Virtual School Meanderings

February 4, 2016

Education Week Commentary – Walton Family Foundation: We Must Rethink Online Learning

You know that it is bad when even the Walton Family Foundation is knocking this free market, neo-liberal education reform.

Published Online: January 26, 2016
Published in Print: January 27, 2016, as Walton Family Foundation: Rethink Virtual Charters


Walton Family Foundation: We Must Rethink Online Learning

By its very definition, innovation will always lead to some failed starts. And when that innovation involves educating children, it’s especially important to learn from mistakes and adjust quickly.

The Walton Family Foundation has invested more than $385 million in creating new charter schools over more than two decades to seed educational innovation and improve U.S. education at scale. The foundation has allocated a small fraction of that investment—about $550,000—to virtual charter schools, which teach full-time students exclusively online.

We remain strong believers in creating educational options and opportunities. We have provided startup dollars to about a quarter of the charter schools in the United States, all with the goal of creating opportunity for high-needs students, and we recently committed to investing another $1 billion over the next five years to expand access to high-quality educational choices. In recent years, we have hoped that online charter schools could provide a lifeline for some students. But while we were enthusiastic about supporting online education entrepreneurs, our first priority is always making sure that students are served well.



Measuring impact is fundamental to responsible philanthropy. It is a responsibility we take seriously. The Walton Family Foundation spends about $10 million annually underwriting the nation’s best researchers to investigate questions that will help us make smarter funding decisions to benefit high-needs students, develop promising new technologies and methods to fuel student learning, and help parents, educators, and policymakers improve outcomes for children.

As the largest private funder of charter schools and as strong believers in making fact-based decisions, we wanted to see the hard evidence on virtual charters: What would a dependable measure of the impact of these schools show about their students’ academic growth? We funded three research studies—by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (or CREDO), at Stanford University; the Center on Reinventing Public Education, at the University of Washington; and Mathematica Policy Research—to investigate this question. As with all of our research dollars, we committed to funding these research teams regardless of what their investigations revealed.

The results are, in a word, sobering. The CREDO study found that over the course of a school year, the students in virtual charters learned the equivalent of 180 fewer days in math and 72 fewer days in reading than their peers in traditional charter schools, on average.

This is stark evidence that most online charters have a negative impact on students’ academic achievement. The results are particularly significant because of the reach and scope of online charters: They currently enroll some 200,000 children in 200 schools operating across 26 states. If virtual charters were grouped together and ranked as a single school district, it would be the ninth-largest in the country and among the worst-performing.

“As states think about the future of online education, they should rethink their expectations and policies and test novel policy arrangements.”

Funders, educators, policymakers, and parents cannot in good conscience ignore the fact that students are falling a full year behind their peers in math and nearly half a school year in reading, annually. For operators and authorizers of these schools to do nothing would constitute nothing short of educational malpractice.

As a result of these findings, we at the foundation will ask new, more rigorous questions of online charter operators when we review their funding proposals, in order to expose whether applicants are addressing the problems this research identified. In particular, we want to know: Are the operators suggesting innovative solutions to improve the quality of online learning? There is no magic formula here, but it is clear that what exists doesn’t create the academic opportunities children need. Going forward, we’ll probe deeply on applicants’ answers to the following questions:

What does the proposed instructional program look like? Just as it is important in traditional brick-and-mortar schools for students to spend time with teachers, virtual schools must provide plenty of time for students to learn and interact in live, synchronous ways with their teachers. In today’s online charters, students typically have less instructional time with their teachers in a whole week than students in brick-and-mortar schools have in a day. We don’t presume to know what the best pedagogical approach is for all children, but clearly this formula needs to change.

What are the proposed teacher-student ratios? Today’s online schools have much larger ratios than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. It’s unclear what the right balance is, but it seems clear that schools must facilitate interactions between students and teachers.


What are the expectations of parents? Virtual schools must help students learn without requiring parents to be constantly present and monitoring progress. Parents, of course, must be involved in their children’s education, but schools can’t abdicate their responsibility in this equation. Virtual charter educational providers should be thinking through the right role for parents and how schools will meet their own educational remits.

We urge policymakers to make changes, too. Charter authorizers—government-sanctioned bodies responsible for reviewing and approving charter operators—must take action if schools are failing students. And the oversight of educational practice applies to authorizers, as well as to schools and educators. Authorizers should be graded on the performance of their portfolios: If schools fail students, authorizers must take action. If they don’t, authorizers themselves should be put out of business.

