Three recommendations to improve online charter schools

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This commentary has been edited and condensed. It was originally published in the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly Weekly. The full version can be found here.

A major development in recent years has been the explosive growth of online learning in K–12 education.

Sometimes it takes the form of “blended learning,” with students receiving a mix of online and face-to-face instruction. Students may also learn via web-based resources like the Khan Academy, or by enrolling in distance-learning “independent study” courses. In addition, an increasing number of pupils are taking the plunge into fully online schools: In 2015, an estimated 275,000 students enrolled in full-time virtual charter schools across twenty-five states.

The internet has obviously opened a new frontier of instructional possibilities. Much less certain is whether such opportunities are actually improving achievement, especially for the types of students who enroll in virtual schools. In “Enrollment and Achievement in Ohio’s Virtual Charter Schools,” we at Fordham examined this issue using data from our home state of Ohio, where online charter schools (“e-schools”) are a rapidly growing segment of K–12 education.

Today they enroll more than 35,000 students, one of the country’s largest populations of full-time online students. Ohio e-school enrollment has grown 60 percent over the last four years, a rate greater than any other type of public school. But even since they launched, e-schools have received negative press for their poor academic performance, high attrition rates and questionable capacity to educate the types of students who choose them. It’s clearly a sector that needs attention.

An analysis authored by June Ahn, an associate professor at New York University, finds that e-school students performed worse than students who attend brick-and-mortar district schools, according to school data from 2009 to 2013. Put another way, on average, Ohio’s e-school students start the school year academically behind and lose even more ground (relative to their peers) during the year. That finding corroborates the disappointing results from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes analysis of virtual charter schools nationwide.

The consistent, negative findings for e-school students are troubling, to say the least. One obvious remedy is to pull the plug — literally and figuratively — but we think that would be a mistake. Surely it’s possible, especially as technology and online pedagogy improve, to create virtual schools that serve students well. The challenge now is to boost outcomes for online learners, not to eliminate the online option. We therefore offer three recommendations for policy makers and advocates in states that, like Ohio, are wrestling to turn the rapid development of online schools into a net plus for their pupils.

First, policymakers should adopt performance-based funding for e-schools. When students complete courses successfully and demonstrate that they have mastered the expected competencies, e-schools would get paid. This creates incentives for e-schools to focus on what matters most — academic progress — while tempering their appetite for enrollment growth and the dollars tied to it.

Second, policy makers should seek ways to improve the fit between students and e-schools. Based on the demographics we report, it seems that students selecting Ohio’s e-schools may be those least likely to succeed in a school format that requires independent learning, self-motivation and self-regulation. Lawmakers could explore rules that exempt e-schools from policies requiring all charters, virtual ones included, to accept every student who applies and instead allow e-schools to operate more like magnet schools with admissions procedures and priorities.

Third, policy makers should support online course choice (also called “course access”), so that students interested in web-based learning can avail themselves of online options without enrolling full-time. Ohio currently confronts students with a daunting decision: either transfer to a full-time e-school or stay in their traditional school and potentially be denied the chance to take tuition-free, credit-bearing virtual courses aligned to state standards. Instead of forcing an all-or-nothing choice, policy makers should ensure that a menu of course options is available to students, including courses delivered online.

Many of us remember the earliest personal computers — splendid products for playing Oregon Trail, but now artifacts of the past. Fortunately, innovators and engineers kept pushing the envelope for faster, nimbler, smarter devices. But proximity to technology, no matter how advanced, isn’t enough. E-schools and their kin should facilitate understanding of how best to utilize online curricula and non-traditional learning environments, especially for underserved learners.

Dara Zeehandelaar is the national research director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

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