US expert warns against online charter schools

February 2017


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Education Review talks to Professor Gary Miron about the effect online charter schools are having on education in the United States.


When communities of online learning – or COOLs – first made their appearance on New Zealand’s education landscape, slipped in amidst other clauses of the Education Amendment Bill, everyone wondered if they’d read it correctly.

While Ministry of Education is emphatic that COOLs are not online charter schools, there is some concern among the sector that the communities might be too far away from the concept.

The US experience

The first virtual charter schools in the US opened just before 2000. Today there are more than 500, in addition to around 150 blended learning schools.

Professor Gary Miron of Western Michigan University says virtual charter schools are performing so poorly that “bricks-and-mortar charter schools” want to distance themselves from them. Even though the ‘traditional’ charter schools are performing worse than state schools that share similar demographic traits, they perceive these virtual schools – or “cyberschools” as they are often called – as worse still. Research supports this hierarchy that has emerged… and yet, these cyberschools persist. Why?

Miron, who is also a fellow at the National Education Policy Center in the US, believes it boils down to profitability. The virtual schools have few overheads to worry about. They don’t need things like classrooms or physical equipment or lunch provision. So from the outset they have a significant cost advantage and the ability to be very profitable. This is enhanced by the schools maintaining high teacher-to-student ratios, in many cases more than double the number of students in a typical state classroom are allocated to one teacher in a cyber school.

Unsurprisingly, the schools are failing to meet their academic targets. Only about a quarter have reportedly met their state achievement targets. A Stanford University study supports this, showing that over the course of one year, on average, kids attending virtual schools were actually losing ground academically. It comes as no surprise to learn that they have very high attrition rates.

So why would parents send their kids there?

Miron says rather than reinvesting their profits into improving the situation for kids, they are spending increasing amounts on recruiting more students – again unsurprising, given the high student attrition rates. Their recruitment and advertising is directed at the children themselves, rather than their parents. The kids get excited by the idea of learning digitally from home and push their parents to enrol them.

However, in reality, many students who enrol with cyberschools are not suited to learning in this way – often in isolation, without the necessary adult supervision and support. They find themselves learning on their own. They lack the parental support needed to participate in this sort of virtual learning environment.

Not against online learning

Miron is all for online learning. He just feels that it can be delivered better through the existing public education system.

“Online learning is an important education tool for students. I’m not against online schools at all, but years of research and evaluation show that students achieve better results when that learning takes place in a public school setting,” Miron says.

In his time visiting New Zealand, he has been impressed by the Virtual Learning Networks and other resources our system has to connect learners in remote locations.

He believes that over the next 10 to 15 years schools are going to become more and more innovative with how they integrate digital technology into their teaching and learning programmes – whether the Government is on board or not.

Parata describes COOLs as an “innovative way of delivering education [that] offers a digital option to engage students, grow their digital fluency, and connect them even more to 21st century opportunities”. Miron doesn’t think there is any need for another option outside of what can be provided through state education.

“Is there a need for a parallel system?” he asks. “New Zealand already has high quality and innovative online education within the state school system; growing and developing those resources may be the best way forward.”

Parata says that the COOLs will be tightly monitored, however Miron is doubtful. He says that although the US cyberschools are also heavily regulated and subject to quality control measures, they are continuing to perform poorly.

He is also concerned that the organisations driving the cyberschools are looking to expand globally. He gives the example of the chief executive of one organisation – K12 Inc – who, incidentally, took home an annual salary of $17 million – who is looking to expand his cyberschool model into Southeast Asia and beyond.

Based on the US experience, it doesn’t seem like a path for New Zealand education, especially when there are so many exciting developments happening already in our schools around digital technology and virtual learning. Why not look to expand on our existing strengths instead?

Editor's note: This article has been amended since print publication.

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