Meeting the Potential of a Virtual Education: Lessons from Operators Making Online Schooling Work

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In general, virtual charter schools have had poor outcomes. But when we scanned the field for virtual charter schools with positive learning results, we found a few. What can others learn from them to make virtual school success the rule, not the exception? This report highlights the experience of two nonselective virtual charter schools making online schooling work for their students—Idaho Distance Education Academy (I-DEA) and New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS).  

Strong Teachers, Good Design Important for Virtual Charters to Succeed

Education Dive, July 11, 2019, Shawna De La Rosa

Students in online charter schools have generally performed less well than their peers in brick-and-mortar classrooms, but this doesn’t have to be the case. With specific strategies, online schools can be a viable alternative to traditional public education, according to a new report from Public Impact.

Strong teachers that make personal connections with students, putting students’ needs at the center of the program and setting high expectations for both students and families are among the elements of strong virtual charters, according to the report, which features the Idaho Distance Education Academy (I-DEA) and the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School in New Hampshire as models. Read the full article…

Meeting the Potential of a Virtual Education: Lessons from Operators Making Online Schooling Work

In general, virtual charter schools have had poor outcomes. A 2015 study from CREDO (the Center for Research on Education Outcomes) found that, on average, students enrolled in online charter schools lost 180 days of learning in math and 72 days of learning in reading compared to similar students in brick-and-mortar schools.

But virtual schools have the potential to give students access to high-quality instruction regardless of time and place, and to allow students to speed up or slow down based on their interests and needs. And when we scanned the field for virtual charter schools with positive learning results, we found a few. What can others learn from them to make virtual school success the rule, not the exception?

In Meeting the Potential of a Virtual Education: Lessons from Operators Making Online Schooling Work, Public Impact’s Daniela Doyle and Ismael Hernandez-Cruz highlight the experience of two nonselective virtual charter schools making online schooling work for their students—Idaho Distance Education Academy (I-DEA) and New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS). While neither school is an exact demographic mirror of traditional public schools in their states (discussed in the report), both outperform their states in reading and math proficiency, among other positive outcomes. (For more on how these schools were selected to highlight, see What Is Virtual School “Success”? in the report.)

Doyle and Hernandez-Cruz identified four lessons and four recommendations for virtual charter schools.

Lessons:

  • Strong teaching (still) drives student success—Just as in traditional schools, teacher selection is crucial. No computer program, no matter how great, can replace an excellent teacher.
  • Personal connections are key—“We can’t do anything else that we’re doing without that foundational connection,” Jason Bransford of I-DEA said of efforts to form relationships with each student’s entire family. Likewise, VLACS ensures connections to students and families through a deliberate and intensive system of advisors.
  • Student learning must be the center of school design—Both schools have incorporated elements of personalized learning by designing their programs around what students need to succeed, with VLACS in particular creating a very flexible, personalized experience.
  • Schools set high expectations for students and families—Both make clear from the moment of enrollment that they do not offer an easier education than traditional schools, setting and communicating high expectations even if doing so leads some families to go elsewhere.

Recommendations:

  • Be sure to incorporate the same elements that drive student success in brick-and-mortar schools—in many instances, great schools are great for the same reasons, regardless of setting.
  • Identify and adjust to what is truly different about online schooling—for example, focus on elements such as effective online engagement and communication, and support and develop teachers in those areas.
  • Use the unique opportunities online schooling offers—take advantage of the opportunity to truly meet students’ individual needs.
  • Innovate, don’t just automate—focus on using technology in new ways that better meet the needs of all students.

The field needs more research to broaden and deepen its understanding of online schools’ success. For these two schools, a deeper analysis of how different student groups fare over time relative to their peers might shed more light on their successes and challenges. Finding and studying other online schools achieving promising results would also provide more insight. Meanwhile, these two schools illustrate practices that others can put into action for their students.

