New report misses part of the analysis but serves as a good basis for discussion
June 17, 2016
June 16, 2016
The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools has supported the closing of virtual schools that have not met performance standards and the denial of new applications that fall short of solid academic, governance, and performance criteria, but any educational research is only the beginning of understanding an issue and its potential resolution.
Earlier today the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 50CAN released “A Call to Action to Improve the Quality of Full-time Virtual Charter Public Schools”.
The report highlights a very valid and important issue, sites some compelling and disturbing data, and provides recommendations that seek to drive quality in the newest form of public education. But it goes from data to recommendations lacking a deeper understanding of the causes and provides recommendations based on national averages that are an invalid foundation for wise or effective state public policy.
As a result, the report is very useful as the basis for constructive discussion on how delivery of learning through technology can be improved, but less valuable as an unquestioned prescription for action.
There is nothing new in the report relative to student engagement being a challenge in virtual schools, poverty levels being higher, low academic performers being more prevalent, turnover being more persistent, parental involvement being critical to student success, or the virtual model not being appropriate for every student. Those are challenges that virtual schools deal with daily.
But the offered recommendations are largely either already in place or illegal in Pennsylvania.
Recommendation: Only statewide authorizers should be permitted to oversee virtual schools. Response: Already true in Pennsylvania.
Recommendation: Establish enrollment criteria for admission to virtual schools. Response: Understand the logic behind this recommendation but, as a public school, this is illegal in Pennsylvania.
Recommendation: Establish caps on virtual school enrollment. Response: Disagree. So long as there are parents whose children’s needs are being ignored by the traditional school, there must be access to a good quality option. But it must be an informed decision by the parents.
Recommendation: Establish jointly determined standards and accountability for performance. Response: Agree.
Recommendation: Funding for virtual charters based on actual costs. Response: Agree and a commission to do that is proposed in House Bill 530. But any analysis must take into consideration that charters do not have the ability to raise taxes and some accommodation for increasing costs must be included in the cost structure.
Recommendation: Implement performance based funding. Response: Disagree unless the same criteria are established for all public schools. If this recommendation is valid for increasing performance in virtual schools, then it should also be appropriate and recommended for every public school.
To truly understand virtual school performance, you first need to understand virtual education, which is designed to serve some specific and very challenging needs in the education system.
– More than 50 percent of the students in virtual schools are there because they were failing in a traditional school or the previous school was unable to support their specific needs. Virtual schools are a refuge for these students to receive individual support, develop confidence in their abilities, and become re-engaged in learning.
– Many students enter virtual schools in grades 7-11 and stay for only one year. This is not sufficient time to bring them to proficiency when they often enter from the traditional schools two to three years behind in reading and math. Many of the students in virtual schools are new every year, but those who do stay for at least two years in the best virtual schools have significantly higher graduation rates and perform better on state exams.
– For many underperforming students, virtual schools are their only option. If the student is not doing well in a traditional school, and brick and mortar charters are full or non-existent in their geographic area, cyber schools become the only public alternative to dropping out.
This is not to say that the data or the recommendations from the report are invalid and should be discounted – quite the opposite. The study raises red flags that must be discussed and better understood. But in this discussion, it’s important to understand that virtual learning is relatively new, different from brick and mortar education, and representative of the innovative methods of learning that charter schools were created to explore. Virtual schools are not the right option for every student and there is room for improvement, but the good virtual schools are doing a great job of serving a student population that would otherwise fall through the cracks in our traditional education system.