify students eligible for credit-bearing courses and also track their performance in these future courses.

Michael correctly notes that we need to be clear on our goals for education before we can measure quality. So, let’s simplify. Take an online or blended high school algebra course with agreed upon learning goals. Assume much better data. And, consider the measures that would apply equally to everybody from the most diligent teachers to the most evil companies. What ideal combination of outcome and process measures should we use to ensure that students have a great virtual learning experience and public funds are well spent?

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428
Email Education_Next@hks.harvard.edu

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488
Email subscriptions@educationnext.org

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College