About VLACS

  • Open since 2008, VLACS serves nearly 400 full-time middle and high school students and more than 13,000 part-time students from New Hampshire, plus about 100 tuition-paying out-of-state students.
  • Students can enroll at any time.
  • Rather than earning credits, they focus on mastering competencies.
  • Students choose from learning “journeys,” including courses, projects, career badges, experiences, teams, and an early-college option.
  • Students work with advisors to set an appropriate learning pace to master competencies and can accelerate or slow down as needed.

About I-DEA

  • Open since 2004, I-DEA now enrolls about 700 full-time students in grades K–12.
    I-DEA tends to enroll lower rates of students of color than the state overall but enrolls a similar rate of low-income students.
  • I-DEA offers considerable flexibility, but also requires students to participate in live online classes at set times twice a week.
  • I-DEA follows a calendar, with classes starting and ending at set times during the year.
  • I-DEA offers students access to college-level courses, and on average, 20 percent of students graduate from high school with a two-year college degree.

 

Forging Parent Partnerships to Better Serve Students with Special Needs

Walton Family Foundation, July, 9, 2019, by Johannah Chase

Parents are the experts on their children.

They know the hidden strengths they possess, talents that schools might not easily unearth. They understand the unique challenges their children experience in a typical school environment.

This expertise can be especially acute for parents of students with disabilities, particularly if their children have attended schools that haven’t met their needs, or have failed to find innovative ways to tap into their potential.

For kids who learn differently, parents often must be the ones who navigate the complicated – and frequently frustrating – path to getting their kids the supports they need to thrive.

When it comes to living up to their obligation to serve students with disabilities, public charter schools face a host of challenges. In addition to the perennial headache of underfunding, there are bureaucratic constraints, a woeful lack of teacher preparation in special education and difficulty finding and tapping expertise.

None of which comes as a surprise to parents of children with disabilities, who, like it or not, get a crash course on navigating the same series of hurdles — sometimes while advocating for their kids in the same charter schools that are struggling to figure out how best to serve them. Read the full article…

Why Charter Champions Should Partner with Parents to Support Students with Disabilities: New Report from Public Impact

In Better Together: Why Charter School Champions and Parent Advocates Should Partner to Better Support Students with Disabilities, Public Impact issues a call to action for charter champions—including charter associations, city-based education organizations and other reform organizations that see charters as an integral piece of a thriving system of public schools—to form and deepen partnerships with parent advocates to expand access to more quality educational options for students with disabilities.


See coverage of this report in a new article in The 74: Parent Power: To Improve Special Education in Charter Schools Tap Students’ Original Advocates — Their Families — Report Says


The report, which highlights examples from around the country, shows how charter schools, their champions, and parents can innovate to achieve stronger outcomes for students with disabilities through more effective collective advocacy, access to quality school options and equitable policies. The Public Impact policy team explains why such partnerships are needed, what forms they might take and how to get started.

“Serving students with special needs really well at scale requires a deep understanding of the challenges those students face and an ability to push change at a systems level. Parents bring the former, while charter champions offer the latter. Working together, there’s an opportunity to make real progress,” said co-author Daniela Doyle, vice president for policy and management research at Public Impact.

About 13 percent of U.S. students receive special education services. Research shows that as many as 90 percent of students with disabilities can meet the same achievement standards as other students—with the right accommodations and support.

Charter school champions are poised to address the needs of students with disabilities as a central objective of charter advocacy—quality school options for all. And parent groups have decades of experience advocating for students with disabilities and bring student and family perspectives to policy discussions. Both charter champions and parents of students with disabilities stand to gain more by working together than alone.

Greater collaboration between charter supporters and parent groups representing students with disabilities can lead to innovations and improvements in all levels of education. But first, those partnerships must take shape. Charter champions can take the following five steps to start the process and drive collective action toward improved student outcomes, better school options, and equitable policies.

  1. Set ambitious goals for “quality school options for all.”
  2. Consider gaps in your work.
  3. Identify the parent organizations already working on behalf of students with disabilities in your area.
  4. Look for opportunities to connect.
  5. Partner more deeply.

Striving for innovation and equity, these groups can accomplish more together than they can alone — they are better together.