Record: Lisa H. Waters, Michael K. Barbour, and Michael P. Menchaca, “The Nature of Online Charter Schools: Evolution and Emerging Concerns” in Educational Technology & Society 17, no. 4 (2014): 379-389. [Full Article]
Summary: Waters is a Technology Integration Specialist at Flint Hill School in Oakton, Virginia. Barbour is the Director of Doctoral Studies for the Isabelle Farrington College of Education and an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. Menchaca an Associate Professor with theDepartment of Learning Design and Technology at the University of Hawaii. Their goals for this literature review are to:
- Provide a definition for online charter schools.
- Describe how online charter schools have evolved.
- Explain how they operate.
- Discuss emerging concerns such as governance, funding and effectiveness.
According to Waters et al. online charter schools are unique because they are a cross between homeschooling and charter schooling. They are characterized by student populations that cross district boundaries, and they are frequently managed by private, for-profit companies. However, the authors note that it is important to be precise with terminology because not all online schooling is alike. Here are some of the definitions that the authors provide:
- Virtual school: Generally taken by students who attend physical schools in order to supplement their course options.
- Cyber school: A publicly funded school that works with full-time students.
- Blended learning: Students learn partially in a physical school and partially in an online school.
- Online charter school: A publicly funded K-12 online learning program that is governed by the charter policies of the state in which it resides. They have unique attributes not found in traditional schools such as flexible scheduling and the opportunity for students to learn at their own pace. Parents and students choose online charter schools for a variety of reasons.
After they define what online charter schools are, Waters et al. move into the evolution and current status of K-12 online learning. It grew out of the distance learning movements that were spurred by other technological advances during the last two centuries. Generally, online learning followed the path of the computer/internet. It became much more popular and common as more and more people had access to the internet. Current enrollment numbers for online learning vary significantly from 1.8 million to 4 million, because there is no single entity that tracks students and because students can engage in online learning in a variety of ways. Online learning will certainly continue to grow, although some say that the growth rate is slowing.
Some of the concerns that have emerged surrounding online charter schools are the lack of oversight/accountability, improper use of public funds, poor test scores, and high drop-out rates. Since online charters are still a relatively new concept, there are many questions over who is ultimately in charge of managing the schools and how they should be funded. There have been many legal cases to try and bring clarity, but there is still plenty of gray area. The lack of financial accountability stems from the fact that many online charters do not have to publicly release their budgets, although they receive money from the government. In fact, government funding is a core reason for much of the uproar around online charter schools. People question whether students achieve academically in the online environment. Waters et al. (2014) cite numerous studies regarding the effectiveness of online charter schools, and the majority of them showed that students do not perform as well in online charter schools as they would in regular schools. Also, the high dropout rates of online charter schools only add to the issue of poor academic achievement.
The authors conclude by pointing out three gaps within the existing body of research.
- Most of the studies cover a relatively short period of time and may not reflect long-term trends.
- Relatively few studies have covered familial issues and parental involvement in these schools.
- Much of the research has only considered quantitative data that are not able to fully capture the complexities of the issue.
Further research is also needed to determine what kinds of students fare best in online charter schools and to capture the thoughts of the students.
Appraisal: While Waters et al. accomplish their stated goals of defining, looking at the history of, examining the operations of, and discussing concerns of online charter schools, they do not provide answers to any of the big questions that people actually care about. When they get to the heart of the matter and discuss the emerging concerns of online charter schools, they do not synthesize the studies they cite in any way. Also, these discussions are not very extensive and only comprise a few paragraphs. Rather than complete literature reviews, they provide brief summaries of several concerns surrounding online charter schools.
Overall, Waters et al. attempt doing too much in ten pages, and they end up not having enough depth on any of the topics that they set out to discuss. For a more complete look at virtual schools in the US, please reference this article by the second author, Michael K. Barbour. The article is reviewed on our ICHER blog in three parts [part one], and it provides a much more definitive overview of the literature surrounding online charter schools and virtual learning in general.
Robert Lyon, Messiah College