Operating a brick and mortar school is expensive. Maintenance of the physical plant is expensive and limits growth opportunities to the space available. Hiring teaching talent locally can also be a challenge for a traditional school. Finding the right person with the right credentials who is willing to move to your geographical location is not easy. Enter the on-line school to solve these problems. Well credentialed teachers need never leave their base of operations.  Enrollment is not limited to a building size. Students could work at their own pace. Sounds like a win for virtual charter school operators, except that a recent study showed such schools actually perform worse than traditional brick and mortar schools.

The siren call of the virtual classroom as the answer to the problem of providing an education when local resources just aren’t adequate has been luring charter operators and even legislators to promote on-line classrooms. CREDO, the education research center at Standford University has done a meta study of such programs being used by charter schools, the “most comprehensive examination of online charter schools to date” and found that “students of online charter schools had significantly weaker academic performance in math and reading, compared with their counterparts in conventional schools.”

How much worse? CREDO said to conceptualize the shortfall in academic growth,

would equate to a student losing 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math, based on a 180-day school year.

This pattern of weaker growth remained consistent across racial-ethnic subpopulations and students in poverty.

We already know that poverty can have a significant impact on student growth and could confound results in a study like this, but CREDO broke out the students not in poverty, the ones we might typically think would do better with on-line course work. This chart shows that the downward effects were seen even in white, non-poverty, non special ed students in terms of average growth in reading compared to traditional public school students.

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The results are even more stark for math growth.

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As is the case with data crunchers like CREDO, the study only shows the trends. It does not offer explanations for the trends or policy recommendations although it did say that the significant factor was whether the school was on-line or not, not whether it was a traditional public school or a charter school.

The Mathematica study did note that on-line charter schools

  • Place significant expectations on parents, perhaps to compensate for limited student-teacher interaction, with 43, 56, and 78 percent of online charters at the high school, middle, and elementary grade levels, respectively, expecting parents to actively participate in student instruction

This begins to paint a picture of the very particular type of student who could benefit from on-line charter schools. In addition, it also shows the type of home situation that will not lend itself to student success in an on-line charter school, the single working parent of multiple siblings living close to the poverty line with limited access to the technology necessary for on-line work. Such charters could actually increase the divide between the haves and the have nots.

The study also highlights the importance of actual teacher interaction with students. A digital genius in front of a large number students does not appear to lead to growth. What does this say about the guide on the side model that is also being promoted where students are expected to direct their own digital learning with the teacher being a limited use resource?

The Walton Family Foundation sponsored the studies done by CRPE, Mathematica, and CREDO. Walton is a well known backer of charter schools. What is one of the most likely challengers to brick and mortar charter schools? On-line or virtual schools. Such schools have almost doubled their enrollment in three years and that growth is expected to continue. The study focused on these on-line charters, not regular schools that offer supplemental on-line course work.

CREDO cautioned states to examine the progress of on-line schools and the current oversight models before expanding the number of such programs.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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