Virtual School Meanderings

April 6, 2010

Problem With Cyber Charter Schools – PA & NJ Edition

Last week I wrote the first in what will probably be an on-going topic – as it is a topic that I am particularly interesting (see Problem With Cyber Charter Schools – Part One).

Anyway, this was an interesting series that the LeHigh Valley Live folks posted a couple of weeks or so ago:

The series is actually based on more detailed articles that were published by the LeHigh Valley Express-Times:

I say interesting for a number of reasons, but one is due to the location.  Cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania (and Ohio for that matter) when they were first created did suffer from many of the problems described in these articles (e.g., lack of oversight, fraud in terms of funding provided for students that didn’t actually attend the cyber charter school, lack of participation in state testing regimes, etc.).  While I believe in both instances (i.e., Pennsylvania and Ohio) that things have gotten much better, I do still believe that within the traditional public education community this early “Wild West” mentality gained them a reputation that they still haven’t been able to shake (and that has followed cyber charter schools to other jurisdictions).

It is also interesting because the main focus of these articles is Pennsylvania.  You see a doctoral student of mine, Abigail Hawkins, and I did a study a couple of years ago looking at what policies K-12 online learning programs had with regards to trial periods (i.e., that period of time a student can try out an online course, drop it and not be counted as being officially enrolled) and how they calculated successful completions.  Note that this study will be published in the American Journal of Distance Education sometime this month. One of the results of that study was a finding that in Pennsylvania the state required that cyber charter schools not have a trial period – that their enrollment data was kept in the same manner as a brick-and-mortar public school (i.e., beginning on the first day of school).  This was the only jurisdiction where this was done.  What this means is that comparisons of completion rates, school performance and student performance can be accurately made between the cyber charter schools and the brick-and-mortar schools in Pennsylvania – and only Pennsylvania – because you are comparing apples to apples.

So let’s do some very basic comparisons.  The Standard of education article lists that there was 1 cyber charter school making AYP, 3 cyber charter schools that were making progress towards meeting AYP, and 7 cyber charter schools not meeting AYP.  When you compare this statewide (and you can get that data here), you get the following:

Type of school Made AYP Making Progress Towards AYP Did Not Meet AYP Total
Cyber Charter Schools 1 (9.1%) 3 (27.3%) 7 (63.7%) 11
Brick-And-Mortar Schools 2290 (73.8%) 149 (4.8%) 665 (21.4%) 3104
Total 2291 (73.5%) 152 (4.9%) 672 (21.6%) 3115

The numbers don’t look particularly good for the cyber charter school community.  I should note that it would be a much better comparison is you could compare the overall student data – which I’ve never done for Pennsylvania – although it would make a nice dissertation project because of the whole apples to apples thing.

Now the argument can – and likely will be made as soon as I post this – that cyber charter schools cater to a different kind of student.  I’ve speculated as much in a recent article in the Journal of Distance Learning:

However, in this instance the literature may not provide a complete picture of the virtual school landscape. For example, in her opening remarks to the 2007 annual Virtual School Symposium, Susan Patrick explained that the two courses with the highest enrolment of online students in the United States were Algebra I and Algebra II. These mathematics courses are usually taken in the first year of high school, and many of the online students enrolled in these courses are taking the course for the second or third time. Watson et al. (2008) indicated that the largest growth in K–12 online learning enrolment is in the full-time cyber schools, and both Watson et al. and Klein (2006) indicate that many cyber schools have a higher percentage of students classified as ‘at-risk’. Rapp, Eckes, and Plurker (2006) described at-risk students as those who might otherwise drop out of traditional schools. Concerns or issues that students have with their teachers and courses (such as organisation, lessons, assignments, and grading) have the potential to create roadblocks to success. While the report Charter Schools in Eight States: Effects on Achievement, Attainment, Integration, and Competition reports that “virtual [cyber] charter middle schools lag substantially behind classroom-based charter middle schools” (Zimmer, 2009, pp. 40–41), it also cautions against drawing conclusions because many of those included in the comparison “may be students who are especially likely to have experienced an event producing a decline in their expected future achievement” (p. 41). These events cause the kind of roadblocks described by Rapp and her colleagues. (Barbour, 2009, 17-18)

The problem is that it is speculation.  For the most part, the only information we have about cyber charter schools is what the for profit companies that manage them are willing to share – and like any business model you share what presents you in the best light and you only share what you have to because you’re in a competitive business.

