As full-time virtual learning moved from the fringe to the mainstream in mid-March 2020, onlookers expressed concerns about access for learners and accountability for the learning itself. Some policymakers have even gone so far this year as to ban the remote option.
Concerns about different forms of schooling aren’t new. The skepticism has long extended to alternative schools of a variety of forms, but chiefly those that serve students who have dropped out or transferred from traditional schools and often serve as schools of last resort. This set of schools is often viewed as low quality, plagued by educational malpractice, and having low graduation rates.
At the same time, however, these schools have a critical role to play by catering to students who aren’t served well by traditional schools. This past year especially, these schools served as a haven for subsets of students.
If these schools play an important role for some students, then how can policymakers ensure that alternative schools are serving them well and not permit the truly poorly performing ones to persist and grow? The answer lies in designing a novel accountability model that recognizes the unique missions of nontraditional schools and allows parents to compare schools in the alternative education sector.
The view of the poor performance of alternative and virtual schools has reputable data behind it.
A widely cited 2015 CREDO study of virtual charter schools, for example, painted an unflattering portrait of the sector, as it found that students enrolled in full-time, virtual charter schools made, on average, far less progress than their counterparts in traditional schools did. Similarly, the few studies that have looked at alternative schools have documented significant quality concerns, low graduation rates, and underfunding. More recently, data is emerging that, on average, students who attended school in-person performed better than those who were remote during the pandemic last school year.
Problems with the research
But there are legitimate gripes about these studies.
For example, virtual school proponents have observed that the CREDO study doesn’t accurately capture the circumstances in which their students enroll—from students who have been bullied to those who transferred mid-year, and from those interested in a specific program not offered at their school, like specific career and technical education programs, to those in need of significant remediation. They argue that the study, therefore, doesn’t capture the value such schools provide—a debate I’ve covered here before.
To illustrate one such situation that virtual schools might confront, imagine a school serving students entering at a fifth-grade age but math at a second-grade level. The school chooses to serve the student where their learning needs are, not where the traditional system thinks it should. Suppose that by the end of the year the students are performing math at a fourth-grade level. This would seem to be a remarkable success, but it’s also one for which the school would likely not get credit under most accountability regimes today, as the tests focus narrowly on grade-level material as opposed to understanding the starting and ending points of a given student. This situation, of course, also applies to traditional schools, but a striking number of the students enrolled in alternative arrangements fall under patterns like this one.
Indeed, there have been many articles pointing out how important alternative approaches have been for some students during this pandemic.
A new path forward
In a new report for the American Enterprise Institute titled “A New Accountability Model for Alternative K–12 Schools,” I propose a two-pronged approach to help resolve this apparent stalemate.
First, I suggest that policymakers apply a framework that I helped develop for colleges and universities and is maintained and being implemented by the Education Quality Outcomes Standards (EQOS) Board, which establishes standards for student outcomes, including learning outcomes, completion, placement, earnings where relevant, and student satisfaction and confirmation of purpose.
Alternative and virtual schools should measure their learning outcomes using pre- and post-assessments that are adaptive.
Traditional accountability frameworks typically use a single summative assessment that measures proficiency with a number of “on-grade-level” skills. Because many alternative schools serve students who enroll significantly behind traditional grade-level standards, measuring learning upon enrollment and upon leaving a school or finishing a course, grade, or year would allow for a more accurate assessment of the school’s value by understanding a child’s learning growth.
Alternative and virtual schools should report completion in the context of students’ goals upon enrollment.
Students who enroll in alternative schools don’t always enter with the intention of staying through graduation. Surveying students about their goals upon enrolling would allow for policymakers to gauge the effectiveness of schools at helping a student achieve their goal, be it graduation, transferring back to a traditional school, or otherwise.
Placement upon leaving and earnings
Schools should report where students go after they leave a school, be it to another K–12 school, a two- or four-year college, a short-term training program, a job, or dropping out. For career and technical schools that seek to send students into the workforce, earnings data over time may also be relevant.
Satisfaction and confirmation of purpose
Schools should survey students and parents on their satisfaction with the schools to understand their view of the value.
To do so, policymakers should require schools to understand why students and parents chose the school in the first place and then measure the experience retrospectively—not while they are enrolled. A simple question: “Knowing what you know now, would you choose to repeat your experience here?” sorted by the reason for enrolling could provide useful information to prospective families and policymakers.
The second prong of this new model of accountability would be an audit of the reported student outcomes data.
The goal would be to protect against manipulation of things like the testing conditions and to ensure that student data isn’t being fabricated. To do this well, auditors should be completely independent of the schools, and schools should be required to switch auditors every five years.
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A strong model of outcomes-based accountability should encourage schools to innovate, give them room to carry out their unique missions, and ensure that students are well-served. And, importantly, standardizing alternative education accountability among these providers would give parents and students the information they need to compare schools in the sector and select the one that best meets their needs.