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PlayStation or Online Charters? Either Way, You Get the Same Results

Thanks to a  trio of studies by respected research shops, we have a solid look at full-time cyber charter schools. And it’s not good news for kids. Mathematica examined how full-time online schools operate by surveying schools. The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) analyzed state policy to understand a variety of topics, including how these schools are overseen, held accountable and funded. The Center for Research on Educational Options (CREDO) examined the academic performance of these schools. How bad are the results? Really bad. In mathematics, when compared to similar students who did not enroll in a cyber school, online students lost 180 days of learning each year, roughly equal to an entire year’s progress in math for the average student. Less abysmal results were found in reading, with students losing 72 days. The negative effects are large, highly significant and widespread. As a parent of teenagers, I’d suggest that when students lose 180 days of learning, we should ignore truancy and give them all a PlayStation for the year. Why are these schools doing such a dismal job? Mathematica found that the  students in these schools are rarely engaged and have few teachers to work with them directly. CRPE clarifies that we lack tools to oversee the schools and that funding and other procedures are poorly matched to produce success. Most important, but least surprising, the schools are an academic disaster for most kids.

Clearing Up Some Things

A few notes are required up front. The studies all examine online charter schools, not district-run programs. The studies look only at full-time online charters, not blended learning schools or other settings with a mix of technology. This research does not speak to the myriad applications of innovative technology making its way into our schools. CREDO used the same approach they used in their  previous studies. The results are based on a massive database. CREDO accounts for a broad set of student characteristics, including how well they were doing in school before enrolling in cybers. Having had the misfortune of voting to authorize a White Hat cyber school in Colorado eight years ago, these results do not surprise me. In fact, having looked at data from multiple states over the years, what is surprising is that anyone has and will try to argue that these results are not reflective of the sector. No matter how you slice it, if you explore data on full-time cybers, you come away disappointed. CREDO reports bad results that are so uniformly terrible that there is little room for optimism. Results are unacceptable for all student sub-populations; and online charters underperform significantly in 14 out of 17 states in math and 13 out of 17 in reading.

Learning Through Charters

Certainly, there are some students who can learn in full-time cyber schools. While some of these may have succeeded anywhere, there are others who truly benefit from the non-traditional school environment that an online program provides. Researchers from all three teams who discussed their findings at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers conference last week estimated that around 30 percent of students may succeed in the setting. Previous analyses have found similar results. But there are highly-resilient children in lots of terrible schools around the country. It is unclear what percent of those who do succeed in online schools would be harmed if they had to go elsewhere. Outside the world of charter schools, states and districts may be able to design programs that can identify the right students for this approach to teaching. Enrolling in an online school could be recommended in a fashion similar to how educators design an individualized education plan for students with disabilities, provide a 504 plan for a child with an intense medical issue, or identify young gifted students for early enrollment in college. The charter school concept is intended to allow schools the flexibility to try their chosen approaches. If they succeed, they stay open. If they fail, they should be closed. Either way, if we learn things through charters, we can act on those lessons for the benefit of more children. Well, the results are in and the lesson is obvious: online charter schools do not work. Many of these schools should be closed; and we need to create a new approach to cyber schools if we are to do it for the benefit of children.
Alex Medler is a national expert on charter school policy who has worked in education reform since the earliest days of the charter movement.
Alex Medler is Senior Director of the National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC) with Safal Partners. Medler is a national expert on charter school policy who has worked in education reform since the earliest days of the charter movement. Through Safal Partners, Medler also advises foundations, state education agencies, charter authorizers and other clients in the U.S. and overseas. Prior to ...

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