Online Charter Schools: Great Option or Epic Fail?

Summer is here.

Which means it’s time for parents to look back over the school year and answer an important question:

Is my child in the right place?

The answer to that question is different for every family, and every family has different criteria upon which they base their answer. Some families prioritize academics, some prioritize sports, and some prioritize a good social and cultural fit. The criteria get more specific than that: some families want their kids in specialty academic schools that focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subject, while others want their kids in specialty schools that focus on fine and performing arts. Still others look for schools with curricula in entrepreneurship, community service, or vocational education.

The Gift of Summer Break

Whatever long-term goals you have for your child, summer is the perfect time to assess, evaluate, and make any adjustments you deem necessary for your child’s education. If you have the available resources, private school may be a viable option, but if you’re not in position to go that route, public charter schools offer a practical alternative.

Charter schools have gained popularity over the past twenty years, but they’ve been around much longer than most people realize. The charter concept was introduced in the early 1970s by a professor of education from the University of Massachusetts named Ray Budde, who proposed the idea as a potential way to free public education from specific rules and regulations established by state and local school bureaucracies. His original idea was to create small schools within pre-existing schools, where teachers would be granted latitude to experiment and innovate with creative approaches to teaching, as long as the students could demonstrate competency in all relevant academic areas at the end of each term.

Charter Schools: Changes in the Paradigm

That idea took hold on a limited basis in the northeastern United States, but charter schools as most of us know them today come from an idea first floated in 1988 by Al Shanker, president of the National Federation of Teachers (NFT). He envisioned the type of school described in Charter Schools 101, published by the National Education Association: “a privately managed, taxpayer-funded school exempted from some rules applicable to all other taxpayer-funded schools.” The first school opened under this model in Minnesota in 1992. Charter schools achieved nationwide legitimacy soon thereafter, when the U.S. Senate established the Office of Charter Schools Programs as part of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act of 1994.

This article addresses a recent wrinkle in the charter school phenomenon many parents may not know about: online charter schools. An online charter is exactly what the name implies. It’s a school that offers a full-time online curriculum to the majority of its students. To be more specific, this article discusses a question relevant to any parent looking for education alternatives for their children:

Do online charter schools work?

Online Charter School Assessment: The CREDO Report

The Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University published the controversial Online Charter School Study in 2015. Previous research by various organizations assessed the effectiveness of brick and mortar charter schools as compared to their traditional counterparts, but before the CREDO study, no significant effort had been undertaken to quantify the relative effectiveness of online charter schools as compared to traditional schools, charter or otherwise.

CREDO partnered with two private organizations to produce the study, Mathematica Policy Research and the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). In the interest of full disclosure, the CRPE takes an overtly pro-charter/public school choice position, while both CREDO and Mathematica Policy Research are agnostic with regards to charter schools: they simply conduct research and publish their findings. We should also note that CREDO did receive partial funding for the study from the Walton Foundation, which, like the CRPE, is overtly pro-charter/public school choice.

The Big Question

The stated goal of the report was to undertake an “unbiased, data-driven examination of online charter schools” in order to answer the following question:

“What is the average impact of attending an online charter school on the academic growth of students?”

The compelling reason to explore this question, according to the report:

“Online schools, especially online charter schools, are a tiny, but rapidly growing sector in the education realm…The online schools within our 18-state data set have increased their tested student enrollment from 35,000 students in 2009-10 to over 65,000 students in 2012-13. At $6,000 per student, this represents a public investment of $390,000,000 annually. With the number of students expected to continue to grow rapidly, good stewardship demands an examination of the outcomes of public investment.”

Make that roughly four hundred million compelling reasons to explore the question. The results of the CREDO study were controversial upon publication for two reasons:

  1. The data indicate that online charter schools are not doing very well at all.
  2. CREDO published the data despite the fact two major sources of funding for the report were openly pro-charter.

The Evidence: For or Against?

The authors of the study sought to answer their primary question – what is the average impact on academic growth –  by comparing the standardized test scores of students attending online charter schools with students who attended traditional, non-charter, brick-and-mortar schools between 2008 and 2013. Through a complex process of statistical matching, researchers devised a system whereby the results were reported in positive or negative effect sizes, which represented either “more days of learning” or “less days of learning.”

Here’s what they found:

  • Reading. On average, students who attended online charter schools showed an effect size of negative 0.10. That’s the equivalent of 72 fewer days of learning. Only Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin showed a small positive effect size in reading.
  • Math. On average, students who attended online charter schools showed an effect size of negative 0.25. That’s the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning. No states showed positive effect size in math.

The researchers further analyzed the data by creating a variety of subgroupings, such as:

  • Racial-Ethnic Groups
  • Poverty
  • English Language Learners
  • Special Education Students (SPED)

Spinning the Data

This is where things in the report get a little fuzzy, and even a tad amusing. Although it’s impossible to assign motives, it appears the researchers were doing their level best to put a positive spin on the negative impact of online charter schools on academic growth. Sentences like “Math negative growth for [SPED] students in online charters is significantly less negative compared to their non-SPED counterparts” make us scratch our heads in wonder. Were they trying to please the people who funded the research? That’s something we can’t know.  But we can point this out as an example of the word salad that follows many of the less encouraging statistical tables in the report.

In their conclusion, however, CREDO did not sugar coat the results. They identified the following implications for parents, policy makers, and administrators considering the data:

  1. Current online charter schools may be a good fit for some students…but the academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule.
  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.

These three points are important. With close to $400 million of taxpayer money on the line, it’s crucial for respected organizations like CREDO and universities like Stanford to give it to us straight. Online charter schools are not currently helping students improve academically. This does not mean they never will, but at this point, that’s what the numbers say.

Takeaways for Families

The idea of an online charter school, at first blush, may seem brilliant. Especially to parents of students who do not excel in traditional brick-and-mortar public or charter schools, parents of students in special sub-populations, or parents of students in recovery from or treatment for substance use and behavioral or emotional disorders. A recent article in EmergingEdTech lays out the potential advantages most parents see in online charter schools:

  • Increased Flexibility. Students who don’t work well in a classroom or on a typical schedule might excel in an online shcool.
  • Increased Freedom. Students intensely involved in a sport or fine art – think of a gifted tennis player or a violin prodigy – a fully online school could allow them to develop their given talent without completely dropping their fundamental academics.
  • More Personalized. Students who are ahead or behind their age and grade level can proceed at their own pace.
  • Decreased Social Stress. For students with social problems, a fully online school can mitigate school-related stress.

Brilliant, right?

Online Charters: Lots of Potential, But Lots of Work Ahead

Unfortunately, at the moment, online charter schools aren’t living up to their tremendous potential. Which brings us back to the beginning of this article. It’s summer. The perfect time to look back on the school year and decide if you need to make a change. If your child is thriving, then that’s good news: double-down on what works and forge ahead. If you need to make a change, though, and you’re considering an online charter school, we encourage you to use this article as an impetus to thoroughly research the options.

The data says that on average, they don’t help students grow, academically. They do the opposite. Students enrolled in online charter schools go in the wrong direction. But those are statistical averages. And they don’t necessarily mean all online charter schools are a waste of time and taxpayer money. They could work. The technology is certainly there. Common sense says it would take a serious commitment on the part of both parent and student to make it work. An online charter school might be the perfect fit for your child: it’s up to you to decide.