Biased proponents and opponents of educational technology, charter schools, and educational change will rush to their respective judgements based on a new Online Charter School Study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. Unfortunately, this will obscure what the report can — and cannot — tell us about online schools or the use of online educational technology in blended learning settings.
The study found generally negative academic impacts for online charter schools overall. Notably, though, the report examined only online charter schools, and did not include students in blended learning settings.
The CREDO report, by its own design, does not support blanket judgements about the use of technology in a high-performing classroom; it also cannot be used to infer judgements of quality about a type of school model. The tyranny of averaging can mask important differences and outliers, which are not given enough attention and analysis. We need to study the highly performing schools — charter, traditional, online, blended, etc — to learn more about what works and why.
The CREDO study relies on a relatively obscure methodology based on is a comparison of the growth in state summative test scores of full-time online virtual charter school students with hypothetical composites of statistically similar students (called “virtual twins” by CREDO researchers) from traditional public schools, while attempting to control for student characteristic variables (age, gender, poverty, etc.). This methodology has been criticized by Stanford University’s Caroline Hoxby as negatively biased against charter schools.
The study also does not take adequate account the different mix of modalities in online schools (i.e., teacher-directed or student-directed digital instruction and interaction) and those in traditional public schools. When looking at a school’s impact on the number of instructional days, as this study attempts to do, it is essential to look at how these instructional days are designed and used. In short, using “virtual twins” doesn’t work for virtual schools, as used in this study.
However, there is no doubt some online charter schools are not performing adequately; authorizers should take immediate and aggressive action as sanctioned by state law to address — and close down were necessary — those schools which demonstrate an inability to adequately educate their students.
The integration of technology to support personalizing education for all students is too important to risk sidetracking over a narrow set of research about wide-ranging models of charter schools. These study results should not be used to indict the use of any online education instruction.
There are a number of high-quality personalized, technology-integrated models using online learning that are producing powerful student gains in student outcomes, gaining momentum around the country and producing outstanding results in fully online environments — such as Connections Academy schools — and in blended environments — such as Summit Public Schools.
Indeed, the emerging evidence about blended learning is very encouraging, as academic research and case studies of specific schools show that students benefit when blended learning is used effectively. One notable meta study published in 2013 from the well-respected SRI International says, “The advantage over face-to-face classes was significant in those studies contrasting blended learning with traditional face-to-face instruction.”
We look forward to further research that aims to better understand the best ways to personalize education, while leveraging technology, in today’s classrooms.
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