Thursday, June 23, 2016

AV#148 - Part 1. Are online charter schools working?

                                                                                                                                     June 14, 2016

Reports & results raise the question: are online charter schools working?

The State Board of Education and Colorado policymakers and educators can now review sufficient data to question whether an online school, especially for elementary students, is a model that is working well.  This newsletter will focus almost exclusively on online charters, although I believe much of the troubling evidence to date, as presented here applies to the online model, not its form of governance.  (See Addendum A - It’s more than a charter school story.) And yet this charter school advocate—well aware of the debate as to whether charters offer students and families simply another choice—or a choice of a good school, wants to highlight the issue for online charters. 

Advocates for quality schools must speak up when the results of one model—after over a decade—are so poor.

That conclusion appears to be the emerging consensus, based on what I see in national studies, decisions by charter school funders, and state reports.  This newsletter sums up what we have learned this past year; next week I will follow-up with a close look at a half dozen Colorado on-line charters.

      1.   “On-line Charter School Study - 2015,” by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University,
Advocates of online charter schools should find much to agree with in CREDO’s presentation of why online school leaders hoped they could serve students who had not been well served by traditional schools (see box).  Even if the niche is small, online supporters insist their schools can meet a real need.

However, CREDO’s report of online charters in 17 states[1] (including Colorado), is ultimately quite damning. That’s my take, anyway. A few excerpts follow; if interested, you will want to read more.

“Online schooling options have the potential to provide students a flexible, student-centered educational option. One of (their) desirable attributes is their adaptability for atypical students…. (those) who work to provide for their families …  other students who are already active in their chosen profession such as actors, artists, or Olympic hopefuls. … For migrant students or those in unstable households, the ability to sustain a consistent schooling environment could greatly boost educational outcomes. Likewise, students who learn at a greatly different rate from their age peers might benefit from the self-paced nature of many online programs” (1-2).
From Introduction, “On-line Charter School Study – 2015”
The study focused on one key question: “What is the average impact of attending an online charter school on the academic growth of students?”    
Its finding: Compared to the control group in traditional public schools, “online charter students have much weaker growth overall”(23). “… these average measures of academic growth reveal that the general case for online charter students
is not a positive one” (24).

CREDO’s report broke out academic growth for online charters “compared to the state’s average student academic growth” in each of the 17 states in its study.  The online charter effect in at least 13 states was negative in both reading and math.  In Colorado’s on line charters, in reading, the effect size was a negative .07; in math, the effect was negative .19, which equated to over 130 fewer days of learning (26-27).

CREDO’s director, Macke Raymond, made many of these points at the Donnell-Kay Foundation’s Hot Lunch on May 13, “Online Schools: Superheroes or Cybervillains”-
CREDO makes a key point I will return to next week when I look at a couple of elementary online charters in Colorado.                                                                                        
“The qualifying argument of some online school providers is many of their students would have otherwise dropped out of school entirely. Thus any educational gains no matter how small are of benefit to the students and society. This argument may be justified when applied to high school students, of which online charter schools have a higher percentage, but does not take into account the outcome for elementary and middle school students enrolling in online schools” (36). (Bold mine)

The quotes above do not capture the nuanced interpretation of more narrow questions in the study—impact of family, teacher pay, the breakdown of outcomes by race, gender, poverty, etc.  I point to one specific concern that Colorado policymakers should keep in mind: the impact of “fees from large online schools (that) can come to represent a large proportion agency operating revenues and may create a disincentive to regulate and close consistently low-performing online charter schools” (Pazhouh, Lake & Miller, “The Policy Framework for Online Charter Schools,” Center on Reinventing Public Education, 58-59).

I include here the opening sentence from the three “implications” at the end of the report:

1. “Current online charter schools may be a good fit for some students, but the evidence suggests online charters don’t serve very well the relatively atypical set of students that currently attend these schools, much less the general population.”

2. “Current oversight policies in place may not be sufficient for online charter schools.”

3. “States should examine the current progress of existing online programs before allowing expansion…. (It is) critical for authorizers to ensure online charter schools demonstrate positive outcomes for students before being allowed to grow ...” (63).

      2.      Walton Family Foundation’s “rethink” of online charters

I have worked on numerous projects over the years funded by The Walton Family Foundation, all of them in support of charter school efforts in Colorado and in three other states.  The Foundation was also the principal funder of the CREDO study.  When an organization so committed to expanding choice weighs the evidence on one model—namely online charters—and publicly states its doubts about this option, we should take notice. Here are excerpts from a Commentary in Education Week by Marc Sternberg, director of education giving at the Walton Family Foundation, and Marc Holley, the foundation's evaluation-unit director (Jan. 26, 2016).

