Educational Management Organizations: The Rest of the Story

The NEPC, issued its annual data compilation covering educational management organizations (EMO).   While the summary sounds benign, I think it’s fair to say that the NEPC hates EMOs—especially the for-profit versions.  This AFT funded report is not a sympathetic data compilation.  From the ensuing stories it is clear that journalists were coached on attack strategies.
Take, for example, John Hechinger from Bloomberg—who spent much of 2011 attacking for-profit participation in education. He interviewed the lead author of this report about the online schools, Gary Miron, who said, “I don’t think taxpayers are being well-served.”
Hechinger’s story focused on an observation that, “Less than a third of the ‘virtual’ schools managed by for- profit companies made adequate progress toward meeting state standards last year.”  The San Francisco Chronicle picked up Hechinger’s piece and added an outrageous headline blasting Pearson, the owner of Connections Education.  That’s the cycle we’re dealing with here: a union-funded shop feeding stories to biased reporters writing for editors looking for sensational headlines.
At least Hechinger called Susan Patrick from iNACOL for the real scoop,

The study’s results may reflect the kinds of students flocking to online public schools—such as those who have fallen behind in high school—more than the quality of instruction, said Susan Patrick, president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a nonprofit advocacy and research group in Vienna, Virginia.  “The kids enrolling in online schools needed something other than the traditional system,” Patrick said in a phone interview. “It can be a great option.”

It is obviously not good that two thirds of virtual schools failed to make AYP, but it is not a very good measure for this emerging sector where kids come and go and where families are seeking alternatives.
Jeff Kwitowski from K¹² said, “We reiterated our commitment to performance and accountability but also agreed with Sec. Duncan that the AYP metric is flawed and unfairly labels schools as “failing.”   As states shift to growth models we will see more accurate measures of contribution to academic progress.  K¹² measures student growth using nationally normed tests:

In School Year 2010–2011, K¹² outperformed the Scantron Norm group in gains in Math in eight of nine grades.  K¹² believes that individual student academic growth is the best measure of success for any academic program.  K¹² measures individual student academic growth by way of the widely used Scantron Performance Series assessment and compares our growth and gains to those of Scantron’s large norm group of students nationwide.

Virtual schools are typically big K-12 schools and, when it comes to AYP stats, are compared to elementary, middle and high schools that are smaller and often less diverse.  It has been easier for elementary schools to make AYP.  In most districts there are 3 to 4 elementary schools for every high school.  As a results, comparing the ratio of virtual schools making AYP to traditional schools making AYP isn’t a like comparison.  If the components of one 3000 student virtual K-12 were broken in to 4 elementary, 2 middle and one high school, it may easily have a better percentage of meeting AYP.  The authors and reports know this but skipped the details because it made it a juicy hit piece.
Here’s the rest of the story: EMOs–both nonprofit and for-profit, both traditional and virtual–are almost all nonunion.  That’s the real concern the sponsors of this study are exploring–the growth of EMOs means less dues revenue.   This is competitive intelligence gathering and they use the data to plant strategic attacks on the opposition.
And now for my biases: I’m a big fan of EMOs.  Quality at scale is the American education challenge.  The anachronistic model of local control we inherited inhibits innovation and scaled capacity.  Supplementing local capacity by contracting with purpose built networks with perpetual governance (i.e., boards appointed to advance a mission) is the best alternative we have (unless we start with a clean slate).
It is interesting to note that for-profit EMOs serve more kids than nonprofit EMOs.  That is, in part, because for-profit organizations are built to aggregate and deploy capital.  Nonprofits have weak incentives to grow and a harder time raising growth capital.  As noted in Getting Smart, public, private, and philanthropic forms of capital each have distinct advantages.  Public-private partnerships have the opportunity to utilize the advantages that each form of capital brings to the table.
The shift to personal digital learning will be led by thoughtful state and district leaders.  In many cases they will partner with EMOs.  Both should be held accountable for academic growth and achievement.  Families will benefit from transparency across quality options.
Disclosures: Connections and K12 are Getting Smart advocacy partners. 

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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