Five Questions For … Burt Hubbard and Nancy Mitchell of Education News Colorado
Burt Hubbard and Nancy Mitchell spent 10 months working together on an in-depth look at online learning in the Evergreen State for Colorado Education News. They talked with EWA about the three-part series (click here for the stories), their print-online partnership, and the challenges and rewards of teamwork.
1. Many people were surprised to learn from your series that only a tiny percentage of the students in the Colorado’s online programs were struggling academically. What surprised you?
Burt: I think the biggest surprise was the number of students who left the online programs within a year without graduating. There were more than 5,000 or more than half of the students that had started the year in an online program. Mobility is considered a major factor in how students perform at school.
Nancy: The student turnover rate was definitely a surprise, along with the fact that students who transferred from brick-and-mortar schools to online programs actually saw their proficiency rates decline on state tests. The same goes for students who stayed in online schools for at least two years; proficiency rates dropped. Anyone tracking academic indicators in Colorado knew online programs were not performing well, but I think many were surprised by just how poorly they were doing.
2. What has been the response to the series by stakeholders?
Burt: There are several initiatives underway. The state senate president has called for an emergency audit of the online programs that would be finished by the time the Legislature convenes in January. The audit could lead to legislative changes. Colorado is one of only about 10 states that determine state funding for schools based on counts taken only in early October. That means the online programs can keep full funding for each student even if they leave in November and return to a brick and mortar school. In addition, the state department of education is in the process of setting up a committee to look at mobility and achievement issues in online programs.
Nancy: Parent choice in education is a sacred value in Colorado, where students have been able to attend any public school they want – provided there’s space and they find transportation – since the 1980s. Online providers and their supporters generally line up behind the mantra of choice. A state audit of online programs in 2006 was blistering in its criticism of these programs. Our findings, five years later, are that little has changed. So anyone proposing additional regulations or oversight will face tough opposition.
3. They say there’s synergy in a good partnership, and obviously you two know how to work together. Any tips for reporters considering teaming up?
Burt: I think it’s important to divide up different aspects of the story and research in the beginning based on each person’s strengths. Keep updating each other and make changes as you go along.
Nancy: We’ve worked on data intense education projects before so we already knew each other’s strengths and played to them. Burt is an expert at working with numbers, but I also love data. I’ve got the education expertise, but Burt also knows the players well. So it was key that we talked a lot and that we pretty much understood what the other was talking about as we went along.
4. Does writing for an online publication (compared with print media) come with greater freedom or a different audience of readers?
Nancy: I write for an online site and Burt’s group, the Investigative News Network or I-News, prepares in-depth reports for distribution through mostly traditional media, such as newspapers. So the series was really edited with newspapers in mind, with a video for websites and for our public TV partners. We also did interviews with public radio. That said, I was constantly thinking of pieces to add for my particular site audience.
5. What suggestions do you have for education reporters in other states who might be considering following your lead? Is there a blueprint to start digging or key questions to ask at the outset?
Burt: First, I would find out what data is collected on public school students and particularly those that are enrolled in online programs. Look at graduation rates, dropout rates, scores on achievement tests by each online school and compare it to state averages. In our case, we were also able to get a database with each student coded as a number (so as not to identify students) that allowed us to track movement from school to school and look at their performance on achievement tests before and after they enrolled in an online program. If the data exists and the reporter does not have the expertise to analyze it, partner with an educational research professor at a university or data analyst at a research foundation.
Nancy: Mobility is always going to be a question with online programs because of the ease with which students can move into, and out of, these full-time online schools. At least, it’s quite easy to do so in Colorado. Achievement is another issue, of course, and that goes hand-in-hand with the students being served by online programs. We frequently heard that one reason for their lower achievement was they were more “at risk” than other students. But we found no evidence to back up that assertion.
In fact, online students in Colorado were less likely to be poor or to be English language learners or other indicators that might indicate “at risk” than Colorado students in general. Also, it probably goes without saying that you’ll want to follow the money – are your online schools run by home-grown charters or for-profit companies? What do their contracts with your school boards tell you about how much state funding they’re receiving and for what? Be sure to check your statehouse lobbying reports as well as some companies invest heavily in access to those writing the laws governing online programs.
This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.