Are Online Charter Schools Making the Grade?
Did you know that you can send your child to a tuition-free online charter “virtual academy” from kindergarten through 12th grade? Crazy, but true. And if you’re considering homeschooling your child, an online charter might sound like a good option. But just how well do these schools measure up?
A recent study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) determined that academic achievement at online schools tested to be way, way lower than traditional schools or other types of charters. In another study, The National Education Policy Center showed that only 41% of for-profit online schools were considered “academically acceptable”.
“There is a place for virtual schooling in our nation, but there is no place for results like these,” Greg Richmond, of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said after seeing the CREDO report. The research results were even more surprising because it was partially funded by a pro-charter group, The Walton Family Foundation. The report concludes that “Academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule.”
Why an Online Charter?
Supporters of online charter schooling point out that it provides more opportunity for innovative educational approaches and for reaching at-risk students who might otherwise quit school altogether. But even these potential benefits don’t seem to outweigh the negatives. Thirty percent of online charter schools are run for profit, which the CREDO study felt may be part of the problem with their achievement outcomes. There are not enough oversight regulations in the for-profit charter school business and they can easily afford the lobbying to keep it that way.
What Are the Problems?
The CREDO study had several specific critical findings about how students fare in online charter schools. Even though online students have a one-to-one relationship with their teachers, they lost, on average, 72 days of instructional time in reading, and 180 days in math. Also, the average student in an online charter had lower reading scores than students in traditional schools everywhere except Wisconsin and Georgia, and they had lower math scores everywhere except in Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. It seems logical that face-to-face learning and real-time accountability for work make a big difference in student achievement.
Margaret Raymond, project director at CREDO for the online charter study, had this to say about its outcomes. “There’s still some possibility that there’s positive learning, but it’s so statistically significantly different from the average, it is literally as if the kid did not go to school for an entire year.” This unfortunate truth comes to bear in their dismal graduation rates, which are half of the national average.
K-12, Inc. Makes a Business out of Education
There is much criticism of the largest for-profit online charter school business, K-12, Inc. In 2012, they spent nearly $30 million on lobbying and marketing to increase the number of charters that are legally permitted in various states. The lobbying was successful, laws were changed, and enrollment in K-12, Inc. online schools soared. But they do not screen for students who are unsuitable for online schooling and this leads to a high drop-out rate.
In Pennsylvania, the state’s largest cyber charter ended its relationship with K-12, Inc. last year after it discovered that the company altered attendance records and performance data to hide high student turnover rates. K-12, Inc. has also come under fire for asking teachers in Florida to sign off on students they had not actually taught. A state investigation into the company is underway.
Future Directions for Online Charters
Students often end up in online charter schools because they need more flexibility when it comes to rules and regulations. However, online flexible learning formats actually require maturity and discipline for a successful outcome. Parental involvement and support is necessary for any student to be successful in school, but especially in a flexible online learning situation. Online schools need to screen more carefully for these variables when selecting students.
States need to monitor the academic outcomes of individual online charter schools and larger systems like K-12, Inc. The CREDO report indicates that online charters have given up accountability for flexibility and the results are bad. These schools all have charters that they are supposed to adhere to, and educational outcomes they should be responsible for. If a charter is failing to produce academic outcomes, it should be closed.
What are your thoughts on online learning for K-12?