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:
- Cyber schools costly, ineffective, public school officials say
- Abuse among cyber schools is rampant, according to some officials
- School districts look to retain students by offering own alternatives to cyber schools
The series is actually based on more detailed articles that were published by the LeHigh Valley Express-Times:
- Cyber schools come under fire from public school districts, officials
- Different rules in New Jersey don’t require public funding of cyber schools
- Standard of education
- Cyber school advocates say they’re as accountable as public schools
- Public schools launch cyber programs in attempt to compete with cyber schools
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.
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