Going forward, authorizers should create new accountability systems to ensure that no school fails, month after month and year after year. The review process must include observation of instruction and close review of student and parent expectations. We think a shorter review cycle, rather than waiting years, might catch problems earlier.

As states think about the future of online education, they should rethink their expectations and policies and test novel policy arrangements. For example, one policy that we think has potential would tie funding to performance. Four states—Florida, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Utah—are currently testing performance-based funding systems. Perhaps we’ll discover that providing virtual schools funding only after students demonstrate mastery is the right way to hold these publicly funded schools accountable.

That said, with this approach, it would be important to guard against perverse incentives that could arise. For example, policymakers would need to make sure that schools weren’t pushing out or otherwise neglecting students who are so far behind that getting them to pass required courses or summative assessments would appear extremely resource-intensive.

Other funding reforms worth considering are tracking enrollments and providing associated student-based funding each month, rather than annually. This would help prevent students from being easily forgotten.

To be clear, our comments about online charter schools are not an indictment of instructional technology or online learning more generally, nor how these stand to help create more high-quality educational options. Nor is this the Walton Family Foundation abandoning its mission of creating more educational opportunities for American children. There are many examples of technology being used in conventional classrooms in ways that enhance learning. New blended learning models are showing promise, as is allowing students to customize learning through the use of online platforms.

But the data from this study do not lie: Online education must be reimagined. Ignoring the problem—or worse, replicating failures—serves nobody.

Vol. 35, Issue 19, Pages 24-25, 27

October 27, 2015

Responses To CREDO’s Online Charter School Study 2015

As a follow-up to the entries on New National Study Details The Operations And Effects Of Online Charter Schools and CREDO – Online Charter School Study 2015, I have to say that I have found the immediate response kind of funny.

The first thing to remember is that CREDO has tended to publish pro-charter research, and that this particular study was funded by the Walton Foundation (who love all things school choice).

The second thing to remember is that researchers that have reviewed previous CREDO reports have had significant concerns with the research methodology that CREDO uses.  For example:

In most of their past research, CREDO has tended to find that charters are doing a good job using this questionable methodology.

Now in the current Online Charter School Study 2015 CREDO has found that there is little redeeming about student performance in online charter school.  So we all know what is going to happen – in fact, I’ve written about what was and is going to happen…

And of course, the predictable happened/is happening…

K12 Inc. Responds to Online Charter School Report / Analysis of Online Charter School Study by CREDO/Mathematica/CRPE

  • even though the study found that online charter schools enroll fewer disadvantaged students, but still claim that they do enroll more at-risk student (i.e., argue that the research is wrong)
  • raises same critiques about the methodology that organizations like the NEPC (linked above) have been raising for years
  • data is dated and the findings are different now, they have their own internal, non-reviewed, corporate reports to prove it

CREDO Study of Online Learning Gets an Incomplete

  • highlights the minor positive aspects of the report (even though the report is almost completely negative towards online charter schools)
  • raises same critiques about the methodology that organizations like the NEPC (linked above) have been raising for years
  • data is dated and the findings are different now,the for profit corporations (who have no vested interest in keeping the gravy train going) have their own internal, non-reviewed, corporate reports to prove it
  • co-opts the findings for a call for some of his own pet projects (i.e., things iNACOL wants that would open open the market to allow for more profiting and pillaging).

Response to CREDO at Stanford Report

Reaction to New Online Charter School Study

  • summarizes the findings,then complains about the fact that the study didn’t include their pet project (kind of like the journal reviewer that recommends rejection of your manuscript, and then outlines the study that they would have done if they were in your shoes)

Analyzing the CREDO Online Charter School Report: A Call for Improved Performance Metrics and Quality Assurance

  • summarizes the findings, then co-opts the results for a call for some of their own pet projects

Findings in Stanford Online School Study Have No Bearing on Blended Learning

  • summarizes the findings, then complains about the fact that the study didn’t include their pet project

National Alliance Responds to CREDO’s Virtual Charter Schools Report

  • ignore the evidence and argues that charter schools work, research from this same group (ignoring the flawed methodology that now even online charter advocates acknowledge) says so
  • we should close charter schools that don’t work (while at the same time fighting against any meaningful regulation or policy that would allow states to do this)
  • charter schools only serve a small number of students (but make big profits for the companies that do serve that small percentage)
  • finally, confound the issue by reminding us that the study didn’t include blended charter schools, and those are examples of online charter schools that do work

CER Responds to Online Charter School Report

  • even though the study found that online charter schools enroll fewer disadvantaged students, but still claim that they do enroll more at-risk student (i.e., argue that the research is wrong)
  • raises same critiques about the methodology that organizations like the NEPC (linked above) have been raising for years
  • changes the topic altogether (“Will someone please things about the children!”)

