Online charter schools provide a valuable option for a small number of students

We have recently been discussing the digital learning landscape in blog posts reviewing district activity (one, two, three, four) and state virtual schools (one and two). Back in October, a post discussed how growth in online schools appears to be slowing. Many of those online schools are charter schools. Of the roughly 316,000 students who attended online schools in SY 2013-14, about 200,000 are enrolled in online charter schools.

These schools generally share the following characteristics:

  • They provide students’ entire course load through online courses, and do not have a physical building that students attend regularly.
  • They are responsible for students’ state assessments, and are graded based on the state’s performance framework, similar to other public schools.
  • Teachers and students communicate from a distance, using online communication tools (both synchronous and asynchronous) and telephones.
  • The schools or management networks often provide extensive professional development for teachers, because they are not able to hire enough teachers with sufficient previous experience teaching online.
  • Collectively they serve all grade levels, and methods of instruction vary between grade levels. Younger students spend less time online and use more print materials, and work with a parent or other learning coach for help. Older students spend more time online, use fewer print materials, and communicate mostly with their teacher online.
  • Many online charter schools (which collectively enroll more than half of all students attending online charter schools) are supported by private education management organizations (EMOs), the largest of which are K12 Inc. and Connections Academy. They enroll students from across entire states, in order to reach a critical mass.
  • The schools serve students with much higher rates of mobility than the student population as a whole. In the case of elementary and middle school students, many attend an online school due to temporary reasons (illness, injury, behavioral issues, allergies). In high schools, in addition to those reasons, many students move to an online school because they are behind and at risk of dropping out of school altogether.
  • Although many schools serve between 500 and 1,500 students, some are very large, such as Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School (10,389 students), Ohio Virtual Academy (13,147 students), and the Electronic High School of Tomorrow (also in Ohio, with 13,537 students).

More information about student outcomes is readily available from charter schools than about any of the other segments of digital learning (district programs, alt ed, state virtual schools). This is because in most cases charter schools are separate schools, which is the unit at which public education is primarily assessed. Charter school students take state assessments and the schools are evaluated by the state in the way that all public schools in the state are graded.

Many school administrators (not just those associated with online learning or charter schools) believe that state assessment systems and performance frameworks do not paint an accurate picture of school performance, for a variety of reasons but especially because the socioeconomic status of a school’s students is generally a highly accurate predictor of school performance. Online school administrators argue that state performance frameworks are particularly poor at assessing online school performance for several reasons. Most states’ performance systems weigh proficiency heavily, and many students in online schools enter the school behind in grade level, or otherwise exhibiting one or more characteristics of at-risk students. Student growth and graduation rates are often based on student cohorts and other factors other than individual students’ learning trajectories. In addition, online schools have high rates of student mobility, which are not well accounted for in state performance frameworks and especially in graduation rates.

Many states recognize the shortcomings of their performance frameworks and are adding additional measures including improved growth measures and college readiness, but most states still weight proficiency heavily. Within the existing frameworks, online schools as a group tend to score below state averages. Some individual online charter schools score at or above average, demonstrating that online schools can be successful.

An upcoming post will explore blended charter schools.