Through most of the summer, we will be subjected to TV ads for Pennsylvania’s for-profit, publicly funded cyber-charter schools. We see happy students banging away on new laptops, smiling parents and helpful in-home teachers. The ads emphasize that their programs are “tuition free,” which is true if you do not count your school tax paying $9,000-11,000 for each student.
Do these cyber schools deliver on their promises, and are they providing a cost-effective alternative to what our local public schools offer? A recent report suggests the answer is, “No!”
The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University (CREDO) has recently published a long term, highly sophisticated statistical analysis of the performance of Pennsylvania’s cyber-charter schools. CREDO used available data compiled by The Pennsylvania Department of Education from both test results and the demographics of students.
The CREDO study looks at the progress students make from one year to the next by comparing charter school students to peers with identical demographic backgrounds who are attending traditional public schools in the same communities. Testing data measuring student growth in both reading and math performance during the three most recent academic years was used for these comparisons.
The report shows the annual academic growth of Pennsylvania’s cyber-charter school students in both reading and math was significantly less than the growth of their traditional public school peers. In fact, the annual growth of the cyber-charter school students, on average, was less than half that of their traditional public school peers!
Despite the overall under-achievement of cyber charter schools, there are other factors, which show benefits from cyber education programs. For some students, a cyber education alternative is the most efficient and effective means of delivering instruction. However, at least on the criteria of test scores, the quality of cyber charter schools does not seem to justify the high cost of attending them.
Each of our local Adams County school districts offers an alternative to for-profit, publicly funded cyber-charter schools at approximately half the cost districts pay for students to these schools. For example, the Gettysburg Area School System offers what they call The Virtual Academy to students in grades K-12.
This Academy is an extension of the local school’s curriculum delivered electronically in a home environment. It is as if the planners have looked at other cyber models, then chose to adapt their program to provide what is best in school to the home. Academy students are provided with a kind of kit called Cyber School in a Box, which provides tech equipment, including a computer that is preloaded with programs essential to connecting with the Academy.
Every student is connected to a homeroom teacher who takes daily roll and keeps attendance. While students are permitted to work at their own pace, they have weekly deadlines in which to submit their school work. Students are also monitored by staff assigned by the district. In a complete break with cyber charter schools, in most core courses, the students use the same text books and work books as their peers use in traditional school. Additionally, students struggling in a certain subject area are offered extra support. For example, a student may attend an on-line lab that focuses on improving writing skills so to improve academic success.
One of the problems with for-profit, publicly funded cyber -charter schools is that they must apply a kind of ‘one size fits all’ plan to their curricula. Their students come from a variety of schools located all over the state. They do not adapt to any one school district, so they impose their own curricula, which might be adequate, but test scores seem to reflect a different outcome.
One of the outstanding features of the Virtual Academy is that students are constantly submitting their work electronically to real teachers and getting real grades in turn. Only multiple-choice tests are ‘graded’ by a computer program. Parents are able to monitor work daily and the students both weekly Individual Progress Summaries and regular report cards in the same way traditional school parents do.
Finally, the Academy student has a direct connection to the physical school. Students may participate in band, orchestra, chorus, and JrROTC. Also, they are all eligible to participate in extracurricular activities such as drama or sports.
Our state legislature, which wrote and passed the original charter and cyber school laws, is beginning to rethink this legislation. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association describes Senate bill 34 and House bill 526 as follows:
“Under the bill, if a district offers a cyber-based program equal in scope and content to an existing publicly chartered cyber charter school and a student in that district attends a cyber charter school instead of the district’s cyber-based program, the district shall not be required to provide funding to pay for the student’s attendance at the cyber charter school.” (www.psba.org).
It is clear that if these bills became law, school districts would save huge sums. Gettysburg taxpayers would benefit as much as our students benefit from our excellent Virtual Academy.