It was just a week or two ago that I was chatting with a colleague in the K-12 online learning community who indicated that he refuses to even mention cyber charter schools when he does presentations about K-12 online learning because in his opinion there had not been able publicly available, independent research and/or evaluations conducted on any of these for profit companies.  I can’t disagree.  The only evaluations I’m aware of were the Bracey (2004) and Ohanian (2004) ones; and neither of those were favourable towards the cyber charter school in question.

Unfortunately until that void begins to get filled with credible, reliable, independent research, there will continue to be questions about the effectiveness of and funding for this form of schooling.

Bibliography:

Barbour, M. K. (2009). Today’s student and virtual schooling: The reality, the challenges, the promise… Journal of Distance Learning, 13(1), 5-25.

Bracey, G. W. (2004). Knowledge universe and virtual schools: Educational breakthrough or digital raid on the public treasury? Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University. Retrieved from http://epsl.asu.edu/epru/documents/EPSL-0404-118-EPRU.pdf

Ohanian, S. (2004). The K12 virtual primary school history curriculum: A participant’s-eye view. Tempe, AZ: Education Policy Studies Laboratory, Arizona State University. Retrieved from http://epsl.asu.edu/epru/documents/EPSL-0404-117-EPRU.pdf

50 Comments »

  1. Not all cyber charters are operated by for-profits.
    The largest and most successful cyber in Pennsylvania – 9,000 students strong – is the home-grown Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. Many administrative services and most of the online curricula for PA Cyber are provided by the National Network of Digital Schools, a nonprofit foundation created by the same leadership team which started PA Cyber.
    PA Cyber has met all AYP targets two of the past three years (21 in 2007 and 29 in 2009). Unfortunately not stringing these two years together places us in the “Making Progress” category. PA Cyber has MET ALL ACADEMIC TARGETS every year save one (2008, math) since NCLB was instituted. Participation in a few subgroups kept us from meeting AYP in the early years.
    A school district can have several schools within that district miss AYP and the district can still make it. The PSSA is designed for traditional schools, yet is used as a club to beat on cybers – especially by superintendents who need a whipping boy at budget time.
    Some of these same superintendents encourage, even facilitate, their low-performing students to enroll in cybers, removing them from their PSSA testing pool.

    Comment by Fred Miller — April 6, 2010 @ 11:39 am | Reply

  2. Fred, I agree that not all cyber charter schools are run by for profit companies, but I do believe that would describe most of them. And even within that for profit community, there are some shining lights. As I mentioned a couple of months ago in Cyber Charter Schooling in Michigan I joined the board of the proposed Michigan Connections Academy because in my dealing with that particular company I have always been impressed by them (and the fact that they have expressed an interest in having me do research with this particular school was specifically enticing as one of my main complaints has always been that these groups tend to be closed shop).

    I think I’ve also mentioned in the past here that I had the opportunity to hear Linda Gillis of Insight Schools speak to one of the Classroom 2.0 webinars and I was very impressed with how forthright she was in her responses to the participants questions. It wasn’t the typical or standard line that you often get from folks in the cyber charter community.

    Finally, if I’m not mistaken the PCCS was the focus of a couple of articles in the special issue of Tech Trends that was published last year – which would make it one of the few cyber charter schools that have attempted to fill in the void of academic literature related to cyber charter schooling.

    The overall problem is that there are hundreds, probably thousands, of cyber charter schools out there – the vast majority being operated by for profit companies – and you can point to one and I can point at a few others that we would agree are breaking the trends on the void of “credible, reliable, independent research”. Contrast this with the amount of open evaluation and published independent research being done with the supplemental programs that are out there and you can see why people who value “credible, reliable, independent” information are often down on the cyber charter community.

    Comment by mkbnl — April 6, 2010 @ 11:56 am | Reply

  3. [...] wouldn’t try to paint everyone with the same brush (I do often mention them in the comments, see Problem With Cyber Charter Schools – PA & NJ Edition).  As a good example of this, another item that appeared in my Twitter stream a couple of days ago [...]

