The “gotcha” research on charter schools and innovation continues, with the latest aimed at K12 Inc.’s online schools. There are plenty of important policy and oversight research questions around the performance of charter schools and online schools, but unsupported claims like the latest from the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) are frustrating and unproductive.
The authors, Gary Miron and Jessica Urschel, compare average test scores of schools operated by online education provider K12 with conventional and charter schools operating in the same states. Miron and Urschel conclude that the overall performance in K12 operated schools is “weak” and make broad recommendations for policy on online learning.
The NEPC analysis, however, tells us nothing about whether the students attending these schools are better or worse off as a result of attending. This is because kids and families who choose online schools are not at all like those who don’t. Many teenage students go online after getting into serious trouble at school or because of a traumatic or disruptive event, such as a pregnancy or death in the family. For these students, having a full time online learning option can be a critical bridge during a difficult time, allowing them to re-enter the traditional school system after their crisis has passed. For many the alternative to on-line schooling is not being in school at all.
The performance of these students before they enter K12 is not like that of their peers in conventional schools. It’s impossible to know what value the program adds to their learning without taking that fact into account.
Any serious study of the impact of online programs, then, has to assess individual student trajectories, rather than making comparisons with all kids who are in regular schools. If kids are coming to the program five grade levels behind but leaving a year later only two grade levels behind, the NEPC paper would call that weak performance. Families might call that a game changing success, allowing a student to rejoin peers and get back on track to graduate.
Online learning is exploding in popularity, both among families who are looking for ways to serve kids who need public school options and by public school teachers and principals who want to find ways to create more personalized and effective classroom environments. We need more and rigorous studies of the diverse array of learning technologies available and thoughtful oversight policies, not a rush to judgment based on apples-to watermelon-comparisons.