Shouldn’t surprise anyone…

CREDO – Online Charter School Study 2015

A couple of hours ago I posted New National Study Details The Operations And Effects Of Online Charter Schools.  Here are some more details on the report.

The actual report:

The press releases:

Early media:

More in an hour or two…


New National Study Details The Operations And Effects Of Online Charter Schools

So earlier today, this showed up in my inbox…

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OCTOBER 27, 2015

Online Charter School Students Falling Behind Their Peers

New national study details the operations and effects of online charter schools





















































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Innovative new research suggests that students of online charter schools had significantly weaker academic performance in math and reading, compared with their counterparts in conventional schools. The National Study of Online Charter Schools, released today, offers a rigorous analysis of the operations of online charter schools, their policy environments, and their impacts on student achievement. Conducted by three independent research institutions, the study is the most comprehensive examination of online charter schools to date, and is organized into separate, topical report volumes. In Volume I,Mathematica Policy Research describes the universe of online charter schools, the students they serve, and their operations. In Volume II, theCenter on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington describes the policy environments of online charter schools and provides recommendations to state policymakers. In Volume III, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University describes the achievement effects of online charter schools.


Volume I—Inside Online Charter Schools by Mathematica Policy Research

Media Contact—Jennifer de Vallance 202-484-4692 /

Mathematica’s report offers a snapshot of the 200 online charter schools operating across the country and the 200,000 elementary, middle, and high school students they serve. The report examines the instructional programs of online charter schools; methods used to engage students and parents, along with expectations of parental involvement; the teachers and principals of online charter schools; and the schools’ management and governance.

Mathematica’s analysis finds:

Student-driven, independent study is the dominant mode of learningin online charter schools, with 33 percent of online charter schools offering only self-paced instruction.
Online charter schools typically provide students with less live teacher contact time in a week than students in conventional schools have in a day.
Maintaining student engagement in this environment of limited student-teacher interaction is considered the greatest challenge by far, identified by online charter school principals nearly three times as often as any other challenge.
Online 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.

Brian Gill, a Mathematica senior fellow and lead author of the report, said, “Challenges in maintaining student engagement are inherent in online instruction, and they are exacerbated by high student-teacher ratios and minimal student-teacher contact time, which the data reveal are typical of online charter schools nationwide. These findings suggest reason for concern about whether the sector is likely to be effective in promoting student achievement.”

Additional findings from the Volume I report are available: In Focus Fact Sheet.

Volume II—The Policy Framework for Online Charter Schools by the Center on Reinventing Public Education

Media Contact—Debra Britt 206-221-3331

The Center on Reinventing Public Education conducted an extensive examination of how state policy shapes the online charter school landscape. Researchers found that online charter schools exist in a number of different policy environments due to variation in state charter law and administrative regulation.

Most of the existing regulation is reactive to controversy (restrictions on growth and autonomy), rather than proactive policies to guide the unique opportunities and challenges of online charters. The authors found several drawbacks to forcing online schools into the charter context, including:

Open admission requirements that prevent schools from screening for students who are most likely to be successful in an online school
Authorizing and accountability provisions that are not well suited to the unique challenges of regulating online schools
Funding mechanisms that preclude outcomes-based funding

CRPE director Robin Lake, who co-authored the study, said, “We need policies that address legitimate concerns without needlessly restricting growth.” The report recommends that policymakers consider moving online schools out of the charter context, or craft unique provisions specific to online charters.

Volume III—Online Charter School Study by CREDO at Stanford University

Media Contact—Meg Cotter Mazzola

The CREDO at Stanford University report presents the most comprehensive findings available to date about impacts of online charter enrollment on the academic progress of students. Although findings vary for each student, the results in CREDO’s report show that the majority of online charter students had far weaker academic growth in both math and reading compared to their peers at traditional public schools. To conceptualize this shortfall, it 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 and ethnic subpopulations and students in poverty.

“While the overall findings of our analysis are somber, we do believe the information will serve as the foundation for constructive discussions on the role of online schools in the K–12 sector. We see an opportunity for the providers to do a better job of documenting the benefits they provide to their students and to connect with and learn from operators who are doing well,” said Dr. James Woodworth, senior quantitative research analyst for CREDO at Stanford University.

