A virtual classroom might include an aspiring tennis pro traveling in Europe, a child in the hospital battling cancer, and a student who left a traditional classroom to escape bullies. Two decades ago, it would be inconceivable that these disparate students would be learning together, with guidance from the same teachers. And it would be just as inconceivable that their school would be judged based on their combined academic performance.
Steven Guttentag, the president and co-founder of Connections Education, one of the country’s largest operators of online charter schools, says the diverse needs of students who enroll in online schools create a “measurement challenge” that neither his industry, nor its increasingly vocal critics, has managed to solve.
“We’ve got to figure this out. We’ve got to have objective measurements,” he says. “That’s key to the charter movement. It’s key to public accountability. I’m not happy where we are. I’m not happy where the industry is with this right now.”
Guttentag joined the latest edition of our podcast alongside Matt Wicks, the company’s vice president for data analysis and policy. They’re responding, in part, to a recent report by a trio of pro-charter organizations that called out virtual charters for poor academic performance and sought changes to the ways they’re funded and regulated.
The debate over online charter schools has spilled into charter school conferences, strongly worded press releases and recently, journals of education reform. Critics, including many leading charter school advocates, say the test results at online charter schools are abysmal, which indicates many of their students are making scant academic progress and drags down the performance of the charter movement as a whole.
But people on both sides of the debate have also pointed to nuances — “x-factors” — that may complicate the picture of online school performance. When do the students enroll? What are their expectations when they sign up? Are they trying to raise their test scores, or to solve some temporary, non-academic problem, like safety or a medical issue or a sudden family move? How far behind are they on credits? And how should that affect the way their schools are judged?
Neither Guttentag nor Wicks claims to have all the answers to those questions. But both say they’re convinced solutions are more likely to arise in virtual education systems like Florida’s, which allow multiple flavors of publicly funded online learning. In Wicks’ words, states need to “allow that competition to spur innovation and improvement.”
Connections doesn’t just run virtual charter schools. It also helps run the middle- and high-school portion of Florida Virtual School’s full-time program, and offers individual online classes.
But Guttentag says virtual charters are a crucial part of the mix. They’ve allowed full-time online education to break through political barriers, and give online learning operators greater freedom to experiment with new approaches.
“Neither us nor [K12 Inc] would have been able to operate without the ability to go directly to consumers, directly to parents and families who desperately wanted this,” he said. “We were blocked every step of the way by the education establishment.”
Connections now helps operate full time schools in the majority of US states, and this summer honored more than 4,000 graduating seniors. It will celebrate its 15th birthday in the fall. FLVS will celebrate its 20th next year.
Virtual education, in other words, is starting to mature. But it’s still in its late adolescence. It has lessons left to learn. One key issue that’s arisen in the wake of the report is how schools know whether students are a good fit for a full-time online education.
Virtual education companies like Connections have pushed back against the suggestion that states should set enrollment criteria, or check on the front end to make sure students who enroll in virtual charter schools are a good fit. Instead, Guttentag and Wicks point to states like Arizona and North Carolina, which are experimenting with trial periods for students in full-time online schools.
“It is absolutely true that there are students in our schools for whom they are not a good fit, and if they were my children I would pull them right out and put them back in a traditional classroom,” Guttentag says. “But they’re not my children. They’re somebody else’s children, who decided this was best for their child.”
Listen on iTunes here. See also: Our previous podcast with Todd Ziebarth of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He was the lead author of the recent report critical of virtual charters.