A new three-party National Study of Online Charter Schools by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, Mathematica Policy Research, and the Center for Reinventing Public Education found that students enrolled in full-time virtual charter schools made, on average, far less progress than their counterparts in traditional schools.

In response, the full-time virtual charter schools were quick to denounce the methodology behind the research and suggest that it paints a flawed picture of their schools’ performance. Others joined in criticizing the methodology behind some of the study’s claims.

Put aside the he-said, she-said debate. Put aside that it’s likely that both the authors of the study and the schools themselves have points in their favor—the full-time virtual charter schools themselves have in the past been transparent about some of their academic struggles, and, at the same time, in their criticism of the study, those same schools are surely right that the characteristics and motivation of some of their students for attending full-time virtual charters makes them quite unlike the “virtual twins” the study purports to have found for the purposes of comparison. Put aside the crystal clear anecdotes that go beyond the on average results—something education researchers are not good at doing—that show that for certain students in certain circumstances, full-time virtual charter schools are absolutely the best place for them to learn and that these students have not only been successful in these environments, they have also thrived in ways they would not have in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Put aside the fact that full-time virtual charter schools are not for everyone and may now be serving students who are not good fits for what they offer.

Put it all aside because the fact is that full-time virtual charter schools, which are funded by public dollars, are on the defensive in the battle of public perception, which will, at some point, have public policy consequences.

No longer can the full-time virtual charter schools wait while the regulators debate their futures. They must act boldly and now. And their actions cannot be from the playbook they have used in the past.

They should steal a page from the emerging playbook of the coding bootcamps.

Although the coding bootcamps are not publicly funded, they cannot operate as education institutions without some regulatory approval. Just as full-time virtual charter schools challenge our notion of what “school” is, bootcamps challenge the regulatory status quo around what an education institution is in certain states because they don’t have traditional faculty members with traditional training teaching students and the like; their teachers are much more likely to be industry practitioners, for example.

With bootcamps popping up left and right a couple years back, many of them were making stunning claims around the job placement percentages and other results they were producing for their students—claims that matter because would-be students use them to make decisions around where to spend big dollars.

Regulators were paying attention and wondering which claims were true and which weren’t.

Rather than wait for the regulators to have their say—and, as former deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Education Jim Shelton has observed, when regulators weigh in, they almost always do so in a way that overreacts and far overshoots their mandate—those bootcamps that were concerned about maintaining high quality and not conning students, got together to ensure that bootcamps would keep a good name and a positive image by, in essence, self-regulating. In so doing, they made sure that the quasi-regulations would play on their terms by focusing on student outcomes—not on inputs like the type of training teachers should have that would limit their ability to innovate.

They created a membership organization, the New Economy Skills Training Association, “to establish best practices, standards, and increase accountability for outcome-based NEST organizations.” Its “first initiative is to develop and agree on a standardized outcomes reporting methodology. … As part of their commitment, NESTA wrote a letter to President Obama outlining their commitment to publish outcomes on an annual basis and have them verified by third-party CPAs, based on… agreed upon criteria.”

In other words, they set the terms, are monitoring themselves using third parties, and making the results transparent. The coding bootcamps have a lot more work to do in these regards—NESTA is at best a first step—but if they get it right and get out in front of the regulators–and our efforts at Entangled Solutions are an attempt to help–the bad eggs that don’t want to play should fall away. The full-time virtual charter schools have yet to take any steps like this.

The disruptive retail health clinics did even more many years earlier. They organized themselves and took responsibility for their industry’s results; got ahead of the regulatory bodies; and shaped their own destiny by deploying common quality practices and creating outcome-based standards. And they held the line on them. Those that didn’t subscribe or maintain quality couldn’t play. Today retail health clinics provide sterling service and enjoy a positive image.

The full-time virtual charter schools that care about quality need to band together and create a membership organization—or use an existing one—that does the same and now. The standards must be clear and transparent. The assessments must be valid and reliable.

iNACOL, the K–12 international online learning association, has already done much of the work of creating the dashboard of outcomes-based metrics on which full-time virtual charter schools should be judged. iNACOL has five criteria that it recommends policymakers judge full-time virtual charter schools by: individual student growth, proficiency, graduation rates, college and career readiness, and closing the achievement gap.

These have not been implemented because no state system is truly set up to measure much of this at an individual student level; in particular, state measures of growth are problematic for many reasons, as the iNACOL report on these suggested measures makes clear.

But the full-time virtual charter schools could set up the system in a voluntary way where they all use the same assessments that create valid and reliable comparisons. To illustrate one such practice they could all adopt with a hypothetical that occurs rather routinely, for students entering their schools at a fifth-grade age but reading at a second-grade level and where the district school where the student was formerly enrolled doesn’t transfer the students’ academic record, the schools could determine a protocol for pre-assessment as soon as a student enrolls so as to create sound individual growth metrics.

Importantly, the schools shouldn’t just use norm-referenced tests to measure growth in relation to cohorts of students; they must use criterion-referenced growth assessments—like those that iReady offers—to report the results in a way that is transparent and the public can understand and that captures raw results around student progression. Statisticians can then use the raw results to make cohort-based comparisons to inform various rankings or comparisons between schools or to make policy decisions.

If certain families don’t want to attend these schools because they don’t want their students taking these assessments, then they can find a private option that doesn’t use public dollars. That’s just the price to pay.

Importantly, no one will believe the results if only one full-time virtual charter school does this—although none has to this point. Several must band together to do this and create mechanisms whereby third-party entities or auditors are verifying their claims.

The full-time virtual charter schools can’t wait any longer. They must act on their own and together in the absence of public policymakers updating the accountability metrics they use to gain a more complete picture of how students are doing.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.