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CER Responds to Online Charter School Report

October 27, 2015

An area of education generally, and school choice specifically, that has suffered from a lack of clarity in the K-12 policy space has been online learning. It seems that this can be traced to a common “we don’t really understand how that works” mentality. Unfortunately, this includes many vital stakeholders necessary to the creation of strong school choices for America’s students, including policymakers, authorizers, and school boards. When coupled with the politically contentious issue of charter schools — the school model through which a good number of full-time online learning programs have been established — one sees camps of education reformers dig in on one side or the other when it comes to supporting the ability of online schools to achieve student growth and success.

A new report released today by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) attempts to answer long-held questions and introduce a more substantial discussion of online charter schools into the great education debate. To some degree, they accomplish this through the sheer amount of information and data they present (with additional online learning statistics and survey results contributed by Mathematica and the Center for Reinventing Public Education). However, it should be noted that the report does attempt to make sweeping conclusions and generalities about online charter schools, even though the sample size is just 158 schools across 17 States and Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, their findings echo much of what is already known and identify obstacles to success that developers and providers of full-time online learning have shared publicly as they continue to innovate.

While we appreciate the desire to learn more about how online charter schools are impacting student outcomes, we have concerns with CREDO’s Online Charter School Study.

• Many parents choose online options for their children based on exceptional circumstances and situations, ranging from safety and bullying concerns, to academic issues, to social and emotional issues, medical reasons, and more. For some families, an online school is the only public option available aside from the assigned traditional public school that is not working for their child.

• Data indicates that a majority of students who enroll in online schools do so after the beginning of the school year. This is an important factor this study left out, as the length of time a student is enrolled in a school impacts performance and the ability of the school to improve a student’s academic outcomes.

• Another concern is the (continued) use of a contested methodology throughout the report. The “virtual twin” methodology used, over which CER and other researchers have voiced concerns before, fails to take into account factors such as reasons for enrolling or mobility, dangerously assuming online charter school students face similar circumstances to traditional public school students, when the reality is they are very different.

Online charter schools provide a much-needed option within a larger portfolio of public school programs that offer students the opportunity to identify a learning environment that is right for them. All schools should be held accountable for outcomes, regardless of how or where education is delivered and learning assessed. And in fact, all charter schools are by their very nature held accountable for results in exchange for some operational freedoms, while this is not true of traditional programs. Accountability is achieved through clear policy expectations, professional authorization and unbiased oversight, intentional and research-based practice, and an unrelenting focus on providing students with schools that fit their unique needs.

Policies must also be in place that allow parents choices so that when traditional schools aren’t meeting students’ needs, they can seek out an education option that will meet their child’s unique set of circumstances. Online charter schools are an important part of that equation, and fill a unique void in education in the United States. We must not forget that while all schools must be held accountable for student outcomes, students’ learning needs are unique and varied and require similarly varied modalities to support their success.