Friday, October 30, 2015

The Charter Knives Come Out

This week you may have caught this report that ran in the Columbus Dispatch and the Washington Post and the Detroit Free Press, to name a few. Turns out there's a study that shows that online charter school students learn far less than their bricks-and-mortar counterparts.

Check out this mind-boggling statistic:

Nationally, online charter students received on average 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days in reading during a typical 180-day school year. In Ohio, with the largest e-school enrollment, students lost 144 days of math and 79 days of reading.

180 days fewer than 180 would seem to equal, well, zero. So on average, the study suggests that studying math in cyber-school is no more productive than 180 days of watching Dr. Phil. And 180 days is an average-- which means that some cyberschools actually move students backwards during the year, I guess. ("Students, in today's lesson, we'll be forcing you to forget everything you know about the quadratic equation.")

These are stunning results, even worse than some of the mean things that I have had to say about cyber charters (and I've said some mean things about the bloodsucking cyberschool vampires that have been allowed to lay waste to much of Pennsylvania's educational landscape).

Who would go after cyber charters with such verve?

Well, let's check the pull quotes. From the Washington Post:

Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said her group was “disheartened to learn of the large-scale underperformance of full-time virtual charter public schools. While we know that this model works for some students, the CREDO report shows that too many students aren’t succeeding in a full-time online environment.”  

From the Detroit Free Press:

Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said in a statement that the results are "deeply troubling."

"There is a place for virtual schooling in our nation, but there is no place for results like these," he said.

And from the Dispatch

“In Ohio and across the United States, students attending virtual charter schools simply are not learning enough,” said Chad L. Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which sponsors 11 traditional charter schools.

“Proponents of school choice are increasingly hard-pressed to defend virtual charters when their academic gains fall so far below the traditional schools against which they are compared.”

Yes, three top charter-loving outfits, all lined up to stick it to the cybers based on the results of this study conducted by-- wait for it-- CREDO.

Yup. If you didn't read these reports carefully enough, you might have missed that the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford. This drubbing of cyber charters comes from the choice-favoring, charter-leaning folks at CREDO, and then has been enthusiastically endorsed by a brace of charter advocates.

What's going on? A new epiphany about chartering? A willingness to confront hard truths? Opposite day?

I don't know. But I can guess. Let's see.... besides advocating for choice and charters, what else does Fordham do in Ohio? That's right--they run bricks and mortar charters.

One aspect of the zero-sum charter-choice landscape has always been predictable. At some point, the charter operators will have to fight each other for those sweet slices of that finite school funding pie. The lofty picture of "competition" has always been neat and bloodless, noble charter operators simply pursuing excellence in hopes that if they built a better math trap, the students would beat a path to their school.

But of course that's not always how competition works. Some times you get out the long knives and start trying to carve up competitors. Because until we fix the stupid, stupid funding system we've got now, more for me must always mean less for you.

So, yes-- charter operators will call for reforms (like say, a New York law that only schools with "success" in the name can be authorized, or an Ohio law that allows payments only for schools that have car manufacturers' names and pork products in their organization title). It was only a matter of time before they started promoting research that proved that some charters are Bad. So they shake their heads, cluck their tongues, and express sadness that Those Terrible Charters are taking attention away from Our Awesome Charters (accepting applications for next year's class soon).

Do I think cyber charters are often dreadful? Sure. But call me a little cynical if I see a bit of self-serving cynicism in the charter community's announcement that they are shocked-- shocked!!-- at some of the awful shenanigans going on. But only Over There.


  1. I think that online schools are largely a mistake, but might make sense in very remote settings. Online classes, however, are an important for students in rural schools. In rural states like mine, where the median high school has about 260 students, the academically gifted student will run out of academic classes long before high school graduation.

    1. As I said in an earlier post, the rural school I taught in that had a graduating class of 30 didn't seem to have a problem with that. They had 9 periods a day but no one ever seemed to run out of classes to take, though they had to allow very small classes for things like calculus and 4th year foreign language, and had to be creative about finding teachers for some of the classes who were licensed in two areas.

      Another solution is what we did at my high school, which was to have what was called a "quest" program where a gifted student was given a textbook and worked on their own, checking in occasionally with a teacher. More or less like an online class, but costs a lot less.

      Online courses don't work very well for a lot of secondary students, but sure, for a highly-motivated, high-achieving student who can teach him or herself, it can work.

  2. Somebody explain to me why blended curriculums are a huge advantage to students except that if students have to do the BS test on the computer, let's get them used to working on the computer.

  3. Just a cautionary note - you appear to be falling into the same error in interpreting "days of learning" that Jersey Jazzman warns about. See his Exchange on Charter Schools part 4. They really are not equivalent to calendar days.

    " The implication Mehlhorn makes here – one that, admittedly, is logical for a layperson – is that the “days of learning” gains translate into additional content. But that can’t possibly be right, because the tests used to judge the “days of learning” do not assess students’ abilities in any content beyond their current grade level.

    To illustrate, let’s use the Common Core standards in math for grade 6. If a student was “a year ahead,” we’d expect that student would be learning content for grade 7. One of the standards in grade 7 math is for students to calculate the circumference of a circle given its diameter. It’s possible a sixth grader knows how to do this… but we’ll never know from the test, because the grade 6 test, if it’s aligned to the standards, doesn’t test grade 7 material. So the grade 6 test won’t ask a student to calculate the circumference, and we won’t know if she can."

    It's not a big deal, but be careful with that particular statistic.