As we evolve into an increasingly global and information-rich economy, the promise of virtual learning is enticing. Unfortunately, the reality falls short of the promise, and far too many virtual providers are attempting to hide behind the profile of their students as an excuse for low performance. Recent developments in Nevada highlight the dangers of this trend.
A Troubling Example
According to the most recent state assessments, student performance is improving in Nevada. This is good news for students and families. However, five charter schools are under the magnifying glass, including the Nevada Connections Academy (NVA).
For the last five years, NVA has fallen short of performance targets. As it prepares to apply to renew its charter at the end of this school year, NVA recently announced plans to close its 860-student elementary school. This comes after the school received a rating of one out of five stars for the third year in a row. The middle school recently achieved two stars, while the high school also only earned one. The school’s abysmal graduation rate of 37% led to an attempted state closure in 2015. NVA’s growth scores are also persistently weak. In 2018-2019, it only earned 10.5, 17.5, and 21 out of 30 possible points for student growth in the elementary, middle, and high school levels respectively. It’s appropriate that NVA will close its elementary school, yet appalling that it may be allowed to keep its failing middle and high school open.
It’s clear from media reports that school leaders have balked at being held accountable for the very outcomes they promised to deliver. This represents a problematic argument that must be tackled head-on: that the public and the oversight systems we empower shouldn’t hold a school accountable because of its particular student population.
NVA’s excuses are troubling on two fronts. The first is the failure to live up to the basic promise NVA made to Nevada parents and taxpayers: to offer a high-quality, non-traditional education to students seeking a more personalized approach. The second is the multi-pronged fallacy that NVA is educating students with educational deficits so significant that high expectations — such as learning to read or graduating high school — are not appropriate. I am not sure which excuse is more problematic, but I commend the Nevada Public Charter School Authority for pushing past what they characterize as “tired arguments” in pursuit of better opportunities for kids.
Students Deserve Accountability
Charter school authorizers and state legislators owe it to parents and taxpayers to hold charter schools like NVA accountable for the promises made in their charters. In NVA’s case, while the school promises to offer a highly personalized program, it is having less success with the students who need individualization the most. The data show that the school is failing students with disabilities at an even higher rate than the state average (82.8% of students with an IEP at NVA rank in the lowest tier of performance on state mathematics assessments, vs. 73.7% in the state at large). If the school is not able to deliver results within a designated time frame, the school must be closed, even if a few parents elect to fight for it. We simply must do better for students. Allowing a school that is failing according to multiple metrics to remain open because it works for a small subset of students is not acceptable. We owe students, parents, and communities a higher bar.
Digging into the Data
NVA’s claim that their students have educational deficits so high that they must be held to different standards also doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. NVA is simply not enrolling as many students with disabilities yet it appears they are trying to hide behind these students. This sham argument is both inaccurate and disrespectful of students.
Overall, there are 60,000 students with disabilities in Nevada, representing 12.19% of the population in public schools. NVA is enrolling 300 students with disabilities, which only represents 9.24% of its population, nearly 30% fewer students with disabilities than that of the general public school population. While NVA is actually enrolling more students with disabilities than other charter schools (9.24% versus 8.96%), this is not a big win. Furthermore, NVA is enrolling fewer students living in poverty (50.88%) than the state average (60.84%). Unfortunately, it is impossible to discern the profile of all the students who enroll (i.e., the level of supports they receive as outlined in the IEP) from public sources due to privacy protections. Furthermore, NVA is not even testing all of its students. While nearly 95% of students with disabilities participate in state assessments across Nevada, only 60% were tested at NVA.
When you dig into the publicly available data, a few other notable facts emerge. For example, the average class size in Nevada ranges from 17–20 students depending on the subject, but NVA’s class sizes range from 65–71 students. As a point of reference, the average class size for virtual schools nationwide is 44 students. I recognize that virtual schools attract a subset of the student population who have not had success in brick and mortar buildings. However, parents seeking these alternative settings should not have to settle for subpar opportunities. If NVA is committed to improving outcomes for the students, hiring more teachers seems like low-hanging fruit, especially teachers prepared to support the complex learning needs of students with disabilities. The students, parents, and taxpayers in Nevada deserve better. But, ultimately, adjusting the class sizes at a school that has chronically underserved students is simply not enough. Charter schools are premised on accountability for performance, and NV students, parents and taxpayers deserve to have bad schools closed down.
Interested in learning more about how states and schools can do better?
Check out the Center’s recent work with the Nevada Department of Education, read our Model Policy Guide, and review our Special Education Toolkit.