Walton Family Foundation: We Must Rethink Online Learning

    The Walton Family Foundation has invested more than $385 million in creating new charter schools over more than two decades to seed educational innovation and improve U.S. education at scale. The foundation has allocated a small fraction of that investment—about $550,000—to virtual charter schools, which teach full-time students exclusively online.
    … In recent years, we have hoped that online charter schools could provide a lifeline for some students. But while we were enthusiastic about supporting online education entrepreneurs, our first priority is always making sure that students are served well.
    As the largest private funder of charter schools and as strong believers in making fact-based decisions, we wanted to see the hard evidence on virtual charters: What would a dependable measure of the impact of these schools show about their students' academic growth? We funded three research studies—by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (or CREDO), at Stanford University; the Center on Reinventing Public Education, at the University of Washington; and Mathematica Policy Research—to investigate this question. …
     The results are, in a word, sobering. The CREDO study found that over the course of a school year, the students in virtual charters learned the equivalent of 180 fewer days in math and 72 fewer days in reading than their peers in traditional charter schools, on average.
This year: Colorado had 18,664 students in online programs. See Kids Count.
This is stark evidence that most online charters have a negative impact on students' academic achievement. The results are particularly significant because of the reach and scope of online charters: They currently enroll some 200,000 children in 200 schools operating across 26 states….
   As a result of these findings, we at the foundation will ask new, more rigorous questions of online charter operators when we review their funding proposals …
   To be clear, our comments about online charter schools are not an indictment of
instructional technology or online learning more generally, nor how these stand to help  create more high-quality educational options…. There are many examples of technology being
used in conventional classrooms in ways that enhance learning.…
    But the data from this study do not lie: Online education must be reimagined. Ignoring the problem—or worse, replicating failures—serves nobody.

      3.      Kids Count in Colorado 2016 – Colorado Children’s Campaign

I do not wish to speak for the Colorado Children’s Campaign (CCC). But going back to 1992 and 1993, when I worked at a local foundation, we found CCC to be the first Colorado nonprofit eager to support the fledgling charter school movement—and so it received our first two grants to encourage this new option for families and educators.  To the best of my knowledge, the Children’s Campaign has been supportive of quality charter schools ever since. A CCC report, then (as with criticism from the Walton Family Foundation) comes from what charter advocates might call a sympathetic voice. 
It released Kids Count of Colorado 2016 this spring.  Page 77 of the 163-page offers perhaps our most up-to-date look at online schools in our state.  It is inclusive of both charter and noncharter programs.

Online Education Programs

Colorado is home to dozens of online schools and programs that together enroll thousands of students. …  Recent pupil enrollment data show that online schools are experiencing some of the fastest growth in the state, but data also indicate that students in many online schools fare worse than their brick-and-mortar counterparts on indicators such as reading and math proficiency and graduation rates.

Data Highlights:

The number of Colorado students enrolled in an online education program increased to 18,664 students in 2015-2016 (2 percent of students) from 17,060 in 2014-2015. Enrollment in online education programs has increased by more than 400 percent since the 2003-2004 school year.

Online schools were more likely than brick-and-mortar schools to receive priority improvement or turnaround ratings, the lowest ratings under Colorado’s school performance framework. As of 2013-2014, the most recent year for which school accreditation ratings are available, 37 percent of all online schools were accredited with a performance plan, the highest rating schools can achieve; 31 percent of online schools were accredited with improvement plans; 14 percent of online schools were accredited with priority improvement plans; and 17 percent of online schools were accredited with turnaround plans, the lowest rating schools can receive….

On average, online education programs in Colorado have lower on-time graduation rates than brick-and-mortar schools. In total, the graduation rate for online high schools in Colorado was only 41 percent in 2015, significantly below the statewide average of 77 percent.

Figure 64 -  2013-2014 School Performance Ratings*

Brick-and-mortar schools
Online schools
Turnaround Plan (lowest rating)
Priority Improvement Plan
Improvement Plan
Performance Plan (highest rating)

*These figures come from CDE’s report to the State Board of Education, “School Plan Type Assignments,” Dec. 2014,  The exact percentages differ slightly from CDE’s presentation as its summary included three on-line schools that had closed.  Out of 35 still operating in 2014, CDE showed that 5 on-line schools were on Priority Improvement Plans and 6 were on Turnaround Plans.
NOTE: Vilas Online (for grades K-12) had been on Turnaround 2010-2013; after the Vilas School Board decided to close the high school portion, and in 2014 the K-8 school received a Performance rating.

NEXT WEEK – AV#149 looks at a handful of online charter schools in Colorado.

Addendum A – It’s more than a charter school story
2014 SPF Performance Framework –
11 Online schools on Priority Improvement, Turnaround, or Closed

Boulder Universal
Priority Improvement (PI)
Canon Online Academy
Delta County Virtual Academy
School Closed
(on Turnaround previous year)

EDCSD: Colorado Cyber School
PI or Turnaround
Engage Online Academy
Grande River Virtual Academy Elementary
Insight School of Colorado at Julesburg
PI or Turnaround
Karval Online Education
School Closed
(after 4 years on Priority Improvement)

Southwest Colorado E-School
Priority Improvement
Thompson Online
School Closed

World Academy
*EMH – Elementary, Middle, High

[1] The study included online charter students in Colorado between 2009-010 and 2012-13—totaling nearly 15,000 students (64).

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