The fight over the performance of online charter schools

Last week the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools issued a report critical of the academic performance of online charter schools. The organization states that as of August, 2014 there were 135 such full-time schools operating in 23 states and the District of Columbia educating about 180,000 students, a jump of 50 percent in the number of schools since 2008. Three states, California, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, enroll over half of all full-time online charter school students, and 25 percent of all online charter schools enroll over 80 percent of all students. 70 percent of online charter schools are run by for-profit companies.

Demographically, online charter schools enroll more white students than regular charter schools, fewer English Language Learners, a lower number of Hispanic students, and about the same number of black students.  They also serve a lower number of special education students and a higher proportion of kids living in poverty compared to brick and mortar charters.

Academically the two models perform much differently.  In Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) most recent study in 2015 regular charter schools added “40 additional days of learning growth in math and 28 days of additional growth in reading” a year compared to traditional schools.  Here in D.C. the results are significantly greater with Scott Pearson, the executive director of the Public Charter School Board, pointing out to me recently that students gain an extra 70 to 100 days of learning a year compared to those that go to a DCPS facility.

But this is not the case when it comes to online charter schools.  In the NAPCS examination conducted by three research groups, in a year “full-time virtual charter school students experience 80 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading in comparison to traditional public school students.” The organization then offers a set of policy solutions to try and turn this situation around.

Jeanne Allen, the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, has attacked the report’s findings.  “Researchers agree that this view of the data is superficial and ignores who and what is gained by a particular kind of schooling approach. Many students who enroll in virtual charter school do so because of extenuating circumstances or because they simply are not served well in a brick-and-mortar learning environment. This report is troubling in that it suggests that the measure of a school’s effectiveness is an average of who gets tested, not who gets served and the conditions under which they enter or leave.”

But I have to disagree in this case with Ms. Allen. One of the researchers for the National Alliance study is CREDO, and their investigation is anything but superficial.  The Stanford University group does point out that when it first looked at the academic performance of charters in 2009 learning in these schools lagged compared to that going on in regular classrooms.  These authors speculate that the same pattern of improvement may come about as online schools mature.  Let’s all hope that this is the case.



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