Unpacking the nuances on virtual charter schools

Individual students choose schools for reasons that are often deeply personal. But their schools are all measured and judged by common standards.

The students who stay in virtual charter schools for the long haul tend to see better results. But the model is uniquely suited to students who are dealing with instability.

Untangling these contradictions made for one of the most interesting debates at this year’s National Charter Schools Conference.

In studies and media reports, the performance of virtual charter schools looks pretty bad. Why that is, and what to do about it, are murkier questions with implications for how school systems should operate under the new definition of public education.

“This tension between personalized instruction and a one-size fits-all measurement is not going to go away,” Mary Gifford, a senior vice president at K12 Inc., one of the nation’s largest and most prominent online learning companies, said during a discussion of what’s next for virtual charter schools.

Students opt for online charters for a variety of reasons. Some are looking for a stopgap while their parents find a better school. Some are traveling athletes, or long-term medical patients, or rural children with few other options. More than a third are behind on credits when they enroll, and many change schools frequently, but Gifford said those who stick around three years or more tend to show the best academic results. (Of course, it also stands to reason that students who struggle with online charter schools may be more likely to leave quickly).

In recent years, Gifford said, her company has overhauled its “onboarding” process, to try to make sure students who sign up for its virtual schools engage with their coursework.

“It should not be a condition of enrollment to determine whether or not this is a good fit,” she said, adding: “I don’t think we necessarily know” up front whether a student is likely to succeed in a virtual charter, or whether a regulator could make that judgment call reliably.

Nelson Smith of the National Association for Charter School Authorizers, one of three groups that issued a report critical of online charters, said they could consider a “trial period” or “hold-harmless period” of two or three months after students enroll, “to see if there’s really a viable fit.”

The idea adds some nuance to one of the most hotly debated recommendations Smith’s group, along with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the advocacy network 50CAN, offered in their recent report: That states consider setting criteria for students must meet to enroll in full-time virtual charter schools.

Smith said he blanched at the idea that any school would turn away students deemed unlikely to succeed. At the same time, he said, the unique circumstances of virtual students might not lend themselves to “throw-the-doors-wide policies that are characteristic of charter schools.”

Dealing with those circumstances, he said, might require creating new forms of oversight, separating virtual schools from brick-and-mortar charters in state laws, or developing authorizers that are better equipped to supervise online education providers.

Last fall, researchers at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, CREDO at Stanford University and Mathematica Policy Researchers probed data on virtual charter performance six different ways, and found negative results across the board.

CRPE’s Robin Lake said the negative academic effect for students attending online charters looks like a mirror image of the boost students receive from attending a KIPP charter school. In other words, they see big performance drops compared to their public-school peers.

But Smith, Lake and other panelists agreed virtual charters probably need new forms of assessment that can set a reliable “baseline” for the students they serve. Right now, hidden “x-factors” (Smith’s words) tied to life circumstances might affect virtual students’ results.

And despite the black eyes they’ve gotten recently, the idea of full-time online school holds inherent promise, especially for students who, for a variety of reasons, aren’t well-suited for physical classrooms.

Right now, two companies operate most online charter schools. That, Lake said, suggests the field may be ripe for new, innovative entrants — including nonprofits devoted to improving online learning outcomes.

“I think we need to diversify the supply of online providers,” she said, adding that states and authorizers should say: “We’re open to for-profits or non-profits or whoever, if you can deliver something better than what we’ve got today.”

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