This mixed-methods analysis included data from 158 online schools across 17 states and the District of Columbia. The data set for online school students is restricted to those students attending public, full-time online charter schools.

The National Study of Online Charter Schools was funded by the Walton Family Foundation. “We support research on difficult questions like these because we want to know what is working for kids—and what is not. Innovation in education takes time, but we must test whether new ideas are working and make changes when we learn that ideas with potential are falling short,” said the director of research and evaluation for the Walton Family Foundation, Marc Holley. “We’re grateful that CRPE, Mathematica, and CREDO have studied these schools and are sharing their findings. Knowing the facts helps parents, educators, policymakers, and funders make smarter, more informed decisions that benefit children,” said Holley.

About Mathematica:
Mathematica Policy Research seeks to improve public well-being by conducting studies and assisting clients with program evaluation and policy research, survey design and data collection, research assessment and interpretation, and program performance/data analytics and management. Its clients include foundations, federal and state governments, and private-sector and international organizations. The employee-owned company is headquartered in Princeton, NJ, with offices in Ann Arbor, MI; Cambridge, MA; Chicago, IL; Oakland, CA; and Washington, DC.

About The Center on Reinventing Public Education:
The Center on Reinventing Public Education is a research and policy analysis center developing systemwide solutions for K-12 public education. CRPE is based in Seattle and affiliated with the University of Washington Bothell. CRPE’s work is funded entirely through philanthropy, federal grants, and contracts.

About CREDO at Stanford University:
CREDO at Stanford University was established to improve empirical evidence about education reform and student performance at the primary and secondary levels. CREDO at Stanford University supports education organizations and policymakers in using reliable research and program evaluation to assess the performance of education initiatives. CREDO’s valuable insight helps educators and policymakers strengthen their focus on the results from innovative programs, curricula, policies or accountability practices.

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June 19, 2009

CREDO National Charter School Study

Okay, this news item has come across my radar screen from a number of sources.  I believe the first may have been the ASCD SmartBrief item that read:

Study questions charter-school education

ASCD SmartBrief | 06/16/2009

More than a third of charter schools “deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student[s] would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools,” according to Stanford University research funded in part by pro-charter groups. “If this study shows anything, it shows that we’ve got a two-to-one margin of bad charters to good charters,” said lead author Margaret E. Raymond, who directs Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. “That’s a red flag.” Education Week (premium article access compliments of (06/15) St. Petersburg Times (Fla.) (06/16) Los Angeles Times (06/15)

Then there was the Yahoo! News item that began:

Virtual Reasoning Lacks Charter School Realities
PR Newswire – Mon Jun 15, 1:49 pm ET


Contact: Jonathan Oglesby of Center for Education Reform, 800-521-2118,

New report on charter school performance misses the mark

WASHINGTON, June 15 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — The Center for Education Reform (CER) disputes findings on charter school performance released today by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes’ (CREDO), believing they used uncorrelated variables, contradictory demographics and virtual methodology. More than 16 years of charter school research and analysis from the Center for Education Reform (CER) shows that charter schools are outpacing their conventional public school peers with fewer resources and tremendous obstacles.

(read more, click here)

Then there was the blog item The New Charter School Study posted at The Quick and the Ed.

And while I have not read the report – which you can view here – in question yet (as I am still reading AP European History exams at the College Board reading), it seems that both folks who often take a more conservative approach to education policy and those who take a more liberal approach, all seem to have something bad to say about this report.

From the various sources reporting, it appears that after 15 years in operation charter schools can report that “17 percent of the charter schools outperformed their traditional public school equivalents, 46 percent were indistinguishable, and a disturbing 37 percent performed significantly worse”.

While I don’t know if there is any information that is specific to cyber charter school, I think these findings are quite interesting.  Especially coming on the heels of other reports this year that have less than stellar findings (see Selective Conclusions About Charters and Cyber Charter School Research).

Hopefully I’ll have some time to digest this report a little more once I return to Windsor/Detroit…

Update: As I am often critical of charter schools – and particularly cyber charter schools – I wanted to note this logical and laudable position.  Another item from the ASCD SmartBrief:

Charter group wants to help shut down struggling charter schools
California charter schools could soon be evaluated — and possibly closed down — under a proposal being pushed by the association that represents them after Stanford University research found wide differences in their quality. Ted Mitchell, president of the state’s education board, called it a “spectacular idea,” but one that would likely take time to implement. Los Angeles Times (6/18)

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