    Pingback by More Blind Leading The Blind « Virtual School Meanderings — April 8, 2010 @ 2:05 pm | Reply

  4. Problem With Cyber Charter Schools – PA & NJ Edition…

    I say interesting for a number of reasons, but one is due to the location. Cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania (and Ohio for that matter) when they were first created did suffer from many of the problems described in these articles (e.g., lack of ove…

    Trackback by Teaching and Developing Online — April 13, 2010 @ 9:32 pm | Reply

  5. [...] Problem With Cyber Charter Schools – PA [...]

    Pingback by Statistics For April 2010 « Virtual School Meanderings — May 1, 2010 @ 12:08 am | Reply

  6. What provisions are there for supervision for high school age kids
    while they are being cyber schooled? I understand that in PA,
    parents must promise that their children are getting
    adult supervision. Is that true in all states? If so, how
    can schools enforce it? I know of at least one case
    in another state where a cyber-schooled student
    was not supervised, and had visits from other
    high school students (skipping school) during those unsupervised hours.

    Comment by Celinda Scott — June 2, 2010 @ 7:54 pm | Reply

  7. Celinda, it depends on how you define supervision. Under the cyber charter school laws in most states, the student is considered under the supervision of their online teacher (at least for legal purposes). Obviously, this is not the line of sight kind of supervision that we would expect in a brick-and-mortar school. Many, but not all, of the cyber charter schools also employ a learning coach – which is often the child’s parent. In that model the learning coach also has some responsibility for supervision, however, since progress is measured by performance (usually on standardized tests) it wouldn’t really matter if the child was supervised and it was recorded that they spent 29 hours this week on their online studies. What would matter in the end is whether the student was able to perform at a level that was needed for them to proceed to the next lesson, unit, course, or grade.

    Now, I have to say that this is my understanding of how the system works – not necessarily my personal view on how the system should work. That’s another topic for another day…

    Comment by mkbnl — June 2, 2010 @ 9:19 pm | Reply

  8. Thanks, mkbni. The problem I’m concerned with (as I think you realize) isn’t the supervision of academic
    learning, which can be done on line–it’s that other kind of supervision that’s done in a bricks and mortar
    school, in which the school –”in loco parentis”–is responsible for the physical safety and appropriate
    behavior of the students. If a student gets into some sort of trouble, for instance, and the school can be shown not to have been aware of just where the student was, the school district can be (and has been) sued. If students are involved
    inappropriately with each other in a bricks and mortar school, the school can set limits to prevent that. With cyber schools,
    the parents may promise physical supervision, but there’s no way to check up on it and no one to hold them
    to it (parents can sue schools for not providing a safe environment, but as far as I know it doesn’t work
    the other way). The at-home student can invite other students to skip school and visit when his/her parents are not there, as has happened in a situation I’m close to, leading to truancy and academic failure on the part of the visitors. Not a very healthy situation for adolescents. Despite some benefits of cyber schooling, it seems to me that in some instances the lack of physical supervision of teens for long periods every day leads to something I don’t think is healthy for students and families and the larger society. “In loco parentis” was a concept abandoned decades ago at the college level, and now that abandonment seems to be reaching down into high school–teens are considered “mature” enough to supervise themselves during the school day in areas not related to academic achievement. I think that is unrealistic.

    Comment by Celinda Scott — June 2, 2010 @ 9:58 pm | Reply

  9. I don’t disagree Celinda… I have often referred to many forms of cyber charter school – particularly when it comes to elementary school students – as glorified home schooling on the public’s dime (and in all honesty the curricular materials of some – but fortunately not most – cyber charter schools isn’t much better than some of the instructional CD-Roms available at Chapters or Barnes and Noble.

    In terms of the home supervision by parents, the whole notion of brick-and-mortar supervision is based on the premise of “in loco parentis” or in place of the prudent parent. If the actual parents have no problem leaving their adolescent alone to “do their online schooling” without direct supervision, then legally there isn’t much that can be done. That is their version of prudent parenting.

    Comment by mkbnl — June 2, 2010 @ 10:09 pm | Reply

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